The story of the canal began in the 18th century, when a series of unique canals were built around the area now know as Telford as a means of transporting coal from the mines down to the river Severn and out to the ports or up to Shrewsbury. An increase in demand and the expense of supplying by river led to the suggestion that a canal should be built up to the county town.
The route was surveyed by George Young from Worcester and plans were drawn up; an original drafstmans copy of those plans dating from 1793 still exists, and is housed in the Shropshire Archives at Shrewsbury. Josiah Clowes was appointed as the engineer and the work was commenced, but Clowes died and Thomas Telford completed the project.
One of the major engineering headaches was how to avoid Haughmond Hill; a decision was made to skirt round it and construct a tunnel from Preston to Berwick. At 970 yards long this became the longest tunnel on the canal network at the time of its construction, and is still the second longest of the national network. The tunnel only allowed for passage of one boat at a time and due to the absence of a towpath had to be ‘legged’ to get the boats through. This tunnel still exists although closed off at either end.
The canal opened in 1796 at a cost of £65000 and had a total length of 24.75 miles. It was initially very profitable but had a major drawback as it wasn’t connected to the main network – an extension was needed from Wappenshall to Newport and this was subsequently built, being completed in 1835 some 40 years later. Most of the complex of buildings at Wappenshall was designed and built by Telford as was the section that led on to Norbury Junction at Newport.
At Wappenshall a branch of the canal led off towards Trench and up an inclined plane to Wombridge and Donnington. The branch was equipped with nine of the smallest locks in the country and also portcullis or guillotine type gates which could only be seen at one other place on the national network, a stop lock on the Stratford-on-Avon canal at Kings Norton,Birmingham.
The boats using the canal from Wappenshall on towards Rodington and Trench were ‘tub’ boats, specially constructed to allow passage through the smaller size locks and cargo transported to Wappenshall had to be transferred from standard size barges at that point.
The canal terminated in a basin behind the Buttermark at Shrewsbury, where some of the original wharf buildings can still be seen, and also passed the now historic Flax Mill at Ditherington.
Until the construction of the railways in about 1850 the canal was the only long distance means of transporting goods other than by horse wagons along toll roads and goods were hauled locally from canal wharves at Longden-on-Tern, Rodington and Berwick. This branch was last used in 1935 when 20 boats a day were not unusual.
Early in 1951 most of the original counter-weighted lifting bridges were replaced by more modern bridges, as the old ones had restricted traffic, the bridge of the Walcot road still being used in 1956. Water was left in the canal, it is believed, due to water rights granted at the time of the canals construction to the owners of land alongside it.
The canal was carried across the river Roden just south of Rodington village in a triple semi circular arched brick aqueduct, this was sadly demolished some years ago after being deemed unsafe.
Another aqueduct at Longden on Tern, built of iron and constructed by Thomas Telford, survives however to the present day. This is the oldest surviving cast iron aqueduct in the world and it was the precursor to the world famous aqueduct built by Telford at Pontcysyllte. It is a listed historical structure and it is well worth close inspection. The landowner, James Boffey, has allowed a permissive path to it across fields close to the Tayleur Arms.
There was a wide section of canal between Rodington and Longden-on-Tern, which may have been used as a turning place for barges, although some of the barges did not need to be turned as the rudder was movable from one end to the other; so the section may have simply been a passing place.
The main wharf for the loading and unloading of goods at Rodington was opposite the entrance to Rodington House and coal was unloaded at a coal wharf immediately to the west of the bridge carrying the Rodington – Walcot road over the canal.
The canal fell into disuse and was officially closed in 1944.It is now in the hands of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canals Trust and there is a campaign to get it re-opened. Funding has already been secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund to renovate the warehouses at Wappenshall (Jan 2014)
For more information about the canal and the work of the trust visit the trusts website at www.sncanal.org.uk