Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Due North Through Middle England: Ironbridge to Northwich

Wednesday the 12th of June, 2013
Good bye to the Severn – the Shropshire Union Canal – Into Northwich – The Bears Head, alias the Innkeepers Lodge

Goodbye to the Severn

“Have you had a look at where we are on the map of England?”

This was David at breakfast, pointing to our position, in central England and just to the right of the blob of Wales.
We took stock:  first the counties we'd passed through – Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Avon/Bristol, Worcestershire, Shropshire and, with luck we would be in Cheshire tonight. The Cat-eye should click over 600 kms about nine this morning ( only 1000 kms to go) and for four days we had been following the Severn River (Britain's longest), from the Bristol Channel to the Severn Estuary, up the River to the Ironbridge Gorge. Now the route headed due north over the plains of the Midlands.
Today we started just to the right of Shrewsbury
and rode to Northwich, to the right of Chester.
Because I had already made the steep climb out of Ironbridge yesterday, David gave me permission to start today's ride outside Telford, a major town just north of Ironbridge and just before 9, with a brisk wind to blow me along I loaded on the panniers and headed north on a flat lane with uncluttered views ( no high hedges here) of fields, some ploughed, others shimmering with the glowing yellow of canola flowers.

Then, as always, I gave way to temptation: briefly onto the wide A 442 from pathetically-signposted country lanes, I decided to stay - seduced by the direct tracking of the road, the strong wind at my back and the one metre wide verge. I easily suppressed the memories of a couple of days before when I'd ridden on a similar A road and felt like a tadpole in a pool of piranhas.
Nothing special but good riding conditions -
 flat terrain, little traffic, a carefully cared for landscape.
I could describe the day''s riding in a few words: strong tail wind, good speed, pastoral utopia. I passed through each little town in a gliding brief few minutes – Blexley, Adderley and others of which I have an already fading memory. Does “blissful cycling' give you the right impression?

The Shropshire Union Canal

Just before lunch I took a route for trucks wanting to avoid a low overhead bridge and discovered the Shropshire Union (SU) Canal the last (1835) major canal to be completed in Britain.

When I was 15, I rode with a friend from Roxburgh to Dunedin (95 miles/160 kms) carrying the necessities of living ( a bar of chocolate, a blanket, toothbrush and a spare pair of underpants) and since then I have been in love with any form of transport that give you the freedom to live a nomadic existence – yachts, bikes and of course, canal boats.

I'd previously read that the Midlands had a concentration of canals but this information didn't diminish the thrill when, today, I rode onto a stone bridge, stopped at the top and saw a procession of narrow boats trickling along the canal.

Narrow boats on the Shropshire- Union Canal.
The tow-path is a perfect cycling track.
Now, a little dissertation on the British Canal System but I promise to keep it brief. Canals were first used by the Romans for irrigation and transport and steadily increased in popularity - transport by canal was faster than by road (muddy, rutted, winding), canal boats were much bigger load carriers, and fragile goods like pottery were less likely to arrive in a shredded state when on a canal boat. Between 1750 – 1850, canals became a major focus of the Industrial revolution.

Then the wheel of history clicked again and from 1850, trains, faster and better able to carry huge loads became popular: the canal system declined.

Now, there are 2,200 miles of canals in Britain, these days used mostly by avid leisure-boaties in brightly- painted narrow boats.

Into Northwich

I did go round in circles at Nantwich but that was because I was not concentrating on the road signs, still dreaming about how I could buy a canal boat and drift through rural England at 4 mph. Think about it – no pedaling, no sore body bits, your own bed, plenty of fellow enthusiasts to talk with....

I lunched at length at the Coach and Horses pub in Bradfield Green, sitting outside beside the road, drinking a big mug of excellent pub coffee (one pound fifty!) chomping on a pub pasty and thinking life was just terrific.

Just before three I rode into Northwich on clearly marked cycle lanes after an hour of perfect riding from Church Minshull, a gently rolling skim through a now more wooded countryside.

Today's riding could not have been better and my riding average was, for me, good, but I had one niggle – I had ridden on A roads most of the day but on A roads you don't have the chance to stop and talk and I resolved to remember from today that a major aim of this trip was to meet the locals.

The Bears Head, alias the Innkeepers Lodge

Northwich is a town known since Roman times for its salt pans. Salt has been mined here for ever and made the town prosperous but the miners dug huge holes everywhere and houses have from time to time sunk into the holes. The subsidence became so serious that 28 million pounds was spent recently to stabilise the ground.

I am not sure if the prospect of slithering into the earth's bowels is why David decided to stay elsewhere for the night but after an hour's shopping we drove to Sanbach and settled in at the Bears Head Hotel, also known as (see above).

Northwich is of moderate size (pop. 20,000) with a shopping centre that is wonderful for a couple of reasons.

Many English towns have streets of elegant shops (apart from the lack of awnings to fend off the frequent downpours), housed in antique buildings: care has been taken to retain the heritage quality of these buildings. What I found bizarre is that the streets, built centuries ago for humans, horses and the occasional cart, are choked with large, 21st century cars. They are alien intruders.

The Northwich Centre, apart from having a wonderfully varied range of shops, was traffic free. You could walk safely without the nasty risk of suddenly turning round to find a Range Rover leering at you.

The Northwich Shopping Centre.
The absence of cars was bliss.

We dined that night in the company of Colin , an avid local historian and a very nice person. We asked him if there was some reason that small back-country roads were so twisting even when the countryside was level.

“ It's all to do with land ownership. England's population is always growing and the amount of land isn't. Land was usually seen as the most valuable asset and records about land ownership are usually more detailed than records about births and deaths. So, a landowner is not going to let someone build a road through his valuable property and deprive him of his livelihood. For centuries people have felt like this.. Roads will skirt the boundaries between two properties where landowners can each lose a bit of their land but will not lose more than that.” I could have talked to Colin for hours.

Nearly forgot. When we unloaded the bike at the hotel, the rear tyre was airless. More tomorrow.


Perfect riding – sun, clear and with a good breeze from behind. Yay!

Distance Today Max Speed Average Riding Time Trip Odometer
74.3 43.8 20.1 3 h 31 m 670.9

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