Illustration: Daksheeta Pattni
“The sweat of industry would dry and die, but for the end it works to.”
William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
Bancroft Basin must receive more visitors than any other section of Midlands waterway. Some are here to admire the narrowboats or feed the swans, but most people visit for one reason only: William Shakespeare.
The Bard was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1564 – and surely no other man of literature has made such a mark on a town. Shakespeare continues to pull in some 10 million visitors per year and it’s hard to imagine Stratford without its theatres, monuments and gift shops. Most will pass Bancroft Basin without giving it a second thought, but this rectangle of water once supported another booming industry; exactly 200 years after Shakespeare’s death, the canal arrived in his home town.
“Affection is a coal that must be cooled.”
William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis
The Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal, like most waterways in the region, was all about coal. The West Midlands was famous for its deposits. Mining towns like Dudley and Wolverhampton are described as ‘the black country’ to this day.
From the late 18th century, a sprawling network of canals was constructed to shift the fuel away from the mines to the towns and cities where it was needed. The Stratford-upon-Avon Canal was part of that milieu. It was originally proposed to link the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to the thriving market town of Stratford. A later modification added an arm at Lapworth to communicate with the Grand Union Canal. This provided an alternative passage to Oxford and London, bypassing the busy route through Birmingham.
The 41 km (25.5 mile) cutting was not a trivial undertaking. Thanks to a series of financial woes, it took 23 years to dig, from the first Act of Parliament in 1793 to the opening of the Stratford section in 1816. By 1845, the canal was bringing some 50,000 tonnes of coal into Stratford. About a third remained in the growing town, while the rest was taken by tramway or boat to other urban and rural locations.
In a familiar pattern, the canal declined with the coming of the railways. By the Second World War, it was virtually unused, and the southern section to Stratford was unnavigable. Fortunately, it became one of the early targets of restoration. Following a high-profile campaign, the better maintained northern section was shored up by the Inland Waterways Association just after the war, while the Stratford section was recalled to life by the National Trust in the early 1960s.
Today, the waterway is a pleasant route to navigate. The southern section is memorable for its cast iron aqueducts (including the longest in England) and a run of split bridges – cantilevered crossings that do not quite join in the middle. The gap allowed the passage of a tow rope without the need to unhitch it from the horse. Meanwhile, the northern section features a draw bridge, swing bridge and lift bridge, as well as a unique guillotine lock gate at Kings Norton.
“The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, Burnt on the water.”
William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
The fug of coal dust and the clop of horses may be long vanished from Bancroft Basin, but industry of a different sort still thrives. The waters reflect an endless procession of Shakespeare pilgrims. The Royal Shakespeare Company theatre is just over the way, while the Bard’s birthplace is a five minute stroll.
Shakespeare’s famous statue turns his back on the water. The great memorial by Lord Ronald Gower faces north-east towards Warwick, away from the basin. He’s missing out, for there is much to see down by the water. Canal enthusiasts should visit the William James information boat. Named after the financier who completed the Stratford Canal, this floating visitor centre provides copious information on the local waterways (and licences for anyone wishing to travel on the Avon Navigation). You can also pick up ice creams, baguettes and other refreshments from a number of floating cafes.
Various waterway tours also depart from the basin. The Countess of Evesham cruising restaurant even offers the opportunity to enjoy lunch or dinner while chugging along the river. For those with their own narrowboats, 48-hour visitor mooring is available, though in high demand.
Today, the area rings out with the song of buskers and the cry of the swan, a bird that has become emblematic of Stratford. A more peaceful setting can be found by following the canal, which loops round the north of the town via a series of locks. Here, the River Avon comes with its own joys: hire a rowboat, take a guided cruise, or amble along a riverside footpath. Come, by all means, for the theatre, but stay for the beautiful waterways.
Have a browse through your autumn/winter edition of Waterfront (arriving soon!) for the first part of our End of the Line series, exploring the Cromford Canal. Download our free activity guide to Bancroft Basin on our website.