In this edition Andy Tidy explores the course of the 1843 Bentley Canal, a route which connected the Wolverhampton Level via the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Wednesfield Junction to the Anson Arm on the Walsall Canal, before it was progressively abandoned in the 1960’s.
This is quite an extensive route at 3.5 miles long and therefore represents a significant walk. I completed the route by bicycle one frosty morning when the ground was hard, but an alternative would be to use two cars and position one at the far end.
A good place to start is at Wednesfield Junction which retains its neat iron roving bridge and a small basin next to the Nickleodeon Pub which ends with the entrance to the top lock. Looking at it today it’s hard to believe that this was the entrance to a bustling canal which descended through 10 locks to reach the Walsall Canal.
Only 20 years ago a walk on the route would have revealed crumbling lock chambers and a reedy channel, but a massive retail regeneration scheme in the 1990’s swept the top four locks away, locks which were navigable into the 1960’s. With a bit of searching the Neachells Road Bridge can still be found, still carrying the road over a dry canal channel. Press on a bit further, crossing the sites two more infilled locks, and you arrive at Neachells Branch Junction, built to serve the Neachells and Merrils Hall Collieries. The half mile line of the Neachells Arm can be traced as a winding band of open space, and half way along the channel is apparent with a drainage stream cut into its base.
The site of the junction is close to the Tata Steel plant and if you ask the security guard nicely they will let you look into the grounds where you will find a perfectly restored classic hump backed canal bridge. The Bentley Canal was almost dead straight and this very tangible remains provides a pointer to the canal bed which can be found continuing in the undergrowth of Fibbersley Nature Reserve to the site of Fly Bridge.
Generally the line of the Bentley Canal remains visible and is easy to follow on well made cycle tracks, but you have to be careful not to be misled by the abandoned railways which cross the area. These can easily be mistaken for canals and you find yourself on an incline or an impossibly narrow embankment trying hard to convince yourself that it is a plausible canal route. Built remains are few and far between, but with linear open public areas to follow and humps in the roads where the road bridges used to be there is plenty to see. Sometimes, you are even rewarded by an isolated road bridge or a pipe bridge lurking furtively at the side of a car park.
The route can be identified by a linear strip of open grassland as it crosses the sites of Dingle Lane Bridge and Monmer Bridge. The canal is then lost beneath lorry parks and industry for three quarters of a mile and a diversion through Ashmore Lake Industrial Park is needed before the line is reacquired at Springbank Bridge, which still carries Sharesacre Street over the infilled channel.
From now on the channel plays hide and seek, mostly hidden but emerging at the road crossings at Sandbeds Bridge which carried Charles St and Clarke’s Lane Bridge, a stretch which used to contain two locks. The next three quarters of a mile is open land but runs through cuttings and can be a bit boggy. The section includes collapsed bridges at Farm Bridge, Wolverhampton Road Bridge and finally the still standing parapet of Hopyard Bridge. The line of the canal is then buried beneath the grounds of County Bridge Primary School before it is completely severed by the new cutting containing the Black Country Spine Road.
The tail end of the Bentley Canal ends with more a whimper than a flourish. The canal bed had been turned into allotments behind Wrexham Avenue, at the end of which is a path leading to the Rea Aqueduct. This provides access to the Anson Arm and so to the reeded up junction of the Bentley Canal, still spanned by a lonely pipe bridge behind the Walsall Showcase Cinema at J10 of the M6.