Bright sunshine, the purest blue sky and warm, summer temperatures in March! What could be better than a walk near water? So we decided to visit a Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve with its track taking us along the towpath of one of Shropshire’s many stretches of canal. An easy flat walk on soft grass – so kind to the legs and feet after busy days on the allotment.
We have been members of our county’s Wildlife Trust for about 40 years now and visited their reserves regularly when our children were with us but now they have left home and we have both retired we are enjoying visiting them anew. The walk we chose today was the Prees Branch Canal Reserve, described as a “2 mile long pond”. A Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the rare underwater plants, it is also home to one of Britain’s rarest mammals, the Water Vole. Thus it was with great anticipation that Jude, also known as Mrs Greenbenchrambler, also known as “The Undergardener”, and I climbed the stile into the reserve. The first sound to reach our ears was the loud call of a chicken who had just laid its daily egg.
The Prees Branch Canal was started in the early 1800’s and was intended to be a branch of the Llangollen Canal, but finances ran out so it was never completed. The trail we chose to follow runs alongside the 2 miles that were built and runs to its junction with the Shropshire Union Canal.
Just a few steps into woodland alongside a short dried up section of canal and birdsong filled the air. The most persistent songster was the diminutive warbler, the Chiffchaff. Throughout our day’s walk of almost four miles there was a calling Chiffchaff every 30 metres or so, and these early arrivals sing with such gusto to announce themselves to any females in calling distance. It’s call, the simple repetitive “Chiffchaff” call that gives it its name, was interrupted by the much more tuneful song of its near relative, the Willow Warbler. We saw so many flying from tree to tree or searching out insects in undergrowth.
The habitat in this tree-lined section looked absolutely perfect for the Water Vole but the closest we got to one was hearing the characteristic “plop” as one entered the water from the dried reeds followed by the every increasing circles of ripples. In this area, beneath the bare stems of trees in their dappled shade yellow flowers abounded – Celandine, Dandelion, Marsh Marigold and Pussy Willow. Later a snout popped up through the surface film of the water, and Jude stopped me suddenly and pointed. as it moved towards it we realised that the snout was attached to a frog and not a Water Vole. But we enjoyed admiring the frog’s swimming skills – perfect breast stroke clearly seen in the sparkling clean water.
Leaving the tree-lined section, we entered a much more open stretch where the water was crystal clear. Beneath the surface the green of new Yellow Waterlilies glowed.
Two male Mallards, their green iridescent heads glowing against the sky reflecting blue, paraded up the canal ahead of us. A single Mute Swan bustled from the dried reeds, a blue ring on its leg showing in the clear water. Clean white feathers, orange beak and blue leg ring.
We crossed this open stretch and after passing through an Alder coppice, we reached a busy marina and navigable waters. Narrow boats in all colours, all sizes and from all destinations clustered around moorings. From here on these boats chugged passed us regularly stirring up the silty bed of the canal. They sported a miscellany of names all saying something about their owners, their humour and their interests. Tadpole, Otter, Mouse, Earwig and Maple Leaf, Grace, Ondine, Montgomery, Jubilee Bridge and my favourite Django. That boat owner must be a fellow jazz fan.
Just beyond the marina we found a stile conveniently placed to lean upon, eat bananas and drink coffee and of course rest weary legs.
We passed under bridges which gave us a moment of shade from the sun which was gaining strength by the hour. Each bridge has a name, Waterloo Bridge, Boodles Bridge, Dobson’s Bridge, Starks Bridge, Allimans Bridge or a number. These hump-backed bridges carried narrow country lanes over the canal or tracks that took cattle or sheep from field to field. Under Boodles we were mesmerised by the sight of a Great Diving Beetle swimming powerfully to the water’s surface to collect its bubble of air. This is Britain’s largest beetle and swims with strong legs. It is large and powerful enough to catch and eat small fish called Sticklebacks.
Starks and Allimans were most unusual bridges – Lift Bridges. The trackways were carried over the canals by these low wooden bridges which boatman raise by manually turning a handle. As we approached Starks we watched a barge passing under, a skillful manoeuvre.
We stood on Allimans lift bridge and looked along the canal trying to decide whether we had enough energy in reserve to walk the last straight quarter-mile stretch to the T-junction where our Prees Branch Canal met with the Shropshire Union. It looked too tempting!
So we moved on slowly and here the canal cut straight through marshy land with scrapes and pools. From the towpath we spotted wading birds such as Lapwing and Curlew, and water birds such as Moorhens, Canada Geese and Wigeon Ducks. Squealing and wheeling above them were the ubiquitous Black-headed Gull.
Reaching the T-junction felt great and after crossing Roving Bridge next to Roving Farm, we found a seat! Just reward indeed! There were two benches placed in memory of people who had loved the canal in their lifetimes. We made ourselves comfortable with a coffee and a couple of apples on the bench dedicated to Edith. Thanks Edith we enjoyed your seat. Here we stayed a while enjoying the sounds of birdsong and watching the occasional barge passing along the Shropshire Union. Most cruised slowly and quietly in front of us and their occupants waved or called greetings. But one approached us noisily. We heard the engine and the “sailors” a long way off. The engine was so noisy that the sailors just had to shout to hear each other giving commands and advice. They needed advice as three men in orange fluorescent safety jackets stood on board a tiny tug barge pushing a barge along in front and pulling two behind. The barge snake zigzagged from bankside to bankside and progressed slowly, but provided amusing entertainment.
Quiet returned as they disappeared into the distance and we could appreciate the “yaffling” calls of Green Woodpeckers and the chattering of pairs of Wagtails, both Pied and Grey. Goldfinches and Greenfinches passed over head in pairs and a lone Buzzard wheeled high above.
(Part Two to follow)