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Guide to the Trent and Mersey Canal

This cross-country canal runs across the north midlands of England, from Runcorn in Cheshire to Shardlow in Derbyshire.

Built by the leading canal building engineers, James Brindley and John Gilbert, the Trent and Mersey was one of the outstanding feats of canal engineering in the eighteenth century, designed to link the major ports of Hull and Liverpool via the River Trent and the River Mersey. It became the catalyst for huge industrial growth during this time, particularly for the area known as ‘The Potteries’ in Stoke on Trent.

It’s a great canal holiday route for narrow boat and canal cruising on of the most famous UK canals.

A brief history of the Trent and Mersey Canal

In 1761, Josiah Wedgwood showed an interest in the construction of a canal through Stoke-on-Trent, no doubt inspired by the opening of the Bridgewater Canal that year, one of the first canals to be built that didn’t follow an existing waterway.

Wedgwood, a renowned pottery maker in Staffordshire, recognised that the canals could play a vital part in the safe transport of his pots. Pots taken by road were liable to be damaged and broken, and a canal near to his factory would provide fast and safe transport for his wares. The original plan was to simply link the potteries to the River Mersey but Wedgwood recognised that the ‘Grand Trunk’ canal that was being proposed by John Gilbert (land agent and engineer to the Duke of Bridgewater) could be re-routed to pass through Stoke on Trent.

Finally, the plan of a canal connection from the Mersey to the Trent was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1766. Together with the engineer James Brindley, the country’s first long distance canal was completed in 1777.

The effect of the canal was phenomenal – transport costs were quartered and the whole area expanded. As well as pottery, industries prospering from it included the brewing industry at Burton on Trent, salt at Middlewich, Northwich and Sandbach, and coal mining in North Staffordshire.

Today the canal is popular for canal boat holidays, and includes some of the best sights on the waterways including the Anderton Boat Lift, the 2,647-metre long Harecastle Tunnel and the flight of 31 locks between Middlewich and Kidsgrove known as ‘Heartbreak Hill’, which raise the canal up from the Cheshire Plains.

Black Prince couple mooring up in Autumn portrait
Narrowboat cruising

Top Trent and Mersey Canal Facts

  • Canal Length

    93 Miles

  • Number of Locks


  • Number of Tunnels


  • Date opened


  • Etruria

    Six years before the complete opening of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1771, Wedgwood built the factory village of Etruria on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, close to the canal.

Caldon canal to Leek

Route Overview

The Trent and Mersey Canal begins, as you would expect, within a few miles of the River Mersey, near Runcorn and finishes in a junction with the River Trent in Derbyshire.

From Runcorn in Cheshire, the canal runs in a general south-east direction to Lichfield in the North Midlands, passing through Northwich and Middlewich (a well-known canal junction town), near Preston Brook and through Preston Brook Bridge, before continuing through Sandbach and on to the town of Stoke on Trent.

The boat trip route is mainly rural and picturesque, thanks to its large canal age. It meanders through open West Midlands countryside and farmland, interrupted by the small towns, until the canal arrives at Stoke on Trent and the area known as ‘The Potteries’ at Etruria, where the Caldon Canal branches off. On a canal boat holiday from Stoke on Trent, you will cruise past the factories, potteries museums and chimneys that line the waterways, soaking up the atmosphere of the manufacturing that made this town what it is today.

Leaving Etruria, the canal is soon back in open country and it these inland waterways continue their route south east to Stone, Great Haywood and Rugeley before veering northeast near Fradley. The canal then makes its way to Burton on Trent and Aston on Trent before ending finally at Shardlow near Long Eaton, just south of Derby.

Potteries Stoke on Trent

Feats of Engineering on the Trent and Mersey Canal

Anderton Boat Lift

The Anderton Boat Lift links the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal via a fifteen-metre high lift. Known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways, it’s an impressive structure that dominates the narrow canals and waterways in Cheshire.

It was built to solve the problem of trans-shipping goods (moving goods off one boat to another), as this was time-consuming and expensive. A flight of locks was considered but discarded, mainly because of the lack of a suitable site and the loss of water that would have resulted from using them. Engineer Edward Leader Williams drew up the plans using a hydraulic system. Built in 1875, the boat lift is one of only two working boat lifts in the United Kingdom; the other is the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland. The Anderton Boat Lift was formally opened to traffic on 26 July 1875. The total cost was £48,428 (£4,664,000 at today’s prices).

In the early 1980s, the boat lift was declared structurally unsound and closed but was restored in the year 2000 and re-opened for canals and rivers leisure craft traffic.

Harecastle Tunnel

Another major feature of the Trent and Mersey is the Harecastle Tunnel, close to Stoke-on-Trent. Designed by civil engineer Thomas Telford, this tunnel was built with a towpath, to solve the key canal history problem of ‘legging’, where boat men had to move the boat along by pushing against the sides of the tunnel with their legs.

This 2,676-metre tunnel was opened in 1827 and remains in use today, being the fourth-longest navigable canal tunnel in the United Kingdom.

Flyover Junction

Just north of Harecastle Tunnel, there is a ‘flyover’ junction of two canals. The Hall Green Branch leaves the Trent and Mersey mainline on the south side, but then crosses over the main line and travels a short distance north to join the Macclesfield Canal at Hall Green Stop lock.

Black Prince Cruising Routes

You can cruise on the Trent and Mersey Canal from our narrowboat hire base at Acton Bridge in Cheshire and from our Stoke on Trent base in Staffordshire. Check out our canal maps and boat hire cruise guides on our base page for more information for your canal boat holiday. Plus you can read more information about places to visit in the area on our canal boat hire in Staffordshire page.

Weekend breaks Staffordshire

Black Prince Canal Guides

Below are links to a few of our other canal specific guides and canal maps to help inspire you on your next canal holiday: