Most people have heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: celebrated engineer, tunnel-builder, top hat-wearer and cigar smoker.
He was voted 2nd greatest Brit of all time after Jeremy Clarkson championed his achievements on a BBC telly programme.
And it’s not unusual for school history lessons to touch on road- and bridge-builder Thomas Telford, for example; he even got a town in Shropshire named after him.
But who has heard of canal visionary James Brindley?
I have been considering his startling achievements whilst pootling along two of his finest creations in the last few days. First, the Trent & Mersey canal,which we followed from Shardlow to Great Haywood (although it does indeed go all the way to the Mersey at Preston Brook).
And now, the wonderful Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal from Great Haywood to the Severn. We are two-thirds of the way along at Kinver, and tomorrow will visit Kidderminster en-route to the Severn at Stourport.
The Staffs & Worcs took 5 years to build and was opened in 1772. It was part of Brindley’s great plan to build a “Grand Cross” of waterways joining the four big English estuaries (Thames, Severn, Mersey, Trent) – and with these two great canals, Brindley did three of the four all at once.
Sadly he died before the fourth arm of his cross, to the Thames at Oxford via Coventry and Rugby, was complete. It’s easy nowadays to think of all this is a trivial undertaking, now that we have roads that allow you to get to anywhere in England in a day. Back then, however, cross-country transport involved pack horses, roads barely passable for half the year, and rivers liable to flood or dry up. It took weeks and innumerable man hours to transport freight across the country. The canals made the whole affair distinctly more reliable and straightforward, and kick-started the industrial revolution.
And the whole thing was bought for tuppence. The S&W was built for 100k – about £10m in today’s money, which is pretty remarkable when you consider HS2 is due to cost 32 billion. And Brindley had a load of blokes with pick axes: no diggers, no steam engine, no computers… The mind boggles.
Not only was it an industrial tour de force, it’s also a pretty beautiful piece of engineering that enhances rather than blights the splendid countryside round these parts. The bridges have a delightful simplicity, the locks are overlooked by cottages, pubs and roads, and the weirs are built in an unusual circular design that is a joy to behold.
There are also some rather complicated and enjoyable locks. The three at Bratch are manned by a lock keeper who is there to stop you turning the wrong handles and flooding the road or nearby housing. Water flows and gurgles in all directions, into and out of the lock chambers, through culverts and under bridges, and in and out of the picturesque reedy side ponds linked to the locks by underwater pipes, and designed to stop you wasting water. You’d need a degree to understand how the hell it all works, and indeed the chap tells you not to bother: “People go wrong when they try to understand it,” he says.
And then there is the evidence of Brindley’s battles with obstacles both human and natural. At Tixall, the local landowner didn’t take kindly to having a load of dirty boats, filled with coal, and inching along a narrow ditch, crossing his land. To placate him, they broadened the canal out into a lake, which was much more to his lordship’s taste. This is Tixall Wide, and it is pretty wide!
Fifteen miles later, you get to the outskirts of Wolverhampton, where Brindley’s workmen came across a particularly hard seam of limestone half a mile across. They hacked through it but it was hard going, so they made it single-carriageway with a few passing spots here and there. This stretch of narrows is known as Pendeford Rockin, quite a contrast from Tixall Wide!
And throughout, we are surrounded by sublime rolling countryside, no shortage of pleasant little pubs, and the cacophony of April birdsong. Ducklings, geese, swans, kingfishers, moorhens, swallows and coots busy themselves industriously in the trees and at the water’s edge. Joggers, walkers, boaters and bikers enjoy the canal. Well done, James Brindley, the M1 was never this much fun!