A casual journey along the Stroudwater canal in quest of the local beers on offer in the simple canal-side pubs .....
The bustling motorist of today approaching junction 13 of the M5 at Stroudwater at speeds of nearly one and a half miles per minute will probably be oblivious to the fact that the road intersection takes its name from the erstwhile Stroudwater canal which was once an important trade route in the area.
The Stroudwater canal linked the River Severn at Framilode through the Frome valley to Wallbridge, Stroud. It was constructed in four years from 1775 to 1779 and was used primarily to transport coal to the woollen mills and ancillary industries of the Stroud valleys. The canal was some eight miles in length and twelve locks were necessary to bring the waterway from the River Severn plain up to the town of Stroud. The Stroudwater canal was a viable concern and enjoyed a period of relative prosperity for nearly one hundred years.
At the beginning of the twentieth century trade on the Stroudwater navigation had already been affected by the competition of the railways. The building of the Midland Railway branch line from Stonehouse to Nailsworth diverted a substantial amount of coal traffic from the canal. The Stroudwater canal was also unable to secure much revenue from through traffic on the ill-fated adjoining Thames & Severn and, consequently, the canal began to deteriorate slowly into a gradual state of dereliction culminating in complete abandonment by 1954.
In the early Edwardian era the pace of life was considerably slower than it is today. The period represents an idyll of tranquility before the ravages of World War One. Life on the canals epitomizes this golden image of paradise in a bygone age, although the reality was probably less attractive. Nevertheless it is tempting to visualize the working of the Stroudwater navigation in perpetual summer sunshine.
Photographs of the early 1900s of the Stroudwater canal illustrate regular workings of barges called “Rose”, “Stanley”, “Alert”, “Bounty” and “Nellie” conveying coal to the woollen mills and to the Stroud gas works at Dudbridge. These barges often returned empty to Saul junction before crossing the River Severn at high tide to Lydney docks to replenish with Forest of Dean coal. At the end of the working day it was customary for the bargees to visit some canal-side hostelries on their return journey, perhaps inadvertently missing the River Severn high tide. At this time there was probably a general feeling of resignation and bitterness towards the Midland Railway company for poaching the lucrative coal trade from the canal which must have been reflected in the increased consumption of alcohol by the canal workers.
In 1903 the canal traveller on the Stroudwater had a superb choice of superlative local ales and stouts to sample in the lower Frome valley. There were local breweries in Nailsworth, Brimscombe, Cainscross, Salmon Springs and Stroud itself. Other beers were available from breweries based in Tetbury and Dursley. True Gloucestershire cider also prove to be a distraction to the possible rendezvous with the Severn tides.
Through our imagination it is possible to take an intoxicating journey with a Stroudwater bargee on his return journey from the gas works at Dudbridge back towards the Severn. At the commencement of the trip it was customary for the bargees to stock up with beer or cider for the “dry sections” of the journey. From the Stroud gas works at Dudbridge it was only a short walk to the Cainscross brewery at the foot of Pagan Hill. This brewery traded as ‘Carpenter & Co.’ and was predominantly a free trade concern, owing no pubs of its own. Carpenter’s ales and stouts were highly regarded and could be attained in “casks of all sizes, screw stopper bottles and jars conveniently fitted with stopper and tap”. Beer could also be obtained from another small brewery dedicated to the home trade in nearby Cashes Green. The Hamwell Leaze brewery traded under the family name of Cordwell & Sons.
Replenished with a copious supply of Carpenter’s oatmeal stout and Cordwell’s pale ale, we return to the Stroud gas works at Dudbridge where we find our barge for the journey tied to its moorings. The high midday sun shimmers in the still waters of the canal but the summer air is defiled by the obnoxious stench from the gas works. Our bargee for the trip, Captain Stephen Chandler, welcomes us on board and he gladly receives the two stone jars of beer.
Our barge ‘Nellie’ is of comparative new construction and is powered by steam. It is the envy of some of the Stroudwater bargees who still work on the traditional, but well loved, horse drawn boats. A derisory remark from one of Captain Chandlers colleagues draws our attention to the fact that ‘Nellie’ has not raised sufficient steam to move away from its moorings. This misdemeanour fortuitously enables us to walk a few yards along the tow path to the Upper Dudbridge or Foundry Lock where we find the Victoria Inn. The landlord, James Clarke, welcomes us and we quench our thirst on foaming pints of the local Stroud brewery ales.
Retracing our steps we board the ‘Nellie’, which has now a full head of steam, and begin our journey. We negotiate the Dudbridge Locks acknowledging Mr Clark enthusiastically as we pass the Victoria. ‘Nellie’ belches out black smoke from her funnel as we make our noisy but studious approach to Ebley Mill. Immediately after the Mill we pass under Oil Mill Bridge and Captain Chandler shuts of steam and we slow down to a halt at Ebley Wharf. Jumping onto the canal bank and securing ‘Nellie’ with the painter Stephen beckons us ashore. We have only travelled half a mile from Dudbridge locks.
The Bell Inn is a basic beer house at Ebley Wharf. We have stopped here to sample the Nailsworth brewery ales and stouts served by the landlord William Brunsdon. The bitter ale is described as being “simply delicious, full of life, well flavoured with hops and for brightness and condition quite up to the standard of the London and Burton ales”.
Back on ‘Nellie’ Captain Stephen Chandler reflects with a little unease that since he has been working the new steam powered narrow boats he has missed the peace and tranquility of the canal. “Too bloody noisy”, he retorts angrily, “haven’t seen a kingfisher for weeks!” He does concede, however, that despite the constant chugging and wheezing of the engine and the oppressive heat it sometimes generates he is able to go about his business considerably easier now with the benefit of steam power.
The double locks at Ryeford are of substantial construction and take a considerable time to negotiate. As we slowly sink deeper into the brick entombment with our steam shut off we hear the echo of an up goods train laboriously heading towards Stroud but in the depths of the lock we are unable to determine whether the train is on the Great Western main line to our right or the Midland Railway branch line to our left.
As the lower lock gates slowly open our Captain carefully takes “Nellie” out into the Ryeford section of the cut. We pass the horse drawn barge “Rose” awaiting passage up the lock laden with coal for the gas works. The Stroudwater bargees amiably exchange incoherent banter with each other. We are bemused by their empathy.
Captain Chandler shuts off steam at Ryeford Bridge and moors “Nellie” at Ryeford Wharf. The Anchor Inn adjacent to the bridge is a comfortable pub leased by the Stroud brewers, Godsell & Sons. The brewery is located just outside the town of Stroud on the Painswick Road at Salmon Springs. Godsells Ales are “brewed expressly to meet the meet the demands of the family trade, the finest malt and choicest hops being used in the production, and for character, brilliancy and keeping qualities they cannot be surpassed”. Arthur William Brunsdon at the Anchor Inn usually stocks a good selection of Godsells cask ales including A1 Strong Ale and AB Pale Ale.
As we return to the barge Captain Stephen Chandler asks a mischievous question: “What’s the sign say on the Pearly Gates in heaven?” We look at him perplexed. He grins and replies “God sells ales”. When he observes our lack of response he bursts out into a loud raucous laugh and then nearly chokes on his tobacco.
By coincidence we approach the skew bridge carrying the Nailsworth branch railway over the canal to the sounds of an approaching pick up goods train. We reach the bridge at the precise time that the Midland Railway locomotive passes overhead. Captain Chandler embarrasses us by gesticulating in an negative and unfriendly manner to the engine driver who reciprocates by sounding a long and discourteous blast from his engine whistle and then we find ourselves enveloped temporarily in a blanket of asphyxiating Midland Railway smoke. It is obvious from this exchange that the Stroudwater bargees have little time for the men of the “Iron road”.
As we make our way towards Stonehouse Captain Stephen Chandler uses his clay pipe to point half-heartedly at a large chimney to our right below Doverow Hill. He then dutifully informs us that the chimney is part of the Stonehouse Brick Company. As he explains about the importance of this company he manoeuvres “Nellie” to a slow and graceful halt alongside the Ship Inn. There are no moorings available here so he secures the barge by hammering a large stake into the grass by the towpath. A water vole is disturbed by the banging and scurries into the undergrowth. The Stroud beers consumed at the Ship Inn are extremely delectable but we are persuaded by our Captain that our stay here must be kept to a minimum as “Nellie” is obstructing the passage of other boats on the canal.
We find a more suitable place for “Nellie” about three quarters of a mile down stream at a place where the canal widens considerably to form a man made lake. This is known as the “Ocean”. We notice, with a little apprehension, that the canal at this point is overlooked by Captain Chandler’s detested Midland Railway. We disembark and follow the course of this railway towards Stonehouse. Our attempts to converse in an amiable dialogue with Captain Chandler are thwarted by his occasional vituperation directed towards his obsession with the railways. The irony of the situation is exacerbated when we enter the Cross Hands Inn which adjoins the Midland Railway Station.
Captain Chandler has directed us to an outlet of the Brimscombe Brewery. The landlord of the Cross Hands, John Henry Cook, painstakingly draws pints of exquisite Smith & Sons Brimscombe beer direct from wooden casks. We receive the beers with eager anticipation and the delicate balance of malt and hops send our taste buds wild with excitement. We deliberate on the fact that within Stonehouse there are eight further pubs to explore. Of these the Globe Inn, Nags Head and Royal Oak are Godsells outlets; the Crown and Anchor, Haywardsfield Inn and Royal Arms serve beers from the Stroud Brewery, and the Spa Inn in Oldens Lane is another beerhouse belonging to the favoured Brimscombe Brewery. We are persuaded by the Captains unquestioned expertise in local knowledge to walk under the Great Western Railway to the Brewers Arms in the Gloucester Road where we can sample Thomas William Elvy’s beers from the Dursley Steam Brewery.
By comparison to the other ales and stouts we have consumed, Elvy’s Dursley beers are a great disappointment. They lack the clarity and condition of the Stroud Valley beers. The landlord of the Brewers Arms, John Peglar, ruefully admits that he has been unhappy with the standard of beers from Dursley recently and that his regular beer drinkers had opted to drink beer elsewhere. He had also heard through the grapevine that Elvy’s were in dire financial trouble and were very likely to cease brewing altogether in the near future. We drink the flat and mediocre beer silently without complaint resigned to the fact that the Dursley Brewery would soon be lost forever.
Our appetites are cavernous by the time we have walked back to “Nellie”. Whilst our trusty Captain takes the barge back onto the canal, under the railway bridge, and onto the embankment leading to Bonds Mill we take the opportunity to cook up a substantial fried evening meal of sausages, black pudding and bacon on the coal burning stove in the cramped cabin. This is served up with fresh farmhouse bread and dripping.
We speak hardly a word to each other as we diligently make our progress towards Nassfield Lock at Newtown. The pleasurable aromatic qualities of the sausages and bacon combine with occasional odoriferous emissions from “Nellie’s” boiler to create a smell unique to the steam workings on the inland waterways. Captain Chandler somehow manages to eat his meal with one hand on the brightly painted tiller and his clay pipe clasped firmly in the other.
Just before Nassfield Lock Captain Chandler attempts to shut of steam but a sudden surge in power causes “Nellie” to violently slam into the canal bank. We wince in embarrassment as he blasphemes over his apparent inability to manoeuvre his barge in one of the most straightforward nautical tasks imaginable. We are relieved to discover that there are no obvious signs of damage to the barge.
Stepping onto the tow path we walk back to the New Inn which located near the Roving Bridge at Newtown. The landlord, Charles Smith, is pleased to serve us with his well kept Godsells ales and stouts. Captain Chandler meanwhile, apparently fully recovered from his abysmal display of seamanship, is delighted to find some of his canal accomplices enjoying themselves in the bar of the New Inn. He is relieved to find that they are so preoccupied with playing their concertinas and fiddles that they had failed to witness his unorthodox method of berthing “Nellie” to her moorings.
Our stay at the New Inn is somewhat protracted by the joviality of the occasion and the excellence of the Godsell’s beers. When we eventually leave the premises we are surprised to see that the sun has already begun to sink low in the sky to the west. Captain Chandler, despite being in an advanced state of inebriation, manages to instill a degree of urgency and authority to the situation and we are soon on our way again.
Our original itinerary has to be revised at this stage. We had planned to borrow some bicycles from Mr. Smith at the New Inn and to visit the Kings Head Inn at Alkerton, just beyond Eastington. We had hoped to sample some beers from Nathaniel & Walter Cooks’ Tetbury Brewery but time was at a premium and, as Captain Chandler had correctly observed, “we were too damned tiddly to go messing about on blinkin’ ‘bikes!”
We chug wearily westward shielding our eyes from the dazzle of the low evening sun. The Stroudwater Canal at this point is covered with a green blanket of duckweed which is disturbed by the studious passage of “Nellie”. The negotiation of Nassfield Lock, Pike Lock and Court Orchard Locks are treated in a surprisingly clear headed and melancholy manner. As we wait for the water in the Court Orchard Lock to descend to the lower reaches we become resigned to the fact that the last stages of the journey will be in darkness. The lanterns on the boat, therefore, are duly prepared and lit.
As the sun sets over the hills of the Forest of Dean we are relieved to find ourselves approaching the penultimate lock on the Stroudwater at Westfield Bridge. For nearly an hour we had been travelling on the canal without having a tipple. The Captain, obviously happy to have the Locks behind him, reaches for the stone jars of beer collected earlier in the day. As the screw top is twisted off the jar of Carpenter’s Oatmeal Stout there is the reassuring sound of the beer’s natural gas being released with a short fizz. As we make our steady progress through Westfield Lock we drink the beer from brightly painted, but tea-stained, tin mugs.
As the light deteriorates and the colours of the countryside coalesce into a uniform greyness we witness the erratic flight of Pipistrelle bats swirling overhead in the twilight. As the night air cools down we put on our warmer clothing. The lamps on “Nellie” are now burning brightly and cast shimmery strands of light over the water and onto the canal bank.
Within a short time we arrive at the Bristol Road Lock. It is now even darker and the manual workings of the lock mechanisms under the influence of too much drink prove to be an arduous task. Indeed, the last section of the Stroudwater Canal towards the junction with the Gloucester and Berkeley prove to be positively laborious and, for a short while, we appear to be travelling with ever diminishing speed. It is with great delight that we find ourselves rounding the last curve of the canal at Wheatenhurst and approaching our destination at Saul Junction.
We are greeted with the welcoming sight of trows, barges and other canal boats moored alongside the towpath at the junction. Some narrow boats radiate homely beams of light and the faint whispers of smoke emerging from their chimneys suggest warm and cosy interiors. The occasional muffled sound of laughter is heard resonating across the canal.
Captain Chandler, despite having difficulty in maintaining a vertical orientation, has, against all odds, managed to secure “Nellie” to a vacant mooring post with considerable ease. We congratulate him on his navigational skills and disembark from our adopted barge for the last time. Throughout our journey it has been quite clear that there is insufficient sleeping space in the confines of “Nellie” for all of us. We have to find suitable accommodation for the night.
The ever knowledgeable Stephen Chandler suggests that we walk to the other side of the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal where we might be lucky enough to find spare beds at the Junction Inn on the Framilode section of the Stroudwater. There is a degree of urgency in reaching this establishment as closing time here is at 10 p.m. We walk briskly along the tow path but have to resort to running for the last few yards. The landlord and landlady at the Junction Inn, Harriett and Walter Clarke, are able to confirm that a room is available for the night and are happy to serve us with half a pint each of Stroud Brewery’s Entire Stout.
Cautiously, and with extreme difficulty, we take the lighted candlestick from its fitting and retreat upstairs. As we lie down completely exhausted and, indeed, completely inebriated, we immediately fall asleep.
Captain Chandler, meanwhile, staggers back alone from the Junction Inn to his faithful “Nellie”. In the complete darkness of an August night he is happily oblivious to the danger he might face by falling into the canal. He clumsily trips over the ropes securing his barge to the canal bank but, fortuitously, avoids injury. As he enters the cabin in a most ungainly fashion he finds the heat inside oppressive due to the proximity of the steam boiler. He leaves the door open, sits in his chair and nods off to sleep. At daybreak he faces the challenge of a full working day on the canal but this time without our mischievous company to distract him from going about his work in a soberly manner.
For more information about the Stroudwater Canal and the Thames and Severn Canal see the Cotswold Canals Trust web site at: http://www.cotswoldcanals.com