On Wednesday, Christine from the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust and I set off on a joint expedition to explore the remains of the stretch of the Wyrley and Essington Canal between the Fosseway Level Crossing and Sandfields Pumping Station.
As we crossed through the gate off Falkland Road, the canal, or what once was the canal, was to our left. Down a steep slope to our right however, was a wide expanse of land filled with curious humps, bumps and scars. At the far end was a pile of stones, which Christine thought had come from the canal (it seems they were moved when the new road was built). As we mused on the origins of the mysterious earthworks, I was reminded that someone had told me that this was once the place where the youth of Lichfield would come to ride their bicycles, both the pedal and motor varieties. Later, I popped the photos of this section on our Lichfield Discovered page on Facebook asking whether anyone else remembered this. Steve Martin did and he sent this brilliant reply:
Used to take my bike down there some 30 odd years ago when, if I recall correctly, there was a lot less grass there. It was about a fifteen minute ride to get there from where I used to live but was well worth it because that area was a playground for bikes as there were well defined tracks , bumps and jumps in the area between the train track and the old canal. There were often youths there, some on motorbikes, riding around and jumping their bikes . . . I do remember being the only person there one day and coming off my bike on a track near the top of the embankment and having a rather spectacular kid/bike roll to the bottom.
The youth of today may have moved on to the skatepark or the nearby MUGA or, let’s be honest, moved in to play on the Xbox but previous generations have left their mark on the landscape here. And no doubt the landscape made a mark on a few of them too, eh Steve? It’s something you won’t find on a map but it’s a great bit of social history that I’d love to hear more about.
I’m not sure that all of the earthworks here are related to what appears to have been Lichfield’s own version of Junior Kickstart (you’ll be humming that theme tune the whole day). The old maps suggest there was a lock on the canal here which might explain the presence of bricks. Christine and I continued along the wildly overgrown towpath, to where the remains of a lock are far more evident. It was a gorgeous walk – the sun shone, birds sang and butterflies flitted (although I did ruin things a bit by planting the thought in our heads that the vegetation above our heads might contain giant hogweed. It didn’t).
We clambered back down the bank to stand in what would have been the canal, and walked in through the lock. We were surprised at how modern some of the brickwork looked, and the ladder certainly appeared to be a fairly recent addition. We later found out renovation work had been carried out on this stretch not all that long ago (which also explains the solitary picnic bench we found). Adventurous though we are, climbing out using the ladder was a step too far and so we clambered back up the bank and carried on along the towpath. At the end of this stretch there is a canal cottage with a lovely BCN boundary stone in the front garden. Due to dog related issues, I didn’t take a photo so you will have to go and see it with your own eyes. If boundary stones don’t excite you as much as they do me, perhaps the old Fosseway crossing signal box and opportunity to trespass on the disused railway track which runs adjacent to the canal from Sandfields up to Pipe Hill wharf will float your boat instead.
I’ve not gone into the history of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal in any depth here for the simple reason that it’s been done far better elsewhere. Your first port of call is of course the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration website, where you can discover not only the history of the waterway but also their plans for its future. Of course if you’d like to do something constructive to help, literally, they are always looking for volunteers! You can get in touch and keep up to date with what’s going on Twitter @lhcrt1 or on Facebook.
Back at the opposite end of this stretch, the canal flowed past Sandfields Pumping Station before crossing the Chesterfield Road, and flowing under the Birmingham Road (where you can still see one of the bridges by the Duke of Wellington!). For us on this occasion though, Sandfields was the end of the line. Again, the history of this Grade II* listed building has been captured in detail elsewhere, by friend and colleague David Moore. You can discover why Sandfields is such an important part of not only Lichfield’s past but also that of the Black Country’s here on the Lichfield Waterworks Trust site. Put simply, by supplying fresh water to our neighbouring towns, Sandfields saved lives and now the Trust are trying to save Sandfields for the community. It’s a building we should be singing the praises of at least as much as the Cathedral. If you think you might like to add your voice, please come along to the Lichfield Waterworks Trust monthly meeting next week (details here) or we have a drop-in session at the Beacon Park discovery hub tomorrow, Saturday 25th July, between 11am and 12pm, where you can find out more about Sandfields and the Trust’s work. I’ll be flying the Lichfield Discovered flag there too, so if social and sociable history is your thing, come down and say hello!
Finally, thanks to Christine for sharing the adventure and thanks to Steve for sharing the memories and the photos.