The Shropshire Union Canal is a charmingly rural and isolated waterway for much of its length. With stretches where there are no towns for miles, it is a great place to get close to nature.
The northern section is a wide waterway, following the gently rolling Cheshire landscape. The arrow-straight southern section has a character all of its own, which comes from being built in the twilight of the canal age. Long embankments, cuttings and grand bridges were developments of the railway age, and allowed the canal to have fewer locks. The deep, moss-grown cuttings are atmospheric and full of wildlife, and you can often spot herons and kingfishers.
After passing through the Roman town of Chester, the canal ends at Ellesmere Port. The National Waterways Museum is a must-see here, with its fascinating collection of historic working boats and insight into the history of the canals.
The Shropshire Union Canal has some delightful and unique family-friendly destinations to explore. Download one of our free activity guides and make the most of your trip to the canal.
This canal was constructed in three stages by three different companies, covering the whole of the ‘Canal Age’. In the 1770s the Chester Canal, from the River Dee to Nantwich, was built broad to enable river boats to use it. This was the only one of the first generation of British canals to be a commercial failure Its fortunes were rescued by the Ellesmere Canal (see ‘Llangollen Canal’), which made the section from Chester to the Mersey in the mid-1790s, creating the small settlement of Ellesmere Port around its northern terminus.
The branch from Middlewich opened in 1833, enabling clay to be taken to the Potteries and crockery exported. The canal from Nantwich to Autherley Junction (near Wolverhampton) received its Act of Parliament in 1826 but was not completed until 1835. This was the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, the name of which explains its principal aim, providing a direct route from the industrial West Midlands for exports and imports though Ellesmere Port, where the facilities were considerably enhanced. A branch went from Norbury Junction through Newport to join the Shrewsbury Canal near Wellington.
Merger into the Shropshire Union
All these canals, together with what are now the Llangollen and Montgomery Canals merged in the mid 1840s to create the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company. The intention was to convert the Main Line and the branch to Newtown into railways. However, in 1847 the Shropshire Union was leased to the mighty London & North Western Railway.
Control by a railway company did not inhibit further development. Much investment was put into the docks at Ellesmere Port, particularly in the 1870s and, coinciding with the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, the 1890s. The Shropshire Union’s fleet of boats grew to be the largest fleet in the country by 1900.
The disruption caused by the First World War and, especially, the coming of reliable motor lorries, led to a sharp decline in canal traffic and the closure of the carrying company in 1921. Nevertheless, some commercial carrying continued until the 1960s.