The Wyrley & Essington Canal
I sat browsing Ordnance Survey map 139, as I often do, looking for inspiration and routes. I particularly look for new off road routes. Naturally drawn towards the canals and their towpaths, I mentally ride them working out how long it has been since I have ridden them.
Finding New, Old Routes
Taking a blue pencil crayon I began carefully deepening the blue of the canal network to make it pop in order to survey the network in context, as dips under and around the pink mass of the conurbation. Colouring all the familiar Birmingham Canal Navigation network, all along the Birmingham Main line level, now part of National Cycle Network route 81, from Birmingham to Wolverhampton. My crayon stopped at a junction just east of Wolverhampton where I noticed a canal heading back west, up through Heath Town and Wednesfield. This is not an area I am particularly familiar with and I began to get excited. I don’t think I have cycled this canal!
I followed the canal with my crayon as it wound its way, rather circuitously through the north of the Midlands all the way up to Chasewater reservoir near Cannock. It joined the Rushall Canal at Catshill, providing a route home to Birmingham via the Rushall Canal. Printed alongside the blue line was: Wyrley and Essington Canal.
How have I not cycled this canal? The times I have stared at this map and I had never heard of it! Maps are a bit like life I suppose, we are drawn to the familiar and the comfortable. I use the Canal network a lot to get to and from places and the Wyrley and Essington just didn’t go to, from, nor near my regular haunts.
Project 139 had forced me to start looking further afield and here was my reward. A new canal route.
The Curly Wyrley
Information & History
The first thing I notice from the map is that, unlike the other canals in the Birmingham Area, the Wyrley and Essington Canal does not travel in a straight line. This earned it the nickname the ‘Curly Wyrley’. It is a contour canal. Following the flat land and avoiding the gradients. It winds for 16.5 miles to travel 10 miles as the crow flies between Wolverhampton and Brownhills. Building the canal like this avoided the cost of building locks to carry the canal up and down inclines.
You can see on the map below how the road travels in a straight line but the canal is curly – Wyrley.
Building the Wyrley & Essington Canal
As now executing, goes through very extensive Mines of Coal, the Property of the MARQUIS OF STAFFORD, Mr. PULTENEY, Mr. ANSON, Mr. VERNON, and others; most of which Mines are on upon waste or unimproved Lands of small Value, and scarcely accessible by Land Carriage; the Canal opens a communication from such mines to Wolverhampton, Walsall, the Birmingham Canal, The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, the Severn, and all the country adjacent to these several Navigations.
The proposed Extension goes through Goscott, Brownhills, and other considerable Coal Mines, in a Country of bad roads; and upwards of Thee Miles over the extensive Waste of Cannock-Heath: A collateral cut upon the Wolverhampton Level may be continued from Catshill into immense beds of Lime Stone at Linley, Rushall-Park, and Hay Head without a lock; forming a summit level Canal, from Wolverhampton, through Birchill and Catshill to Hay Head upwards of Twenty Miles. The extension would unite all these Coal and Lime Works with the City of Lichfield, the Coventry Canal, and the adjacent parts; and also effect a direct Communication (so much wanted) between the populous parts of Staffordshire and the Metropolis, by Means of the Braunston Canal.The 1792 Act of Parliament
I love how the Act describes the green spaces, we now consider ourselves lucky to have, as waste and unimproved lands where the only riches lay under the ground and connecting them to the ‘Metropolis’ would be immense progress.
George Molineux succeeded his father Benjamin in the family business, and became a banker and an ironmonger. Already a successful, local Wolverhampton businessman, George was also a Staffordshire magistrate, and High Sheriff of Staffordshire. He was a partner in the family banking business of Hordern, Molineux & Company, with James Hordern, and a shareholder in the ‘Wolverhampton Chronicle’ and ‘Staffordshire Advertiser’. In the late 1700s George Molineux provided most of the finance for the building of the Wyrley and Essington Canal.
The canal would bring cheap coal from the coalfields and collieries in Essington and Brownhills. By 1795 the canal from Wolverhampton to Great Wyrley opened, 12 months later it reached Walsall.
Expansion and Disaster
By 1797 the canal had been extended linking the Staffs & Worcester canal in Wolverhampton to the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford Junction just east of Lichfield finally linking Staffordshire and the Metropolis.
Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) didn’t like competition and in 1799 quickly built their own canal up into Walsall to take advantage of the coal fields, terminating it not far from the Wyrley and Essington. It was this same year that the Chasewater Reservoir (which fed water into the canal system) Dam collapsed.
In June 1799 the Eastern Dam burst sending millions of gallons of water rushing down the valley towards Shenstone. Roads and bridges were washed away, fields were flooded and sheep and cattle were drowned. The Canal Company moved quickly to repair the damage caused. Compensation for loss was paid on a most generous scale. Mr Craddock of Muckley Comer was paid six guineas for the damage caused to his field of wheat. The bridge at Blackbrook was rebuilt at the company’s expense. Priority was given to rebuilding the damaged dam. Not only had the Reservoir become the main topping-up point for the company’s network of canals but it also provided a source of additional revenue. The surplus waters were being sold off to neighbouring canal companies. It was decided that the new dam would be higher and thicker than the old dam and that the inner walls would be faced with limestone. On 27th January 1800 the Canal Company gave permission for the recruitment of ‘as many men as are needed to complete the rebuilding of the dam as soon as possible’. By March 1800 the Reservoir had been rebuilt and was again in service.
As a safeguard against any such further accidents the company had a Watch-house built and employed William Wall as a full time watchman. His duties included patrolling the dams and reporting any defects and wear. He paid the company £2 per year for the use of the Watch-house and an adjoining garden plot.BrownhillsBob’s Brownhills Blog
The Rise & Fall of the Curly Wyrley
The Curly Wyrley proved a popular canal, bypassing the BCN, and throughout the early 1800s several new branches were added but by 1840, the rise of the Railways and the mighty BCN proved no match and the Wyrley and Essington Canal Company sold out to the BCN. The BCN were quick to link their Walsall canal and the Wyrley and Essington and they built the linking Bently canal (abandoned in 1961), engulfing the Curly Wyrley into it’s mighty network. They built the Cannock extension linking the Wyrley & Essington to the Staffs & Worcester at Hatherton Junction. Under the BCN and, despite the growing railway network the canal continued to do well for many decades.
In the 1950s Ogley Junction through to Huddlesford Junction was abandoned. The locks on this stretch and the lack of use made maintenance too expensive. The last commercial boat carrying coal on the Wyrley and Essington canal was in 1968. The canal was drained, most of the land sold off and the canal ploughed up or filled in.
The Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Trust have been working since the 1970s to restore the canal so traffic can once again move between Wolverhampton and Huddlesford Junction and to Hatherton Junction. Their website has some fascinating information about their ongoing work and you can make a donation.
Riding the Curly Wyrley
Today the Wyrley and Essington canal is a quiet, pleasant and green corridor that winds its way out of industrial Wolverhampton.
Mary & I set off to Wolverhampton. We jumped on the Birmingham Mainline Canal at Smethwick and 18 miles later we were ready to start our adventure.
First we had to visit the former residence of George Molineux. The building still stands proudly over the Molineux Stadium and the Ring Road. After being left to decay and nearly destroyed by fire in 2003, it has been faithfully restored and is now home to the City Archives. I remember the building from my university days as a derelict blot on the landscape.
A quick lap of the Molineux Stadium and we set off on the short ride down to Horsley Fields Junction. The canal was boatless and the water clear, thanks to lockdown, but the towpaths were busy with joggers, cyclists and fishermen.
The housing that backs on to the canal make the best of the waterfront real estate allowing you to glimpse into the gardens and lives of people who now live along the canal.
The paths are varied. From well surfaced gravel, and even tarmac in parts, to mud, cinder and rutted grass. Although the route is flat, thanks to the canal being a contour canal, the varying surfaces mean you do have to pay attention when riding. The winding nature of the canal also makes the journey interesting as you are always heading around a corner to a new view making the 16.5 miles fly by.
As the canal winds its way North between the towns of Willenhall Bloxwich and out to Pelsall you find yourself out in spectacular countryside in contrast to the built up industrial areas back in Wolverhampton.
Mary & I left the route at Catshill Junction to head home down the Rushall Canal making the whole journey a 50 mile loop. Continuing beyond Catshill Junction we would have come to Ogley Junction where the canal originally would have made its way 7 miles and 30 locks to Lichfield.
We have concealed 2 Bicycle Adventure Club badged and stickers somewhere along the canal for you lucky adventurers to find. Find out where they are by watching the video below and if you find them please let us know.
Thank you to the following websites for information, maps and resources:
Thank you for reading
See you out there
Sarah & Mary
A cup of tea for Mary & me
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