Saturday 10 March 2012

Shropshire Canal - Central section

Shropshire Canal
Central section (Telford)
March 2012

We pick up the line of the Shropshire Canal as it heads south from its junction with the Ketley Canal at Oakengates.

If truth be told, this represents the "missing bit" where the canal line was taken over by the railway in the 1850's and its line reused. This track bed has since been remodelled into the modern road network which winds its way around Telford all but obliterating the canal. Even in 1902 the evidence of the canal was reduced to a handful of slight curves outside the line of the track and a 2012 search failed to reveal any trace whatsoever all the way through to Radlay Reservoir, opposite the International Conference Centre.

Southern end of Snedshill Tunnel which the canal crossed over through its own tunnel.

Summit Tunnel in 1963

This wasn't always the case. Even as recently as the 1960's, before the Telford Development Agency wiped away much of what went before, sections of the abandoned railway bed were known to sprout lush weeds where the canal track was covered, even in drought conditions.

With no visible remains to photograph this provides a good opportunity to reflect on the changes which have been wrought on the area.

In short, this is a landscape utterly transformed. One look at the maps of 1902 reveals a region still smouldering with the smoke of post industrial decline hanging over the place. The 1700's saw the start of industrialisation in what was previously an agricultural area. This process gathered pace as the canal infrastructure was built in the dying decades of the century with the land well and truly ravaged in the 1800's. During this time coal, ironstone and limestone was clawed from the hills and transported to the huge blast furnaces, initially by canal and later by the more flexible railways and tramways.

By 1900 the rape of the land was complete, huge areas were riddled with countless mine shafts and spoil heaps. It was also an area of impoverished hamlets, with Oakengates being the "capital" of the Shropshire Coalfield. This was pretty much how the area remained for the next 60 years, a torn landscape with little to offer - crooked houses tipping into the ground as the mines beneath collapsed. 

The area's rebirth was as total as it was sudden. Against the backdrop of the pioneering 1960's and Wilson's "white heat of technology" speech, new towns were conceived, fresh new communities built on greenfield (or in this case a blackfield) site. The old was swept away and dual carriageways were driven through the old settlements will little regard to the history they contained. As for the new town centre, by rights it should have been called Darklane after the mining hamlet on which it was built, but it dosn't convey quite the same bold and pioneering image offered by Telford.

From a canal hunters perspective, the newtown redevelopment with its 1970's shopping centre, sinuous ribbons of tarmac and acres of 'Brookside' housing, has obliterated nearly everything of interest. But scratch the surface and explore the wilder corners and you will soon find the tell tale scars of its industrial past. You can apply a bit of slap to the old girl, but get up close and the ravages of a misspent youth are all too apparent.

Sure the town is functional and somewhat soul less but its parks and cycleways and popular and pleasant, but to my mind this preppy newcomer sits uneasily in its industrial cradle. An interesting town with an unusual past in which a pioneering network of tub boat canals played a crucial role for approx 50 years. The amazing thing is that even after 150 years of industrialisation and redevelopment the fingerprint of the canal lingers on.

Fear not, this was always going to be a barren section and its business as usual as we head south from Telford town centre.


Anonymous said...

On a complete aside, when do you get the election results?

Sue, nb Indigo Dream

Andy Tidy said...

I think they will be posted on Waterscape on Monday. I will probably be the last to know!