‘Heron ahead!” Up went the cry and we were transfixed as we glided towards this latter-day pterodactyl standing motionless on the canal bank. Then a sudden flurry. In the space of a few seconds it had plunged forward, plucked a fish from the water and swallowed it in a single gulp. Well, that’s to say the flapping fish disappeared after a single gulp. As it was somewhat on the large side, it took several more shakes of the heron’s neck for the unfortunate prey to make its final descent into the dark.
Over five days on the Shropshire Union Canal we had so many close encounters with herons – 30 … 40? – we lost count, and it became evident that they were as integral to the scenery as the fields, woods, hedges, wharfs and canalside pubs our hired narrowboat floated past.
The last canal built by Thomas Telford (who died before it opened in 1835), the Shropshire Union runs from Mersey’s Ellesmere Port to Autherley Junction, just north of Wolverhampton. However, we began our journey in Brewood (pronounced “Brood”), an attractive Staffordshire village in undulating countryside close to the Roman road of Watling Street, and would cruise 25 miles or so to Adderley Locks before returning south.
Tom at Countrywide Cruisers gave us such a comprehensive introduction to the 19-metre narrowboat that in the days to follow we spoke of weed hatches, fenders and stern greasers as if we’d spent all our lives on the water. I’d recruited my brother and sister-in-law as crew, and we quickly settled into our new quarters: two double en suite cabins with comfy beds, a well-equipped galley, a saloon and an open deck at the bow. This last became a favourite place to sit, camera poised, as we snuck up on wildlife. Our boat’s engine was so quiet (one couple on the towpath even asked if it was electric) that we often came within a few feet of clutches of ducklings and broods of tiny fluffy moorhen chicks before their watchful parents jostled them away.
Happily, they were in no danger of being run over. It might be supposed that, of all the methods of slow travel, walking is the very slowest. However, on our first day I stepped off our boat to take a stroll alongside it on the towpath and even at a casual amble I soon left it behind. We could have opened up the throttle to a brisk walking pace but found ourselves quite content to chug along at a steady 2.5mph. That was, after all, the speed that horse-drawn cargo-carrying boats would have maintained here in days of yore.
Little of the waterway’s industrial past remains along this section, but we did pay homage to the wharf built to serve a Cadbury’s chocolate factory. We were more often treated to expansive views of the rural landscape – the distinctive outline of the 407-metre-high Wrekin a highlight – but we preferred being engulfed in the canal’s many deep cuttings, drifting through tunnels of trees as dragonflies darted by. Here the tangled tumbling thickets and untamed waves of wildflowers allowed us to imagine we were negotiating some forgotten tributary of the Amazon.
The sedateness of our progress up to Shropshire, coupled with an almost complete absence of intrusions from the modern world, created a bubble that we were reluctant to burst. We only twice strayed from the confines of our floating home: on a 15-minute stroll into Market Drayton and a seven-mile circular hike through woods and farmland near the village of Norbury. But the hustle and bustle of market day, tractors and trailers tearing about the narrow country lanes, sent us scurrying back to the peaceful isolation of our boat. There the trees were full of birdsong and we barely saw or even heard a car. Each night, therefore, rather than seeking out one of the many public moorings close to villages or pubs, we tied up on remote and lonely stretches where silence lulled us to sleep.
At Loynton Moss nature reserve, bounded on one side by the canal, we found ourselves up to our ears in vegetation as we crossed a rare slice of reed-bed fen. The reserve’s website had promised butterflies in the meadows beyond and the air fairly bristled with red admirals, speckled woods, peacocks, small whites, meadow browns and large skippers – a joyous cacophony of colour.
But it was at Tyrley Locks – a flight that provided five of the half-dozen locks on our route – that the trip was made complete. For there appeared a brilliant flash of aquamarine and orange. A kingfisher – ironically, a bird for whom slow travel is anathema.
• The four-berth narrowboat was provided by Countrywide Cruisers, which offers three or four nights from £791, or a week from £1,018 including fuel