The Ultimate Guide to the Caldon Canal – Leek branch

The Caldon Canal (or if you want to be precise, the Caldon Branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal) makes for an ideal canal boat holiday from which to discover one of the key routes of the pottery heritage trail.   

From the Black Prince narrowboat hire base in Staffordshire, the Caldon will take you on a fascinating journey along canals and rivers through the industrial workings of Stoke-on-Trent to the more picturesque parts of Staffordshire and the Churnet Valley.

This guide follows the Caldon to Hazelhurst Junction and onto the Leek Branch which has just 8 locks, making for an easy short break canal boat holiday.


Starting from the Black Prince hire base in Etruria

Navigating out of the Festival Park Marina, you’ll be helped on your way by the Black Prince team, under a lift bridge and onto the Caldon. 

This twisting, narrow canal course starts by following the narrow Caldon Valley; initially running through industrial areas before heading out of town through steep wooded hillsides and then into more picturesque open countryside.

Just past the Etruria Footbridge you’ll see the Brindley Statue. James Brindley (1716-1772) was one of the early canal engineers based in Leek. An established engineer of his time, he was brought in by another notable canal engineer John Gilbert to assist the Duke of Bridgewater on the Bridgewater Canal. Brindley is largely credited for the principle of contouring and developing the technique of ‘puddling clay’ to produce a watertight clay-based material.

The Caldon opened in 1779 to carry Peak District limestone from the quarries at Cauldon Low down to the Potteries and the industrial Midlands. Not long after later a short branch was added so that the Caldon connected to the town of Leek and improved water supplies to the main line of the Trent & Mersey

The full length of the Caldon is 17 miles (27 km) long, has 17 locks, 3 operational lift-bridges and one tunnel and runs from Etruria in central Stoke on Trent to Froghall in Staffordshire.   

Into the Locks

A short way from the marina just after Hanley Park you’ll encounter your first locks, the Etruria two-lock staircase. Quite steep staircase locks, they are fairly easy to navigate but it’s a good idea to check that there are no boats coming down before you enter the first chamber.

At this point you are still in the middle of Stoke-on-Trent and surrounded by old houses and industrial buildings, which continue past Planet Lock. It’s interesting to see how the area is being developed, there’s an odd mix of new build attractive waterside flats on one side of the canal and messy industry opposite.

Cruise on from the canal locks under various bridges – watch out for bridges number 8 and 9 which may take you by surprise as they are pretty low – ducking is necessary!

The Bottle Kiln Heritage

Around bridge 9 you’ll turn a corner to see two great bottle kilns remaining steadfastly prominent in the midst of a large new housing development.  This area of Hanley has a great history and is currently the subject of much-needed regeneration. 

Just past the kilns, you’ll chug past Goodwin Steel Castings, a foundry since 1883, still going strong. It’s good to see that some steel industry is continuing to operate here in the UK.

The Ivy House Lift Bridge

The Ivy House Lift Bridge, number 11, adds a bit of excitement to the canal boat journey, as this road bridge needs to be raised in order to pass underneath. It’s electronically operated and you’ll be glad to know there are very simple instructions provided. You’ll need a British Waterways key (handily provided on the main set of boat keys by Black Prince).

You’ll not be far into your journey but it’s reassuring to come across plenty of Winding Holes, otherwise known by the less knowledgeable as ‘places to turn around’. Just before Stanley village is Northwood Winding Hole and after bridge 14 is the Leed Road Winding hole.

You’ll enjoy a lovely run along the valley on the outskirts of Stoke after bridge 14. This area becomes progressively picturesque as you enter the Churnet Valley.

Passing by Birches Head Road bridge (number 15) you’ll no doubt realise that you have cruised past quite a few football pitches on our route. Obviously, Stoke City fans are keen on their game.

Between canal bridge 16 and 17 is the Foxley Aqueduct, not that you’ll necessarily notice that you are travelling over one; it’s fairly small!

The Foxley pub offers moorings, which is at the point that was once the junction of the five-furlong Foxley Branch.  To be honest, the moorings look a bit poor and the pub doesn’t look particularly attractive from the canal side, so continue on to the other side of Milton and you’ll discover a more attractive canal side setting on which to moor up.

Milton & a Jolly Pint of Ale

Bridge 18 is the Milton Bridge that indicates you coming into this small town. If you fancy a drink stop then head to The Sportsman, a small traditional cask ale pub which has a small and friendly local feel.

Milton was the destination for the last regular commercial traffic on the canal.  In the 1980s pottery was transported from Hanley, where it was made, to Milton to be decorated. Three specially designed and built crafts were used for this work – the Milton Maid, Milton Queen and Milton Princess.

After Milton, you travel on inland waterways through open farmland and it’s here where you being to sense that you are now well on the way to open countryside, where wildlife is becoming easier to spot and the views more photogenic.

There’s more fun with the Norton Green Lift Bridge at 21, an automatic bridge (again, simple instructions and the key on your boat keys). Through this area, there are still houses dotting the landscape but you are heading to more remote and picturesque countryside.   The canal meanders enough to ensure that you need to keep your focus on your steering, and a couple of the bridges are quite tight to navigate through.

The Land of Long Butts…

The run-up to the Stockton Locks has two manually lifted bridges, both of which require a windlass. They are not particularly strenuous – it always looks a lot harder than it actually is to winch up a footbridge by hand!  Long Butts Lift Bridge is a name we’ll always remember with humour…

It’s a nice stretch of canal in the run-up to the flight of five locks at Stockton, with lots of wildlife to spot in the reed beds to your left. Spot the ducks and coots’ nest building and protectively guarding their eggs in the spring, and be careful not to cause too much wash from your canal boat which could disturb them.

The crew member in charge of the windlass can stay off the boat on the Caldon canal at the Stockton Brook Locks seven, eight and nine as they are very close together. Warning – lock number seven is very stiff, good arm strength is needed here.

Spitfires & pottery

A reminder of both Spitfire and the pottery heritage is to be found here with an interesting monument, presumably funded by the City Museum and Art Gallery which has a collection of ceramics and a Spitfire fighter aeroplane, celebrating the career of locally born designer R. J. Mitchell.

By the time you have navigated Stockton Brook Top Lock number nine you’ve reached the end of the locks on this stretch and you’re probably feeling a nice sense of achievement!

If you need water and other facilities you’ll find it at Park Lane Bridge, number 31, Endon, where there are British Waterways moorings and facilities, including a water point plus a sanitary station with self pump out, rubbish disposal, showers and card operated washing machine.

Continuing across Stanley Moss Aqueduct to bridge 28 you’ll then enjoy a long straight, with open fields and lots of wildlife to spot and photograph. 

spitfire monument caldon canal

Don’t forget the binoculars

Here’s list of the wildlife to look out for on your canal boat adventure:

  • Canadian Geese
  • Ducks & Drakes
  • Coots
  • Herons
  • Squirrels
  • Rabbits

You’ll also come across a lot of cows, chickens, goats, horses and a lot of dogs walking their owners.

Around Brick Kiln Bridge (number 33) there’s lots of pretty open farmland and what appear to be geese fields.   We don’t know an awful amount about geese but certainly a large population of these birds appear to favour one particular spot in this area.  The canal itself is now more gently meandering, not as tightly twisting as previously.

A waterway flyover

On arrival at Hazelhurst Junction, the Caldon Canal splits with the main Froghall line dropping down three locks and the Leek branch crossing over the top. Take time to take in the ornately decorated Hazelhurst Aqueduct, built in 1841; it is a rare example of a waterways ‘flyover’, an aqueduct carrying one canal over another.  Be aware of a very tight turn to the left at bridge 3, it’s a sharp one.

The short branch of the Caldon Canal to Leek is a beautiful and peaceful stretch of canal that now finishes just outside the town, the original canal basin having been filled in long ago.

You’ll start appreciating the touches of the Peak District as you travel further along towards Leek, with attractive stone cottages revealing a typical Peak District character. The banks to the canal climb steeply and are dotted with beautiful-looking cottages and houses, all having spectacular valley views.

Along this stretch heading towards Leek, you’ll find that the canals are narrow with more tight bridges and some shallow water; you may occasionally feel the silt bed through the tiller.

Turn on your boat lights as you approach the 120-meter Leek Tunnel.  It’s a narrow waterway with a steeply inclined roof, making it easy to imagine through here the old ‘leggers’ lying sideways pushing their commercial boats through the darkness.

The end of the line

As you approach the end of the Leek route be careful not to miss the official end of the canal navigations at the Leek Winding hole – the last winding hole for full-length boats. There is a large sign to warn you so it’s fairly hard to miss, but carry on any further and you’ll find yourself stranded with nowhere to go…

The original length of the canal, extending to a basin on the south side of Leek Railway Station, was filled in in the late 1950s/early 1960s to allow for the building of the Barnfields Road Industrial Estate.

It’s just a short walk to the end of the canal navigation and then probably another twenty-minute walk into the centre of Leek itself. You’ll have to pass through the aforementioned industrial estate but Leek is not a bad market town, with attractions like Flint Mill.  If you like antiques it will be your thing as this market town is full of them with antiques and collectors market each Saturday.

In summary

In summary, the Caldon Canal makes for a lovely short canal boat break, offering a nice combination of town and country together with some interesting locks and lift bridges and nice sections of lock-free cruising.  The best moorings are around Milton and near the end of the Leek section, giving you easy access to local shops and friendly pubs.

Good for families of all ages or groups holidaying together, the Caldon offers a fantastic narrowboat holiday, said to be one of the most picturesque parts of the canal network with features such as the Froghall Tunnel and Churnet Valley Railway.

Find out more about our Stoke on Trent base here

Do you have a favourite route on the Stoke on Trent, Mersey Canal or Uttoxeter canal network?

3 replies
  1. Stephen Potter
    Stephen Potter says:

    If follow the main line to Froghall Basin, I believe there is a very low tunnel before the basin. Are your boats low enough to get through?

    • Joanne Taylor
      Joanne Taylor says:

      Hi Stephen, our boats are too tall to go through this tunnel. There is a winding hole just before it to turn the boat around.


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