Wyrley Bank Branch Canal - an introduction
Birmingham Canal Navigations
7th November 2009
7th November 2009
The Wyrley Bank Branch has held a fascination for me for nearly 20 years.
Soon after we moved to Birmingham we became friends with a couple who lived in Cheslyn Hay, and to visit them we used to drive through Bloxwich, repeatedly crossing both the Wyrley and Essington Canal and its abandoned arm, the Essington Bank Branch Canal.
Wyrley Bank Branch near Horsefields
Some of you will know of the Wyrley and Essington Canal as the long urban cut which runs from Wolverhampton eastwards to Brownhills, where the putative Lichfield Canal descends from Ogley Junction. The Wyrley Bank Branch strikes off north from Sneyd Junction in Bloxwich, just north of Walsall sitting firmly in the midst of what most boaters regard as the 'northern badlands', where feral youths sometimes run amok, hurling stones at the few craft that venture into their territory.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I set out, initially planning to park my car on Vernon Way near Sneyd Junction but, having noticed the Colditz like fortifications round the nearby school, settled on a more prudent approach and parked in Tettenall, on the far side of the M6.
You could say that this canal was a bit of a slow burn, approved by Parlament in 1792 and a section opened to Essington in 1798, only to close in 1829. However, the canal was reopened in 1857, this time all the way through to Wyrley Wharf at the Great Wyrley Colliery, 3.5 miles north of Sneyd. Whilst the coal lasted these northern canals prospered, allowing the BCN to thrive long into the 20th century. But nothing stands still and with the workings played out, the line was closed in 1954, this time for good.
Wyrley Bank Branch above Sneyd Locks
By the 1980's the last of the coal in the area was clawed out of huge open cast mines the scars of which are only now starting to heal. All this open cast mining did bring a benefit to the canal in the form of grants for restoration into a nature reserve, which is delivering a lasting benefit to the local population.
As part of my preparation for this exploration I started with an internet search, which identified the very informative Wyrley and Essington Wyrley Branch Management Plan, which details the rehabilitation of the northern two thirds into a footpath and nature trail. From this I took a 'fly by' using Google Earth satellite images transposed onto maps. I also picked of the trail left by Eric Richardson, who's booklet 'In search of the lost canals of the Black Country' looked at what remained on the southern half in the early 1990's.
I fear that my visit to this waterway was completed in undignified haste, rather like gulping down a fine red wine in a series of huge swallows. Compared to many lost canals, there is a vast amount to see, and my expedition by bicycle was probably far to fast. True, I took over an hour and a half to work my way from Sneyd in the south to the terminus at Cheslyn Hay in the north. But this still meant that I failed to savour each morsel as would have been the case if I been tackling it on foot.
Wyrley Bank Branch near Essington Junction
Having said that, this canal has a well made towpath along it's route, and it is quite possible to cycle from one end to the other in about 30 minutes. I can thouroughly recommend this footpath / nature trail for a winter excursion, but I would suggest that Cheslyn Hay makes a better starting point.
In addition to the main canal, a substantial arm exits about 3/4 mile north of Sneyd Junction. This was the Essington, or Vernon's Branch which climbed another five locks to reach the colliery at Essington and formed part of the original canal in 1798.
Given the scale of this abandoned network of canals I will tackle it is stages over the next few days:
- Sneyd Junction and locks
- Sneyd Reservoir
- Broad Lane and to Long Lane
- Long Lane to Gilpins Basin
- Gilpins Basin to Cheslyn Hay
- Essington or Vernons Branch
I hope you enjoy my enthusiastic ramblings about this particularly obscure waterway. My apologies for any historical inaccuracies - this is a journey rather than a destination so any comments or corrections are welcomed.