Sunday, January 18, 2009
Drayton Bassett, Staffordshire
The Shock of the Old
Locks and lock-keepers’ cottages, warehouses, little storage buildings and sheds, and hump-backed bridges taking vehicles and pedestrians across the water – the canal-building boom of the late-18th and early-19th century produced a lot more than the waterways. The traffic itself – all those converted narrow-boats – can be picturesque too, and when I lived by the banks of a canal for a while I saw how tempting the slowed-down pace of inland waterways can be. None of which prepared me for this, a footbridge over the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal at Drayton Bassett, not far from Tamworth.
The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal was built in the 1780s as part of the effort to link Birmingham with other parts of the Midlands and with the southeast – it links to the Coventry Canal, which in turn joins the Oxford Canal. At Drayton Bassett the builders decided to put up this little Gothic towered structure to take walkers across the canal and over the passing barges – each tower contains a little brick-built spiral staircase to the elevated walkway. It’s a perfect and amusing bit of canalside Gothic and no doubt many more people would notice it if they weren’t looking for the entrance of the Drayton Manor theme park on the other side of the main road.
Pointed windows and battlements were popular at this time in all kinds of buildings from sham castles to cottages, and the proximity of this mock-medievalism to the ultra-modern canals must have amused people in the 1780s. Perhaps it annoyed some of them, too. Carts couldn’t drive across it, so a wood-and-metal swing bridge had to be provided in addition. One side of this structure is just visible behind and to the right of the left-hand tower in the photograph, the practical and the picturesque still close neighbours.