Guide to the Shropshire Union Canal

The Shropshire Union Canal, known affectionately as the ‘Shroppie’, links the canal system of the West Midlands, at Wolverhampton, with the River Mersey and Manchester Ship Canal at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. It’s a canal that runs along a scenic route that is ideal for canal boat hire and boat holidays, consisting mostly of open farmland in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire in the northwest of England.

The Shropshire Union Canal includes two navigable branches, the Middlewich Branch and the River Dee Branch. The Middlewich Branch runs from Barbridge Junction to the Trent & Mersey Canal at Middlewich, whilst the River Dee Branch runs from the main line at Chester to the tidal River Dee.

Black Prince Cruising Routes

You can cruise on the Shropshire Union Canal starting from our narrowboat hire base at Acton Bridge in Cheshire. Check out our canal maps, waterways maps and cruise guides on our base page for more information about your canal boat holiday and tips such as where to enjoy a canal walk and the other canals near this route.

A brief history of the Shropshire Union Canal

The Shropshire Union Canal is formed from a number of different waterways in the southwest that were built during the whole canal building era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, giving it an impressive canal age.

The earliest section to be built was the Chester Canal in the 1770s, which ran from the River Dee in Chester to Nantwich. This wasn’t a great commercial success and was subsequently rescued by the building of the Ellesmere Canal, completed in 1797, which linked Chester to Ellesmere Port.

The engineer Thomas Telford masterminded this section of the canal, calling it a ‘contour canal’, so called because the line of the Shropshire Union Canal follows the natural contours of the land. This initial section of the ‘Shroppie’ led to businesses growing and developing alongside the canal, such as pottery works and chain-making factories, which is a key part of the canal history.

The branch of the canal from Middlewich opened in 1833, allowing the transport of clay to be taken to the Potteries and then crockery to be exported via Ellesmere Port. Then the canal from Nantwich to Autherley Junction (near Wolverhampton) was completed in 1835. This formed the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal which provided a direct route from the industrial West Midlands to Ellesmere Port where exports grew.

All these canals, together with what is now the Llangollen and Montgomery Canals, merged in the mid-1840s to create the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company. The SUR&CC was one of the few companies which constructed both a canal and a railway.

The canal is now protected and maintain by the Shropshire Union Canal Society.

Top Shropshire Union Canal Facts

  • Length

    66.5 miles

  • Number of Locks


  • The New Cut

    The ‘New Cut’ is the boaters name for the Middlewich Arm which connects the Shropshire Union north of Nantwich to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Middlewich, an important link in the Four Counties Ring.

  • 1846

    The Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company was formed in 1846.

Route Overview

The Shropshire Union runs from the large town of Wolverhampton in the Midlands, where it leaves the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal at Autherley Junction, and it heads north towards Cheshire, the River Mersey and finally ending at Ellesmere Port.

Not long after leaving Wolverhampton, the route breaks out into the open countryside through to the village of  Brewood. Carry on and you’ll come to the Stretton Aqueduct, constructed by Thomas Telford which goes over the old Roman road, now known as the A5!

You’ll cruise the villages of Wheaton Aston, Church Eaton and Gnosall, through Cowley Tunnel and out into the rolling countryside again, eventually reaching Norbury Junction. You’ll continue on here to the little market town of Market Drayton, which is closely followed by the Adderley Locks, and then the famous Audlem Flight of locks which lower you down to the Cheshire Plain.

The canal continues northwards, passing near the large town of Nantwich, which has a busy canal basin and it is not long before you reach Hurleston Junction where the Llangollen Canal branches off to the west.

After leaving Hurleston Junction, the Shroppie wends it’s way travelling north westerly towards Barbridge Junction, which is where the Middlewich branch of the narrow canal turns off to the northwest and the towns of Middlewich and Northwich, both very important in canal terms.

After Barbridge junction the Shroppie heads west towards Beeston and then on to Chester. The route of the canal takes you along deep cuttings and past canalside pubs right through the centre of this picturesque old Roman city with its famous city walls, which is an ideal location for boat hire. You’ll then continue northwards alongside rivers and canals towards Ellesmere Port, where you’ll also find the National Waterways Museum.

Shropshire Union Canal

Feats of Engineering on the Shropshire Union

Shelmore Embankment

Parts of the canal that were last built used techniques borrowed from the latest railway building methods, for example taking a direct line cross country, on embankments and through cuttings. Shelmore embankment took six years to build and Woodseaves cutting is 100 feet deep for example. The Shelmore Embankment is 1 mile long and the lengthy embankment is equipped with flood gates at both ends to prevent loss of water should the canal be breached in this area.

Cowley Tunnel

The Shropshire Union Canal runs through Gnosall, where the canal enters the 81-yard (74 m) Cowley Tunnel. Originally the tunnel was planned to be 690 yards (630 m) long, but after the rocky first 81 yards (74 m), the ground was unstable, and the remaining length of the inland waterways was opened out to form the present narrow and steep-sided Cowley Cutting.

Stretton Aqueduct

Stretton Aqueduct carries the Shropshire Union Canal over the A5 (a major road that dates back to Roman times) at rather a skewed angle! Started in 1832, it finally opened in 1835 and was designed by Thomas Telford. The aqueduct has five sections, each 6 feet 6 inches long, held together by bolts and supported by six cast iron arch ribs, each in two sections and joined at the centre of the arch.
As you can see on the canal guide and map, the water is carried across in a trough that is 21 feet wide with an 11 feet wide channel of water and a towpath on either side.  It was one of Telford’s last aqueducts and has been grade II listed since 1985, making it a highlight of the waterways protected by the Canal and River Trust.

Did You Know?

  • The last accomplishment

    The Shropshire Union main line is said to be the last major civil engineering accomplishment of Thomas Telford.

  • A canal breach

    A 70 metres section of the canal failed on 16 March 2018 at an aqueduct over the River Wheelock, near Middlewich, leaving 15 to 20 boats stranded on a 1.3 kilometres stretch between Wardle Lock and Stanthorne Lock. The breach took some £3 million and over six months to repair.  According to the Canal and River Trust, the breach was caused by a member of the public leaving open a paddle gate on a lock, allowing water into the section of the canal, and causing it to overflow.

  • A true union

    The name “Shropshire Union” comes from the amalgamation of the various component companies (Ellesmere Canal, Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, Montgomeryshire Canal) that came together to form the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company.

  • 3 Counties

    The canal lies in the counties of Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire in the north-west English Midlands.


Black Prince Canal Guides

Looking for more canals information or canal maps? Below are links to a few of our other canal-specific guides to help inspire you on your next canal holiday: