Navigable Waterways by L T C Rolt was published in 1969 by Longmans, quotes remain in purple, extra information as before from Wikipaedia etc in blue. Lost Canals & Waterways of Britain by Ronald Russell was published in 1982 by Sphere Books, quotes in brown
Sunday 21st January 2018
The region of Somerset and East Devon is a notable home of lost causes where canals are concerned. For here the dream of a canal to link the Bristol and English channels, and so avoid the passage round Lands End, was born in the Brindley era and lived on for 70 years before the railway age finally extinguished it. Schemes varied from Telford's grandiose ship canal on the scale of the Caledonian, which fortunately never left paper, to three more modest proposals for barge canals on different routes. These were
- the Dorset & Somerset Canal from the navigable Stour near Shillington to a junction with the Kennet & Avon at Widbrook, near Bradford on Avon, authorized in 1796;
- the Chard Canal from Seaton through Axminster and Chard to the River Parrett;
- the Grand Western Canal from the River Exe to the River Tone navigation at Taunton.
The proprietors of the Dorset & Somerset were obliged by their Act to construct first a branch from their intended main line at Frome through the Nettlebridge valley to tap the Somerset coal-field.
Since the country this would traverse was very hilly and difficult, it was decided to make this branch a tub boat canal and to use a type of 'balance lock' (in fact a form of vertical lift) patented by James Fussell, who owned an ironworks at Mells.
Part of this branch was built, for we know that Fussell's lift was demonstrated in 1800. Remains of this and 4 other lift pits have been found. These remains of the Nettlebridge Branch on Mendip, including ivy-covered aqueducts at Coleford and Murtry, represent the only portion of the Dorset & Somerset ever constructed
Murtry aqueduct Coleford
Up the neighbouring valleys of the Wellow and Cam brooks ran the two branches of the Somerset Coal Canal (see map above). These united, like the brooks, at Midford, the 'main line' running thence to a junction with the Kennet & Avon immediately west of the Dundas aqueduct. The two branches terminated at Radstock and Timsbury, where plateways ran to the various collieries. At the time the canal was authorized, the Somerset coalfield was extremely active and expanding. Both the Kennet & Avon and the Wilts & Berks companies welcomed the project, foreseeing a profitable trade in Somerset coal developing. The difference of level to be surmounted was so steep, however, and the valleys so deep and narrow that canal construction was peculiarly difficult and costly. Indeed the Radstock line was never completed as a canal, a descending tramway apparently was substituted between Wellow and Midford...and throughout after 20 years. On the Timsbury Branch the canal had to climb 130ft in little more than 1¼ miles between Midford and Combe Hay. Here Robert Weldon's 'caisson lock', one of the most fearsome and extraordinary forms of canal lift ever devised (more at a later date) was at first tried. It was unsuccessful and all trace of it has disappeared, although its memory is perpetuated in the name of Caisson House nearby.
An inclined plane...was then substituted, the coal being transhipped in boxes between the boats and the wagons on the plane
Combe Hay locks
[Combe Hay top lock and passage to the inclined plane]
Not surprisingly, this proved so uneconomical that in 1802 it was decided to build a flight of 27 narrow locks. To supply these locks with water, two pumping engines had to be provided at Dunkerton and Combe Hay...the Dunkerton engine stopped pumping in 1898 owing to lack of traffic and the canal thereafter fell derelict.
Ronald Russell said: At the time of writing (1982) no society or authority appears to have any concern over the relics of this canal and it is perhaps extraordinary that of a line that was never completed and never used, so much has somehow survived.
He evidently was not aware of the fact that the Inland Waterways Association's section concerning restoration, the Waterway Recovery Group, has a branch in the area, run by one Derrick Hunt. He runs a website www.dorandsomcanal.org and there are walks etc. For example:
1) Edford Bridge - About 75 yards north of the Duke of Cumberland, a footpath heads west (over a wooden stile) along the bed of the canal. It leads to the old packhorse bridge over the canal. The underside of the arch has been infilled to prevent its collapse. The west face of the bridge can also be seen, but the canal westwards has disappeared. Returning to the main road, there is a masonry-lined chamber, still retaining water.
2) Eastwards towards Ham - Taking the footpath east, to Ham; follow the field edge then go through the gap in the hedge. Beyond this, the footpath follows the towpath on the south side of the canal bed, clearly defined for some 100 yards. In the woodland beyond, there is little trace of the canal and the footpath is difficult to follow
3) Westwards from Ham - Opposite a pole-mounted electricity transformer (labelled Ham Corn Mill), a waymarked footpath heads west over a stile, then over another stile into woodland. It runs along the towpath for 200 yards, with the canal bed on the north side.
4) Ham to Coleford - From the road, over a wooden stile, the waymarked path runs between hedges. After 100 yards the canal becomes visible. After crossing a stile, the canal can be followed through woodland. The path rises around the edge of a cutting and then, after another stile, descends to rejoin the towpath. Alongside a wooden footbridge and stile, a short stretch of the cut retains water. The canal disappears across an open field; follow the path along the northern boundary of the field and beyond, to join the road in Coleford.
5) Coleford Aqueduct - ("Huckyduck") From the road, a signposted footpath heads northwards to the aqueduct. From the path, there is a good view of the stone-faced two-arched aqueduct which spans the valley. Although now lacking any parapet, it was described in an 1825 pamphlet as a 'noble and stupendous aqueduct'.
5a) Coleford Tunnel - The canal tunnel is still in situ under the road in front of Coleford Methodist Chapel but is not accessible to the public.
6) Coleford Embankment - Pass through a stile in the stone wall just north of the Methodist Church. The course of the canal is by the line of trees. Take the path over a stile; it continues via the towpath, over an embankment. The canal bed disappears as it crosses a field; but reappears before it enters a cutting which was intended to lead to a tunnel.
Saturday 20th January 2018
The Basingstoke Canal, 37½ miles long from the Wey Navigation (see yesterday) at Woodham to Basingstoke Wharf, was authorized in 1778 and completed throughout in 1796. It had a chequered career. Evidently its proprietors soon realised that, as a long branch serving a purely rural area, the canal had no prosperous future, for optimistic proposals were made to extend its western end either to the Kennet & Avon at Newbury, to the Itchen Navigation or to the Andover Canal at Andover. Needless to add, these came to nothing. Various attempts to revive the canal have been made and part of its length is still used for moorings. 5½ miles of canal at its western end were isolated by the collapse of the 1200-yard tunnel at Greywell, near Odiham, in 1932, and this section is now dry and derelict.
As usual, I would like to comfort Tom with images of today, as the entire length from the tunnel to the Wey have been restored by volunteers, reopened in 1991 and are now most beautiful,
Greywell tunnel 2004
tunnel entrance 2015
used by leisure boaters, but restricted by water supply and "conservation issues". In 1966 the Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society was formed and in the decades since then have done sterling work in restoration. The final part beyond the tunnel is in Basingstoke itself and has been built on. There is a protected bat colony in the tunnel, so this is probably how it will remain.
Points of interest are the various pillboxes/bunkers built during WW2
and the Dragons Teeth at Crookham wharf, anti-tank defences
The Andover Canal, 22 miles long from that town down the valleys of the Anton and Test to the tideway of Southampton Water at Redbridge was surveyed by Robert Whitworth, authorized in 1789 and completed in 1796... like the canal at Strood it is disappointing because...
...Following its closure in 1859, the greater part of its length was converted into a railway which became part of the London & South-Western Railway. Some sections of the canal survived, however, but need some tracing. The Andover was connected with one of the most extraordinary projects of the canal mania, the Southampton & Salisbury Canal. This was to be built in two separate sections, Salisbury to Kimbridge and Redbridge to Southampton and Northam, the Andover Canal forming the link between them. The first section was apparently opened briefly for traffic as far as Alderbury Common, two miles from Salisbury. The second section included a tunnel half a mile long under Southampton which caused considerable difficulty and was never completed or used. The digging of that part of the canal, which ran parallel with Southampton Water provoked, understandably some ribald criticism. Like the Andover canal, part of this portion was later used by the Andover-Southampton railway.
There are only remnants of the Andover left, and Ronald Russell's account is basically directions to find these. He says you can pick up the line behind the cinema in Romsey - I assume this is now the theatre - and follow the footpath out of the town to the north. There is, I can see from Google Maps, still a Canal Walk, and a reasonably supplied stream
painting above is Rooksbury Bridge, Andover
this is part of the Canal Walk Romsey
Wikipaedia says: The canal terminus was on the south side of the River Anton in Andover. It then followed the river to its junction with the River Test, and crossed both rivers on two aqueducts. Below the aqueducts, it followed the east bank of the river to Redbridge. Above Kimbridge, there was a junction with the Salisbury & Southampton Canal. The junction with the Test at Redbridge, from where access to Southampton Water was possible, was situated above the medieval bridge, although the original plans showed it a little further to the south on the foreshore. The total length of the canal was 22 miles (35 km), and the 24 locks dropped the level through 179 feet (55 m).
In addition, several stretches of canal can be made out alongside the old railway track bed such as at Brook and also between Westover and Fullerton, where reasonable stone and brick remains of a lock are evident.
Friday 19th January 2018
In south-east England, the Thames & Medway canal was authorized in 1800, its object being to open a direct route for barge traffic between the two rivers, avoiding the long and difficult passage round the Hundred of Hoo.
[Gravesend and Strood can be seen in situ at the top left of this map of north Kent]
John Rennie acted as consultant and the canal was completed in 1824, 3 years after his death. The one outstanding feature of this short canal from Gravesend to Rochester was the great tunnel through the chalk at Strood, by far the longest tunnel in this country. Its length, 3909 yards, was only exceeded by Standedge, but unlike the latter, it was of great size; the crown of the arch was 27ft above water level and its width of 26ft 6in included a 5ft towpath. There was an 8ft depth of water through the tunnel...the contractors were Pritchard & Hoof. The centre of the tunnel was later widened out to form a passing place for barges.
The canal was unsuccessful, but the size of the tunnel, large enough for a double railway line made it a valuable asset and it was eventually sold to the South-eastern Railway to become part of their North Kent line. The rest of the canal was abandoned in 1934 and only the terminal basins remained in use.
I thought it strange that I lived in Strood 1979-1983 and never knew of the canal or the famous tunnel. However, I see from websites that the canal disappeared at around the time this painting was done, 1847. The canal was sold to the railway company, as Tom said above, and they filled in the canal bed and ran a second track along it. The canal towing contractor's home was turned into Higham station. There have been occasional roof falls in the tunnel, but it has been relined and is still used today. The "other end" of the canal, from Gravesend to Higham was used up to 1934, but it suffered bomb damage in WW2 and some areas have been choked with vegetation or back-filled.
Ronald Russell said in 1982: A tunnel was not part of the original plan for a canal from the Thames to the Medway. Ralph Dodd, engaged in 1799 to survey a line for a canal to connect the two rivers so that sailing barges could avoid the sometimes dangerous passage around the North Foreland, proposed cutting through the chalk cliffs, but it was the recommendation of other engineers consulted that was adopted...As the number of boats using the canal at a given time depended on the tides, congestion frequently occurred...For some years the canal was moderately busy, fruit and hops being among the cargoes carried (and dung, I understand!) and the tunnel became a tourist attraction...Trains and barges operated side by side (as the drawing above shows) for 18 months; then the Southeastern Railway bought up the company, filled in the canal from Higham to Strood and laid double tracks through the tunnel. The section of canal from Gravesend to Higham traded for a further 87 years, mostly carrying farm produce, until it was abandoned by its railway owners in 1934. Part ofGravesend Basin is open and used for moorings. There are 3 canal cottages by the swing bridge over the river lock and on the far side is the Canal Tavern.
Pub is still doing well, as far as I can see, but the cottages he mentioned were demolished. In 1983 the Gravesend swing bridge was replaced, followed in 1990-95 by the one near Chalk (and again in 2015). Strood basin was filled in 1986 and has been built over. However, in 1976 the Thames & Medway Canal Association bought the canal remnants and have been restoring it, for example in 2004 the Gravesend basin was dredged and lock gates into the Thames restored and 2005 the swing bridge rebuilt again.
The canal is linked with footpaths and a cycle route and there are future plans to work on it. In March 2015, the first narrowboat in 80 years was launched from the slipway at Gravesend into the canal basin. Apart from Gravesend basin, the canal is mostly in water — though disused — from Denton Marshes to the north end of Higham Tunnel, with the exception of a blocked stretch between Chalk and Queen’s Farm (written in 2017)
On 24th October 2017 I dealt with the Wey Navigation - see below. Tom Rolt says:
In 1763 Sir Richard Weston's old Wey Navigation was extended from Guildford to Godalming and in 1787 another ancient river navigation, that of the Sussex Arun, was extended to Newbridge. Its tributary the Rother being made navigable to Midhurst in 1794. It was almost inevitable that with this extension of river navigation, a canal link between the Wey and the Arun should be proposed to provide an inland water route between the Thames and the south coast and so, apart from its value for local trade, avoid the dangerous passage round the North Foreland. The Wey & Arun Junction canal was authorized in 1813 and opened in 1816, Josias Jessop having been responsible for the survey and the design of the structural works. It was 18½ miles long from the Wey at Stonebridge Wharf to the Arun at Newbridge.
Moreover, the shortlived Portsmouth & Arundel canal opened in 1823, including a branch to Chichester, a cut across Thorney Island and the short Portsea Canal, provided an inland route between London and Portsmouth. With the exception of the Chichester Canal, the latter was abandoned in 1847, while the Wey & Arun canal, which had been badly engineered, and consequently suffered from a chronic shortage of water on its short summit level, was abandoned in 1871.
In 1816, The Wey & Arun Junction Canal opened to great fanfare, linking the Wey Navigation near Guildford to the south coast via the Arun Navigation. Conceived during the Napoleonic Wars, the Canal was intended to provide a safe, efficient route from London to Portsmouth to carry goods supplying the dockyards. In its heyday, the Canal did carry many tons of cargo but the end of the war with France, and the arrival of the railways, sounded the death knell for the Wey & Arun as a business, and by 1871 it was formally closed. 200 years after it opened, over 3,000 members and volunteers are working to reopen the Wey & Arun Canal for leisure.
Ronald Russell said in 1982: The Wey & Arun was the central link in an ambitious scheme to provide a water connection between London and Portsmouth. The Thames, the Wey, the Wey & Arun Junction Canal, the Arun Navigation and the Portsmouth & Arundel Canal were the components. Despite the powerful support of the wealthy and influential Lord Egremont, the scheme was a failure...It was hoped that some 55,000 tons of goods would be carried annually. However in the 116 miles of waterway there were 52 locks; the river navigations were chancy and the W&A was chronically short of water at the summit; the through passage took 4 days and sometimes longer. In the first year 3650 tons were carried and that figure was never exceeded...For a couple of years there was a monthly bullion run from Portsea up to the Bank of England, the barges having an armed guard who slept on board. This ended in 1826, in that year Lod Egremont withdrew his support and the P&A found itself in financial trouble...In 1865 the Horsham &Guildford Railway opened, running parallel to the canal for 6 miles and providing direct competition. With no prospect of a commercial future for the canal the shareholders lost heart and the company went into liquidation.
From the Wey at Shalford it climbed slowly up to its summit near Cranleigh, then descended to join the Arun Navigation at Newbridge. With no major aqueducts, long tunnels or massive earthworks it did not leave much mark on the countryside...Its line seemed to wander uncertainly southward from Surrey into Sussex. Now you can obtain from the W&A Canal Trust a guide to tracing the route, the path linking the North Downs Way and South Downs Way.
I won't follow his directions or descriptions, as there has been much work done in restoration here and his details won't be true. I shall show you what the Inland Waterways Association says on their website:
Restoration started in 1971 and since then, more than half the route has been worked on, with 13 locks, 21 bridges and 2 aqueducts restored or rebuilt. The major project, and the most expensive, to date has been the building of the B2133 Loxwood High Street bridge and the new Loxwood Lock, costing about £2million. There are currently three-and-a-half miles of fully operational canal in the Loxwood area and the Trust has a Canal Centre at Loxwood, where its three excursion boats are based. The current limit of navigation to the north is Southland Lock, which was re-opened in the summer of 2014. To the south, the navigable section ends at Drungewick Lock. The next lock to the north, Gennets Bridge on the West Sussex-Surrey border, is currently in an advanced stage of reconstruction. Volunteers took over the project after contractors built the concrete shell. The first fully navigable section of the canal in Surrey – part of the Summit Level between Dunsfold and Alfold – was officially opened at the beginning of October 2016, at the same time as a new Compasses Bridge. The bridge, at the Alfold entrance to Dunsfold Aerodrome, replaced a 1930s concrete causeway which was blocking the waterway, in a project costing around £700,000.
The opening ceremony was performed by actor and Surrey Hills Patron Dame Penelope Keith, as part of commemorations to mark the 200th anniversary of the opening of the combined canal at the same location.
[junction with the river Arun]
[this shows how much had been restored by 2007 - and a lot more has in the 10 years since!]
Tuesday 16th January 2018
In 1982 Ronald Russell said of the western end of the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal On the north side of the city (Hereford) is the railway station, and a few yards from the station building is the site of the terminal basin of the H&G Canal.
Not an auspicious start. A website from the 1990s says The Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal has completely disappeared at its western end in Hereford. The terminal basin was near the railway station but the site of the basin is said to be on waste ground and not accessible. However, in these changing times of the 1990's this might not now be the case. In a book written in 2015, author David Skeet explained that the proposed restoration plan in Hereford, involving a rebuilt canal basin in Hereford, is being held up by landowners. Along the line there are over 100 owners, some of whom are not sympathetic to the plans. HGCT are keeping involved in plans to develop the area, hoping to make the basin part of the proposed retail park.
The object of the local promoters of the canal was to transport coal from pits near Newent which had been worked to little profit for many years. Hereford in particular was to benefit from cheaper coal. The idea of giving Hereford a better water connection than the Wye was mooted by Robert Whitworth in 1777, but it was not until 1790 that action began and the line was surveyed by Josiah Clowes. 3 years later , with the Act obtained and money raised, Hugh Henshall was called in to re-examine the line; he proposed moving it nearer to Newent, across particularly difficult country, to avoid constructing a 3-mile branch. This plan was adopted - to no one's advantage as it transpired. From the economic angle the story of the H&G is a miserable tale. By 1798 the canal was open from Gloucester to Ledbury - 'a 16 mile ribbon of water serving few villages and a couple of smallmarket towns practically devoid of industry in any form'. There were 13 deep locks up to the summit at Ledbury and the narrow Oxenhall Tunnel, enormously expensive and troublesome to cut - 'Henshall's Folly' might be a fiiting name for it. (See yesterday's entry for photo of the tunnel) A manager, William Maysey, was appointed at Ledbury for £30 a year and under his surveillance a little trade trickled in, turning over a few hundred pounds annually. On Maysey's retirement in 1827, the committee appointed as his successory a young local man, Stephen Ballard, whose energetic and ambitious drive has left its mark on the Herefordshire countryside.
Basically, he wanted the entire length constructed and carried others along with his enthusiasm. With hindsight, it now seems extraordinary that at the beginning of the railway age anyone with any sense would put up money for such an undertaking, estimated to cost £76,000 but in 1837 work began...The Ashperton Tunnel, with its spectacular deep cutting, was completed and so was the vital feeder from the River Frome, essential for the canal's water supply. In Jan 1843 the wharf at Canon Frome was in use...a year later the canal was open to Withingto...the following year Hereford. But by then enthusiasm had waned and nobody attended the ceremonial filling of the basin, and Ballard, in some distress, departed to a new appointment. As soon as the canal was completed the West Midland Railway offered to buy it. The offer came to nothing, however, and when it became clear that Hereford would have to wait some years for the railway the canal company was forced to try to make the line pay. This to some extent it succeeded in doing, through efficient management, rate cutting and the carriage of materials for railway companies. Eventually...the H&G leased itself to the Great Western Railway for £5000 a year...At last the GWR decided to replace the Ledbury-Gloucester section with a railway, using the canal to bring up materials from the Severn...The railway, built for the most part along the line of the canal, carried passengers until 1959 and freight until 1964; the rails have since been lifted and most of its structures demolished...
It seems the railway still runs between Ledbury and Hereford, but again a lot of what he reports one can see from footpaths etc has now gone completely. He reported there were red-brick wharf buildings at various places along the route, but without visiting the area I cannot say whether they are still in evidence. I think rather than follow his directions in this, I shall bring you the places on the Canal Plan site (which is much more up to date):
Plaque at Widemarsh Bridge, photographed 2008
[site of canal bed photographed in 2012]
Aylestone Tunnel - no sign
Aylestone Slipway - see later
Aylestone Park - piece in water, near pub called Swan and bridge under Roman Road
Railway Bridge - the railway splits into two and the branch to Ledbury ostensibly crosses the canal on a bridge - Canal route is ?footpath
Barrs Lock - 5 miles further on - nothing to be seen from above
Crews Pitch - bridge taking road over a fragment of canal which has had much work done on it in recent years - see later
Monkhide Skew Bridge - built by Stephen Ballard in 1843 to take a minor no-through-road over the canal. Nobody knows why at this difficult angle
3 other bridges in the village of Monkhide and what appears to be a turning area by Monksbury Court
Ashperton Tunnel - Some history... So determined was Stephen Ballard to complete Ashperton Tunnel in as little time as possible that he set up home not far from the site. He built himself a house of dry bricks with only a few mortar courses so that he could be on hand to supervise the works at all hours. The major problem with the construction of the tunnel was keeping the shafts free of water and the dangerous nature of the work due to threat of landslides and flooding. One night Stephen Ballard stayed up until 1am with a boy who had fallen 60ft down one of the tunnel's shafts. The tunnel was often unstable, and to solve this problem it was lined with brick and stone throughout. The waters from the River Frome, needed to fill the canal section around Ashperton Tunnel, were legalised in November 1841 and on 20th August 1842 the Frome waters were let into the canal, which at that time had been nearly empty all the way to Gloucester. To celebrate the event two barrels of cider were bought for the navvies, which they rapidly proceeded to drink. Ashperton Tunnel had created problems and Ballard was forced to admit that the cost had far exceeded the estimates. He travelled to Birmingham in the hope of borrowing an extra £13,000, but returned empty handed on the newly-opened railway, remarking on its great comfort and reliability.
I included a couple of photographs yesterday.
Boyce Court Bridge - rare section in water
Oxenhall Tunnel - see photographs yesterday
North portal photographed in 2008, very silted up after wet summer, only the top showing.
Cold Harbour Lane Bridge - road goes over the canal just south of the tunnel
There then follows several locks in the Oxenhall area and much work is being undertaken here - see later
House Lock 2005
aka Coal Branch Lock (Top Lock)
Double Lock and Rudford Lock obliterated by the railway, now also gone
and the canal terminates at Over Basin, which has been restored
Further restoration projects:
Aylestone Park - in 2002 Hereford Council acquired the site by partership with H & G Canal Trust (H&GCT) and Aylestone Park Association. They have cleared the towpath, built footpaths and a cycleway. In 2007 they had to remove large quantities of contaminated silt, 2009-10 Aylestone Slipway was constructed, opened in May 2011
In 2013-14 an overflow weir was constructed
Yorkhill - cottage and lock gone and canal bed dry since 1881. In 1995-6 the canal was dredged and the spoil spread on the farmer's field (gave him a better yield the following season!). 2005 volunteers reclaimed the towpath, canal bed and banks so that in 2008 they could be opened to the public.
Dymock - In 2013 a scheme was hatched for a new housing estate through association of H&GCT, the Parish Council, 2 Rivers Housing Association and the landowner. In 2014 the canal was restructured, an electicity main had to be moved and the towpath was built over it. In Feb 2016 20 homes were available, plus car park and play area. One of the homes is rented out to provide income for maintenance of the canal. In May 2016 the development won an international award, the Green Apple Award
Oxenhall - following closure in 1881, the lock gradually filled with silt & debris, trees grew alongside, their roots causing considerable damage to the lock walls and the overspill channel which ran beneath the cottage, past the lock. In 1996 the owner of cottage & lock gifted the entire section of canal with lock, cottage & aqueduct to the Trust. In 1998 the cottage was sold and sympathetically restored to its original appearance.
The tunnel - mostly still standing but will need external restoration. The north end passes under the M50 (built 1958-60) and the tunnel collapsed. In 2008 a gas main needed replacement and this was done on a concrete slab to aid restoration work at a later date. Work started on the south portal in 1991, involving lowering the water level and rebuilding the towpath. In 1994-8 volunteers cleared it of vegetation and rebuilt the damaged portal structure. The "Legger's Rest", a unique arched recess built into the bank at the portal was for a gang of men to shelter in - they assisted the passage of narrowboats by legging them along (not for donkeys, as Tom suggested). This was fully restored in the 1990s. In 1996 the canal was dredged and the spoil spread on the land, as at Yorkhill. However, this parrt of the canal is not in H&GCT ownership, so it is now overgrown again from the tunnel to Coldharbour Bridge. In 2000 Trust volunteers restored the lock chamber itself at Oxenhall House, as much of the original wall masonry had fallen into the chamber, and had to be replaced. This was completed in 2004 and the wing walls replaced in 2008.
Well Brook Aqueduct was examined in 2004 and found to be in much worse condition than expected, so it took until 2014. Meanwhile a Bailey Bridge was provided by the Army, who removed it when complete, when the stone was gently excavated and concrete poured in.
The Spill Weir by Lock House in 2013 took several months, including removal of a lot of rubbish
Vineyard Hill - H&GCT bought the site from the previous owner and restored it, opening Sep 2012
Over Basin - the Over Isolation Hospital had been built in 1903 on the site so when it came up for sale in 1993 the Trust bought it and in 1998 clearance began. The basin had been filled in but clearance was a part of the purchase agreement. 1999-2000 volunteers rebuilt the Wharf House and restored a length of the canal, forming a new canal centre and restaurant and in 2011 they bought the next piece of canal.
The canal connects to an unnavigable part of the River Severn, separated from the main line by weirs with derelict locks. The Trust has purchased one of these (using a legacy), tow cottages, some land and a small section of the River Severn and intends to develop the junction.
Monday 15th January 2018
In the West Midlands there are two abandoned canals of particular interest running through beautiful country. These are the Kington & Leominster (pronounced Lemster) and the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canals. The former was one of the more optimistic products of the mania period. It was planned to ascend from the Severn at Stourport by a flight of 17 locks in 3 miles to a 207ft summit level, thence passing through two tunnels, Pensax (3850yds) and Southnet (1254yds) to join the northern side of the Teme Valley, whose slopes it followed through Tenbury to Woofferton, crossing the rivers Rea and Teme by aqueducts.
At Woofferton it swung due south to Leominster where it turned west once more to follow the Lugg valley to Kingsland, finally reaching Kington, where it joined the Kington tramway, by way of the Valley of the Arrow. There was a third tunnel at Putnal Field (330yds) between Woofferton and Leominster. The route was surveyed by Whitworth and Thomas Dadford Jr was the engineer...It was speculative indeed to drive a canal involving such heavy works through this sparsely populated countryside, and in fact only from the tunnel to Leominster was ever completed. This was used to carry coal from the Mamble Pits to Leominster from 1794 until 1858, when the canal was acquired by the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway, part of its bed being subsequently used by the Bewdley and Woofferton branch line, now itself abandoned. However, the wharf buildings at Broombank and Leominster still exist; so do Putnal Field tunnel, which gave its builders much trouble,
and the fine masonry aqueduct over the Rea at Marlbrook which survives in remarkably good order.
The central span of the Teme aqueduct was deliberately destroyed during the last war.
Some mystery surrounds the two long tunnels. Southnet is said to have been completed, but although the eastern portal can be seen in the grounds of Southnet Farm,
there is no trace of the western end...there is no evidence on the ground to show that any work was ever done on Pensax. Until recently it was assumed that no work on the canal was done west of Leominster or east of Southnet, but recent field work has disclosed traces of excavation and the pier bases of a second aqueduct over the Lugg near Kingsland; also some excavation in the grounds of Dumbleton Farm, east of Southnet.
In 1795 part of the as yet unused Southnet tunnel fell in. John Rennie was called in to investigate and was most critical of Dadford's work. It seems that he was spreading himself too thinly, involved in too many projects at once, and did a (dangerously) slapdash job. 3 workers were killed in the collapse.
The Kington & Leominster...is an excellent example of the problems that can sometimes be posed by canal history which only field work can solve. (There are, supposedly eminent, contemporary accounts stating the existence of much that was never there outside the designers' office). No such mysteries surround the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal, as it is known to have been completed throughout. Yet it is a parallel example of a canal with heavy and costly works promoted in the mania years through a rural area with no hope of earning a fair return on the capital expended. Running from the western branch of the Severn at Over, near Gloucester, by Newent and Ledbury to a terminus at Barr's Court Basin, Hereford, such well-known names as Whitworth, Clowes and Henshall were associated with its construction.
The canal was completed to Ledbury in 1798, but Hereford was not reached until 1845. Yet in 1881 the canal was closed when it was acquired by the Great Western Railway Company, who then proceeded to build their Gloucester to Ledbury branch line over part of its bed. This railway bypassed a short section of canal between Newent and Dymock which includes the 2192-yard Oxenhall Tunnel. The northwestern end of this tunnel is blocked by a landslide and...the interior by a roof fall.
There is a curious arched recess in the rock beside the southeastern portal of Oxenhall the purpose of which is obscure...maybe a donkey shelter, used while waiting for the boats to emerge. Considerable portions of the 8½ mile summit level of the canal from Ledbury to Monkhide remain including the tunnel at Ashperton.
This last was to have been 1192 yards long, but was reduced by open cutting to about 440 yards. As at Oxenhall, the northwestern end has been closed by a landslide
On the approach to Hereford the long embankment and aqueduct over the Lugg valley at Sutton Marsh survive, but so far as is known, there is now no trace of the third tunnel, 440 yards long, under Aylstone Hill, Hereford.
The Leominster Canal in the eyes of Ronald Russell: In the event 18½ miles from Leominster to Southnet Wharf were opened, costing £93,000. The shareholders' optimism went unrewarded; no dividend was ever paid. Between Kington and Leominster very little work was done...On the Ludlow road heading north from Leominster is the Wharf House. The site of the wharf is beside the house; an inconvenient distance from Leominster, it seems, but the canal had to keep on the north side of the town to avoid a second crossing of the Lugg. From the wharf, the canal heads northward for about 6 miles; the railway line...follows the same direction
[Wharf House, pictured here in 1993, has since been split up into 2 cottages and resold. No sign remains of the wharf]
The first substantial remains of the canal...are over the top of Putnal Field Tunnel
Construction of the tunnel had been difficult and expensive...both portals can be reached through the field...the stonework, untended for well over a century, is in surprisingly good condition...although the tunnel has collapsed in the middle.
The Friends of the Leominster Canal, among others, visited the site of the portals last year and someone paddled through to the blockage, saying it would take a lot of work to restore.
From the tunnel the canal continues northeastward very close to the railway, which eventually crosses it by the site of Woofferton Wharf and Locks just over a mile further on...near the old Woofferton Station.
Actually, I have tried to follow Ronald's route on Google Maps, tracing the canal-bed, and if there was little to see in 1982 (which he freely admits) there is even less now. The line of the old railway is a footpath, as in so many places nowadays, and there is little evidence of railway or canal. It is a shame, because there is nothing there in its place... The black & white photos I included above are the only bits still in existence. The Rea Aqueduct was closed in 2014 as unsafe - this photo taken in 2013 confirms this
He said in 1982 Nothing is being done to preserve the Rea Aqueduct, and in any event it is probably too late for anything but the most expensive and visually obtrusive measures. From the top of the aqueduct there is a fascinating and mostly beautiful walk to the Wharf House at Marlbrook. You pass the easily detectable sites of six locks and a lock cottage.
Unfortunately the following 36 years have erased these and I couldn't follow the path (canal or railway) along here. The Wharf House is fine, but, according to the owner online, even this has changed a lot
The openings on either side of the central bay were docks into which boats could be drawn for repair. Here coal was brought down from Sir Walter Blount's collieries by the Mamble tramroad...
The canal continued a short distance further east to Southnet Wharf...On the opposite side of the main road is the site of the northern portal of Southnet Tunnel. This, one of the most intriguing of all canal tunnels, was 1250 yards long. It was completed in 1795 but collapsed in the same year, never to be repaired. Rumour says that 2 men and a boat lie entombed therein... (see photograph above). About 2 miles further east a short stretch of cutting was begun near Dumbleton, but no traces of construction between Southnet and the Severn: no long Pensax tunnel and no splendid flight of locks down to the river. In June 1797 one spadeful of earth was dug opposite Stourport to mark the intended junction of the canal and Severn, but by this time it was becoming obvious that the project would not be completed. There was not enough trade and no more money...and eventually the company managed to negotiate a sale to the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway for £12,000. In 1859 the canal was closed.
I shall have to leave Ronald's thoughts on the Hereford & Gloucester canal until tomorrow.
Sunday 14th January 2018
Before moving on, I need to report from Ronald Russell's book on the East Midlands canals mentioned yesterday:
The Grantham Canal...was opened in 1797, traded successfully into the mid-19th Century and then sold out to a railway company when threatened with competition. Regular trading ended in 1917, but boat movements continued until 1936 when the London & Northwestern Railway refused to meet the cost of new lock gates and abandoned the canal. In fact the gates survived for some time but their remnants were removed in the 1950s, the locks were weired and several road bridges levelled. Then the Grantham became one of the first canals to be considered for restoration...the main obstacle is that there are plans for open cast mining in the vale and the future of the canal is uncertain...It is clearly marked on OS sheets 129 & 130...much of the towpath has been cleared by volunteers of the Canal Restoration Society...the length by Cropwell Bishop, where the canal was cut across gypsum beds, always leaked and is often dry.
Melton Mowbray Navigation and the Oakham Canal basin was to the north of the river bridge, close to the Boat Inn (now an industrial estate)...Navigation on the Wreak continued until 1877 when there was insufficient traffic to show a profit; on the canal it ceased in 1846 when it was bought and closed by the Midland Railway...Many of the 12 locks can still be found, their brick chambers crumbling away. There are locks at Ratcliffe, Brooksby and Asfordby, all easy to find as they are situated close to bridges
Brooksby lock 2010
Asfordby lock 2010
The Oakham Canal is not so accessible and there is not much of it left...some of its bed was used by the railway which bought it. On the approach to Oakham the canal lies at the rear of Springfield House and Catmose Vale Hospital. The wharf site is now occupied by Oakham School and a canal warehouse has been converted into the school hall (known as Wharflands). On the Oakham Canal there were no fewer than 19 locks and little bits are still visible, e.g.
near Langham 2014
[Oakham basin Melton Mowbray 19th Century]
Both canal basins, and the areas east of the Melton Mowbray canal basin and north of the Oakham canal basin, have been redeveloped. Several sections were used for the route of the Syston and Peterborough railway which now crosses the canal at several locations. The site of the former Market Overton wharf, the warehouse (now converted into cottages) and the converted weigh-house can still be seen from the Market Overton to Teigh Road.
The former warehouse at the Oakham canal basin is now the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The stonework around its windows, and the interior beams are the original.
Saturday 13th January 2018
Not surprisingly, in the mania years of the early 1790s many over-optimistic canal schemes were promoted. Some of these never got beyond the preliminary survey stage and need not concern us. Some were completed, wholly or partially, but enjoyed such a brief working life that today they are almost forgotten, their courses only to be traced with difficulty. Thanks to recent research into canal records, most notably the work of Mr Charles Hadfield, we now know the background history of these shortlived projects.
Tom Rolt said this in 1969, with many warnings that a lot of the planned ventures came to nothing and there is no evidence to see. However, I do have a book on this very subject written by Ronald Russell in 1982, so may well carry straight on afterwards with this, as there has evidently been plenty of research done in the 1970s we need to consider.
Long-abandoned canals make a particularly pleasant subject for fieldwork study because, almost invariably, they served predominantly rural areas. Most of them are to be found in southern England in regions scarcely touched by 19th Century industrial development. This was the main reason for their speedy eclipse. Rural traffic proved too thin to nourish them and today we are witnessing the disappearance of rural railway lines for the same reason. Happily...now, at the eleventh hour, some of these long-abandoned canals are being made the subject of special studies.
Examples of abandoned canals in the East Midlands are the 33 miles of the Grantham Canal, winding through the vale of Belvoir from the Trent at Nottingham to Grantham and, further south, the River Wreak Navigation from its junction with the River Soar Leicester Navigation at Cossington to Melton Mowbray with its extension, the Oakham Canal, to Oakham. In 1904 de Salis reported that there was 'not much trade' on the Grantham Canal and it was formally abandoned in 1936. Like other canals in the area it had broad locks, 18 in number, rising to Grantham.
Much of the canal remained in water due to agreements for irrigating agriculture, although a section at Cropwell Bishop was allowed to dry out. The rural route of the canal meant that it escaped infilling, though a railway embankment was built across the canal at Woolthorpe in the 1950s and has had to be excavated. Many hump-backed bridges were replaced with flat bridges over the years, and this has also created an obstacle to navigation.
Much of the canal is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, home to a rich diversity of wildlife. The reedbeds are home to rare bird species including sedge warbler, reed warbler and reed bunting. The towpath has been rebuilt as a lovely walking and cycling route. The Grantham Canal Society is working on ways to restore the canal for boats, while preserving it as a space for nature. A stretch of canal from Woolsthorpe to the A1 near Grantham is now once again navigable and the Society runs boat trips there. The Wreak or Melton Mowbray Navigation, 15 miles long with 12 locks, was abandoned in 1877 while its extension, the Oakham Canal, had an even shorter life, having been abandoned in 1846. There were 19 broad locks in a distance of 15 miles to Oakham.
The Melton Mowbray Navigation (a Jessop canal) was completed in 1796, and was so successful the Oakham branch was planned a year later. But in 1846 railway competition was so fierce they had to go. The Charnwood Forest Canal and these two were sold to landowners and all freight went from the area by rail by 1877. In 1997 the local branch of the Inland Waterways Association (Tom's group) formed Melton & Oakham Waterways Society, and much restoration is planned. They were awarded £50 million by the People's Lottery Fund in 2008, to fund 79 projects, of which bridge replacement was one...Once completed, Syston Lock will need to be refurbished to open up the first 1 mile (1.6 km) of the waterway to Lewin Bridge and the Gate Hangs Well public house. Fortunately much of the Melton Mowbray Navigation was the original River Wreak, so is still there and with water (unfortunately the Oakham has mainly gone), and the bridges weren't lowered, so restoration is mainly of the locks.
Friday 12th January 2018
South-east of Birmingham the same pressure forced the Oxford canal company to make belated improvements, in this case the straightening of the northern half of their tortuous main line between Hawkesbury and Wolfamcote, just south of Braunston. This work was authorized in May 1829 and completed in February 1834. It had the effect of shortening the line by nearly 14 miles. Cuttings and embankments carry the new canal through ridges and across valleys which the old contour canal had taken many winding miles to avoid. A new tunnel, 250 yards long with towpaths on either side was driven at Newbold (See 13th October 2017 below) and 3 aqueducts carry the new canal over the Rugby-Lutterworth road and the rivers Swift and Avon north of Rugby. At Newbold the south entrance to the old tunnel may still be seen...at right angles to the new tunnel...
The old line was abandoned with the exception of the portions leading to Stretton, Brinklow, and Clifton Mill Wharves and that section forming the junction with the Grand Junction Canal at Braunston and providing access to the Braunston boatyatd. Cast-iron roving bridges of most elegant design were erected wherever it was necessary to carry the new towpath over the old channel.
These Oxford canal improvements are frequently but erroneously attributed to Telford. In fact he had no hand in them. Several engineers were involved whose names we do not usually associate with canals. Sir Marc Brunel was first consulted, Charles Vignoles made the survey and William Cubitt acted as consultant while the work was in progress.
The improvement of the Oxford , however, was closely bound up with a canal scheme with which Telford was associated. This was for a London to Birmingham route which would avoid the heavy lockage on the Warwick line by keeping north of the Avon valley. It was this scheme which stirred the Oxford company to action, for it was first projected to run to Braunston and so would have cut the Oxfpord out of the through traffic altogether. When the Oxford company undertook to straighten their line, Anstey became the projected junction for the new route, but the canal was never built. In the light of history this was unfortunate for, despite the costly widening of the canal between Napton and Birmingham carried out by the Grand Union company between 1931 and 1934, the heavy lockage on the Warwick line has remained a serious handicap to through traffic between Birmingham and London.
Those waterways associated with the Severn had long been impeded by the difficulties and hazards of navigating the tidal portion of that river below Gloucester. They enjoyed a very important fillip when the Gloucester & Berkeley Ship Canal was opened in April 1827 ...an ambitious project of the mania period, authorized in 1793, which had been struggling towards completion ever since. As planned in 1793 the canal would have been 18¼ miles long, 70ft wide and 15ft deep. But in 1818 the depth was increased to 18ft and the length was reduced to 16¾ miles by the decision to join the Severn at Sharpness Point instead of Berkeley Pill
Robert Mylne, the architect and builder of Blackfriars Bridge, was engineer of the canal until 1798. Finally after a number of successors had come and gone, Telford became responsible for completing the canal as engineer to the Exchequer Bill Loans Commisioners who organized very substantial government loans in order to complete the job.
Features of this canal are the fine ranges of warehouses at Sharpness and Gloucester
also the delightful little bridgemen's cottages with their pillared porches.
Fretherne bridge house then
and now (2008)
The New docks and entrance dock at Sharpness were opened in Nov 1874.
To sum up, all these improvements, splendidly engineered though they were, came too late. Secure in their monopolies, the old canal companies, notably the Birmingham, Trent & Mersey, and the Oxford, had put off essential development for too long. By so doing they had forfeited the sympathy of traders who were therefore only too ready to transfer their allegiance to the new railways. The sorry sequel is well known. Canal toll rates came tumbling down in the effort to meet the effect of railway competition, but all to no avail. The once proud canal companies were soon begging the railways to take them over in return for a guaranteed dividend. Some obtained powers to build railways themselves and used these powers as a bargaining counter. E.g. "The Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company" formed as a result of the amalgamation of the Ellesmere & Chester and Birmingham & Liverpool Junction canals. It launched an ambitious programme of railway construction and actually built one, the Shrewsbury & Stafford, to lease to the London & Northwestern Railway (LNWR) in 1846.
With the coming of the railways the canal system became virtually frozen. Railway companies were unlikely either to improve or to extend the systems of canals they controlled, while companies who remained independent became too impoverished to contemplate such developments (E.g. the Droitwich Junction Canal, 1¾ miles long with 7 falling locks, promoted by the Worcester & Birmingham company in 1852 to link to their canal at Hanbury Wharf with Brindley's old barge canal from the Severn to Droitwich. Another was the Slough Branch of the Grand Junction, completed in 1883).
Only the Birmingham canal network continued to develop and expand through the 19th Century. For although the BCNs were leased by the LNWR from 1846, the system continued to handle very heavy short-haul traffic from canalside premises, much of which passed to the rail at special transhipment depots. Notable imrovements were:
Tame Valley Canal 8½ miles long, from the Walsall canal to a junction with the Birmingham & Fazeley at Salford, opened in 1844
Netherton Tunnel built to relieve the restricted Dudley tunnel. 3027 yards long, 15ft 9in high and its width of 27ft allows room for a towpath on each side. When opened in 1858 it was lit by gas.
Tuesday 9th January 2018
Meanwhile the Trent & Mersey, like the Birmingham company, had been moved by the railway threat to put its own house in order and again it was Telford whose aid was sought. Here the equivalent of the Smethwick summit was Brindley's old tunnel at Harecastle. (Already discussed in this blog on 29th August, 1st September and 10th November 2017 - see below).
This was a bottleneck about which traders had been complaining bitterly but without avail for years. John Rennie had inspected the tunnel in 1820, reporting that the roof was only 6 feet above water level in places and so narrow that the brick lining had been worn to half its original thickness by the passage of boats. The mortar was so soft that bricks could be pulled out by hand. Yet four years passed before the company finally decided to act and Telford was called in. Having been delayed so long, the work of driving a new tunnel parallel with the old was pressed forward with all possible speed, Pritchard & Hoof being the contractors responsible. No less than 15 shafts were sunk so that the work of driving the headings could be carried on simultaneously at 30 different points. In addition, cross headings were driven into the old tunnel so that boats could assist in the removal of spoil through the night. Such was the speed of operations that a 7ft diameter heading was completed in Oct 1825, and the tunnel was opened to traffic in March 1827. For sheer speed of execution, this was a feat of tunnelling that has seldom been surpassed, and when we recall that the old tunnel beside it had taken 11 years to build it is another striking example of the progress made in civil engineering technique.
Telford designed the new tunnel with a towing path after the model of his earlier tunnels at Chirk and Whitehouses but with slightly more generous dimensions. The presence of a towpath meant it was a 'one-way' tunnel, but Telford planned to enlarge the old tunnel similarly. This was never carried out, however, and southbound traffic continued to 'leg' through the old tunnel until the early years of this century (1914) when subsidence finally led to its closure.
From Hall Green at the north end of Harecastle Tunnels the Macclesfield canal runs northward along the western slopes of the Staffordshire and Derbyshire uplands for 26 miles to a junction with the Peak Forest canal at the top of the Marple locks.
We travelled the length of this canal in 1984, so I have mentioned it before here - mainly 1st September 2017 but also 17th Nov when discussing the Peak Forest.
There is a single flight of 12 locks at Bosley which lifts the canal up to the 518ft summit level of the Peak Forest. Construction was authorized in 1826 and the canal was opened in Nov 1831. It provided a shorter, though more heavily locked, route between The Potteries and Manchester and also brought water transport to the towns of Congleton and Macclesfield.
Thomas Telford prepared the original plans but had no hand in the actual construction for which William Crosley was responsible, Pritchard & Hoof being the main contractors. The monumental stonework of bridges and aqueducts on the Macclesfield suggests Rennie's work rather than Telford's, and Rennie's influence may well have been at work because Crosley had previously been resident engineer of the Lancaster canal north end, which, as we have seen, displays some of Rennie's finest work. (See 27th November 2017 below). There are a number of masonry aqueducts carrying the canal over the valleys of rivers and streams falling from the uplands into the Cheshire plain. The largest and finest of these is the Dane Aqueduct at Bosley:
my photo 6 June 1984
2010 from the river
Other examples are the aqueduct over the River Bollin at Langley, near Macclesfield, the Dean aqueduct at Bollington and the Red Acre aqueduct over Poynton Brook at Michelford.
As I visited the Dean aqueduct only recently (last month) I shall stop to show you my photographs:
Aqueduct over road at Bollington. The chimney of Clarence Mill can be seen up on the canal.
Once up on the canal level, the view in one direction - and in the other
There were two silk & cotton mills here, served by the canal. Both are still standing, although the railway arrived in 1869 and took the custom from the water.
The Trent & Mersey company would not permit the sacred waters of their canal to be contaminated by this upstart newcomer. They insisted on building their own short branch to join the Macclesfield. This curiously leaves their main line on the south side subsequently crossing over the latter as it descends the Cheshire locks, and continuing for over a mile to join the Macclesfield at Harding's Wood. Moreover, they ruled that the actual point of junction should be between two stop locks, one controlled by each company.
Monday 8th January 2018
The Birmingham company had embarked on their great improvement scheme in anticipation of the completion of a new direct water route between the Midlands and the Mersey. This was the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, conceived by Telford and actively promoted by canal interests, headed by the Birmingham Company, as a counter to the rival railway scheme. The canal won the day, receiving its Act in May 1826. It was to be the last major victory for the old transport scheme over the new. It was also to be Telford's last major work and to build it he rallied to his aid the survivors of those engineers who had served him so well on the Ellesmere and Caledonian canals: John Wilson and his two sons Alexander Easton and William Provis.
The canal runs from Autherley Junction, on the Staffs & Worcs Canal, near its junction with the Birmingham, to Nantwich, where it joins the old Chester canal, whose hitherto isolated waterways the new canal would now unite to the midland system (the B & L J is nowadays part of the Shropshire Union canal). They also hoped that with the new company's influential support they might at last overcome the Trent & Mersey's opposition to their proposed branch to Middlewich. This hope was fulfilled. At long last this missing link was built from Barbridge on the old Chester canal to a junction with the Trent & Mersey at Wardle Lock, Middlewich, the ten miles of canal including a considerable masonry aqueduct over the river Weaver at Hoolgrave. It was completed in 1833.
2009 (See 6th September 2017 below)
The Birmingham & Liverpool Junction canal is carried over Watling Street (A5) at Stretton by an iron trough aqueduct
and there is also a short tunnel with towpath at Cowley (81yds) near Gnoshall.
(see 11th September 2017 below for my account of this in 1939, 1984 and 2009)
The latter (tunnel) was originally intended to be 690 yds long, but after a little over 200 yards had been driven the rock proved to be so rotten and treacherous that Telford decided to open out the workings and go through the greater part of the high ground in open cutting. Further to the north, a second iron trough aqueduct carries the canal over the Nantwich-Chester Road.
[photos I took from it in 2009]
There are 28 locks, falling to Nantwich, 15 of which are concentrated in a flight at Audlem
The outstanding feature of this canal is the magnitude of the earthworks which enable it to maintain a remarkably straight course through the rolling country of the Shropshire/Staffordshire border. No one can travel through this canal without being impressed by the contrast between it and the earlier contour canals engineered by Brindley and his school. It emphasizes the progress made in civil engineering during the canal era, illustrating that 'cut and fill' technique which would soon be used by railway engineers and, in our own day, by the builders of motorways. It is significant that Telford's last canal is still the most direct route between the Black Country and the Mersey.
Nevertheless the earthworks caused Telford considerable trouble and anxiety as all works that are ahead of their time must do. Knowledge of soil mechanics was still rudimentary and, doubtless from a desire to econimize in excavation, Telford chose far too steep an angle of slope for his cuttings. Repeated slips in Grub Street cutting near Norbury, finally forced him to cut back the sides.
The other notably deep cutting at Woodseaves (see 6th September 2017 below)
near Market Drayton, proved more stable though it has caused continual trouble with minor falls. Similarly Telford experienced great difficulty in stabilizing his great embankments at Shelmore, Knighton and Dorfold (Nantwich) and this was all the more galling because Shelmore and Dorfold were undertaken as part of deviations made to placate local landowners at Norbury Park and Dorfold Hall. They did not appear on Telford's original plans.
The completion of this canal not only provided a more direct and less heavily locked route between the industrial Midlands and the Mersey but also with Manchester via the new canal from Middlewich. Thirdly, a 10½ mile branch canal from Norbury, through Newport to Wappenshall provided a link with another hitherto isolated canal system - the old Shrewsbury canal and the tub boat canals of industrial Shropshire. On this branch canal near Preston-upon-the-Weald-Moors is the Duke's Drive Aqueduct, an unusual and little known iron trough aqueduct with stone embellishments bearing the arms of the Duke of Sutherland.
[sadly this was demolished in the late 1960s]
The Birmingham and Liverpool Junction route threatened to take traffic away from the Trent & Mersey, but the days when that doyen of canal companies could play power politics with impunity were nearly over and while it certainly opposed te new route, its ineffective opposition seemed to lack the old fire and force. Perhaps its proprietors reflected that, comapared with the rival railways scheme, the B & L J was the lesser of two evils. At least it would bring its Manchester traffic to the Trent & Mersey between Middlewich and Preston Brook. It was this reasoning that had induced its proprietors to give belated consent to the junction at Middlewich.
Sunday 7th January 2018
One more important waterway remained to be built before the threat of railways appeared over the horizon. This was the Regent's Canal running in a great arc through northern London from a junction with the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction at Harrow Road Bridge to Limehouse.
It was authorized in 1812. The mainline is 8½ miles with 12 paired broad locks falling to an extensive dock at Limehouse, from which ship and barge locks gave access to the tidal Thames. There are two tunnels, Maida Hill (272yds) and Islington (960yds). Below the City Road locks, east of Islington tunnel, the City Road basin was built which largely superseded the old terminus of the Grand Junction at Paddington Basin as a centre for London traffic.
[Little Italy and Regent's Park, present day]
With the opening of the Regent's Canal in 1820, the Midlands canal network was linked directly to London's dockland and the great period of canal construction came to an end. For a few more golden years, waterways would enjoy a monopoly of goods transport in an expanding industrial society. The shareholders of the older canal companies continued to enjoy a rich harvest, while even the later comers which had to struggle to complete their lines began to pay their first small dividends and looked forward to an equally golden future. Such dreams of unending prosperity were soon to be rudely shattered.
It was in 1825 that the canal companies awoke to the threat of competition from the new railways. This was the year that saw the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. But it was not so much this purely local project that alerted the canal proprietors as the activities of George Stephenson & Son (This partnership was formed at the same time as Robert Stephenson & Co, the pioneer locomotive building firm of Newcastle, with which it is often confused). In 1825 George Stephenson & Son organized teams of surveyors and surveyed railway routes between London and the north, London and South Wales, Liverpool and Birmingham and Liverpool and Manchester. All this activity proved overambitious and premature, for only the last-names scheme bore fruit. It had a more immediate impact on canal than on railway history by alerting canal interests and persuading them to take steps to set their houses in order to meet the coming danger. Thus there was set in motion the last phase of canal construction and improvement.
William Jessop had died in 1814, and John Rennie in 1821, leaving Thomas Telford the undisputed head of the civil engineering profession. It was to him therefore that the canal proprietors chiefly turned in this emergency. He found plenty of room for improvement. Asked to examine the main line of the Birmingham Canal, still the hub of the canal system and passing anything up to 200 boats a day, Telford reported:
"I found...a canal little better than a crooked ditch with scarcely the appearance of a haling-path (contemporary term for towpath), the horses frequently sliding and staggering in the water, the haling lines sweeping the gravel into the canal and the entanglement at the meeting of the boats incessant; while at the locks at each end of the short summit crowds of boatmen were always quarrelling or offering premiums for a preference of passage, and the mine owners, injured by the delay, were loud in their just complaints."
It will be remembered that in 1790 the Birmingham company had eleiminated the short summit level between Smethwick and Spon Lane on their main line by reducing it to the 473ft Wolverhampton level, so Telford's reference to a short summit level requires further explanation. At Spon Lane three locks led down to the original branch canal, known as Wednesbury old loop line which, since its 1786 extension to Walsall and district by the so-called Broadwaters Canal and branches, had been carrying heavy traffic. Because this Wednesbury line was at the Birmingham level, there was still a short summit with its attendant water supply difficulties so far as traffic between Birmingham and Wednesbury was concerned.
To eliminate this, Telford recommended a further reduction of this Smethwick/Spon Lane summit to the Birmingham level, the result being the great cutting which we see today. This was completed in 1829. It is 71ft deep and is spanned at its deepest point by Galton Bridge, a fine specimen of Telford's cast-iron bridgework
with a span of 150ft, which was hailed as the largest canal bridge in the world. Below it ran a canal 40ft wide with a broad towpath on each side...to Tipton where it locked up to the Wolverhampton level. West of Tipton the old tortuous route via Wednesbury Oak was by-passed by a short cut-off from Bloomfield to Deepfields which included the 360yd Coseley tunnel
with a waterway width of 15ft 9in and two towing-paths. The remainder of the main line from Deepfields, through Wolverhampton to Aldersley Junction was improved and deepened. This work on the main line was not completed until 1839, five years after Telford's death.
Saturday 6th January 2018
With the failure of the Ashby company to complete its line, East Midland hopes for a direct water route to the south centred on the Leics & Northants Union Canal, later referred to as the Old Union. This had been authorized in 1793, the same year as the Grand Junction, and it was intended to run from the river Soar at Leicester to the Nene at Northampton, where it would be joined by the proposed Northampton Branch of the Grand Junction. In the enthusiasm of the mania period, there was even talk of extending the canal to the Great Ouse at Bedford. These bright hopes were to be short-lived. Work began at the Leicester end but, after building 17 miles of canal including 24 broad locks and a tunnel half a mile long at Saddington, the project petered out at Debdale Wharf, one mile to the north of Foxton. (See 4th August 2017 below for Tom's thoughts on this area). Had things proceeded according to plan there was to have been a 5¾ mile branch to Market Harborough from Foxton, the main line heading south through a tunnel at the junction.
Goods were conveyed by road from Debdale Wharf to Market Harborough while the difficult country ahead was surveyed and resurveyed, both Barnes and Telford submitting plans, the target now being the Grand Junction canal at Norton, close to the end of the Braunston Tunnel. But all that the hard-pressed company could manage was the extension of their canal by 6¾ miles to a terminal basin at Market Harborough, which they completed in 1809...it was left to the Grand Junction company to take the initiative by promoting the final link, the Grand Union Canal, authorized in 1810.
One of the Grand Junction's engineers, Benjamin Bevan, was appointed engineer of the Grand Union and his first task was the invidious one of reconciling the various conflicting routes for the canal that had been advanced over the years of delay. It was he who finally decided upon the present line.
Work began at Foxton where, instead of the tunnel which the Old Union company had proposed, the Grand Union climbs steeply and spectacularly to its summit level by two staircases of 5 locks each, the greatest lock staircase in England.
(see 1st August below)
There follows a summit level 21 miles long, to Watford, including two long tunnels at Husbands Bosworth (1166 yds) and Crick (1528 yds). The latter was originally planned on a line to the west of Crick village, but in sinking the shafts quicksands were encountered and Bevan wisely decided to abandon the works and to drive the tunnel on a new alignment passing to the east of the village.
(see 30th July below)
With the exception of these two tunnels and an embankment with aqueduct across the Avon valley near North Kilworth Wharf, the summit level of the Grand Union avoids earthworks, following a line a little above 400ft contour on the western slope of the Naseby Wolds...the tunnels were built by contractors Messrs Pritchard & Hoof of King's Norton.
A feeder up the Avon valley, once navigable to Welford Wharf, supplies the Grand Union with water from reservoirs on Naseby Wolds.
It descends from its long summit level by 4 single locks and a staircase of four at Watford
and thence continues for 2 miles on the level to a junction with the Grand Junction at Norton, near Long Buckby. When it was opened throughout in 1814, the East Midlands were at last provided with a direct water route to London.
(This canal holds a special place in my heart, as between 1974 and 1977 I attended Queen Mary College, University of London, in Mile End Road and this flowed right by us.
Mile End Lock. Strictly speaking, this part is the Regent's Canal, of which more tomorrow.)
Because the waterways of the East Midlands, including the Old Union, were all built with broad locks in the expectation that wide Upper Trent boats would use them, and the grand Junction was also built to the broad gauge with barge traffic in mind, it may appear remarkable that the locks at Foxton and Watford were constructed to narrow canal dimensions. This is the more surprising in view of the fact that the Grand Union was sponsored by Grand Junction interests which had earlier cherished schemes for broad routes to Manchester. Tunnels and bridges on the Grand Union, moreover, were built to broad canal dimensions. The answer is that experience had convinced the Grand Junction company that for various reasons, most notably the passing difficulty, particularly in tunnels, the narrow boat was the most suitable type of craft.
Friday 5th January 2018
Tom Rolt moves on: We must turn now to the East Midlands where the group of waterways radiating from the Upper Trent, in most of which William Jessop had been concerned, sought some more direct outlet to the south than the roundabout route provided by the Trent & Mersey, Coventry and Oxford canals. The first of these was the River Soar, or Loughborough Navigation as it was called, which was destined to become the first link in the new line to the south and one of the rare examples of a major river that was first made navigable in the canal era. An Act authorizing the work was passed in 1766 and Brindley was called in to advise. True to his policy, he recommended a canal up the Soar valley, but because the Act did not empower the proprietors to cut a canal, nothing was done until 1778 when a fresh Act was obtained and work commenced. Brindley's advice was ignored, the river being made navigable by means of 6 broad locks, a cut 1½ miles long giving access to Loughborough. This work was completed in 1780.
Meanwhile, the Erewash Canal, designed to tap the Erewash valley coalfield, had also been completed with remarkable speed. Authorized in 1777, by the end of 1779 the 11¾ miles from Langley Mill, falling by 14 broad locks to the Trent, was opened for traffic. This meant that boats carrying Derbyshire coal could now trade to Loughborough where the coal was distributed by land carriage to Leicester. The junction of this canal with the Trent is almost exactly opposite the mouth of the Soar and a ferry...was introduced to take boat horses across the Trent.
Later (see 17th November, below) Jessop's Cromford Canal formed an extension of the Erewash into the Derbyshire Peak District.
The Derby Canal (1795-6) ran from the Erewash canal at Sandiacre to Derby where it crossed the river Derwent on the level at the head of a weir and continued thence to a junction with the Trent & Mersey canal at Swarkeston, a distance of 14½ miles. Apart from serving Derby, this canal formed a more convenient route for through traffic between the Trent & Mersey and Erewash canals than that via the Trent.
The Nottingham Canal (1792-6) had a main line of the same length as the Derby, extending from a junction with the river Trent at Nottingham to the Cromford Canal near its junction with the Erewash at Langley Mill. It provided a much more direct route for coal traffic to Nottingham than that via the Erewash canal and the Trent and for this reason it was opposed unsuccessfully by the Erewash company. The navigation of the Trent from the mouth of the Soar downstream to Nottingham was notoriously difficult, but it was greatly improved at this time by the construction of the Cranfleet cut and lock and the Beeston Cut from the river at Beeston to the Nottingham canal from Lenton Chain to Trent Lock, Nottingham thus became part of a Trent "by-pass". Under pressure from the canal companies, the Trent was...improved at this time by gravel dredging etc.
All these improvements in waterway communications greatly stimulated industrial growth, particularly in the coal trade, in the Derby and Nottingham area, and it is not surprising that from 1785 onwards pressure built up for the extension of the Soar Navigation to Leicester. This extension, the Leicester Navigation, was authorized in 1791 and completed 4 years later. Although sometimes referred to as a canal, it was essentially a river navigation, though there were extensive artificial cuts. Because their construction involved the expenditure of comparatively little capital and carried heavy traffic, both the Loughborough and Leicester Navigations were for a time extremely prosperous. It was the construction by George Stephenson of the Leicester & Swannington Railway, bringing Leics coal to the city, which brought an end to the golden years of the waterborne trade in Derbyshire coal.
The Leicester Navigation had originally planned to tap the coal and lime resources of the Charnwood Forest area of Leics by a canal from Loughborough. As built, this consisted of an isolated stretch of canal between two tramways, but it was unsuccessful and short-lived and it was in the opposite direction that Leics coal was first provided with a transport outlet by the Ashby-de-la-Zouch canal and its associated tramways.
Charnwood Forest canal bed
remains of Junction House 2009
The Ashby canal was surveyed and engineered by Robert Whitworth and his son Robert Junior. It was originally intended to run from the Coventry Canal at Marston to the Upper Trent below Burton, thus not only affording a direct outlet for Leics coal to the Trent but a shorter route between the East Midlands and the south. In promise of this, the Derby canal bompany were persuaded to extend the western arm of their main line from its junction with the Trent & Mersey at Swarkeston to the Trent. The Ashby canal was authorized in 1794, but by the time the main line had been completed to Ashby (Moira) the money ran out and it was finally decided in 1798 to abandon the plan to extend to the Trent and instead substitute tramways for the intended branch canals to quarries and collieries. So the Ashby canal became, in effect, a long branch of the Coventry Canal, winding for 30 miles through the midland plain with no lock and only one short tunnel at Snarestone (250yds). As a result of colliery subsidence at its northern end, its length has now been reduced by about 6 miles.
Since Tom wrote this in his book, restoration has been taking place on the northern end of this canal and a section, with associated swing-bridge, has reopened (2010), near Moira. Plans are in place to complete restoration to Measham but of course this depends on funding. Permission has been obtained but an aqueduct is necessary to replace one demolished in the 1960s. Every year a canalboat festival is held to raise funds.
Moira festival 2000
Tuesday 2nd January 2018 - Happy New Year to All
Tom Rolt continues... To supply the Grand Junction's two summit levels with water, extensive reservoirs were built in the vicinity of Tring and Daventry. Even so, beam pumping engines were needed at both summits to pump back the lockage water. The supply on Tring summit was augmented by a navigable feeder nearly 7 miles long, known as the Wendover Arm
See 11th September below, when I reported on the race we attended along this canal
The beam pumps are now gone and the Wendover Arm is disused.
Since Tom wrote that in 1969 much work has been done on this canal, and navigation has been extended for a mile and a half from Bulbourne to Little Tring (completed 2005). Projects continue and the aim is to regain navigable status for the entire length of 6.75 miles. The whole is in the mean time accessible on foot & bicycle (and by runners and their entourage!)
The importance of linking the Birmingham area directly with the Grand Junction was appreciated from the outset. An extension of the Warwick & Birmingham Canal was the obvious answer and in 1794 construction of the Warwick & Braunston Canal was authorized. This would have cut out the Oxford Canal altogether...and it was largely as a result of pressure from the Oxford Company that Napton was substituted for Braunston as the junction point. This meant that through traffic would pass over 5 miles of the Oxford Canal between Napton and Braunston and the high tolls levied on this short length later became a bone of contention. (See several mentions earlier in this blog, below)
The whole of the canal line from Birmingham to Napton was opened in 1800. Apart from the 433 yard tunnel at Shrewley and the 3-arch masonry aqueduct over the Avon at Warwick, there were no works of note, but the lockage was extremely heavy due to the need to descend into the Avon valley. There are no less than 59 locks between Birmingham and Napton; moreover, despite pressure from the Grand Junction company, these were built narrow, although Shrewley tunnel and the overbridges were built to broad canal dimensions.
[Map of the Grand Junction as part of the network in 1936. It is here marked as no. 2]
Saturday 30th December 2017
Meanwhile a crucially important event had taken place to the south-east which was destined to change the balance of power of the older canal companies and affect the flow of traffic over the whole of the Midlands canal system. This was the authorization in 1793 of the Grand Junction Canal, a broad waterway from the Thames at Brentford to the Oxford Canal at Braunston, with branches to Northampton and Buckingham. Additional branches to Paddington and to Aylesbury were authorized in the next two years. It was the biggest canal project that had been launched in England, for its long main line from London would hve to be carried over two summit levels, the Chiltern chalk near Tring and the Northampton oolite at Braunston, but it also promised a great reward in traffic, being no less than 64 miles shorter than the Oxford Canal route to London via the Thames...
William Jessop was appointed principal engineer with James Barnes, who had made the first survey, as resident engineer. Compared with most of the canals of this period, the Grand Junction was built with remarkable speed, but three works occasioned particular difficulty. These were
1) the long embankment and aqueduct the valley of the Ouse at Wolverton
2) tunnel through the Northants oolite at Braunston (2042 yards) on summit level and
3) same at Blisworth (3056 yards)
The Ouse at Wolverton was originally crossed on the level, but owing to the risk of floods holding up traffic, Barnes' recommendation of an alternative high-level route was accepted. On a January night in 1806, however, owing to faulty work on the part of the local contractor, the embankment blew out, greatly to the alarm of the local inhabitants. Two years later, the 3-arch aqueduct over the Ouse, which William Jessop had designed, collapsed...a temporary wooden trunk across the breach was installed to keep traffic moving until the present iron trough aqueduct...was installed in 1811
For a distance of 320 yards Braunston tunnel had to be driven through a quicksand, an unexpected hazard which foreshadowed Robert Stephenson's later difficulties at Kilsby and which cost the company an extra £5,000. Jessop also had to report that the subengineer in charge and the contractor had between them made a serious mistake and got off the correct line, an error which accounts for the dogleg towards the southern end of the tunnel
Notwithstanding these difficulties, Braunston tunnel was completed in Jun 1796.
See 29th July below for previous discussion of Braunston, when I mentioned both the Rolts' journey in 1939 and ours in 2007.
But Blisworth proved a much tougher proposition, chiefly owing to the treacherous nature of the strata which consisted of rotten oolite and heavy clays containing powerful springs of water. The difficulties were so great that work came to a standstill in 1795 and, in the following January, Jessop recommended carrying the canal over the ridge by locks. Faced with this counsel of despair, the company called in Whitworth and Rennie to advise them on the tunnel. They recommended driving a new line on a diagonal intersecting the old one and the provision of a heading below tunnel level to carry off the water. Again, Robert Stephenson encountered similar difficulties in excavating the Blisworth cutting for the London & Birmingham railway.
On Jessop's recommendation, a double line of plate tramway was laid over Blisworth hill from a wharf below the present locks at Stoke Bruerne to Blisworth wharf. This was constructed by Benjamin Outram using templates cast at the Butterley Ironworks. In Sep 1800 the southern section of the canal from Brentford to Stoke Bruerne was completed and, as the northern section Braunston to Blisworth had been finished since 1796, the tramroad served to keep traffic moving until the tunnel was completed in 1805. The tramplates were then lifted and relaid between Gayton and Northampton where they served until the present branch canal ito Northampton was completed in 1815. By this branch the Grand Junction was connected to the River Nene, but plans to link it to the Great Ouse at Bedford never materialized.
Friday 29th December 2017
I am sorry for the hiatus: we travelled to South Wales to spend time with our family, among other things, so I have a few updates with regard to the canals there. As I have said, the canal beds are still in existence, but only patches are in water, and the whole canal is not navigable. One day my daughter and I walked down to the towpath and set off along the Crumlin branch, terminating at the Fourteen Locks Centre. The following photos were taken then, 21st December 2017:
The Fourteen Locks Canal Centre:
OK, moving on...
To the north-west of the Black Country the Wyrley & Essington canal was promoted and authorized in 1792 from a junction with the Birmingham canal at Horseley Fields, near Wolverhampton, with the object of serving Cannock Chase coalfield. It was progressively extended with the later development of coal working on the Chase. However, the canal acquired a more than local significance in 1797 when there was opened an extension of its main line 15½ miles long, from Birchills Junction falling by way of the 30 Ogley locks to join the Coventry Canal
at Huddlesford, near Lichfield. This gave the canal network in the Black Country a much more direct communication with the Trent and the northeast via Fradley Junction and the Trent & Mersey.
For once, the Birmingham Company offered no opposition to this project since it promised additional traffic for their main line.
Tuesday 12th December 2017
Despite its opposition, no sooner was the Act for the Worcester & Birmingham passed than the Dudley canal...projected a new canal from their own, through Halesowen, to a junction with the Worcester & Birmingham at Selly Oak. By now, the Birmingham company's monopolistic policy had made it decidedly unpopular and, with overwhelming support from traders, the 'Dudley Canal Line No. 2' as it was called, was authorized in 1793 and completed in 1798. The Dudley compny were indefatigable moles, for not content with their previous burrowing at Dudley (see Sunday, below), their new line involved two further tunnels, one of 557yds at Gosty Hill near Netherton, and one of no less than 3795yds at Lappal, between Halesowen and Selly Oak. These were almost as restricted in size as their original tunnel with the same consequent delays. As at Dudley, it took a boatman four hours to leg through Lappal, but in an attempt to speed up this laborious business an ingenious and unique device was adopted in 1841
a steam engine was built at the Halesowen end which drove a scoop wheel to load the tunnel with water. Stop gates could be opened at either end to assist boats along the tunnel in either direction. However, this only reduced the time to pass through by one hour. Also Lappal tunnel suffered badly from mining subsidence throughout its history, and it was this which finally led to its closure in 1914.
It was not only with the Worcester & Birmingham in mind that the Dudley proprietors embarked upon their costly extension; their sights were on more distant targets. The Stratford canal from a junction with the Worcester & Birmingham at King's Norton to Stratford-on-Avon, with a branch to Warwick, was a project already in the air and was authorized by Act of 1793.
Moreover, this was the canal 'mania' period and...there was talk of a more direct (than the Oxford) canal route to London. This prospect went to the heads of the Dudley proprietors and further enraged the Birmingham company. So they hit back by promoting the Warwick & Birmingham canal to join their Birmingham & Fazeley line via the Digbeth branch. This was authorized in the same year as the Stratford, 1793.
[the junction concerned here can be seen marked at Aston, now part of the Warwickshire Ring]
Notwithstanding the fact that one of its original objectives had thus been snatched away, construction of the Stratford canal proceeded, albeit slowly. It was begun under the direction of Josiah Clowes and the work was continued after his deat by his assistants. One mile from the junction, the 352yd King's Norton tunnel was driven to the same generous - and optimistic - dimensions as the Worcester & Birmingham canal. Its western portal is of brick embellished with a circular stone plaque over the arch bearing a carved haed of Shakespeare and with two vacant niches upon either side...appear to be waiting forlornly for two of the Bard's better known characters to inhabit them, perhaps Hamlet or Julius Caesar.
I see from photographs taken by boaters in recent years that Shakespeare is still there but the niches are at the other end - maybe Tom's memory was confused, after all he didn't have Wikipedia and all the canal sites to go by. Although of course it is possible that Shakespeare was moved from the other end...although I cannot find reference to this anywhere
By means of sizeable embankments over the Cole Valley and at Countess Coppice, the former incorporating a single arch aqueduct over the Cole
the Stratford canal holds the Birmingham Level (see yesterday) for 11 miles to Lapworth where it descends through 19 locks to Kingswood. This northern section of the canal was completed in 1801 and after the usual arguments about compensation tolls and water supplies, a junction with the Warwick & Birmingham line was formed at Kingswood in May 1802. Having got this far, the Stratford company showed a marked disinclination to proceed any farther. The failure of nebulous schemes to extend the canal eastwards from Stratford to join the Oxford having come to nothing, there was little incentive to do so and the people of Stratford began to wonder if they would ever get a canal at all. They might not have done so if it had not been for the enthusiasm and energy of that remarkable character William James, the so-called 'Father of Railways'.
James had a vision of Stratford becoming an important transport centre. Besides a meeting place of canal and river (he had an interest in the Upper Avon Navigation) it was to be the northern terminus of his ambitious scheme for a railway to Lond Paddington, with branches to Coventry and Cheltenham. These visions never materialised...nevertheless, but for these dreams the Stratford canal might never have reached its objective. (although what it would have been called is anyone's guess!)
The southern section of the canal is 13 miles long and falls by 36 locks to the Avon at Stratford, the last being a barge lock.
Construction began in 1812 and the canal was opened in June 1816. Because it is so much later in date, it exhibits a munber of features of interest not to be found on the older northern section. Most notable are the cast iron aqueducts at Yarningale, Wooten Wawen and Bearsley (the Edstone Aqueduct).
The last named, although no great height, is second only in length to Pont Cysyllte. The towpath, however, is not carried over the water as on the latter, but beside the trough as at Longdon. Edstone exhibits one unique feature. When the Bearley & Alcester branch of the Great Western Railway was built beneath it, that railway company, who by then owned the Stratford Canal, adapted the aqueduct as a convenient means of supplying the branch locomotives with water by fitting a pipe and stop valve into the side of the iron trough.
Other features of this canal are the unusual lock houses with barrel roofs
and the overbridges. These support the roadway on cast-iron brackets cantilevered out from the brick abutments so as to leave a gap wide enough to allow a boat's towline to fall between them. In this way the need to build a towpath beneath the bridge was avoided.
It is pleasing to record that the southern section of this canal has been restored and is now owned by the National Trust.
The northern section was the setting for a high-profile campaign by the fledgling Inland Waterways Association (who were, of course Tom's brainchild) in 1947, involving the right of navigation under Tunnel Lane bridge, which required the Great Western Railway to jack it up in order to allow boats to pass. These actions saved the section from closure. The southern section was restored by the National Trust between 1961 and 1964, after an attempt to close it was thwarted. The revived canal was re-opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in mid 1964, and responsibility for it was transferred to British Waterways in 1988.
The large summit reservoirs known as Earlswood Lakes which supply the whole canal with water were authorized in 1815. The Warwick & Birmingham Canal was entitled to a lock full of water from the Stratford for every boat passing through the junction at Kingswood and the falling lock on the connecting branch was built for this reason. The stop lock at King's Norton is, unusually. fitted with guillotine gates, because the fall might be in either direction depending on the level of water in the two canals. Of recent years, however, the two canals have been maintained at the same level and the gates remain permanently open.
They were renovated in 2013 - but only after vandals had set back the project by covering them in grafitti.
Monday 11th December 2017
The next canal to be considered is the Birmingham & Fazeley which has already been mentioned in connection with the canal to the Thames - see 5th October and 7th-12th November below. It was planned to connect the Birmingham Canal Terminus at Farmer's Bridge with the line of the uncompleted Coventry Canal at Fazeley near Tamworth...Supported by Trent & Mersey, Coventry and Oxford companies but bitterly opposed by the Birmingham Company, who...finally promoted a rival scheme but this was thrown out and the Birmingham & Fazeley got its Act in 1783...The Birmingham Company...was amalgamated in 1784. John Smeaton was appointed engineer of the new canal, which was completed and opened in 1790.
Of particular interest... is a pretty little ornamental footbridge near Fazeley, with two brick towers containing spiral stairs leading to the horizontal bridge deck.
In 1790 the Birmingham Company were at last moved to make the first of a series of improvements to their canal. The short 491ft summit level on their main line between Spon Lane & Smethwick, which had long been a source of inconvenience to traders, was lowered to the 473ft 'Wolverhampton Level' as it was later to be called. The result was the three locks at Spon Lane were eliminated, making an uninterrupted level all the way to Wolverhampton, but three of the 6 locks at Smethwick had to be retained in order to raise the canal from the 453ft or 'Birmingham Level'. A reservoir at Smethwick which had been built to supply the original short summit proved inadequate to the demands of the heavy traffic and the company were forced to erect Boulton & Watt pumping engines at Spon Lane and Smethwick to return the water up to the locks. With the improvement, the Spon Lane engine was no longer needed, but that at Smethwick was retained.
The company therefore decided to make the summit lower in 1787, and this was achieved in two stages. The first was a new cut 12 feet lower than the original summit, which eliminated two locks at either end, and was completed on 2 July 1789. Spoil from the excavations was removed using the upper line. A second new cut was then made 6 feet below this, to eliminate the third lock at each end, and the spoil was removed using the middle line. The canal had to be closed for 22 days to allow the ends of the new cut to be connected to the original channels, and for it to fill with water, but the new line was operational on 6 April 1790. Spon Lane Junction was now at the top of the three Spon Lane Locks.
Spon Lane Top Lock & Junction (underneath the M5)
After a great struggle against the combined opposition of the Birmingham, Dudley, Stourbridge and Staffs & Worcs canal companies, the Worcester & Birmingham canal won its Act in 1791. The reason for this opposition is obvious - the canal promised a far more direct route to the Severn from Birmingham than those of its rivals - and victory was only won at the price of almost crippling restrictions. These included the famous (or infamous) Worcester Bar, a narrow barrier, ostensibly to prevent loss of water from the Birmingham Canal, but in fact, by preventing reversal of traffic flow on their main line, the Birmingham company ensured no loss of mileage tolls. By agreement between the two companies, this barrier was eventually pierced by a stop lock in 1815, but 'Worcester Bar' or the 'Bar Lock' perpetuates the name in the junction, while a portion of the bar survives as a monument to the follies of intercompany rivalries.
[Worcester Bar on right hand side - photographed 2008]
The Worcester & Birmingham had a long struggle due to this opposition...The first 14½ miles from here to Tardebigge, near Bromsgrove, were built without a lock, on the Birmingham Level.
On this section there are two forminable embankments at Edgbaston and Bourneville and no less than four tunnels, Edgbaston (103yds), Westhill, near Kings Norton (2750yds), Shortwood (608yds) and Tardebigge (568yds). All these tunnels are of generous dimensions, the width at water level being 16ft because they were built in accordance with the original proposal for a broad canal throughout.
[Edgbaston tunnel 2006. I find this fascinating in the juxtaposition of all 3 kinds of land transport]
A plan to tap the headwaters of the river Arrow for water supply to this summit level provoked a dispute with mill owners on that river and to placate them the company were forced to build a large reservoir at Lower Bittal
and a second, known as Upper Bittal, and a pumping engine ...to lift surplus water from one to another
[remains photographed 2014]
At Tardebigge the problem of how to cope with the steep descent into the Severn Valley was overcome with a flight of 30 locks. A vertical boat lift designed by John Woodhouse was tried but eventually the flight of narrow locks won as the lift was considered unreliable.
[Tardebigge Top Lock photographed 2010]
[Gates showing 14ft drop - deepest in England - photographed in 2007]
The Tardebigge Locks are followed by a further flight of 12 below Stoke Prior, the two usually referred to by canal folk as 'the thirty and twelve'. Then follows a five-mile level, on which a 5th tunnel, Dunhampstead (326yds), is situated, before the final descent to the Severn begins
[Dunhampstead tunnel, photographed 2015. This has rails for pulling along using the arms]
Altogether there are 58 locks between Tardebigge and the Severn, the last 2 being broad to enable Severn trows to enter the canal company's Diglis Basin at Worcester.. The canal was opened in 1815, Josiah Clowes being the best known of its engineers.
For a long time prior to its completion traffic was flowing on the long summit level of the Worcester & Birmingham, this flow being augmented by two canals which were built to join it. <More tomorrow>
Sunday 10th December 2017
Now Tom Rolt turns to the Midlands Network. As we have already dealt with much of this, I hope you will forgive me for repeating some information.
Although the Manchester area was the birthplace of the English canal system, what might be called the centre of influence soon shifted. The great period of canal construction coincided with the growth of Birmingham as a manufacturing centre and of neighbouring Staffordshire as the greatest coal and iron producing area in England, whose activity was such that it soon earned the name of the Black Country. As a result...soon became the hub of the canal system. It was the original line of the Birmingham Canal, winding right through the Black Country from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, which had fostered this development by providing cheap transport to the Severn via the Staffs & Worcs Canal. Consequently its owners...soon came to occupy a position of dominant - and often domineering - influence in the intricate game of canal company politics their only rival being the Trent & Mersey Company. (See 7th & 12th November below)
Another reason why the Birmingham attained such a strong position was that it had completed its line before the French wars caused rapid inflation. Consequently, while the many canal companies promoted in the mania years of the early 1790s struggled to complete their lines in the face of remoselessly rising costs...the proprietors of the Birmingham Canal grew immensely wealthy.
The old main line of the Birmingham Canal became a central trunk from which many branches radiated to serve the needs of a rapidly expanding industrial area, but the Birmingham canal itself was only a branch of Brindley's canals of The Cross, connected to it at Aldersley Junction, and this same expansion was soon demanding other and more direct outlets than those provided by the Cross (see 13th November). In this situation the Birmingham Company made itself decidedly unpopular...It automatically opposed any scheme which threatened to divert traffic from travelling the greatest possible distance over over its own canal and so earning maximum toll revenue. Any rival company that succeeded in diverting traffic despite this opposition was either bought up or else forced to pay heavy compensation tolls. At the same time the Birmingham Company refused to improve conditions on its own main line...tortuous, narrow and shallow, soon becoming quite inadequate for the vast tonnage of traffic carried.
The first successful canal promotions to merit attention were the Dudley and the Stourbridge Canals, whose lines were closely interdependent.
Dudley Castle dominates the Black Country from the summit of a limestone ridge on which the town of Dudley stands and which divides the industrial area around Stourbridge from the Black Country proper. The Dudley limestone was of great value to thelocal iron industry as a flux in the blast furnaces, and Lord Dudley exploited it by working cavernous underground quarries at Castle Mill and Wrens Nest. In 1775 he began a short private canal, mostly underground, from the old line of the Birmingham Canal at Tipton to the workings of the collieries and quarries.
[Dudley Castle from Tipton Canal, painted by JMW Turner in 1830]
The Dudley Canal Scheme was to drive a tunnel 2942 yards long under the ridge from Park Head on the Stourbridge side to join Lord Dudley's canal at Castle Mill Basin. From the southern end of this tunnel the new canal would fall...to Black Delph.
Here it would be met by the main junction of the Stourbridge Canal, falling by 20 locks to the Staffs & Worcs canal at Stourton.
These two associated canals promised to be of vast benefit to the industries of the Stourbridge and Dudley area, but by the Birmingham Company they were regarded as a serious threat to the traffic over their main line to Aldersley Junction because they offered a far shorter and moore convenient route to the Severn. For despite the heavy lockage, the whole line from Tipton Junction to Stourton was only 9½ miles long, compared with 23 miles by the older route. The scheme was fiercely opposed...by the Birmingham, but the Acts for both canals were finally passed in 1776, though at the price of heavy compensation.
Dudley tunnel proved a work of great difficulty. It was not completed until 1792, by which time a number of engineers had been engaged on it, including Thomas Dadford Snr and Josiah Clowes (the first engineer of the Shrewsbury canal). It is very small, only 5ft 9in high above water and 8ft 5in wide, so causing much delay to traffic. Also, motors were banned due to lack of ventilation. For this reason it was superseded in 1858 by the Netherton Tunnel (has twin towpaths), though it continued to be used until 1962.
The Dudley Tunnel is the most remarkable monument...for at its northern end the limestone is riddled like a Gruyere cheese with old quarry workings. Travelling by boat from Tipton, one first enters part of Lord Dudley's private tunnel
passing through a small open basin from which side tunnels lead to Tipton colliery and to old limestone workings.
A further length of tunnel leads from this to Castle Mill Basin, which resembles a flooded open quarry with near vertical sides...tunnels to Castle Mill and Wrens Nest diverge to left and right...Castle Mill tunnel soon leads into the first of two great caverns in the limestone. From the first of these Lord Dudley's tunnel to the Castle Mill quarries diverged to the left but is now blocked by roof falls; from the second the Dudley canal tunnel proper begins. A local group has been formed to preserve this eerie industrial labyrinth.
By 1959, the tunnel was virtually disused, and British Waterways announced plans to officially close it. A number of protest groups organised cruises through the tunnel during 1960 in hope of it being kept open, but in 1962 the tunnel was finally closed. Its very existence was threatened the following year when the railway viaduct above it was found to be structurally unsafe; this was largely a goods line since the closure of passenger stations along it the previous year, but the railway authorities planned to preserve the railway line and wanted to replace the viaduct with an embankment. The plans involved sealing the tunnel off. However, the railway closed completely in 1968 and so the tunnel was saved. Following several years of preparation work, the tunnel was officially re-opened in 1973. In 1989 two completely new canal tunnels were made, linking Singing Cavern and the Rock Tunnel, via Little Tess Cavern, to Castle Mill Basin (the northern portal of the main tunnel). Visitors may take a battery-powered narrowboat trip operated by Dudley Canal Trust either through the tunnel or partway through the tunnel and the adjacent mines. The rock on Castle Hill into which the tunnel is dug, oolitic limestone, allows visitors to see Trilobite fossils preserved within it. Some fossils which were considered notable and were located close to the water line, have been removed to prevent them from being eroded and attacked by visitors. Other parts of the tunnel pass through a granite-type rock known locally as Rowley Rag and through coal measures.
Saturday 9th December 2017
I will leave the Crumlin branch for now, but will return to it with an update from a friend who lives locally. Watch this space!
The last of these Welsh waterways is of a totally different character from the rest. This is the Brecon & Abergavenny Canal. Running from west to east from Senny Bridge through Brecon and Crickhowell to Abergavenny, the Usk Valley forms the northern boundary of the South Wales massif. By building their canal along the southern slopes of this valley the promoters of the Brecon & Abergavenny hoped that by means of connecting tramways the output of the industries on the high lands at the heads of the South Wales valleys could be induced to flow northwards to join their canal instead of southwards directly to the Bristol Channel.
The canal follows the course of the Usk closely but at a considerably higher level, curving southwards with it at Abergavenny and only parting company with it at Llanover, whence it follows a winding course along the watershed between the Usk and Avon valleys until it crosses the Avon to join the Monmouthshire Canal at Pontymoile. The portion of the latter canal between Pontymoile and the summit at Pontnewynydd, with its 11 rising locks, was cut off at Pontymoile in 1854 and partially converted into a railway so that from this time forward the two canals formed, in effect, a single main line from Brecon to Newport. (Since 1970 the reopened part has been known as the Monmouth & Brecon).
This canal, improbable though it may seem today, succeeded in its object. At Tal-y-Bont, Llangattock, Gilwern, Govilon and Llanfoist in the Usk Valley, the canal was joined by tramroads which brought the products of the ironworks of Tredegar, Ebbw Vale, Blaina, Nant-y-Glo, Beaufort and Blaenavon and the limestone quarries at Dearen Cilau, high on the crest of Blorenge, to the canal for shipment. Moreover the canal was linked at Brecon by tramways to Hay and Kington and at Llanfoist with a tramway line leading through Llanvihangel and Pontrilas to Hereford.
Today all these tramroads are gone and the line of the Monmouthshire Canal has been closed. But from Jockey's Bridge near Pontypool, just short of the aqueduct by which it crosses the Avon to a junction with the Monmouthshire at Pontymoile, the Brecon & Abergavenny remains open...not only does it act as a water suppier to the new town of Cwmbran, but most of it falls within the Brecon Beacons National Park.
This stretch of canal from Jockey's Bridge to Brecon is 32½ miles long and contains only 6 locks, one at Brynich, near Brecon and 5 at Llangynidr.
Running at a high level and isolated from the rest of the waterway system, it is unquestionably the most beautiful length of canal in Britain. The terminus at Brecon is on the north side of the Usk, but after 2 miles, just below the single lock at Brynich, it crosses the river by a fine stone aqueduct of 4 spans.
A mile east of Talybont is the 375yd Ashford tunnel and thereafter for many miles canal and river keep close company, with the canal terraced high on the wooded slopes of the valley. At Gilwern the canal crosses the deep valley of the tributary Clydach on a high embankment pierced by a single-arch aqueduct.
This canal was first proposed in 1792 as a separate venture, to link Brecon to the River Usk near Caerleon. The Monmouthshire proprietors invited their potential competitors to alter the plans to create a junction with the Monmouthshire Canal at Pontymoile near Pontypool and share the navigation from there to Newport. An Act of Parliament was retrieved 28 March 1793, allowing the newly formed Canal Company to raise £100,000 in shares, with an additional £50,000 if required, and to construct railways to link the canal to mines, quarries and iron works.
The section between Gilwern and Llangynidr was the first to be opened in 1797. The canal reached Talybont in 1799 and was open to Brecon by December 1800. The southwards link to the Monmouthshire Canal was not completed until early in 1812.
Thomas Dadford died in 1801, and was replaced as engineer by Thomas Cartwright. The Canal Company obtained another Act of Parliament on 3 May 1804, to authorise the raising of more capital, and the section to Govilon, near Abergavenny was completed in 1805, but the company failed to raise the finance authorised by the 1804 act, and so construction stopped
By 1809 the Monmouthshire Canal was threatening litigation about the uncompleted connection from Gilwern. Help came from Richard Crawshay, the Merthyr Tydfil ironmaster, and a major force on the Glamorganshire Canal, who provided a loan of £30,000. This sum enabled the canal company to appoint William Crosley to complete the work, which opened in February 1812.
In the 1850s canals were being abandoned as railways took over and various sections of this canal were closed in 1930, 1949 and 1962. As I said before, it only took 2 years for opinion to turn, and start restoration. Apparently this was due to funding becoming available as a result of National Parks legislation. The Brecon Beacons were covered by this and the canal seen as a valuable amenity in an area of natural beauty. The canal was reopened to Pontymoile in 1970. The Brecon to Pontypool section was reclassified by the British Waterways Act of 1968 and upgraded to Cruising Waterway Standard. Restoration of the Old Monmouthshire Canal began in 1994 and the section to Five Locks restored and reopened 24 May 1997. At the Brecon end, the canal terminates at the Theatre Basin, as a result of a project to rebuild the Brecknock Boat Company wharf, which was abandoned and infilled in 1881... The old wharf buildings have been re-used by the Brecon Theatre, and access is provided by a new canal bridge, named after the engineer Thomas Dadford.
The next section to be opened for navigation was a 2-mile stretch running from Pentre Lane bridge, just above Tamplin Lock, down through Tyfynnon, Malpas and Gwasted locks to Malpas junction, and then up through Gwasted Lock on the Crumlin branch, to the bottom end of Waen Lock. Work started in January 2008, and was completed in time for the Welsh Waterways Festival held at the end of May 2010. The Inland Waterways Authority National Trailboat Festival was held at the same time, and a slipway was rebuilt at Bettws Lane, just below Malpas Lock, to enable the trailboats to be launched easily. Bettws Lane bridge was itself rebuilt to provide more headroom for boats.. the bridge was formally opened by the Mayor of Newport on 1 March 2007.
Friday 8th December 2017
The Monmouthshire Canal terminated in a basin at Newport and it was not until 1818 that it was provided with an outlet to the river Usk. From Newport the main line proceeded northwards for a mile and a half to Malpas Junction where it split into two arms of almost equal length, the westerly arm climbing by 32 locks in 10½ miles up Ebbw Vale to a terminus at Crumlin, while the easterly section ascended the eastern slopes of the valley of the Afon Llwyd to a terminus at Pontnewynydd, near Pontypool, 11 miles and 41 locks from the junction at Malpas. These summit levels were 358ft and 447ft above sea level respectively. The Monmouthshire Company owned more than 40 miles of tramroads to which numerous privately built tramroads were connected; indeed the company became so tramway minded that it eventually turned itself into a railway company.
Construction of the canal was supervised by Thomas Dadford Jr, the original Act of Parliament issued in 1792 and further Acts were obtained as the work progressed. That of 4 Jul 1797 gave powers to extend the navigation at Newport and the terminus was moved southwards to Potter Street. There was a further Act in 1802. The main line opened in 1796 Newport to Pontnewynydd via Pontymoile. The Crumlin Arm left the main line at Crindau, rising 358ft through 32 locks to Crumlin (including the Cefn flight of 14 locks near where my mother-in-law lives at Allt-yr-yn) and was opened in 1799. In the late 1840s a short extension joined the canal to Newport Docks and hence the River Usk. Because the canal was isolated from other similar undertakings, Dadford was free to set the size of the locks and they were designed to take boats of max. width 9ft 2in, length 63ft and draught of 3ft.
On the main line, railway branches were constructed from near Pontypool to Blaen-Din Works and Trosnant furnace. From Crumlin a railway was built to Beaufort Iron Works and additional branches to Sorwy Furnace, Nantyglo Works and the Sirhowy Railway at Risca
1846 the company became the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company. In 1865 Brecon and Abergavenny Canal was taken over by this new company. In 1879 the company closed part of the canal at the Newport end. In 1880 the company was amalgamated with the Great Western Railway.
In 1915 the “last regular Newport market boat” made its journey, and Mr G Jobbins wrote “last week for the market boat to run on the Mon canal after 120 years service. Men joined up and sent to France and served during Great War” in the boatmen wages book. In 1930 the section between Llanarth Street and the north side of the High Street Bridge was closed. The last cargo was transported on the Crumlin branch. In 1938 the last cargo was transported on the mainline. This national decline led to Parliamentary Acts allowing canals to be legally abandoned. In 1948 British Transport Commission took over responsibility of the canal and closed the Crumlin line in 1949 and the rest were closed in 1954 and 1962.
As soon as the canal closed in 1962 some parts were built on. It was such a shame they did not wait, as restoration plans were put into action only two years later. This branch has been renovated in parts, and full restoration is planned. There are plans to reopen the canal down to the Fourteen Locks then on to central Newport. This requires building two aqueducts, raising a number of roads and rebuilding 20 locks. There are plans to build a marina at the Darran quarry in Risca with a transport museum. Other plans include a new marina at and a connection to the River Usk, to connect to the main system of canals in the UK.
My Nicholsons Canal Guide, dated 2009, shows the branch navigable from Barrack Hill in Newport up as far as Pontywaun. I know much work has been done in Newport, especially at Fourteen Locks.
sculpture at 14 Locks Centre
Here are a few "chocolate box" photos of Allt-yr-yn lock in Bygone Days (around 1900):
These are very picturesque, but although work has been done to restore Fourteen Locks, Allt-yr-yn Lock has vanished, except for a couple of photos a dog-walker took of beams in the undergrowth...
Tuesday 5th December 2017
So now it's the turn of the canals of South Wales, also disconnected from the main waterways network. There are - or were - five canals of major importance in this area, and the Dadford family or the Thomas Sheasbys, father and son, were concerned with all of them, as surveyors or engineers and sometimes as contractors. All were built to tap the mineral wealth of the mountainous interior and its narrow valleys, conveying it down to the growing towns on the seaboard of the Bristol Channel. With one exception they performed this function directly, following a mainly north to south route down the valleys to the sea. Where they could tap the sources of their traffic directly they did so, but where a difficult terrain made this impossible, tramroads led from canal wharves to collieries, ironworks or limestone quarries. Some of these tramroads were built by the canal companies themselves, others by individuals or groups of industrialists.
Generally speaking, these Welsh canals carried enormous tonnages and, although they are now forgotten and derelict, they continued to do so for some years after the Midland canals had begun to feel the draught of railway competition...the first railway proper (as opposed to a tramway) to tap a Welsh valley was the Taff Vale, which competed directly with the Glamorganshire Canal. This was opened in 1841, yet 10 years later the canal was carrying 287,000 tons of iron ore a year compared with 125,000 tons on rail (although the latter had more of the coal traffic).
Finally, however, these canals can be said to have become victims of their own success. For the industries they served grew so mightily by their aid that the canals could no longer cope with the traffic...The South Wales canals were ill-equipped to meet the challenge of railways, for the nature of the country made water transport slow and difficult. They were simply ladders of locks climbing from sea-level up the sides of mountain valleys...and the average depth of lock was greater than in England, a 10ft fall per lock being common.
When they were built, their engineers were usually able to tap the headwaters of streams at their summit levels which must have seemed to them to ensure a more than adequate water supply at all seasons. Yet traffic grew to such unforeseen proportions that water shortage often became a problem.
From Swansea, Neath, Cardiff and Newport these canals climbed inland from their respective valleys. Occasionally, where it became necessary to cross from one side of the valley to the other, a masonry aqueduct, sometimes of considerable size, would be built..All four canals were promoted and authorized between 1790 & 1794 and had been completed by 1799.
The Swansea Canal left the North Dock in Swansea and climbed by 36 locks in 15 miles up the valley of the Tawe to a summit terminus at Hen Neuadd lime works, 373ft above the sea. An aqueduct of 3 arches at Ystalyfera carried the canal over the river Twrch, a tributary of the Tawe. Tramways connected the canal with collieries and lime works. The canal was also connected later to the Brecon Forest Tramway which crosses Forest Fawr to reach a terminus in the Usk Valley at Senny Bridge. The Neath & Brecon railway afterwards used part of the line of this tramway.
[Swansea Canal aqueduct at Ystragynlais in 1950]
[Swansea Canal at Landore 1970s]
The Mond, Clydach 1949
The Mond area shown above was very toxic to wildlife due to the industrial pollution, hence lack of vegetation. Nowadays, volunteers struggle to keep it cut back.
The canal was gradually abandoned, under the terms of a series of Acts of Parliament, starting with the Great Western Railway Acts of 1928 and 1931. The canal was nationalised in 1947 and became part of the British Transport Commission, whose Acts of 1949 and 1957 brought further closures. The remainder was closed under the terms of the British Transport Commission Act of 1962 when control of the canal passed to British Waterways, who remained responsible for the maintenance of the waterway and its structures until 2012, when they were superseded by the Canal and River Trust. In-filling of much of the canal has taken place in the past 50 years. The northern section was affected by the creation of the A4067 road around Ystragynlais, while the southern section below Clydach had been infilled by 1982, as part of the work associated with the A4067 dual carriageway. Just five miles (8 km) of the canal remains in water, from Clydach to Pontardawe where it is now a popular trail, part of the National Cycle Network. The canal empties from an aqueduct into the Lower Clydach River at the point where it joins the River Tawe. A project is underway to dredge the canal and to remove the Japanese Knotweed that grows extensively around the Swansea Valley. In 1981, the Swansea Canal Society was formed, and has been working towards restoration of the remaining sections of the canal.
The Neath Canal terminated at transhipment quays on the River Neath at Neath and Giant's Grave and was later extended privately for ½ mile from the latter place to iron works at Briton Ferry. It ran for 13 miles up the valley of the Neath to a summit terminus at Abernant House, ¼ mile above the 19th lock. Short branches and tramways linked mines, iron- and copper-works.
At Ynysbwllog the canal was carried from the south to the north side of the valley by a 5-span aqueduct.
In 1980 after a heavy storm a large part of the aqueduct collapsed - see photo above. Subsequently this was replaced by one of a single span in 2008
In 1824 the Neath Canal was linked to Port Tennant, Swansea, by the 8½-mile, privately-owned Tennant Canal, constructed at the expense of George Tennant. In order to make a junction with the Neath Canal at Aberdulais, the Tennant Canal was carried over the river Neath by an aqueduct of 10 spans 340ft long.
[railway bridge in the background]
The Neath and Tennant Canals Preservation Society was formed in 1974, later becoming a limited company and charitable trust in 1977. The Society was established in order to take an active role in safeguarding, restoring and promoting the canals. The Society’s early achievements include the restoration and re-opening of Aberdulais Basin, the clearance of long sections of the abandoned Neath Canal above Resolven and the restoration of Tonna Workshops. It has successfully campaigned to protect the canals from the adverse effects of new road schemes and other developments which might impinge on their restoration, and has actively promoted their use by the public.
There are several projects in place for further restoration and regeneration, including addressing the problems of water supply, mooring, winding (turning), development of town centres, and much more. This year has not been kind, as the water level has been extremely low.
The Glamorganshire/Cardiff Canal was the most important in South Wales for it provided an outlet for the ironworks in the neighbourhood of Merthyr...In addition ironworks and collieries in the neighbourhood of Aberdare, Dyffryn and Mountain Ash were tapped when the independently promoted Aberdare Canal, running down the Cynon valley for 7 miles to join the Glamorganshire at Abercynon, was completed in 1812.
The length of the main line from the sea lock at Cardiff to the ironworks at Cyfarthfa is 25½ miles and, as the summit at Cyfarthfa is 543ft above sea level, the rise is particularly steep. Not only are the chambers of the 52 locks unusually deep, but they include no less than eleven pairs of double locks and one triple staircase below Nantgarw. Such a concentration of locks is unique in Britain
The masonry aqueduct at Abercynon is also unique in Britain in that it was built wide enough to carry the Aberdare turnpike road, the canal company erecting a toll gate on it. With the closure of the canal, the present road now occupies the full width of the structure
Immediately to the east of this aqueduct is Abercycnon Wharf where the most famous of the many tramroads associated with this canal terminates. This is the Penydaren Tramway which follows the opposite side of the valley on its course from the Penydaren ironworks. It was on this line that Richard Trevithick made his historic experiment with steam traction in Feb 1804.
[Penydaren Tramway where it crosses the Taff. Beyond, pipes are a feeder to Glamorgan Canal]
Unfortunately not much of this canal exists nowadays.
The Glamorganshire Canal was, for a time, financially the most successful waterway in Britain. Although built on the cheap by the Merthyr ironmasters, it was a triumph of design, a tribute to the ability of its engineer Thomas Dadford. It qualifies as a contour canal, despite the fact it rose some 568 feet in its 25.5 mile length but Dadford's genius was not appreciated by his masters and he left the canal under a cloud. Sadly, today almost all of the routes of both canals have been obliterated due to pressure of space in the narrow valleys they occupied.
Today, limited traces of the canal remain, about one half being covered by the A470 Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil trunk road, which was constructed in the 1970s. Much of the Taff Trail between Abercynon and Merthyr Tydfil follows the line of the canal. The section from Tongwynlais to the Melingriffith Tin Plate Works at Whitchurch has been retained in water and was used for fishing, but is now the Glamorganshire Canal local nature reserve. In addition, there are a few bridges and locks which have not been destroyed. There are also short stretches in water at Nightingales Bush and at Locks 31 and 32 in Pontypridd and there are plans for restoration here.
Monday 4th December 2017
In order to lighten the weight on their foundations, the towering stone piers were built hollow with bracing cross-walls from a height of 70ft above the ground. This was instead of the more usual rubble filling which, in Telford's words, added weight but no strength. The stonework of these piers is still in excellent condition.
As this is an important World Heritage site, it is cared for well and is still going strong after more than 200 years, including some parapet maintenance performed in February of this year
The sections of the iron trough were cast by Telford's friend William Hazeldine - 'Merlin Hazeldine' as he called him - at the Plas Kynaston Ironworks close to the site
He also cast the iron bed-plates for the Chirk aqueduct and continued to furnish the ironwork for all Telford's work with the exception of the eastern half of the Caldeonian Canal. The perfection of the Pont Cysyllte ironwork, particularly in contrast to the crudity of Longdon, is very evident. Telford maintained that the iron trough would not be cracked even by the hardest frost, but his successors preferred not to put this claim to the test, for the aqueduct is provided with an outlet valve directly above the river through which the water can be discharged in spectacular fashion in periods of severe frost.
This plug also enables the trough to be drained for inspection and maintenance:
The aqueduct was completed and opened on 26 November 1805, as a cast-iron plaque at the foot of the pier immediately to the south of the river records
...It is not only the greatest monument of the canal age in England; it is also one of the finest examples of civil engineering in the world and as such now scheduled as an ancient monument.
Also, since 2009 it is a UNESCO World Heritage site - see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1303 for more info
In default of the building of the canal northwards from Pont Cysyllte, the company constructed a 3¼ mile tramway from a basin near the aqueduct to collieries at Cefn and Ruabon Brook, but although this brought traffic to the canal it could not supply the water which would have been delivered from the projected summit reservoirs. Some other means had to be found to provide the uncompleted canal with an adequate supply of water. By agreement with the owner, the level of Bala Lake was raised so that, by means of a regulating weir and sluice, it became a storage reservoir.
Bala Lake 1817
A feeder branch was constructed along the northern slopes of the Vale of Llangollen... bringing Dee water to the canal. This was completed in 1808. Before the coming of the railway, this branch carried considerable traffic to Llangollen and boats also worked as far as Pentre Felin, half a mile below the intake from the Dee, above the Horseshoe Pass.
About 1852 a 4½ mile tramway was built to link these quarries with the canal at Pentre Felin.
Today the Ellesmere...plans south of Frankton junction including the whole of the Montgomery canal, have been abandoned...But happily the line from Hurlestone junction to Llangollen and Llantisilio still exists. It owes its survival to the facts that it now acts as a supply channel to the Mid-Cheshire waterboard, and that in summer it attracts an ever-increasing volume of pleasure traffic thanks to the outstanding beauty of the country through which it passes andto the sensational quality of its two great aqueducts.
I must add a note here, to update you from a canal site, concerning the Montgomery Canal :
Much of it is still closed to navigation after its official abandonment back in 1944, but it was one of the first canals to be considered for reopening by the emerging canal enthusiast movement in the 1960s and a long and dogged restoration campaign is slowly but steadily achieving results. Seven miles through six locks are now navigable from the junction with the Llangollen Canal (three of them added in 2003) and a further isolated 17 mile section is usable through Welshpool.
[Queen's Head Montgomery Canal]
Sunday 3rd December 2017
With the principle established at Longdon, Pont Cysyllte went ahead, but in the process Telford's original plan underwent considerable modification.
First, at Jessop's suggestion, in order to reduce the weight of the ironwork, it was decided to give it more support by adding another pier to make eight spans of 53ft instead of seven of 60ft.
Also at Jessop's suggestion, the cross-section of the masonry columns supporting the trough was increased from 6ft x 10ft to 7ft x 12ft because, said Jessop, 'I see men giddy and terrified in laying stones with such an immense depth beneath them'.
Again, Telford had proposed a trough 5ft in depth and 9ft wide which Jessop accepted, but Telford later decided to increase the width to 11ft 10in and to carry the towpath over the trough, instead of beside it as at Longdon, forming the base of the path on iron plates supported by brackets and columns. This idea may well have stemmed from the wooden towpath in Berwick tunnel - see 28th Nov below.
Finally, the most important alteration of all was the decision to extend the aqueduct over the river meadows on the south side rather than prolong the approach embankment as first planned. Even so, this embankment is 97ft high at tip, the greatest ever raised in Britain at that time. With this extension the great aqueduct assumed the form in which we now see it: 19 spans of 53ft in a length of 1007ft, carrying the canal at a height of 127ft above the river Dee.
Friday 1st December 2017
The valley of the Dee, or the Vale of Llangollen as it is called, presented the most forminable barrier of all to all of the constructors of the Ellesmere Canal. William Jessop's original survey of the line called for two long tunnels, one 4600 yards long, which would enable the canal to cross the Dee and the Ceiriog at low level. By the time of Telford's appointment in Sep 1793 this idea had been abandoned, but the line was still undecided. In Jan 1794 William Turner of Whitchurch produced his plan for a three-arch masonry aqueduct for the Dee crossing at Pont Cysyllte. Although the tunnels had been dropped, the plan now involved carrying the canal in & out of the valley by a series of locks, wasteful and costly. At this juncture Telford persuaded the canal committee to postpone decision on Turner's aqueduct and to grant him the sum of £100 towards the cost of preparing a plan of his own. He was given until the end of March to do so and...the idea of a high-level crossing was born...This original plan was for an aqueduct of seven 60ft spans.
On 28 Feb 1895 Josiah Clowes died and Telford succeeded him as engineer of the Shrewsbury Canal...William Turner denounced Telford's scheme (for the aqueduct) as impracticable and thus he proposed an experimental smaller-scale version on the Shrewsbury.
Clowes had started to build a masonry aqueduct over the river Tern at Longdon but, with the exception of the abutments, the works had been swept away in the great flood of winter 1794-5. Telford had reason to be grateful to this flood, for it was the replacement of the many road bridges it swept away in the Shropshire area that established his reputation as a bridge builder. An iron trough, 186ft long, was now carried over the river between Clowes' original abutments. It was given ample intermediate support by means of a series of three triangulated cast-iron bearers resting on masonry foundations. Additional vertical cast-iron columns are carried from these foundations to support the towing path which is carried in a subsidiary trough beside the main one.
Longdon is the first considerable cast-iron aqueduct in the world (the first ever iron aqueduct was the small iron trough aqueduct at Holmes on the Derby Canal, completed by Benjamin Outram in Feb 1795...Telford was not aware of this) and as such it is a monument of outstanding importance. As the Shrewsbury canal is now derelict Longdon aqueduct has stood in some jeopardy in recent years, but is now used as an accommodation bridge by a local farmer.
Tuesday 28th November 2017
On 10 Sep 1792 a scheme was launched in Ellesmere, with what a contemporary report calls a 'paroxysm of commercial ardour', for a canal from the Mersey at Netherpool (later to be known as Ellesmere Port) to the Severn at Shrewsbury. According to this Report, the books were opened at noon and by sunset a million of money (equivalent of £58m today) had been subscribed. This gives the measure of the canal mania. An Act was obtained the following spring, but the war with the French caused rapid inflation and the canal company was soon struggling. Notwithstanding the fact that it included some of the finest and boldest canal works ever executed in Britain, its main line never reached either the Mersey or the Severn. Beginning nowhere and ending nowhere, it remained for many years isolated from the rest of the waterway system.
[the original plan, dating from 1795]
As projected, this main line was to have been 56¾ miles long, the route running from Ellesmere Port to Chester, climbing thence up the valley of the river Alyn to a 380ft summit level at Poolmouth, near Wrexham. Descending from this summit, it then crossed the valleys of the Dee and Ceiriog and proceeded southwards through the Welsh Marches to Shrewsbury, with a considerable tunnel between Weston Lullingfield and Shrewsbury.
The northernmost portion of this route, the Wirral Line as it was called, from Ellesmere Port to Chester, was completed and opened to traffic in 1795. There it joined the Chester Canal, authorized in 1792 to connect the River Dee at Chester with Middlewich and Nantwich. Scenting a rival route which threatened to syphon off Preston Brook and Runcorn traffic, the powerful Bridgewater and Trent & Mersey canal interests (i.e. The Duke et al) succeeded in getting a clause inserted in the Chester Canal Act which forbade that company to build their canal within 100 yards of the Trent & Mersey at Middlewich. Consequently only the Nantwich line was built and the canal was a commercial failure, isolated from the growing canal network...The section of the Ellesmere from Chester over the summit to the north side of the Vale of Llangollen was never built. This was unfortunate because this would have tapped the famous iron works of Brymbo and Bersham as well as various collieries in the area. The only cutting that was ever done was a length about 2 miles long near Ffrwd, intended to be part of the proposed feeder branch from Poolmouth, which would have supplied the summit with water from reservoirs in the eastern valleys of Esclusham Mountain and also served Brymbo Ironworks. It was referred to phonetically (not being Welsh) by the proprietors as the Brumbo or Frood Branch.
The southern section of the main line from Weston to Shrewsbury was likewise never built, the canal terminating in a basin at Weston Wharf where warehouse, clerk's house and erstwhile Canal Tavern now overlook the dry bed of a canal whose course is fast being obliterated. I can see from a couple of photos online that all that remains now is a few stones in an overgrown nettle-bed. New housing obscures the area.
It is doubtful that the company incurred any substantial loss of income from failure to complete the canal to Shrewsbury as Severn traffic was...so uncertain...The Shrewsbury Canal, authorized in 1795, was built expressly to provide a means more convenient than the Severn for conveying the products of the Shropshire coal and iron district round Coalbrookdale to Shrewsbury. Where local traffic was concerned, Weston Wharf served a wide area. It is worth recalling that the links for the suspension chains of Telford's Menai Bridge were conveyed from ironworks in Shrewsbury to Weston Wharf for shipment to the Menai.
At Lockgate Bridge at the foot of the 4 locks at Frankton, near Ellesmere, a branch led away southwestwards towards the Welsh border.
canal stub near Lockgate Bridge
This was one of the first sections to be cut because it was important to the company for 2 reasons:
1) it connected with the Montgomery Canal (authorized 1794), which was being built towards it by the Dadfords...the two were united in Jul 1797
2) it tapped extensive limestone quarries at Llanymynech. These quarries were not only valuable in building the rest of the canal but later provided a valuable source of traffic in agricultural lime. By raising prices, the French war encouraged wheat growing and so created a demand for lime. How great this trade once was is apparent from the number of old lime kilns to be found at wharves beside the canal at its branches. There are three at Hampton Bank, two at Colemere, four at Weston and no less than eight at Quina Brook, the terminus of the Prees Branch. (I have looked at all these areas on Google Maps and can find no sign of any remains - in fact the Prees branch appears to have vanished entirely)
From the top of the Frankton locks, a branch was extended eastwards to Ellesmere and Whitchurch, but when it became obvious that the main line was not going to be completed in its original form, the Ellesmere and Chester companies came to an agreement and the country between Whitchurch and the Chester Canal was surveyed by engineers of both companies with a view to affecting a junction. The result was the present line to Grindley Brook, near Whitchurch, through Wrenbury to the Chester Canal at Hurleston, 2 miles from Nantwich, which was opened in March 1805. Thus the uncompleted main line of the Ellesmere Canal was provided with a somewhat roundabout outlet to Ellesmere Port but was still unconnected to the rest of the Midlands canal system. The Trent & Mersey stubbornly maintained an embargo on a junction at Middlewich until the very end of the canal era.
[this is a canoe map of the Llangollen but will help give an idea]
The junction at Hurleston brought welcome trade to the Chester Canal and Telford was called upon to restore it to order. (See 5th September below for when the Rolts passed this junction on their travels) Of its 14 broad locks, the two at Beeston were built on sand and had given continual trouble owing to subsidence and leakage. Telford constructed a lock lined with cast iron panels in 1828 and they still survive today
Beeston Iron Lock 2016
Meanwhile the section of the main line of the Ellesmere from the north side of the Dee Valley southwards to Frankton was nearing completion. On this length are situated all the major works, the two tunnels and the great aqueducts at Chirk and Pont Cysyllte for which the canal is justly celebrated. Thomas Telford and William Jessop were responsible for construction of the aqueducts, Telford the 36-year-old up-and-coming genius engineer, Jessop the experienced 48-year-old overseer. Work on the lesser of the two aqueducts, that over the Ceiriog valley at Chirk, began in 1796 and was completed by 1801. It is ostensibly a conventional masonry aqueduct of the period although it exceeded in size even Rennie's great Lune Aqueduct, having 10 spans of 40ft each carrying the canal at a height of over 70ft above the river...
Chirk Aqueduct is in fact more original in conception than it appears. In building such masonry aqueducts, the canal engineers had from the first experienced difficulty in making the side walls resist the weight of water and puddled clay. Rennie, in his single span aqueducts, used the principle of the horizontal arch to counter this with good effect, as at Wyre. But on larger multispan aqueducts, this method was not practicable and at Dundas and Lune Rennie used iron tie rods, anchored internally in the masonry.
Further down the Welsh border the Dadfords built two aqueducts...causing the same problems Jessop had with those on the Cromford Canal (see last week). One span...collapsed and another gave continual trouble.
At Chirk, Telford triumphantly overcame this trouble by forming the bed of the canal from cast iron plates bolted together and securely bonded into the masonry on either side. These plates not only formed a watertight bed and so obviated the need for clay puddle, thus reducing weight, but they also constituted a continuous cross tie.
Immediately on the north side of this aqueduct is the 459yard Chirk tunnel. This and the shorter Whitehouses tunnel beyond it are unusual for their date in having towpaths through them. Telford may have derived this idea from Berwick Tunnel on the Shrewsbury Canal, since he became engineer to that waterway on the death of Josiah Cowes...This was consturcted of wood, cantilevered over the water on wooden bearers let into the masonry..said to be a suggestion of William Reynolds, the Ironmaster. In any case, the wooden structure disappeared in 1819 and Berwick became a 'legging' tunnel...and at Chirk and Whitehouses more durable towpaths were constucted in masonry.
I personally think this idea would make a clever drop-down alternative, like a temporary table-top in a caravan or somesuch. But it was presumably not a feasible solution.
Chirk Tunnel 2006
Monday 27th November 2017
I'm back from my trip. We were most annoyed by the closure of the M4 motorway diverting us through Newbury, but found a silver lining in that our slow progress along London Road allowed me to see the state of affairs with the Narrowboat pub, which I did not feature last week due to reading it had closed a year ago. I saw first hand that it is still boarded up and looks due for demolition. What a shame.
Moving on with Tom Rolt to what he calls "The Waterways of the West":
The northernmost waterway in this group is the Lancaster Canal which was originally projected in 1792 to extend from Kendal in Westmorland southwards through Lancaster and Preston to Wigan and West Houghton. Today this may seem an improbable line for a major waterway with broad locks, but the promoters looked forward to a heavy northbound trade in coal from the Wigan area and to return traffic in stone, lime and slate from the north. They also had their eye on the rich agricultural district of the Fylde as a potential source of traffic.
Brindley had originally commenced a survey of the canal shortly before his death, when it was completed by Whitworth, but it was constructed by John Rennie, being the first of the two major waterways on which he was engaged.
The summit level of the canal is a little under 14 miles long from the terminal basin at Kendal to the first of the 8 broad locks at Tewitfield, near Carnforth. This length includes a 380 yard tunnel at Hincaster. Three feeders supply this summit level with water from reservoirs and streams. The 6 miles of canal from Kendal to the northernmost of these feeders at Stainton has now been abandoned and partially infilled. From the bottom of Tewitfield Locks the canal extends to Preston on one unbroken length of 42 miles, the longest on any single line of canal in the country. On this level there are several stone single-span aqueducts carrying the canal over the small rivers falling from the western slopes of the Pennines. That over the river Wyre is a good example of Rennie's use of the horizontal arch principle, in order to resist the pressure of the water in the channel.
[the view from the aqueduct:]
This section too includes Rennie's best canal work, his aqueduct over the Lune near Lancaster: 600ft long, its 5 semicircular spans carry the canal 62ft above the river.
Completed in 1797, it is without doubt the finest and largest example of a masonry aqueduct in the country and happily its stone has proved much more durable than the Bath stone of the Avon valley aqueducts. Like the latter, the style is classical and monumental, but unlike Dundas, the simpler design is Rennie's own...again, however, as at Dundas (see below)...it includes the same exceptionally deep cornice.
At Lodge Hill, 7 miles south of the Lune Aqueduct, a branch connects the canal with Glasson Dock on the Lune Estuary. Because the main line of the Lancaster was never completed as planned, this northern section remained isolated from the rest of the canal system and its only outlet is to this tidal estuary.
As originally conceived, the main line would have crossed the Ribble at Preston by an aqueduct, whence it would have risen 222ft to Walton Summit. For this Ribble crossing Rennie designed a masonry aqueduct of 3 spans, the drawings of which have been preserved, but owing to financial stringency, neither this nor the flight of locks was ever built. Instead a plate tramway, 4½ miles long, was constructed by William Cartwright and opened in 1803.
[the Old Tram Bridge - actually it is a 1960s replica]
From Walton Summit...the canal passes through a tunnel 300 yards long and soon turns southward in the direction of West Houghton. It never reached here, construction ceasing at Bark Hill, near Wigan. The Leeds & Liverpool Company originally planned to cross over the Lancaster by an aqueduct 60ft high at Bark Hill, but by arrangement between the two companies, the latter built a branch from their canal at Johnson's Hillock, 3 miles from Walton Summit, to join the uncompleted main line of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal by 7 rising locks. This branch, and the Lancaster canal as far as Kirklees, thus became a part of the main line of the Leeds & Liverpool although it remained in Lancaster Canal onership.
[Johnson's Hillock junction with Leeds & Liverpool - Lancaster canal on the left]
The Glasson Branch was built in 1819-26 and gave access to the sea.
With the coming of the railways, the proprietors wanted to lease the canal to a railway company. The tramway was leased in 1863 and partially closed in 1864 & fully in 1879. The London & North West Railway leased the canal in Jul 1864, then purchased it in 1885. North of Preston a daily Packet Boat Service ran from Kendal to Preston in 10 hours, but even that showed a general decline due to competition from trains. The last cargo sailing was 1947. The canal always suffered from leakage due to the limestone bed, and in 1939 the L & NW Railway closed it at Kendal, then 1941-2 the next part, then tried to close the whole canal in 1944, as coal transport was then removed to road. In 1955 an Act of Parliament closed it, despite IWA protest (Tom's organisation). In 1958 the M6 was built, and the canal had to be culverted in three places, although it was not drained as it provided water for important industry e.g. chemical works. But the 14 miles of canal north of Tewitfield Locks was isolated from the rest.
In 1976 the Lancaster Canal Trust protest led to the Garstang Branch being made navigable for small craft by the construction of slipways, but the main part was impossible to improve. The Kendal to Preston section now terminates at Ashton Basin and the surrounding land belongs to the University of Central Lancashire. However, in 2002 due to a grant from the Millennium Commission and public funds, the Millennium Ribble Link was constructed. The first new canal for 97 years, it connects the Lancaster to the national network via the River Ribble, River Douglas and the Leeds & Liverpool Rufford Branch. But it is only open for about 90 days every summer, as it still suffers from flooding and leakage. The Kendal end is similar: when we visited the Lake District last year we saw the damage Storm Desmond had done and I see that much of the canal restoration work was undone. This year much dredging and de-silting has taken place in order to make things more comfortable for users.
[Tarleton Lock, entrance to Ribble Link]
Sunday 19th November 2017
Construction of the most southerly of the east-west waterways, the Kennet & Avon Canal from Newbury to Bath, was authorized in 1794 and opened on 28 Dec 1810 with the completion of the lock flights at Devizes and Bath.
The idea of an east-to-west waterway link across southern England was first mentioned in Elizabethan times, between 1558 and 1603, to take advantage of the proximity of tributaries of the rivers Avon and Thames, only 3 miles (5 km) apart at their closest. Later, around 1626, Henry Briggs made a survey of the two rivers and noted that the land between them was level and easy to dig. He proposed a canal to connect them, but following his death in 1630 the plan was dropped. After the English Civil War two bills were presented to parliament, but all failed after opposition from gentry, farmers and traders worried about cheaper water transport reducing the value of fees on turnpike roads they controlled, and cheaper produce from Wales undercutting locally produced food.
Plans for a waterway were shelved until the early 18th century. However, in 1715, work was authorised to make the River Kennet navigable from Reading to Newbury. Work commenced in 1718, under the supervision of surveyor and engineer John Hore of Newbury. In 1723, despite considerable local opposition, the Kennet Navigation opened, comprising stretches of natural riverbed alternating with 11 miles of artificially created lock cuts
The River Avon had historically been navigable from Bristrol to Bath, but construction of watermills on the river in the early years of the 13th century had forced its closure. In 1727, navigation was restored, with the construction of six locks, again under the supervision of John Hore. The first cargo of "Deal boards, Pig-Lead and Meal" reached Bath in December.
The two river navigations were built independently of one another, in order to meet local needs, but they eventually led to plans to connect them and form a through route.
Tom Rolt continues: It is a broad canal throughout with locks passing craft 73ft x 13ft 10in and was the second of John Rennie's major canal works. It is 57 miles long, with 79 locks, 31 rising to a summit level 474ft above sea level at Savernake, near Marlborough, and 48 falling to Bath. The Company obtained an Act in 1813 to enable them to acquire the Kennet Navigation (in 1797 they had bought a controlling interest in the Avon Navigation). Thus the Company gained control of the whole route from Reading to Bristol, 86½ miles with 106 locks.
Rennie had a trademark use of extended parapet, as can be seen in these 2 photographs. They may be to protect the stonework below from the effects of rain, but were not very efficient in this
John Rennie in 1810
On the summit level at Savernake is the Bruce Tunnel, 502 yards long, of generous dimensions, the minimum height being 13ft 2in, width 17ft 4in. Boats were hauled through by means of side chains on the walls...the portal on the east side bears a large stone tablet carrying an inscription ...to Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury, and his son
[east entrance photographed 2005]
As the walker who took this photograph said, the tunnel only exists because Bruce refused to allow the canal to pass through his land in a deep cutting. I don't know whether he funded the alternative i.e. this tunnel, or the plaque was put up in sarcasm
Thomas Brudenell Bruce 1776
The summit level, from Crofton top lock on the east side to Wootton Rivers top lock on the west, is only a mile long. There was a great debate about whether to secure a longer lower summit level with much longer tunnel, but the Company made a fateful decision against this idea. Consequently, the supply reservoir at Wilton is below the present summit level, an arrangement which entails the constant expense of pumping. The Crofton engine house stands above the canal and Wilton Reservoir on the east side and delivers water to the summit through an open leat. It contains two beam engines which worked until recently.
I shall update the history of the Crofton Pumping station, just wishing Tom were here: In 1950s the chimney was reduced as it was unable to cope and it was cheper to retire it and electric pumps were installed. The 1812 steam pumps were the oldest in the world, so this would have upset him. But in 1968 the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust bought the pump house in order to restore it, and in 1970 it reopened. In 1985 the building was Grade 1 listed and in 1997 the chimney was restored to its original state and height. 2012 saw the 200th birthday celebrations.
[Crofton Top Lock 1976, derelict, as was the railway bridge seen in the distance]
While we may have reservations about Rennie's ability as a canal engineer, particularly as regards water supplies, there can be no doubt at all as to the design and quality of his masonry work, and this is nowhere better displayed than on the Kennet & Avon canal as it approaches Bath. The elegant stone. The elegant stone ballustraded overbridge near Wilcot on the 15 mile level between Wootton Rivers and Devizes is an appropriate foretaste of things to come.
[Wilcot 'Ladies' Bridge]
At Devizes the canal leaves its long level through the Vale of Pewsey and plunges down towards the Avon valley by a remarkable flight of 29 locks. This is the most spectacular lock flight in England because the locks are broad and laid out in a straight line so that they can be seen in perspective. Caen Hill Locks
Below Bradford on Avon the canal crosses the rivers Semington and Biss by stone aqueducts
and then follows the steep slopes of the Avon valley to Bath, crossing and recrossing the river by two superb aqueducts of Bath stone. The smaller and simpler of the two at Avoncliff has a single elliptical main span of 60ft flanked by two 34ft semicircular flood arches.
The larger Dundas Aqueduct at Limpley Stoke is more monumental
Unfortunately Rennie...overestimated the durability of Bath stone. The west face of the Dundas Aqueduct has weathered particularly badly and has been crassly patched with engineering blue brick by its railway owners. Rennie and Brunel would rightly have regarded this as the act of uneducated barbarians.
So, all three would no doubt be thrilled to see the result of the renovation undertaken in 2002-4, where the engineering bricks were once again replaced by Bath Stone.
One further feature of the Kennet & Avon must be mentioned and this is Claverton Pumping Station designed to pump water from the Avon into the canal on the slopes of the valley above. Apart from a small feeder at Seend, below Devizes, this is the only supply to the canal west of Crofton
A leat from the Avon drives two coupled undershot waterwheels 15ft 6in in diameter which are connected to...two beam pumps. Unfortunately this station no longer functions as some of the wooden mortice teeth are missing...and some of the floats from the waterwheels, but otherwise the machinery is complete and in sound condition. It dates from the opening of the canal and is quite unique. The design is attributed to Rennie, but who built it is not known.
The pumping station closed in 1952, but as I have demonstrated here many times, there is always help available for these projects. It lay derelict until the 1960s when students of the University of Bath took on the challenge. They have renovated the equipment and it reopened in 1976. In 1981 electric pumps were installed for efficiency and the pumphouse now runs its machinery for the public on occasion.
I was a familiar story for the Kennet & Avon over the years; due to problems with water supply most of the trade had to be carried over the summit by other means. Also it suffered from leakage through porous soil and was not the financial success it deserved to be.
However, I am pleased to say that after much restoration work it was fully reopened in 1990.
Its neighbour, the Wilts & Berks Canal, was even less fortunate. Authorized in 1795 and completed in 1810, its main line provided an alternate route from the Bristol Channel to the Thames, running from the Kennet & Avon at Semington through Melksham, Lacock, Dauntsey, Wootton Bassett, Swindon, Shivenham, Uffington and Challow to the Thames at Abingdon, a distance of 52 miles. (It can be seen on the map above) There were also branches as follows:
Pewsham to Chippenham 2 miles
Stanley to Calne 3 miles
Swindon to Thames & Severn Canal at Latton 9 miles
Shivenham to Longcot Wharf ¼mile
Grove to Wantage 1 mile
Robert Whitworth & his brother William were the engineers. Traffic on this predominantly rural canal was never heavy. Perhaps its busiest period was during the construction of the main line of the Great Western Railway, but the completion of that line doomed it to extinction. In 1904 it was not officially closed, but navigation...had practically ceased owing to the income being insufficient to meet the cost of maintenance.
Officially abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1914 this canal too lay dormant until in 1977 public enthusiasm and the work of volunteers led to formation of the Wilts & Berks Canal Amenity Group, then in 1997 the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust. Much of the progress of restoration has been due to the dedication and extraordinary efforts of volunteers of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, and the enabling works of the Canal Partnership. Several miles of the waterway have been returned to water with numerous structures, including bridges, locks and lengths of towpath, restored or in the process of restoration. The Partnership is aiming to complete the restoration of this important recreational and wildlife resource by 2025.
<I am going away for a few days now, so will return to you next week>
Saturday 18th November 2017
An even more ambitious scheme 'The Grand Commercial Canal' would have linked by water, not only the Peak Forest and the Cromford, but also the Chesterfield Canal at Killamarsh. The latter was an early work (authorized 1771, completed 1777) begun under the superintendence of James Brindley and continued after his death by Hugh Henshall. It was built as a broad canal from the Trent at Worksop to Chesterfield. The chief engineering work was the great summit tunnel at Norwood. This was originally 3182 yards long until 80 yards at the eastern end fell in and were opened out. Mining subsidence caused the final collapse and closure of the tunnel in 1908.
Tom leaves it there, as restoration had, when he wrote the book, been authorized but not started. The tunnel was bricked up,
but in 1976 proper organization began with formation of the Chesterfield Canal Society. At first they worked on the section east of the tunnel, but progress was slow so attention turned to the west side, where much had been filled in and built on. Tapton lock reopened in 1990, 4 more locks and 3 new bridges weere built, the 5 mile section from Chesterfield being reopened in 2002, although still isolated from the canal system. The canal's restored western section reached Staveley by 2012 and East of Norwood, Derelict Land Grants were obtained by Rotherham and Nottinghamshire councils in 1995, and restoration between Norwood and Worksop began in earnest. In 2003, the Worksop to Norwood Tunnel stretch of the canal was reopened, with 30 restored locks, one new lock and three new bridges. The western section belongs to Derbyshire County Council and is now fully navigable. In 2016 the Staveley Town Lock was completed and there now only remains a 9 mile stretch of the eastern part to go. There are plans to link it with the South Yorkshire Navigation at Rotherham, but future plans have been threatened by the route of HS2, the high speed railway, coinciding with the proposed route for some part. As they say "Watch this space"!
In the south of England two waterways were constructed to unite the Bristol Channel with the Thames. Here the watershed to be surmounted, though not so formidable in height as the Pennines, caused the canal engineers particular difficulties owing to the permeable nature of the oolite and the chalk in the escarpments of the Cotswolds and the Wiltshire Downs. The first of these...the first east to west water route...was the Thames & Severn Canal, authorized in Apr 1783 and opened throughout on 19 Nov 1789 (Happy 228th Birthday for tomorrow!). Before his death James Brindley had made a preliminary survey and the work was carried out by his assistant, Robert Whitworth.
As early as 1730 there had been a scheme to make a canal up the valley of the Stroudwater from Severn to Stroud, but nothing was done. In 1759...a curious scheme for a canal without locks to appease mill owners...also came to nothing. Finally, a canal was constructed under an Act of 1776 from the Severn at Framilode to Wallbridge, Stroud (completed Jul 1779) and this became the western terminal of the Thames & Severn Canal.
(phases relate to restoration)
Despite the fact that the canal tunnels under the Cotswolds scarp, there were 14 locks rising from Inglesham and 28 locks falling to Wallbridge and a further 13 on the Stroudwater falling to the Severn. The mistake made on the Northern locks was avoided, for these were all broad locks, 70ft in length, designed to accommodate the craft then trading on the Severn and Upper Thames.
The Thames & Severn is distinguished for its unique round tower lockhouses of Cotswold stone, several of which survive
Chalford Roundhouse 2008
But the outstanding engineering feature of the canal is the great tunnel at Sapperton, 3808 yards long, situated on the summit level. At the time it was built it was the greatest work of its kind ever executed in this country. Especially rare were the entrances, embellished with artistic architecture, rather than the utilitarian structures usually seen
Coates entrance 1904
Daneway entrance 1910
Throughout its history the Thames & Severn suffered from the primitive state of the Upper Thames Navigation where belated improvements came too late to save it. This, and an acute shortage of water on the summit level hastened its end. By 1895 it had become unnavigable and although a trust was formed to reopen the canal and actually succeeded in doing so for 3 months in 1899, the water problem defeated them. The canal was thn handed over to the Gloucestershire County Council, but their efforts also failed.
Again, I would like to reassure Tom and take him to see the turnaround that would reverse his misery. Although the canal did close, a bit at a time, between 1901 and 1941, in 1972 it was included in a book 'Lost Canals of England & Wales' and this prompted the reforming of support groups. As you can see from the map above, various projects are in place to restore parts, including the culverting of the canal under the motorway. It is very slow work, but a lot of progress has been made. Funding comes in bits and pieces, but gradually they are getting there.
Friday 17th November 2017
The Cromford and the Peak Forest Canals should be mentioned at this point because, although both were originally conceived as local projects for the better transport of coal and limestone, both soon became involved in schemes for through routes and, although these never materialized, they were eventually linked by a tramway over the High Peak.
The Cromford Canal was authorized in 1789 and completed in 1801. 14 miles long from Cromford Wharf to Langley Mill, from which point the Erewash canal linked it to the Trent, it was engineered by William Jessop with Benjamin Outram as his assistant.
The principal engineering works are the 3063 yard Butterley Tunnel and the two considerable masonry aqueducts, one 200 yds long and 50ft high over the river Amber at Ambergate, and the other a single span of 80ft across the river Derwent at Lea Wood, near the terminus of the canal in Derwent Valley. Masonry aqueducts were not Jessop's strong point and both caused him considerable trouble. The arch of the Lea Wood aqueduct collapsed and was rebuilt at his own expense. He started work on the aqueduct in 1790 but by 1793 his part completed structure started to fail and serious cracks were found, which were attributed to the use of a lime mortar from a quarry in nearby Crich. The mortar didn't ever set and, at his own expense, he rebuilt the structure using iron cramps, which continue to hold the masonry together to this day. Jessop was a man at the forefront of his profession, having previously been John Smeaton's deputy and was keen to establish his reputation as an engineer, hence his willingness to remedy the defects on the Cromford aqueducts at his own expense. Whilst the faulty aqueduct was being rebuilt cargo was carried via tramway on a temporary bridge. His own account of this failure places the blame squarely on his own shoulders. Apparently he was guilty of cutting corners to save money, which ended up costing more.
aqueduct over Derwent
[this aqueduct had 5 arches, over River Amber, railway, main road, mill leat and drovers' way]
The Cromford Canal ran from a junction with the Erewash and Nottingham canals at Langley Mill to a terminus on the edge of the Peak District at Cromford. A heavily engineered route through hilly country, it featured two major aqueducts and four tunnels, of which the longest by far was the Butterley Tunnel. It was the tunnel which brought about the canal’s demise, with mining subsidence causing it to collapse more than once. Eventually in 1900 the canal company gave up repairing it, and the small amount of surviving short-distance traffic on the two halves of the canal had ended by the 1940s and the canal was closed apart from a short length at the south end. So far the canal has been the subject of no fewer than four separate restoration schemes. First was the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association’s reopening of the first lock and basin at Langley Mill to create a new terminus for the Erewash Canal. Next came the Cromford Canal Society’s restoration work which repaired the northern end near Cromford, where a horse-drawn trip-boat ran for some years until the canal society folded. Another group cleared locks at Ironville but was deterred from further work by alterations to the canal channel (including demolition of the top lock) for flood prevention. Finally in recent years the Friends of the Cromford Canal have taken on the task of completing restoration. So far work has been concentrated in the Langley Mill and Ironville areas, but the Friends have also worked hard to ensure that the Pinxton Branch of the canal will be reinstated when opencast mining ends. Article in Canal Boat Magazine 2012.
The Peak Forest Canal, also 14 miles long, was projected in 1794, engineered by Benjamin Outram and completed in May 1800. It runs from a junction with the Ashton Canal at Dukinfield, where it crosses the River Tame by a masonry aqueduct, to Whaley Bridge and Bugsworth where connecting tramways linked the canal to limestone quarries in Peak Forest.
The outstanding feature of this canal is the magnificent masonry aqueduct, 90ft high, which carries the waterway over the steep-sided valley of the Mersey near Marple. This is undoubtedly one of the finest masonry aqueducts in the country. From the southern end of this the Marple light of 16 locks lifts the canal to its summit level and terminus.
From the first the Peak Forest became involved in schemes for through routes which would link it by water either with the Caldon Branch of the Trent & Mersey or with the Cromford Canal. These schemes did not materialize, but eventually the Peak Forest and the Cromford canals were linked by the Cromford & High Peak Tramway which was authorized in 1825 and was engineered by William Jessop's son Josias. Six inclined planes lifted this tramway from Cromford Wharf to a 12-mile summit level on the High Peak at an altitude of 1271ft above the sea. Most of the traffic on the tramway, as on the two canals, was local. It never succeeded in its aim to provide a shorter route between London, the east Midlands and Manchester.
In 1848, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway bought the Ashton, Peak Forest and Macclesfield Canals in order to feed goods into their railway system. This helped to keep the Peak Forest Canal active and the carrying of limestone continued to thrive, but traffic slowly declined into the early part of the twentieth century and the tramway from the quarries closed in 1925, giving the Peak Forest very little traffic south of the Macclesfield Canal junction. The Marple locks, together with the Ashton Canal and lower level of the Peak Forest became neglected and difficult to navigate and by 1962 it began to look as if they might be officially closed. However, interest in using canals for leisure was growing and the Macclesfield and upper level of the Peak Forest began to attract craft for cruising. In 1964, the Peak Forest Canal Society was formed and, with the Inland Waterways Association, fought to keep the Peak Forest and Ashton Canals open and to restore them. Their campaign led to the restoration of the Ashton Canal in 1974 and the re-opening of the Cheshire Ring of canals for leisure use.
As you may remember, we traversed the Cheshire Ring in 1984 and the Peak Forest Canal was an important part of this. I say this because our dismay when encountering the silted up Rochdale Canal - see Wednesday below - can now be seen in context. The previous two days had been spent on the Peak Forest and Marple Locks, well established nowadays as one of the most beautiful parts of the canal system. On 7th June 1984 we Set off along the Upper Peak Forest Canal to Whaley Bridge. Really lovely. Weather was warm and sunny and views were fantastic. Two ranges of hills with a valley between, the canal perched on the side of one range and views across to the other.
We got to Whaley Bridge about 6.30 (17½ miles) and found a place to moor for the night. We performed essential maintenance - pumped out the onboard toilet at the boatyard and followed this up by a pub-crawl of the town - both of prime importance. Next morning (8th June 1984) the weather was distinctly hot - the roof was more like a frying pan, but members of the party lay and fried (see photo above), with Ian's radio on - fantastic, peaceful slow chugging along through the beautiful countryside in the sun. We then tackled Marple locks (16 in 1 mile), beautifully kept in a well-to-do area, merging into lovely countryside.
Marple Bottom Lock
Aqueduct over R. Goyt
In 1984 renovations of the canal had only just been completed: in 1983 the two parts were officially named the Upper & Lower Peak Forest (had been unofficially called this for years), and upgraded to Cruising Waterway Standard . Bugsworth Basin has taken much longer, and was only reopened in 2003. In 2004 Marple Locks held a party to comemmorate their 200th birthday
Thursday 16th November 2017
In 1774 Sir John Ramsden was empowered to build a short canal, 3¾ miles long, from the Calder & Hebble at Cooper Bridge to a terminus at King's Mill, Huddersfield. This canal included 9 locks of the same gauge as the those on the Calder & Hebble and it later became known as the Huddersfield Broad Canal. Meanwhile on the western side of the Pennines, the Ashton Canal was built from a basin at Ducie Street, Manchester (see yesterday) to Ashton-under-Lyne. The construction of the Rochdale Canal provided the Ashton with an outlet to the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield. It was then realized that if the Huddersfield and Ashton canals were linked, the result would be the shortest water route between the east and west coasts. The Huddersfield Canal was promoted and authorized in 1794 to provide this link.
The Huddersfield canal, even more than the Rochdale, reflects the optimism of the canal mania years, an optimism that could drive a canal at prodigious labour and expense through entirely unsuitable country. On a map the project may look logical, for the canal is but 20 miles long compared with the devious route of the Leeds & Liverpool. But this 20 miles consists simply of two long ladders of locks, 73 in number, climbing from east and west to the highest canal summit level in England, 656ft above sea level, between Marsden and Diggle. Taking the Rochdale and Ashton canals into account, in order to reach this summit from the level of the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield, a boat had to climbthrough 59 locks...then tackle the longest canal tunnel in England under Standedge.
Standedge Tunnel, 5456 yards long, is the major work on this canal and its construction was an extremely slow and costly operation. The canal was completed from the eastern end of the summit at Marsden and from Ashton to Staleybridge in 1798 but work on the tunnel dragged on interminably, Benjamin Outram, William Clowes and John Rooth being successively engineer-in-charge. Twice, in 1800 and 1806, the company had to apply to Parliament for powers to raise more capital. The tunnel was finally completed on 4 Apr 1811.
[I love the gates, although of course they are very recent - they show legging through the tunnel]
Apart from its great length, Standedge must have been an extremely arduous and difficult tunnel to negotiate...9ft wide and...9ft from the surface to the arch...no towing path; boats 'legged' through...only portions are lined and in the parts that are not, the rock surfaceis not only very rugged and rough but the dimensions vary considerably, at times narrowing to an extremely restricted 7ft x 7ft...it is not surprising that boatmen were allowed 4 hours for the job...traffic admitted by tunnel keepers at each end. Ventilation shafts were as much as 600ft deep and railway tunnels were constructed alongside, but at a slightly higher level.
After Outram's resignation, the well known engineer Thomas Telford was called in to advise on the tunnel's completion. Excavation had been taking place, not only from each end, but also from the bottom of the air shafts. (The spoil was hoisted up the shafts and dumped nearby, where it can still be seen.) This led to the tunnel being somewhat crooked and Telford discovered that, at one point, the two excavations were not going to meet and they were going to end up with two tunnels! Correcting this has resulted in the tunnel having noticeable bends!
Once the railway was open, the railway company had no reason to promote the canal, which fell into slow decline and was eventually closed in 1944.
So when Tom Rolt wrote his book, the Huddesfield was closed. In 1974 the Huddersfield Canal Society was formed with the objective of seeing a re-opening of the canal. This seemed extremely ambitious as whole sections had been filled in or even built over and several bridges had been removed to create nice, straight roads. However, with the hard work of volunteers, the backing of Kirklees, Oldham and Tameside Councils and British Waterways, and aided by grants and work schemes, the restoration of all the sections of canal that had not been infilled had been achieved by the 1990s. Among the remaining obstacles to re-opening the canal were:
a) a stretch of just over half a mile, through Stalybridge, which had been filled in and partly built on.
b) a half mile in-filled stretch through Slaithwaite, luckily not built over.
c) two factories in Huddersfield extended across the canal.
d) a number of road bridges, including at Wade Lock, Uppermill and Wool Road, Dobcross, that had been removed to allow road widening. The Canal Company worked with the local authorities, British Waterways and property owners to overcome these costly obstacles. Luckily, funding from English Partnerships, the Millennium Commission and other sources enabled the re-opening of the blocked sections and the tunnel so that the whole canal became navigable once more in May 2001.
Some sections were more difficult to renovate than others, as listed above, and some parts a real challenge:
pylon at Heyrod near Stalybridge
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is nowadays part of the South Pennine Ring and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Of these three waterways through the Pennines, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, first to be projected and last to be completed, proved the most successful, but as arteries for through traffic between east and west all can be said to have failed. We have already remarked that traffic on the Leeds & Liverpool tended to be heavy on the eastern and western sections and comparatively light over the summit and this trend was even more marked in the case of the Rochdale and the Huddersfield...It is also questionable whether, if heavy through traffic had developed over the Pennines, enough water would have been available to pass it despite the provision of summit reservoirs.
I think our experience on the Rochdale only empasises this last comment - see yesterday.
Over and above the formidable difficulty of working traffic through them, these 3 canals all suffered to a varying extent from a wholly unnecessary break of gauge. The Leeds & Liverpool, with a long main line built by one company, suffered least in this respect, but even here the locks on the line from Leeds to Wigan were built to a slightly enlarged Yorkshire Keel gauge, whereas the locks east of Wigan were built to suit the 72ft long craft of the Mersey region.
The Rochdale Canal alone was built with locks to suit this western gauge...'affording great advantages to the populous towns of Manchester, Rochdale, Halifax, Wakefield and others'. Unfortunately...the Rochdale depended for its outlet to the east coast on the Calder & Hebble with its 57ft Keel locks...so the large locks on the Rochdale merely represented so much wasted money and water.
The Huddersfield canal was in this respect the most short-sighted of the three because it was built to Brindley's 'narrow' gauge 72ft x 7ft...for no better reason than that it was a Lancashire promotion designed to connect with the Ashton and Peak Forest canals...yet at Huddersfield it joined Sir John Ramsden's canal with Keel gauge of 57 ft. Through traffic was therefore limited to small boats measuring 57ft x 7ft.
Thus these three canals reflect the strength of a stubborn provincialism brought about by lack of communications that seems almost inconceivable to us today. It produced a lack of uniformity which undoubtedly hastened the eclipse of canals in face of rail and road competition. Today both the Rochdale and Huddersfield canals have been abandoned and only the Leeds & Liverpool survives precariously.
Of course, this was written in 1969 and the situation has, as I have said, changed hugely due to public enthusiasm and the development of the leisure industry. All of the canals mentioned have been renovated and reopened, and in many parts are much better than they ever were.
[Huddersfield Canal Society boat gathering at Diggle Summit June 2017]
Wednesday 15th November 2017
In northern England the formidable barrier of the Pennines ruled out all thought of a ship canal, even one of the modest dimensions of the Forth & Clyde, and the three canals which eventually crossed the Pennines were designed purely for internal trade between the growing industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, although they also provided water links between the Humber and Mersey ports. So formidable was the Pennine barrier that before the coming of these canals, pack horse trains were the only practicable form of transport between Yorkshire and Lancashire for most of the year
[Victorian drawing of 18th Century travel]
The most northerly and oldest in origin of the 3 trans-Pennine water routes is the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, 127 miles long, the longest main line of canal in Britain to be controlled by one company. The originator of the project was a Mr Longbotham of Halifax, who was inspired by an inspection of the Bridgewater Canal. His proposed route was resurveyed by James Brindley & Robert Whitworth, an authorizing Act was obtained in May 1770 and, since Brindley & Whitworth were too busy, Longbotham superintended the building of it himself, beginning simultaneously at the eastern end from a junction with the Aire & Calder Navigation at Leeds Bridge and from the western end at Liverpool.
A public meeting took place at the Sun Inn in Bradford on 2 July 1766 to promote the building of such a canal. John Longbotham was engaged to survey a route. Two groups were set up to promote the scheme, one in Liverpool and one in Bradford. The Liverpool committee was unhappy with the route originally proposed, following the Ribblevalley through Preston, considering that it ran too far to the north, missing key towns and the Wigan coalfield. A counter-proposal was produced by John Eyes and Richard Melling, improved by P.P. Burdett, which was rejected by the Bradford committee as too expensive, mainly because of the valley crossing at Burnley. James Brindley was called in to arbitrate, and ruled in favour of Longbotham's more northerly route, though with a branch towards Wigan, a decision which caused some of the Lancashire backers to withdraw their support, and which was subsequently amended over the course of development. In 1768 Brindley gave a detailed estimate of a distance just less than 109 miles built at a cost of £259,777 (equivalent to about £32.67 million as of 2014). An Act was passed in May 1770 authorising construction, and Brindley was appointed chief engineer and John Longbotham clerk of works; following Brindley's death in 1772, Longbotham carried out both roles.
At first, rapid progress was made, but owing to the difficulty of the work and shortage of capital, 46 years would pass before the main line was fully completed:
1770-77 Longbotham - Leeds River Lock to bottom lock Gargrave - 33 miles
1790-96 Whitworth - Gargrave to Burnley - 21 miles
1796-1801 Whitworth - Burnley to Enfield Wharf - 7 miles
1801-10 Fletcher - Enfield to Blackburn - 8 miles
1810-16 Fletcher - Blackburn to Wigan - 21 miles
1783-90 Whitworth - Wigan to Parbold - 7 miles
1770-75 Longbotham - Parbold to Liverpool - 27 miles
As you can see, for many years there were two stubs of canal with nothing in the middle. Trade soon developed in this way, giving no need to complete the difficult central section.
On the first Yorkshire section of the canal to be built, Longbotham engineered a most remarkable series of double locks and lock staircases in order to lift the canal out of Airedale. In 16 miles there are 3 double locks and 4 staircases of 3 locks each, culminating in the remarkable five lock staircase known as Bingley Five-rise or originally Bingley Great Lock
Like all the locks between Leeds and Wigan, their chambers can pass craft 62ft x 14ft 3in. Such a concentration of wide locks is unique in Britain, and Bingley Five-rise is justly celebrated as one of the outstanding features of our canal system. It must have caused even greater wonder when it was completed in 1777.
The most difficult and costly portion of the canal to construct was that between Foulridge and Enfield Wharf for which Robert Whitworth was responsible. It represents a variation from the original line...in order to secure a longer summit level. This summit, which is 411ft above the Aire at Leeds and 433ft above the terminal base at Liverpool, includes the 1640 yard tunnel at Foulridge and two summit reservoirs. The section also includes the 559 yard Gannow tunnel, between Burnley and Enfield, and the great Burnley embankment. This last is the most impressive work on the whole canal. ¾ of a mile long and over 60ft high, this tremendous earthwork carries the canal in a majestic curve around and above the town of Burnley, presenting the canal traveller with one of the most striking industrial landscapes in Britain.
Less industrial today, but still fascinating
especially as half way along, it crosses Yorkshire Street in the town on an aqueduct
By the completion of the Leigh Branch from Wigan to Leigh in 1821, the Leeds & Liverpool was linked with the original line of the Bridgwater Canal, which was extended to meet it, and so with Manchester. Finally, in 1846, the opening of the short Stanley Dock branch with its 4 locks gave the canal an outlet to the Mersey at Liverpool
Stanley Dock 19th Century
[today, the old tobacco warehouse on the left]
Proceeding south, the next trans-Pennine route is the Rochdale Canal - from the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield, Manchester to Smeaton's Calder & Hebble Navigation at Sowerby Bridge. Construction was authorized in the spring of 1794 and it was completed in Dec 1804.
Apparently in 1776 a group of 48 men from Rochdale raised £237 and commissioned James Brindley to survey possible routes between Sowerby Bridge and Manchester. He proposed two possibilities, one similar to that built and another much more expensive via Bury. In June 1791 Rennie produced a new survey and 2 months later added branches to Rochdale, Oldham and limeworks near Todmorden. The Act, early in 1792 was opposed by millowners for the usual reasons, stating that 59 mills would be affected with subsequent unemployment, and it failed. They tried again in Sep 1792 including a 300ft tunnel and 11 reservoirs, again defeated. In Apr 1794 with amendments the bill was passed.
Whereas the first trans-Pennine railway, engineered by T L Gooch under the direction of George Stephenson, follows a parallel course and pierces the summit by Littleborough tunnel, the canal engineers chose to avoid tunnelling. This decision meant very heavy lockage (no less than 92 in 32 miles) and a summit only ¾ mile long at a height of 438ft above the level of the Bridgewater Canal. The Rochdale Canal was credited to John Rennie, but it seems that he only surveyed it up to the Act was passed, then William Jessop laid out the line and where the locks should be, and acted as inspector/consultant throughout the work. Henry Taylor and William Crosley Junior were joint engineers.
The most considerable work on the canal is the masonry aqueduct of 4 elliptical arches over the Calder at Hebden Bridge
Much more significant historically however are two adjacent stone bridges over the canal known as Gorrell's & March Barn, 21 miles from Sowerby Bridge, believed to date from 1797. Both are skew bridges, crossing the waterway at an angle of 60 degrees...Gorrell's used very large stones and March Barn...an example of true skew arch construction using winding courses
Gorrell's Bridge is no more but Dr Cyril Boucher discovered the one at March Barn and accredits the pioneering skew arch to Rennie. Tom is doubtful. although he suggests the proximity of these two bridges on the Rochdale may demonstrate the 'learning curve'.
Apart from a short profitable section in Manchester linking the Bridgewater and Ashton Canals, most of the length was closed in 1952 when an act of parliament was obtained to ban public navigation. The last complete journey had taken place in 1937, and by the mid 1960s the remainder was almost unusable. Construction of the M62 Motorway in the late 1960s took no account of the canal, cutting it in two.
When an Act of Parliament was sought in 1965, to authorise the abandonment of the canal, the Inland Waterways Association (Tom's organization) petitioned against it, and when it was finally passed, it contained a clause that ensured the owners would maintain it until the adjacent Ashton Canal was abandoned. In early 1971, a boat rally was organised on the canal, and later that year, there was public debate over the high cost of a project which had infilled part of the canal to create a shallow water park, when restoring the section for navigation would have been cheape. Discussion of the relative merits of restoring this canal or the Huddersfield Narrow Canal in 1973 led the formation of societies to promote both schemes in 1974. The Rochdale Canal Society wanted to see the canal fully re-opened, as part of a proposed Pennine Park. The Ashton Canal, which joins the canal above lock 84, reopened in 1974, and the nine locks on the Rochdale Canal between the junction and the Bridgewater were restored at that time.
Grants funded improvements in the Rochdale Canal and gradually parts were renovated and reopened. There were further threats from the construction of the M66 Motorway in 1979 and a supermarket at Sowerby Bridge the following year, but the Lottery Fund and Manpower Job Creation Scheme helped out when the canal was sold and on 20 May 1983 the section opened between Todmorden and Hebden Bridge. 1985 brought another threat, from an extention of M66 but in 1990 Sowerby Bridge to the summit at Longlees opened. It was isolated from the rest of the canal network and it took until 11 Apr 1996 for the first boat to pass from the restored Rochdale to the Calder & Hebble and 1 Jul 2002 for the canal to be open for its entire length.
The Rochdale has had many problems since reopening (often related to the shortage of water because the reservoirs were sold off in 1923).
In 1984 we travelled, as part of the Cheshire Ring, along the Ashton Canal, into the Rochdale Canal, along just over a mile of this canal to the junction of the Bridgewater. My abiding memories relate to this last sentence above and you can see why in my photos:
9 Jun 1984
As you know, I tried to write a diary and did so on that day: Entered Rochdale at about 12.30 and almost immediately hit trouble. Very little water and a heck of a lot of mud meant that we were more aground than not. There was a lot of shouting as we were in a horrible dark crypt under a block of flats. Much heaving on ropes and a bit of water from the gates, courtesy of the lock-keeper and we eventually got through. Clive and I ran ahead with the windlass and the anti-vandal key. Got through by 3.30 to cheers by tourists with cameras.
As can be seen from the history above, this area has all been renovated, although up until 2001 it looked very much the same, somebody online has posted this photo of the junction, remarkably familiar
(I assume this is the other end of the tunnel, as the block of flats and multi-storey carpark is missing)
In 2005 it had been spruced up and by 2013 a fancy new entrance added
Tuesday 14th November 2017
Before the Caledonian Canal was even begun, another water link between the eastern and western seas had been built across the lowlands of Scotland. This was the Forth & Clyde Canal running from the Firth of Forth (Carron River) at Grangemouth to the Clyde at Bowling Harbour, a distance of 35 miles with 39 locks.
This should be compared with 60 miles and 29 locks for the Caledonian Canal passage, although only 21½ miles of the latter are in canal, the rest consisting of a series of freshwater lochs.
Canal proposals to link the Firths of Forth & Clyde had been made and discussed since the time of Charles II. Nothing was done until construction was authorized by an Act of 8 March 1768 to plans and estimates prepared by John Smeaton. The Forth & Clyde was indeed Smeaton's greatest canal work although he was unable to see it through to its completion. Work began under his direction at the eastern end and at first proceeded so rapidly that half the canal had been completed in two years and nine months after the passing of the Act. There was then a hiatus due to a disagreement between the engineer and the proprietors. When this was sorted Smeaton carried on, but when work was only 6 miles from the Clyde it stopped for lack of funds in 1775. By the time work was restarted after an interval of nine years, Smeaton had retired from practice and the canal was completed under the direction of Robert Whitwell.
The outstanding engineering feature of the Forth & Clyde is the number of stone built aqueducts, 43 in all, of which 10 are of substantial size. (This fact is debateable now, but I will deal with this later). The most outstanding are those over the Luggie Water at Kirkintilloch and over the Kelvin River near Maryhill, to the northwest of Glasgow.
Kelvin Aqueduct photographed 1977
Unlike Telford, who was able to use the River Garry and its lochs as a natural feed for his canal through the Great Glen, Smeaton had to construct large reservoirs to supply his 16 mile summit level. That at Kilmananmuir is 70 acres in extent with a depth of 22ft at the sluice, while that at Kilsyth, (Banton Loch) which impounds streams falling from the Kilsyth hills, is of 50 acres with a depth of 24ft.
As a sea to sea route for shipping, the Forth & Clyde was of less value...than the Caledonian on account of its more restricted dimensions. Although it was twice deepened, the ultimate depth being 10ft, the locks limited its use to craft not exceeding 68ft 6in x 19ft 8in, whereas the Caledonian can pass craft 150ft x 35ft x 13ft 6in. On the other hand, unlike the Caledonian, the Forth & Clyde enjoyed considerable local trade thanks to its position in the industrial lowlands and near the Scottish coalfields. Two of the earliest railways in Scotland, the Monkland & Kirkintilloch and the Glasgow & Garnkirk fed traffic to it until they became absorbed in a larger railway network, while there was a considerable flow of traffic from the Monkland Canal at Port Dundas via the Glasgow branch which joined the main line at the western end of the summit level.
In 1821 the Forth & Clyde was joined by another waterway. This was the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal from a terminal basin at Port Hopetoun (Lothian Road), Edinburgh to a junction with the Forth & Clyde at the 16th lock, 2 miles west of Falkirk
Port Hopetoun 1825
Although the Union Canal (as it is commonly called) was constructed by Baird, its line was surveyed by Telford and is remarkable for the fact that, with the exception of a flight of locks descending to the junction at Falkirk, it follows an unbroken level for 30 miles. Like the older waterway with which it connects, it is remarkable for its aqueducts over the Avon, Almond and Leith rivers, that over the Avon being 80ft above the river.
There is also a tunnel at Black Hill, Falkirk, 696 yards long. To supply this long high-level summit with water, reservoirs were constructed at Barbauchlay, Loch Coat and Cobbinshaw. There was also a feeder from the Almond River, 3 miles in length.
Traffic ceased on the Monkland Canal in 1934 and two years later the Union Canal locks at Falkirk were filled in, thus isolating the long summit level. This withering of the branches meant that traffic dwindled on the Forth & Clyde until by the 1950s it was only used by fishing boats making for the west coast fishing grounds or by occasional pleasure craft. It was closed in 1961. What undoubtably hastened its end was that, as it had originally been planned as a sea-to-sea canal, all road crossings were by moving bridges to allow unlimited headroom for sailing vessels. Originally there were 33 drawbridges on the canal... which hampered navigation and caused obstruction on the main roads.
The M8 motorway was constructed along the route of the Monkland Canal in the early 1970s, and was for some time known as the 'Monkland Motorway'. In some places the canal is still there in a culvert underneath, in others wetlands can be seen below the motorway, where it is raised up. Further plans are still being made to reopen parts of the canal for leisure purposes.
[Monkland Canal, Coatbridge photographed 2005]
Where the Union and the Forth & Clyde joined was called above by Tom Rolt the '16th lock'. When the canals were closed in 1963 this junction had been filled in and built over, as had the locks. But as I suggested above, there has been considerable advance in recent years, bringing this canal into the public eye as never before. In 1980 there was a huge surge of interest in canal renovation for the leisure industry, and an organisation was formed to save the Forth & Clyde 'The Forth & Clyde Canal Society'. They have achieved tremendous things, including a petition to renovate the canal, joined with a Millennium Link project in 1999, which funded the process and the canal was reopened in 2001.
As part of the Millennium celebrations in 2000, National Lottery funds were used to regenerate both canals. A boatlifting device, the Falkirk Wheel, was built to connect the two canals and once more allow boats to travel from the Clyde or Glasgow to Edinburgh, with a new canal connection to the River Carron and hence the River Forth. The Falkirk Wheel opened on 27 May 2002 and is now a tourist attraction
It is only one of two boat lifts in this country and is unique in the world.
Monday 13th November 2017
The American War of Independence and the depression which followed it temporarily halted canal expansion in 1772, discouraging new promotions and delaying completion of those canals which, like the Oxford, were already under construction. Even such trunk waterways as the canals of the Cross were essentially local promotions, which made them particularly vulnerable to changes in the economic climate. But in 1776 there were signs of a renewal of confidence, the Stourbridge and the Dudley Canals, the Loughborough Navigation and the Caldon Branch of the Trent & Mersey all being authorized in this year. Thereafter there was a gradual increase in new promotions rising to a peak between 1791 & 1794. It was this period that saw the rise to eminence of such great canal engineers as William Jessop, John Rennie and Thomas Telford. Rennie and Telford, especially, were conscious of the fact that the canals for which they were responsible were national works of great social and economic significance. Hence they were concerned to endow them with a certain monumental quality...
It will help to clarify description of these canals of the middle period if we consider them geographically rather than chronologically (can't say I agree with this approach, but I will defer to Tom as the author). They fall roughly into three groups:
- the East to West coast waterways
- those in the Western half of England and in Wales
(Neither of these groups was directly associated with, or dependent upon, the early canals of the Cross)
- those canals which were directly connected to the Cross either as feeder branches or direct routes linking one arm with another
Most northerly of the East-West canals is the Caledonian which, unlike the waterways so far mentioned, was built for the benefit of coastal shipping
[we travelled along this canal in 1990, I think it was, but I didn't keep much of a log]
In the days before railways, coastal trade was as important as inland navigation but, just as the latter was subject to delays by flood or drought, so the former was often hazardous and liable to be held up by storms. A particularly bad example was the northern passage between the east and west coasts via Pentland Firth, where ships might lie stormbound for months at Stromness in Orkney. An inland passage...became highly desirable and for this the Great Glen of Scotland offered the most likely course. As you can see from the map above, the Glen was already made up of several lochs, 'only' needing to be linked up and extended to Inverness and the sea. James Watt, of steam engine fame, surveyed a canal route through the Glen in 1773 and John Rennie prepared a second scheme in consultation with Watt in 1793...
The project was, however, revived in 1801 during the war with Napoleon, when various inland ship canals—such as those from London to Portsmouth, and from Bristol to the English Channel—were under consideration with the view of enabling British shipping to pass from one part of the kingdom to another without being exposed to the attacks of French privateers.
But it was not until 1803 that construction began under the direction of Thomas Telford as part of a comprehensive scheme for the improvement of the Highlands. It was not completed until October 1822. In the 1840s considerable remedial works were undertaken including increasing the depth of the canal from 15ft to 17ft. These works were completed in May 1847.
['The Callie' at Fort Augustus, where it flows into Loch Ness]
Traffic between the western end of the Caledonian Canal and the Clyde was greatly assisted by the completion of the Crinan Canal across the Mull of Kintyre from Ardrishaig to Loch Crinan...this nine miles long canal with 15 locks saved a sea passage of 85 miles.
Here again, James Watt had made the original survey, but when construction was authorized in 1793 the work was carried out by James Hollingworth under Rennie's superintendence. Later, in 1817, improvement works were put in hand by Telford with John Gibbs as his resident engineer.
Commercially the Caledonian Canal was not a success. The threat of French privateers...provided an incentive for its construction, but by the time it was finished, the war with France had become a memory. Also timber prices were favouring import of Canadian timber. Over and above all this, however, was the more fundamental reason that the coming of steam power at sea and the rapid increase in the size of ships soon robbed the canal of its purpose.
The limited value of the Caledonian Canal and its remote location have, throughout history, tended to obscure the fact that it was a quite outstanding feat of engineering in its day...In sheer scale of excavation it is doubtful whether any single work of a similar kind in Britain surpasses the great summit cutting at Laggan between Loch Oich and Loch Lochy.
Temporary railways and barrow-runs operated by horse gins, all the paraphernalia that was later to be used by the railway builders, were employed in the construction of this cutting, while as soon as the excavation was deep enough it was flooded and the work continued by two of the first steam dredgers ever used. These were designed by that versatile engineer Bryan Donkin, built by the Butterley Company in Derbyshire, shipped at Gainsborough on the Trent & Mersey and brought up the east coast for assembly on site.
Although the great flight of eight locks at Banavie known as 'Neptune's Staircase' is probably the most celebrated work on the canal,
after the Laggan Cutting the building of the sea lock at Clacknaharry was the greatest engineering feat on the canal.
The gates on the sea locks were built of Welsh oak to resist the action of sea water, but the gates of all the freshwater locks were of cast-iron sheathed with Memel pine, from the Butterley Ironworks in the case of the locks on the eastern side and from John Wilkinson's Bersham Ironworks or William Hazeldine's Ironworks at Plas Kynaston on the western side. Both these works were in Denbighshire and the iron was shipped from Chester.
Sunday 12th November 2017
On Friday we left the companies wrangling over who would build what around Coventry
However, the Coventry Company never built the eleven miles of canal between Fradley & Fazeley. Instead it was built, half by the Trent & Mersey and half by the Birmingham Canal Company, whose Birmingham & Fazeley Canal joined the Coventry at the latter place. Subsequently, the Coventry Company exercised its right to purchase the 5½ miles of canal between Fradley & Whittington Brook which had been built by the Trent & Mersey
Further south, a protracted wrangle over toll arrangements between the Coventry and Oxford Companies produced a ludicrous result that two canals were built parallel and within a stone's throw of each other for over a mile before an agreed junction was reached at Longford. Sanity ultimately prevailed and this duplication was later eliminated by the formation of the present junction at Hawkesworth (see 10th October below), but it still recalls bygone disputes by being awkwardly acute.
Hawkesbury Junction also provides evidence of a rare surveying error on the part of Brindley and his team. It was intended that the two canals should be built on the same level, but the Oxford Canal proved to be nearly 7 inches higher than the Coventry, necessitation the present stop lock at the junction.
Brindley made the initial surveys of both the Coventry and the Oxford Canal...Ageing and in poor health...this was an impossible burden and there were rich dividends in prospect (for others)...The Coventry Company had the temerity to sack Brindley and engage engineers who were not part of his team. The Oxford Company also complained about him and Brindley resigned, so his assistant Samuel Simcock replaced him, later joined by Robert Whitworth.
The Oxford Canal is the supreme surviving example of contour canal cutting. It represents Brindley's techniques of canal engineering carried to such extreme lengths as to verge on the absurd. (i.e. meandering all over the place).The canal between Napton and Banbury was never improved and remains to this day in its original state. This includes the summit level between Marston Doles and Claydon which is 11 miles whereas the distance as the crow flies is little more than 4 miles.
I covered the Oxford Canal in this blog earlier: 22 July on the outward journey with the Rolts, and 13 Oct the return leg, so see below.
When the bells were rung at Oxford on 7 January 1790 to acclaim the arrival of the first of the long boats loaded with coal from the Midland collieries, they celebrated also the completion of a grand design conceived 25 years before by men who did not live to see their scheme fulfilled and the four rivers united.
The unassuming ease with which these first canals fit into the landscape is perhaps their outstanding characteristic. Their coming was unprecedented and at first they must have left scars of raw earth behind them, but now...they fit as easily into the landscape as the meanderings of a brook. All their structures too fit as easily into the landscape as the canal itself. This is partly because transport difficulties, combined with the need for economy, compelled them to use local materials. this was usually bricks, burnt on or near the site, since clay was the material most readily available in the Midlands, but where good building stone was available they put it to good use, as on the Oxford Canal on the approach to Oxford. But their buildings enhance the landscape because they were built simply and well, in what we now term the functional tradition, with no selfconscious architectural pretensions but with an eye for the good proportions that function imposed...It is true to say that in our canal system as a whole it is the buildings which are the most vulnerable. Many have disappeared, been vandalised or altered out of all recognition.
Fortunately there still remain a large number of that most characteristic feature of the canals, the typical over bridge. This design, with its delicate interplay of curves, was originated on these first canals and persisted, with minor variations, throughout the canal era.
While we appreciate these canals of the cross today for their unpretentious beauty and fitness, we should not forget their historical significance as intruments of economic change. Difficulties of communication had an isolating effect which we find difficult to imagine today. Consequently each river basin bred a predominantly self-sufficient regional culture of a markedly original character that became identified with the region because it had been moulded by it.
Friday 10th November 2017
Continuing with the Trent & Mersey Canal
Cutting the canal up the valley of the Trent from its junction with that river at Derwent Mouth was relatively easy and this may have encouraged Brindley to make his rash forecast. The only considerable engineering works were two aqueducts, one of 23 arches over the Dove near Burton, one of six arches over the Trent at Brindley's Bank, near Rugeley, and a short tunnel through rock at Armitage. (Armitage Tunnel 130 yd has a towing path, the earliest example of its kind).
The Dove Aqueduct was originally built with 23 arches and extended over several streams. This is because the Dove floods regularly and Brindley could not achieve the height necessary to swoop over it all. Now there are only 12 arches (estimated in 2009), but it still stands after 245 years.
Dove aqueduct in flood
(See 13th August below for the account of this section of the Rolts' epic journey)
Brindley Bank Aqueduct is still the same
For Armitage Tunnel see 19th August below (the tunnel is no more).
This section of the canal was completed as far as Stone in 1771 and was carried to a temporary wharf at Stoke a few days after Brindley's death. Construction of the canal line through Cheshire from the Red Bull at Lawton at the western end of the summit to Preston Brook proved much more slow and difficult, but by the end of September 1775 it had been completed as far as Middlewich, a length which includes 35 locks (the Cheshire Locks) by which the canal descends from the Staffordshire uplands into the Cheshire Plain.
In the 1830s traffic on the Trent & Mersey Canal was so heavy that the Cheshire Locks proved a bottleneck for all the goods going to and from Stoke-on-Trent so, apart from Pierpoint Locks nos. 55 and 56, all the locks in the flight were duplicated. This considerably reduced the time to pass through the flight and also helped conserve water as the likelihood of boatmen finding one of the locks already in their favour increased, so filling empty locks or emptying full ones was reduced.
As commercial traffic declined, especially after the Second World War, some of the locks suffered the effects of subsidence due to brine pumping and coal mining.
Four locks were filled in in the 1830s, a further four in 1965 and another in 1980. So when we passed through in 1984 the flight was a shadow of its former self (but daunting enough!) In 2009 a campaign was mobilised and several have been renovated and reopened.
In 1775 also the 1239 yard tunnel under Preson-on-the-Hill was completed, enabling three miles of canal to be opened from the junction with the Bridgewater at Preston Brook to Acton Bridge Wharf. The remaining section between Middlewich and Acton proved very difficult to execute. It had originally been planned to carry the waterway along the contours of the north side of the Weaver valley, but the terrace on the steep slope would not hold; there were constant slips and Hugh Henshall finally resolved to tunnel
Hence the two tunnels at Barnton (572 yards) and Saltersford (424 yards)
But the greatest task of all proved to be the great tunnel, 2880 yards long, on the summit level at Harecastle by which Brindley had planned to pierce the central watershed.
(See 1st September below) Harecastle Tunnel took eleven years to complete instead of the five that Brindley had estimated.
At this point the only similar situation had been the underground canal section at Worsley (where the Duke's pits were), but here conditions were very different. First a treacherous quicksand was encountered at the northern end of the tunnel, and at least one pumping engine had to be erected to deal with the influx of water. Then exceptionally hard rock, Millstone Grit and Rowley Rag, was met with, which caused the miners infinite trouble. An experienced contractor trying to drive a second tunnel through said to Thomas Telford more than 50 years later 'The Rock I find to be extremely hard, some of it in my opinion is much harder than ever any tunnel has been driven in before excepting the one that is executed by the side of it'. But Brindley's miners toiled on...following the example of the Bridgewater Canal, side tunnels were driven to the workings of the Golden Hill Colliery and the water draining through from this mine was used as the summit water supply. At length the great tunnel was completed, though its small diameter made it a serious bottleneck to traffic, and the canal opened in May 1777. 93 miles long, it was the greatest civil engineering work so far built in England.
On the east, the locks were built wide from Derwent Mouth to Horninglow Wharf to enable Upper Trent barges to trade to Burton.
Similarly, on the west the waterway from Preston Brook to Middlewich was of wide guage with the object of enabling the sixty-ton Bridgewater Canal boats to reach Middlewich. But they were unable to pass through the three tunnels, a circumstance that provoked some acrimonious argument, Henshall and his staff declaring that the Duke had built bigger boats since the dimensions of the tunnels had been decided upon.
The two ends were built to wide gauge to accept river barges, the section up to Burton superseding the unreliable Upper Trent Navigation, but most of the canal was built to Brindley’s new ‘narrow’ gauge to save money, speed construction and economise on water consumption. Although this limited boat carrying capacity to about 30 tons this was a vast improvement on the packhorses and road wagons of the day and proved economically viable for nearly two centuries. All manner of goods were carried but the mainstays were coal, limestone, china clay, pottery, salt and beer !
So, Mersey, Severn and Trent were united, but the fourth arm of the cross, the long line from the Trent & Mersey at Fradley to the Thames at Oxford took much longer to complete and it was not until 1790 that Oxford was reached. Not that construction involved any engineering work of a difficulty comparable with Harecastle Tunnel; the long delay was due entirely to political squabbles and financial difficulties. In this the story of the line to the Thames was a portent of things to come, for as soon as the profitability of canals was fairly proven, middle England became a Tom Tiddler's ground of rival canal companies, each jealous of their territory and intent to parry any rival who threatened to syphon off any part of their traffic, the trade in coal being the most zealously fought for.
The upshot was that the Coventry Canal Company was to be responsible for that part of the line from the Trent & Mersey at Fradley through Fazeley...and Atherstone to Coventry, while the Oxford Canal Company built the remainder of the route from a junction near Coventry to Oxford.
Tuesday 7th November 2017
Where the Trent & Mersey was concerned there was some competition between the bridgewater Canal and the Weaver Navigation as to which waterway the new canal would join. The Duke astutely won this contest by abandoning his original intention of taking his canal to join the Mersey at Hempstones, and proposing a junction with the Trent & Mersey at Preston Brook, continuing from thence to Runcorn. This would mean that all Mersey-bound traffic from the Trent & Mersey would pass over his canal as well as the Manchester traffic.
The Runcorn locks on the Bridgewater Canal were designed to admit the smaller of the 'flats' trading on the Mersey, the dimensions of their chambers being 71ft 11in x 15ft. At this juncture somebody, presumably James Brindley, made the crucial decision to halve the breadth dimension...In this way the standard type of lock used on the Midlands canals 72ft x 7ft 6in was evolved and a special type of boat, the 'narrow boat' was designed to suit them.
Economy in the use of water from summit levels was one reason for the decision to reduce lock dimensions, but a more important consideration was economy in money. With the example of the Bridgewater canal extension under construction before them, the proprietors of the new canals very probably decided that to build a trunk waterway across England upon such a grand scale would be impossibly expensive.
By this time Brindley had never built a lock, and he appears to have harboured some peculiar notions on the subject. He insisted that the Runcorn locks should have chambers of unbonded masonry and had a stubborn argument with the Duke on the subject in which, fortunately, his view did not prevail. He had not, presumably, heard of John Smeaton's use of hydraulic lime mortar for bonding the masonry of the lock chambers on the Calder & Hebble (see 31st Oct below). By the time the first locks on his Midland canals were built, Brindley must have had second thoughts for their chambers were of bonded brickwork and masonry.
Apparently, when aged 49 Brindley married Anne Henshaw and bought Turnhurst Hall (near the summit of the Trent & Mersey)
he built an experimental lock in the grounds. There are some doubts, as part of it seem to pre-date him, but although the water feature existed, he must have perfected his design of lock here, experimenting with the detail. Perhaps...he needed to prove to his own satisfaction the merits of hydraulic lime. Be that as it may, Brindley determined the standard design of narrow canal lock and the first to be built of this type is said to have been the lock at Compton, where the Staffs & Worcs Canal begins its descent to the Severn from its summit level.
Brindley adopted as his standard a single upper gate closing against a cill at right-angles to the lock walls and double mitre gates at the bottom end of the chamber (as can be seen in photograph of Compton Lock above). Lower gates have to extend to the bottom of the lock chamber (in this case the drop is over 9ft) and single gates for this purpose were doubtless rejected on account of their great weight and size. Sluices or 'paddles' raised by rack-and-pinion gearing were incorporated in all the lock gates as had become orthodox practice on river navigation locks. But in order to speed filling the lock chamber and to prevent the top gate paddles discharging over the bows of the boat when filling commenced (we have had experience of this elsewhere, I can tell you!) 'ground paddles' were provided, one on either bank at the head of the lock, which communicated with the lock chamber by underground culverts.
In order to regulate the level of the water in the canal 'pounds' between locks, and prevent them becoming over-full, it is necessary to provide a spill weir beside each lock...to one side of the upper entrance...and the water is conveyed from it to the lower pound either by an underground culvert or an open leat...The Staffs & Worcs canal lock became, with minor variations, the standard for the whole of the narrow canal system of the Midlands.
Six locks below the summit lock at Compton is the first of three unusual locks at the Bratch (locks 23-25, looking in this photograph like a proper flight)
At this point the canal descends so abruptly into the valley of the Smestow Brook that the three locks follow each other so closely that the top gates of the first and second in the flight are only a few feet away from the lower gates of the lock next above. It is much more economical to construct locks in a proper flight, where pairs (or more) of locks share gates, and Brindley evidently learned this here, as locks 20 & 21 at Botterham, a little further on, were built as a pair. Two other examples of double locks may be seen at Stourport...but an engraving made in 1776 shows that the doubles are not original and they were built later, presumably to economise water when single narrow boats required to lock out into the river.
However, even then these were not the first, as Henry Berry built two double wide locks on the St Helens Canal in 1760. What is known as Old Double Lock at Blackbrook at the head of the main line of the St Helens Canal is in origin the oldest lock of this type in England.
I did mention this lock on 3rd November - see below - and included a photograph of it in 2010. Here is a more recent one taken only a few months ago
This part of the canal is disused and in 1970 the gates were removed and the lock turned into a cascade.
Work on the Staffs & Worcs proceeded smoothly. The canal was complete by the end of 1770 and on 14 September 1772, just a fortnight before James Brindley's death at Turnhurst at the age of 56, the Birmingham Canal was linked with it by the completion of the flight of 21 locks at Wolverhampton.
As Brindley canals go, the Staffs & Worcs keeps a reasonably direct course which it follows to this day. The Birmingham, on the other hand, was extremely devious, so much so that of the present Birmingham Canal main line the five miles from Deepfields Junction to Aldersley is the only substantial portion of the original canal remaining. In 1784 the Birmingham Canal Company merged with the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company to form the BCN - Birmingham Canal Network - from 1794. This network then expanded as loops were cut off and extensions made. At its working peak it included 160 miles of canals and today (2010) 100 of these are navigable.
Trade was now free to flow from the Black Country to the Severn, and Stourport quickly became a flourishing inland port, but the key waterway in the grand design, the Trent & Mersey, was still far from complete. In 1767 Brindley maintained stoutly that the canal would be completed in 5 years and was prepared to stake a £200 bet on it. But at the same time the percipient Josiah Wedgwood was writing to a friend 'I am afraid he (Brindley) will do too much and leave us before his vast designs are executed; he is so incessantly harrassed on every side, that he has no rest, either for his mind or body and will not be prevailed upon to have proper care for his health.' wedgwood's forebodings proved sadly correct for Brindley died of untreated diabetes 5 years before the Trent & Mersey was completed.
James Brindley's grave in Newchapel Cemetery, with that of his wife Jane née Henshall to the right of this photo. In 1959 repairs were done to the grave, originally a raised tomb with railings around, and a plaque was made to attach to the original stone, paid for by public subscription.
Monday 6th November 2017
Just as the story of the Bridgewater Canal epitomizes the political and financial history of the canal era, so in its engineering it set an example for others to follow, for although it crossed no summit level, it was the first canal to take a course independent of rivers. Anyone who travels the length of the Bridgewater today with a perceptive eye must agree that although subsequent canals may be longer and may boast more impressive individual works of engineering, they do not surpass this first canal in breadth of conception.
First, it is lock-free for 30 miles from Worsley to Runcorn
Secondly, the width of its channel reveals that it was laid out with wide boats in mind
Thirdly, photographs of the original aqueduct over the Irwell at Barton taken shortly before it was demolished to make way for the Manchester Ship Canal reveal...that it was indeed upon a larger scale than later, similar structures on the 'cross' of canals engineered by James Brindley.
The partnership of the Duke, Gilbert and Brindley was so close and harmonious that it is impossible to determine which individual partner should be awarded the greatest share of the credit...it is Gilbert who emerges as surveyor and engineer-in-chief with James Brindley the ingenious, illiterate craftsman, as resident engineer under him, both inspired by the Duke to give practical effect to his ideas.
Among men of spirit and enterprise the Duke's bold experiment attracted enormous interest, so that there were few who failed to visit the works at one time or another during construction. As soon as it became obvious to them that the new canal was going to be practically successful, it became equally obvious that this could be the answer to their own transport problems. The Duke's project had not proceeded far before an ambitios plan was born to link by canal the four great navigable rivers of England: Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames and joint stock companies were formed for the purpose of carrying it out. The key feature of this scheme was the Trent & Mersey Canal or 'Grand Trunk', with which canals to the Severn and the Thames would ultimately be linked. (See 3rd October below) Foremost among the promoters of the Trent & Mersey was Josiah Wedgwood, the great potter of Burslem in north Staffordshire (see 25th August below).
Wedgwood had watched the progress of the Duke's experiment with the liveliest interest from the start since he recognised at once the immense value of a canal to his business, both for importing coal and exporting the fragile finished product.
The entrepreneurs of this national canal project needed engineering 'know'how' and they looked to the Bridgewater Canal to supply it. John Gilbert was too busy and loyal to be involved in anything else, so it was James Brindley whose name we associate with the great cross of canals that formed the skeleton around which England's midland waterway developed. From what little we know of the character of James Brindley he was far too honest and straighforward a man to make exaggerated claims for himself but he had enthusiastic supporters who claimed every development on his behalf.
James Brindley undoubtedly contributed much to the building of the Bridgewater Canal, perhaps his greatest contribution being the technique of clay puddling to render the bed of the canal watertight. This became the more vital when he had to carry canals across high watersheds where water supplies were scarce. But he also learned much from this pioneer waterway which helped to crystallise what might be called his canal engineering philosophy as revealed to this day in the many winding miles of his Midland canals...On being asked by a member of a Parliamentary Committee what was the use of rivers, Brindley made the well-known rejoinder that it was to supply canals with water. In his day there were a number of good reasons for this prejudice; delays to traffic caused by flood or drought, damage to locks and other works caused by flood - e.g. the disastrous Calder & Hebble flood of 1738 - and finally the...current, extra power required when travelling upstream.
Other canal engineers inherited Brindley's prejudice against rivers which, logical though it may have seemed at the time, in the long term proved damaging to the commercial viability of Britain's inland waterway system. While enthusiasm for canal building reached mania proportions, with rare exceptions the older river navigations escaped improvements and were in many cases archaic...Moreover, difficulties of water suppy to canal summit levels soon proved that they were by no means immune from complete stoppages in prolongued periods of drought, while traffic could also be brought to a standstill by severe frost, a condition which rarely affected river traffic. Also the use of powered craft has negated the advantage of flow, so it is the navigable rivers that have been retained and improved over the years. Brindley himself could not have surveyed and superintended all the miles of new canals. He rode to all the sites on an old mare, who he was very fond of, but then made his recommendations and plans to several assistants, who carried out the work. The best known was his pupil Robert Whitworth, his brother-in-law Hugh Henshall and Thomas Dadford Senior, so called because his 2 sons, Thomas & John, followed him as canal engineers... Both the Acts authorizing the Trent & Mersey and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canals came into effect on the same day 14 May 1766. Hugh Henshall on the former and Thomas Dadford Snr on the latter were appointed Brindley's deputies, Henshall succeeding as chief engineer of the Trent & Mersey at his master's death in 1772.
The Staffs & Worcs canal was planned to extend from a junction with the Trent & Mersey at Great Haywood through Penkridge and Kidderminster to the Severn at Stourport. Making use of the valleys of the rivers Penk and Stour, it had its summit level on the Trent/Severn watershed at Compton near Wolverhampton. By the completion of these two waterways therefore, three of the four rivers would be united. More than this, by the authorization of a short but vitally important waterway in 1768, the trade of Birmingham and the Black Country would be given direct access to the Severn. This was the Birmingham Canal from that city to Wolverhampton and so to a junction with the Staffs & Worcs' summit level at Aldersley.
[a current map of the Staffs & Worcs Canal. BCN=Birmingham Canal Network]
Robert Whitworth was appointed Brindley's deputy to the Birmingham Company, with Samuel Simcock, a less well known member of Brindley's team, as his assistant.
Saturday 4th November 2017
To call Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater, the 'Father of Canals' is no mere figure of speech. He occupies a position unique in the transport history of these islands. Few individuals since his day have been in a position to raise and sustain such a financial burden; certainly no man since has possessed the courage to back so heavily a new and untried technical innovation. For so far as this country was concerned canals were wholly novel in 1760, too much so to attract the capital investment that was needed.
It was many years before the Duke's gamble paid off, but when it did the reward was so great that it swung the mood of investors from 'wait and see' caution to the opposite of that, over-optimism which sparked the speculative 'canal mania' of 1792. Because it was a private concern it is difficult to determine exactly how profitable the Bridgewater Canal was, though the net profit for 1803, the year of the Duke's death, has been given as £65,952 (£4.7m today). The reason why the Duke had to wait so long for his gamble to pay off was that he was opposed in principle to monopolies...With a real sense of public obligation he bound himself to carry on his canals at low freight rates. For the same reason, when his old competitors, the proprietors of the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, finally threw up the sponge in 1776 and offered their concern to him for a mere £10,000, the Duke refused, saying bluntly that he had set out to break a monoply, not to create one. Under the terms of the Duke's will, after his death the Bridgewater Canal was vested in a Trust managed by Captain Bradshaw, the late Duke's agent in succession to Gilbert. Bradshaw was a man typical of the new commercial spirit that was coming to the fore. He was what we should now describe euphemistically as a keen businessman and his old master's philosophy simply did not make sense to one who thought only in terms of £.s.d. He bought out the 'old navigators' of the Mersey & Irwell for £550,800 and, havingthus created what he thought was a safe monopoly, raised canal freight rates threefold.. Such shortsighted greed brought its inevitable nemesis. For it was their exasperation with Bradshaw's exactions that determined the merchants of Liverpool and Manchester to break his monoploy by building a railway between their two cities, with results that were far-reaching and fatal to canal interests everywhere. Faced with this threat, Bradshaw cut his freight rates by 55% and ringed the Bridgewater Estate with armed men in a vain attempt to keep out George Stephenson and his surveyors. Too late; he had effectually killed the goose that had laid such golden eggs. Perhaps Bradshaw recalled ruefully a remark which his farsighted master had made in his old age: 'We shall do well enough if we can steer clear of those demmed tramroads'.
Friday 3rd November 2017
Continuing on from Tuesday, Tom said:
It is significant that Henry Berry, the engineer of the Sankey Canal, worked as assistant to Steers on the Newry Canal. An Act of 20 Mar 1755 authorized the making of the Sankey Brook navigable from St Helens to its confluence with the Mersey near Widnes...Berry subsequently recommended that a canal should be built instead and supplied with water from the brook. His suggestion was adopted, and the work was carried out under his direction...An Act of April 1762 authorized an entrance lock from the Mersey at Fiddler's Ferry but because this proved unsatisfactory (boats ran aground apparently and had to wait for the tide, maybe weeks, maybe months, to be freed) the canal was subsequently extended 3 miles downstream to Widnes. A total of 18 swing bridges originally spanned the channel.
A staircase lock was built on the Sankey Canal and a second staircase was built later when the Ravenhead Branch was constructed in 1775. They are known respectively as the Old Double Lock and the New Double Lock
Old Double Lock 2010
While it is strictly true to call the Sankey Canal the first in England, it was built in the river navigation tradition; that is to say it was, in effect, a long navigable cut, paralleling the course of the brook and drawing its water supply from it. Its construction confronted Berry with none of the engineering problems which were involved in a high-level canal. Nevertheless it no doubt helped to inspire a far more significant project nearby, the Bridgewater Canal which was built by Francis Egerton third Duke of Bridgewater,
his agent John Gilbert and the engineer James Brindley.
The Bridgewater Canal originated from the need to provide a more economic transport outlet for the coal from the Worsley pits on the Bridgewater estate...in 1737 the third Duke's father had obtained an Act for making the Worsley Brook navigable from Worsley Mill to its junction with the Irwell...nothing was done until 1759, when the 3rd Duke, obviously with the Sankey Canal project in mind, opted for a canal from Worsley Mill to join the Mersey at Hollin Ferry.
The Duke soon abandoned his plan due to failure to reach agreement with the proprietors of the Mersey & Irwell Navigation. Instead, in association with Gilbert and Brindley, he conceived the far more ambitious scheme of carrying his canal into Manchester, a proposal which involved an aqueduct over the Irwell at Barton, with considerable approaching embankments, including an embankment 900 yards long over Stretford Meadows. He obtained an Act authorizing construction in March 1760...it involved civil engineering construction upon a scale hitherto unprecedented in England.
The Bridgewater Canal is notable in another respect. It remains the only considerable work carried out by one undertaker. Compared with river navigations, canals were so much more costly to construct that all major canal projects were thereafter undertaken by joint stock companies. To finance the building of his canal and its subsequent extension to the Mersey at Runcorn, the Duke raised money on the security of his great estates...his debts rising, in Jan 1786, to the colossal peak of £346,805 (approx £3.6m today - although I have seen this as large as £41m, it depends on the factors taken into account, including the cost of labour etc).
In 1984, as I have said, we did the Cheshire Ring and we picked up the Bridgewater Canal at Stretford, continued through Lymm, Northwich, Middlewich and continued on to Chester. We then turned round and retraced our route to Barbridge, where we turned off to make our way back to the boatyard via the Shropshire Union. Thus we covered most of the bottom part of the map above, and much more besides.
Tuesday 31st October 2017
As discussed on Sunday, by the beginning of the 18th Century the Aire & Calder Navigation had made the River Calder navigable as far upstream as Wakefield. The aim of the Calder & Hebble Navigation was to extend navigation west (upstream) from Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge near Halifax. Tom says:
It is notable in two respects. First, the difference in level to be overcome was uniquely great, the Calder here falling at a rate of 90in to the mile, which amounted to a difference of level of 178ft in the 24 miles of the navigation. Secondly, it was the work of John Smeaton (1724-92) a name justly famous in the history of civil engineering in Britain.
Smeaton's work on the Calder followed hard upon the undertaking for which he is best remembered today - the building of the Eddystone Lighthouse (shown behind him in the portrait above). In fact he first surveyed the Calder during the latter end of 1757 when winter storms had suspended his work on the lighthouse. He built 26 locks on the river and 5¾ miles of new cut. For the lock walls, Smeaton used one of his newly-discovered hydraulic limes (he invented what was to become modern cement and led to the development of concrete). It was no fault of Smeaton's that, following a great storm over the Pennines on the night of 7 October 1758, the worst floods for 50 years swept down the Calder and the Proprietors reported ruefully that 'the navigation is ruined so far as to be no longer passable for any kind of vessels from Wakefield tp Brooksmouth, or from Brooksmouth to Salterhebble Bridge'. The Company was subsequently reformed and reconstruction authorized by an Act of 1769. Once again John Smeaton was engineer ...and his protégé William Jessop was appointed resident engineer under him. Jessop succeeded Smeaton on the latter's retirement to acquire an engineering reputation second only to his mentor. In later life Jessop advised the Thames Commissioners on the improvements of the Thames between Dorchester and Lechlade, and in his advice on the subject of locks and cuts he followed the principles which his master Smeaton had first put into practice on the Calder.
The map I included on Sunday shows the situation at the beginning of The Canal Age, with the areas in black the only parts more than 15 miles from a navigable river, an essential factor in manufacture and distribution of goods. It is evident from the 1760 map, however, that there was still no communication between the east and west coasts. Moreover, a great deal of Britain's mineral wealth, which new techniques were enabling men to exploit upon an increasing scale, was situated on the central watershed, most notably on that dividing the Severn from the Trent basins. Commercial pressure for improved communications was therefore unsatisfied, but by 1760 the money and the engineers were available to supply the remedy.
Oh, and by the way, fellow Leeds boys (Leodensians) The Kaiser Chiefs mentioned John Smeaton in the song 'I predict a riot':
A friend of a friend he got beaten
He looked the wrong way at a policeman
Would never have happened to Smeaton
An Old Leodensian
Ok, moving on...
One of the chief reasons for the outstanding success of the Coalbrookdale Ironworks, where the Darby family initiated so many significant pioneer developments, was that it was located on one of the very few sites in Britain where deposits of coal and iron ore lay adjacent to a navigable river - the Severn. We may be sure that...this was not lost upon other ironmasters and manufacturers, particularly those ...in the neighbouring highlands of Staffordshire. Here the exploitation of rich deposits of coal and ore was inhibited by the need to transport over land to the Severn or the Trent. In such a situation the construction of canals became inevitable, but the date of their inception was postponed until such a time as a growing commerce could afford the large amount of capital required to finance such costly works.
A glance at the central watershed of England reveals that it is in places so narrow that only the breadth of a field divides the sources of eastward and westward flowing rivers or their tributaries. This...led to several optimistic schemes for linking such rivers near their headwaters. As we have seen, Yarranton's Stour Navigation was intended to be a part of his scheme to unite Severn and Trent (see 24th Oct below) and the same engineer advocated a similar junction between the Thames and Severn. The fact that the sources of the Waveney and the Little Ouse are only 25ft apart led Francis Matthew in 1670...to advocate their junction as part of a through water route from Great Yarmouth to York. But such ambitious projects were ahead of their time and they overlooked two things, first the provision of sufficient water supply at these headwaters, and second that the course of a river in its uppermost reaches is by no means an ideal one from the point of view of navigation. It soon became obvious that topography prescribed an upper limit on rivers beyond which it was no longer a practicable proposition to render them navigable, and that the correct solution was to link such upper limits by an artificial channel and to tap as many of the headwater tributaries as possible to supply that channel with water.
The first canal in the British Isles to exemplify this principle, that is to say the first summit level canal, was Steers' Newry Canal in Northern Ireland, constructed to facilitate the transport of coal from the Tyrone collieries to Dublin. this had a summit level 3 miles long, mostly in rock cutting, which was supplied by a small reservoir fed by headwater streams...then the canal fell by locks 65ft in 9 miles to Newry, at the head of the Carlingford Estuary. At the opposite end of the summit the canal fell 22ft in 9 miles to Lough Neagh.
Victoria lock, Newry Canal
There was a total of 15 locks on the canal with chambers 60 x 15 ft and two larger sea locks at the terminals. Thomas Steers completed his survey in 1736 and superintended the work until 1741, when his place was taken by Acheson Johnson, who completed the canal in 1745.
Monday 30th October 2017
Before leaving the south of England, mention should be made of the River Medway. (This is close to my heart, as we lived nearby for the first four years of married life and my family live down that way still.) 'The Company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Medway' owed their existence to an Act of 1664, but an Act of 1740 empowered this body to improve the navigation between Maidstone and Tonbridge, mainly with the object of reducing the cost of carriage of timber supplies from the Weald to the Navy at Chatham. The engineer is not known, nor is the extent of the work done, for the Medway Navigation as we see it today is the fruit of work carried out under Acts of 1802 and 1824.
The formation of the Company was organized by John Hooker, the Lord of the Manor of Tonbridge and owner of Tonbridge Castle. The aim was to raise £30,000 capital by selling up to 300 shares at £100 each, although it was not fully subscribed. The first meeting of the Company was held on 20th May 1740, at the Rose and Crown in Tonbridge.
Work began in January 1741 on making the river navigable, starting from Maidstone and working in sections upstream towards Tonbridge. Up to fourteen locks were eventually built, most using oak bought at Penshurst and floated downstream although some of the locks at the Tonbridge end used stone from Tonbridge Castle. The last payment for work on the Tonbridge lock was made by the Company on the 30th June 1747 and the total cost for the whole navigation construction was £11,419 with an extra £1,119 for the wharves.
One major disadvantage was the lack of a towpath suitable for horses to pull the forty-ton barges, so the work had to be done by teams of men, called ‘hufflers’ or ‘halers’ instead. They took ten to twelve hours to cover the distance between Tonbridge and Maidstone, scrambling over bridges, hedges and ditches. The work must have been extremely hard and is perhaps reflected by the records of the bargemen’s powers of invective. A writer in the 1770s declared ‘most Medway bargemen are very skilful in this verbal mode of warfare, they use extraordinary terms and generally, very coarse and dirty ones’. The Company ordered in the 1740s that a fee of 2s 6d (12.5p) was to be imposed on bargemen for immodest, obscene and lewd expressions!
One of the original locks was Tonbridge Town Lock, here photographed in 2014, but it has been completely rebuilt and landscaped and now looks nothing like this
Next North-west England...became an important centre of river improvement activity. The rivers Mersey, Irwell, Weaver and Douglas all received attention between the years 1722 and 1742.
Thomas Steers (1672-1730) had surveyed the rivers Mersey and Irwell from Bank Quay at Warrington to Manchester in 1712, an Act authorizing the work was passed in 1721 and it was completed about 1725.
[Howley lock, the first lock built here, print dated 1789]
There were 8 locks in a distance of 15 miles to overcome a rise to Manchester of 52ft...Steers was also responsible for the Douglas Navigation which was completed from the Ribble Estuary to Wigan after 4 years work in 1742. More significantly, he engineered the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland. Of this more later. He not only carried out considerable dock works at Rotherhithe (where he grew up - Kent in those days) and Liverpool but also practiced as an architect like Telford, Mylne and other engineers of the canal era.
Between 1730 and 1732 the River Weaver was made navigable up to Winsford, a distance of 20 miles, and 11 locks were built to overcome a rise of 42ft. Thomas Robinson, of whom nothing else is known, was appointed 'Surveyor General of the Works' and acted as resident engineer. He continued to hold his position on the Weaver during 1735 during which time various minor improvements were made. But the state of the Weaver Navigation was evidently not all it should have been, for in 1758 a protracted programme of improvements was embarked upon under the superintendance of Robert Pownall (1715-80) who had earlier worked on the Navigation as a clerk at Winsford. Pownall worked in association with another engineer, Henry Berry (1720-1812). Between them they were responsible for building a new lock at Northwich and new locks and cuts at Saltersford and Pickerings. Pownall's connection with the Weaver was lifelong and by the time of his death he had built four more locks and cuts on the river.
I have mentioned the Weaver several times below, throughout September, but generally where 'our' canal has crossed it.
Henry Berry was assistant to Thomas Steers on the Newry Canal and was subsequently engineer of the Sankey Canal from the Mersey to St Helens. The work of Steers and Berry forms a link of continuity beyween the age of river navigations and the age of canals.
Sunday 29th October 2017
There was a slow but steady expansion of trade throughout the first half of the 18th Century which spelled increasing pressure for the improvement of internal transport. Because water transport was uniquely cheap and convenient for the carriage of coal in bulk, more and more rivers were made navigable for boats of useful burden, often at considerable capital cost in making locks and cuts. These works were carried out by professional engineers like Andrew Yarranton.
The Aire & Calder Navigation was the first considerable work to be completed in the new century. The River Aire was naturally navigable to Weeland at this time and the work consisted of extending the Aire Navigation to Leeds and making its tributary the Calder navigable from its junction with the Aire near Castlefield to Wakefield (i.e. the left side of this map).
Between Weeland and Leeds 10 locks were built to overcome a rise of 68ft in 30 miles. On the Calder there were 4 locks in 12 miles, the rise to Wakefield being 28ft. There were 5 lateral cuts of which two, one on the Aire and one on the Calder, were of considerable length. The masonry lock chambers were 56ft long x 19ft wide with 3ft 6in of water over the sills, being built to suit the ...type of craft previously used on the rivers radiating from the Humber.
The engineer of the Aire & Calder was John Hadley of whom little is known except that he was referred to as 'That great Master of Hydraulicks' and that he patented a device for raising and lowering an undershot waterwheel in accordance with the level of the stream. He was responsible for several water supply schemes and may have come from West Bromwich. He surveyed the rivers in Dec 1697 accompanied by the Mayor of Leeds...he later attended the House of Commons Committee on the Navigation Bill, which received the Royal Assent in May 1699. He was then appointed engineer in charge at the munificent salary of 400 guineas (over £70k now) and completed the work in 1703.
Inland navigation in this area was subsequently improved by another little-known engineer, from York, named William Palmer, who extended the River Don Navigation from Barnby to 3 miles below Sheffield at Tinsley. Palmer also deepened the Yorkshire Ouse to York by contracting its bed so that the scouring action of the current was increased. Both these works were carried out between 1726 and 1732.
By far the most ambitious work to be carried out in the south of England in the first half of the 18th Century was the Kennet Navigation from the Thames at Reading to Newbury, if only because the fall of the River Kennet, 85in per mile, was considerably greater than any of the rivers so far mentioned. This meant that 18 pound locks had to be built to overcome a difference in level of 138ft in 18.5 miles. In this distance there were 11½ miles of new cuts. John Hore (1690-1762) of Newbury, the son of a prosperous maltster...was engineer of the Kennet Navigation.
First page of the Act 1715
He evidently took the Wey Navigation as his model for his locks as they had sloping turf sides. They were of generous size: 122ft x 19ft. Some of these locks have since been rebuilt with smaller masonry chambers, though others survive in their original state. The construction of the new cuts involved the building of many new overbridges, most of which were timber-built swing bridges...no doubt the cheapest solution, for apart from their low first cost the need for approach embankments was obviated. But they were a hindrance to navigation, particularly in later years when the waterway became part of a through route.
The construction of the Kennet Navigation was also noteworthy for the bitterness of the opposition it aroused. John Hore had to contend not only against the mill owners who, as usual, feared for their water supplies, but with organized opposition from the town of Reading, which had hitherto handled the waterborne trade of the area and now feared the loss of a substantial portion of that trade to Newbury...organized gangs molested his workers and broke down the newly finished locks. Nevertheless the work was begun in 1718 and finished by 1723.
John Hore subsequently became engineer in charge of the Bristol Avon Navigation, 16 miles long, from Bristol to Bath, which he carried out between 1725 and 1727.
Avon at Bath
He also surveyed the rivers Stroudwater and Chelmer, in the former case proposing a canal 8 miles long for which an Act was obtained, but nothing was done on either river. (His son, born 1730, became resident engineer of the Kennet & Avon Canal under John Rennie, so the Hore family played a notable part in the construction of this coast to coast route).
Tuesday 24th October 2017
Next is navigation of the Warwick Avon, engineered in 1636-9 from Tewkesbury to Bidford by William Sandys (1600-70), who convinced the local millowners that pound locks were the way to go.
At each mill weir he constructed a pound lock
Cropthorne Mill photographed in 2006
and provided navigation weirs of water gate type to assist craft over shallows in the reaches between, such as the old ford at Cropthorne, near the site of the Jubilee Bridge
[Cropthorne flash lock photographed in 1905]
[same today, photographed 2016]
A member of a wealthy landowning Worcestershire family, William 'Water-work' Sandys, as he came to be called, who, like Arnold Spencer, not only planned the work on the Avon but financed it. His subsequent work on the Teme was interrupted by the Civil War, but after the war was over he undertook to make the Wye and the Lug navigable with other members of his family. Of the same class was John Mallet, a country gentleman of Somerset who undertook the navigation of the rivers Parret and Tone in 1638 and Sir Richard Weston (1591-1652) of Sutton, Surrey, who engineered the Wey Navigation from the Thames at Weybridge to Guildford between 1651 & 1653.
portrait painted 1630
The Wey Navigation is generally considered the finest work of its kind to be built in the 17th Century. To overcome a fall of 86ft between Guildford Wharf and the Thames, Weston built 10 pound locks and 4 weirs
but what is more significant is that out of a total length of 15 miles, 7 miles consisted of artificial cut. Previous undertakers (builders) had shown a reluctance to make extensive cuts, following the natural course of the river as much as possible. They hesitated to incur the additional labour and expense, not only of digging the cuts, but of constructing the necessary overbridges which such new works usually entailed. Weston built 12 new bridges in the course of his Wey improvements, and his work was the prototype for many of the more ambitious river navigation works which would be carried out during the first 60 years of the next century (1700s).
[Stoke Lock, Guildford, the first to be built on the Wey Navigation, in 1653, photographed 1982]
One other significant 17th Century figure deserves to be mentioned and that is Andrew Yarranton (1616-84). Although he would not have so styled himself, Yarranton was a civil engineer who, although he evidently possessed some capital of his own, carried out work on behalf of other capitalists to make the Worcestershire Stour navigable from Stourbridge to Kidderminster in 1662, completing the work in 1665 with Lord Windsor as the chief financial undertaker. This was only a small part of Yarranton's ambitious scheme to unite the Severn with the Trent, but no further progress was made...the times were not yet ripe. Yarranton was also associated with Lord Windsor in the work of extending Sandys' Avon Navigation from Bidford to Stratford and in an abortive attempt to make the River Salwarpe navigable from the Severn up to Droitwich. He also prepared a plan for a new cut to restore the Dee Navigation to Chester, which would be carried out in modified form by Nathaniel Kinderley some 60 years later. Working on his own account, Yarranton established an ironworks at his native Astley, near Stourport and locked the Dick Brook to provide access to his works from the Severn. This was in 1652 and was therefore his first navigation work. Extensive remains of two of his lock chambers survive on the brook. Archaeologists were puzzled, as these locks are huge but the brook very small. Tom Rolt suggested that Yarranton and his staff used small tub boats like those subsequently used in Shropshire. The lock walls bear the date 1717, so maybe later modifications have blurred the issue
The 18th Century was not far advanced before two highly significant events in the history of the Industrial Revolution took place. In 1709 Abraham Darby first successfully smelted iron with coke at his works at Coalbrookdale, and in 1712 Thomas Newcomen erected his first recorded atmospheric steam engine near Dudley Castle.
These seeds of change were slow to germinate. The use of Darby's process was for long confined to the making of cast iron and it was not until the invention of the reverbatory furnace that coal could be used in the making of wrought iron. Similarly, Newcomen's steam engine was designed solely as a mine pump. It could not be adapted to provide rotatory motion, so that for driving machinery the waterwheel bremained the only practicable source of power. (Nevertheless, Newcomen's pump enabled coal to be brought up from deeper mines, necessary as forests were being cut down and thus charcoal becoming hard to come by)
more on this anon...
Monday 23rd October 2017
I was discussing the development of the lock, specifically the enclosed pound lock we know today.
The new design spread across Europe and reached Britain in the 16th Century. The 'Countess Wear' had been built across the River Exe at Exeter in the late 13th Century. It effectively formed a barrier to ships, preventing them reaching the centre of the city. This was good news for the citizens of Topsham, who got all the trade, but very inconvenient for the merchants of Exeter. The latter decided to pay for a canal that would allow ships to bypass the weir and reach a new port complex near the centre of the city. The engineer for the Exeter Ship Canal, begun in 1564, was John Trew. Not much is known about him; he was simply described as “a gentleman from Glamorganshire”, but he has the honour of being the first to design a pound lock for a British canal. It was more like a tidal basin than a conventional lock, 189ft long and 23ft wide, in which vessels could be held to wait for the tide. It had massive mitre gates at the upstream side, with six sluices covered by moveable paddles. The lower end was closed by a single gate. The lock was originally built with turf walls, and although they have long since been replaced, the name ‘Turf Lock’ has survived.
One of my local locks comes into the story here.
The first example seems to have been built on the River Lea, which was actually celebrated in verse in a poem of 1577, Tales of the Two Swannes. This is the description of the lock at Ware: 'This lock contains two double doores of wood, Within the same a cisterne all of Plancke, which onely fils when boates came there to passe by opening of these mightie doores.' Apart from the archaic spelling, this is a recognisable description of a modern lock, though with timber sides.
There was a great deal of experimentation with different ways of lining locks. Over the years, many methods were tried to make locks watertight. Two interesting early examples survive on the Kennet Navigation, begun in 1718. The engineer John Hore mainly built turf locks, as on the Exeter Ship Canal. One of the lock chambers has been preserved at Monkey Marsh. Beneath the waterline, the sides rise vertically to a height of two feet, then slope back at 45° with grass planted to stabilise the earth bank.
Later, brick was used to line chambers, but there was doubt as to whether or not the vertical brick wall might collapse under the pressure. As an arch is better able to take the strain, it was decided to build locks that appear, when seen from above, to have scalloped edges, but which really consist of walls made up of a series of small arches.
By the time the canal age proper got under way in the 1760s, these early examples had been abandoned and the familiar locks with stone or brick chambers were in use. The size of locks on the early river navigations had been based on the size of the craft already in use in an area. When James Brindley had to build locks to join the Bridgewater Canal to the River Mersey, he followed the same rule, designing them to take Mersey flats – the barges in use on the river. They were 72ft by 15ft, and it might have seemed logical to use the same dimensions when he became chief engineer for other canals. One of the first on which he was employed was the Trent & Mersey and there he was faced with a dilemma in the bulky form of Harecastle Hill, which was stretched right across the line of his canal. There was no way round it: it was impossible to build locks up one side and down the other, the only option was to go through it in a tunnel that would have to be more than a mile and a half long. No one had ever attempted such a thing before, and the idea of constructing it to take vessels up to 15ft wide was too much for him. So he decided to halve the width and, as he saw no point in building locks to take 15ft-wide boats if they were unable to get through the tunnel, he constructed locks to take boats of half the width as well.
(The above account is from an article in Canal Boat Magazine in 2012)
Getting back to Tom's book:
(regarding soil banks) There was serious loss of water by percolation through the banks, added to which special provision had to be made to prevent boats settling onto the banks as the lock emptied. Consequently, locks with vertically walled masonry chambers of modern form began to appear in England in the 17th Century.
John Trew in 1564-7 received a fee of £200 and was granted tolls (for the first pound locks, mentioned above). Although this was an isolated improvement of limited scale, its conception was advanced in that it foreshadowed the many artificial cuts by which river navigations were improved in the 18th Century. A weir was built across the Exe to divert water into the cut at its upstream end and there were three pound locks with 'basins' (chambers) 189ft long by 23ft wide capable of passing several boats at one lockage. The reason for this generous provision was that the tail of the cut was only navigable for a short period around high tide. the upper ends of the locks were closed by twin mitre gates of modern form, each fitted with three sluices or paddles, but the lower gates, curiously enough, were single and must have been massive affairs.
Waltham Abbey Lock on the River Lea built 1571-4 had two sets of mitre gates and this became standard practice in England except on narrow canal locks, where the single upper gate became standard.
The three pound locks at Iffley, Sandford and Swift Ditch were built in 1632 to improve navigation on the difficult reach of the Thames between Oxford and Burcot which had a fall of 30ft in 15 miles. At the time they were building, Twyne visited Exeter and made a plan of the John Trew's locks which he showed to the Thames Commissioners. This drawing is the earliest plan of an English lock. However, he was too late, as he said 'they had already begun to build their sluices another way and so it was not heeded'. (It is kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) ...Maybe the lock at Waltham Abbey was their model...The locks at Iffley & Sandford have long since been replaced by modern locks, but the remains of the ancient chamber of the third, dammed at one end, can still be seen near the head of the Swift Ditch. This was once the main channel of the river until the monks of Abingdon diverted it...
[Site of the old lock in Abingdon photographed 2008]
[Artist's Impression of the old lock and turnpike from Abingdon Historical Society]
But the Oxford-Burcot improvers decided to make the Swift Ditch their navigable channel, and so it remained until the present Abingdon Lock and Cut was opened in 1790 and the old lock fell into disuse.
Despite the existence of these three pound locks of modern type at so early a date, the Thames continued for many years to be beset by numerous flash locks, some of them believed to date back to 1200. Apart from the longest-lived examples on the river above Oxford, there were 15 flash locks between London and Oxford, the majority of which were not superceded until the 1790s. The fact that, on the Thames, as on other English rivers, the flash lock survived the coming of the pound lock by so many years was not due solely to the cost of replacement but to illogical prejudice against pound lock by mill owners (as I mentioned on Friday) who argued that they would consume more of their precious water than flash locks. The practice of opening a series of flash locks in sequence at stated times and thereby passing a large convoy of barges through together may have caused delays to river traffic, but it suited the mill owners who controlled the flash locks. They argued that the substitution of pound locks would mean that the barges would lock through individually, using more water than before...The compromise was to make the pound sufficiently large to accommodate a convoy of barges and then to regulate the traffic as formerly. However, by holding back the water permanently, the pound lock presented by far the better proposition where the mill-owner was concerned, providing the bargemen did not have to resort to flashing (leaving the paddles open to obtain a rush of water to push them along).
Old Windsor locks
Saturday 21st October 2017
Pound locks were a product of the Italian Renaissance, but it was not until the end of the 16th Century or the beginning of the 17th when the idea crossed the Alps. It may be, however, that there was parallelism in invention, for the navigation weir or water gate type represented one half of a pound lock and it was only necessary to build two such weirs close together to have a primitive type of pound lock, the short reach of river between them forming the pound. There is evidence in England that the modern pound lock may indeed have originated in this way by evolution rather than invention (Bedfordshire Ivel between Shefford and Tempsford, and the Thames at Sutton Courtnay). The curious shape of the chambers of some old river locks, although they are now of masonry may point to the fact that they originally formed part of the natural bed of the river. Cherry Ground Lock, on the River Lark, six miles below Bury St Edmunds was in the shape of a crescent moon, and on the Warwick Avon, Wyre & Cleeve locks are diamond shaped (see Shipton below, discussed on Tuesday) while Luddington Upper Lock is circular.
On the Rivers Wey and Kennet Navigations there are to be seen locks in which the pound consists of sloping grass banks, only that part in immediate vicinity of the gates being timber piled. Such survivals are rare.
Friday 20th October 2017
As I was covering Tom Rolt's account of his escapades on the canals in 1939 I was aware that I was making certain assumptions, namely that you were familiar with a certain amount of the history of British canals. In 1969 Tom wrote what became a textbook in this field, so who better than him to explain it to us. In 1977 he followed up with a 3-part autobigraphy, which I shall move onto later.
Navigable Waterways by L T C Rolt was published in 1969 by Longmans, quotes remain in purple, extra information as before from Wikipaedia etc in blue.
When our waterways were built, the engineering profession in this country was in its infancy. Indeed, in building our waterway system, British civil engineers cut their wisdom teeth; they began the work as mere tradesmen, they finished it as professionals.
In the Dark Ages and until Saxon times inland navigation was much more extensive than it subsequently became. River channels were unobstucted, allowing tides to sweep far inland. these tides not only kept river channels scoured but enabled boats to travel with them to inland wharves well beyond the tidal limit...The River Severn offers the best surviving example...The 'Kings high stream of Severn' was a 'free river' throughout the Middle Ages, no private interests being permitted to obstruct it, with the effect that the powerful tides of the Bristol Channel enabled boats to penetrate far inland...the advantage of tides made water transport possible only at certain times and seasons, but in a country largely devoid of metalled roads this limitation was more than offset by the overwhelming advantage of water transport for carrying goods in bulk...The fact that rivers were natural barriers to overland communications also helped to create new hazards, if not positive obstructions, for the inland navigator. Fords frequently took the form of man-made underwater causeways over which there was insufficient draught for navigation except at times of high water and the medieval bridges built to replace the fords created hazards of a different kind. Their many piers so obstructed the bed of the river that a very rapid current was generated under their arches. Old London Bridge was notorious in this respect
[London Bridge, originally dating from 1209, the oldest stone bridge in the world, has been replaced several times, here shown in 1616]
The expansion of trade - which the many mills themselves helped to create - brought increasing pressure for the improvement of river navigation...Improvements were at first of an elementary kind which did not conflict with milling or fishing interests because they did not attempt to extend its range. They consisted of cutting back the inside of acute bends, dredging out shoals and shallows, piling where the banks were weak, and weed cutting.
When they encountered differences in water level, before locks were invented, a portable device was used, designed to deepen draught by holding back the water...but these came into conflict with mill-owners fearful of losing the supply to their mill-wheels, joined by owners of fishing weirs and landowners who...feared the increased risk of flooding.
The earliest means by which the difference in level caused by a fixed weir was overcome was by making a portion of the weir removable to leave a passage sufficiently wide for boats to pass, called flash locks, navigation weirs, water gates or staunches
Apart from the Thames, where navigation weirs were in use as early as 1585, the Great Ouse was the first river in England upon which considerable improvement works were carried out expressly for the purpose of navigation, including the construction of staunches. Arnold Spencer (1587-1655) of Cople in Bedfordshire was the man responsible. He set to work to improve the Great Ouse between St Ives and St Neots, a stretch of 16 miles, in 1628, his authority to do so being a Patent granted to him by Charles I on 3 Jan 1627 which empowered him 'to make other rivers, streams and waters navigable and passable for boats, keeles and other vessels to pass from place to place', he to have the sole right to use his own methods or 'engines' on payment of £5 per annum to the Exchequer and to retain the profits on rivers so improved for a term of 80 years. This Patent was originally granted for 11 years but was subsequently extended to 21 years.
Spencer appears to have completed his work on the St Ives - St Neots section, including six 'sluices', in from 3-4 years, but his ambition was to make the river navigable to Bedford.
To this end he built another staunch above Eaton Mills and dredged the river to Great Barford, but he never achieved his ambition, although there was considerable trade on the river up to Great Barford during the seven years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, which was in 1642. Spencer may also have carried out some work on the Essex Stour, since he received rights in that river in 1638.
In 1674 Henry Ashley Senior (1630-1700) leased the Great Ouse Navigation, and from this date until the end of the century he and his son Henry Ashley Junior (1654-1730), not only restored Spencer's works, which had fallen into decay during the war, but carried out considerable improvements of their own...Owing to Vermuyden's Fen drainage scheme (Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, who was contracted by Charles I to drain the Great Fen 1630-7) there was no longer sufficient depth of water at St Ives so a new staunch was built just below that place. The navigation up to Great Barford was improved by building two new sluices, three staunches and a short artificial cut. By 1689 the Ashleys had fulfilled Spencer's ambition by making the river navigable for a further seven miles to Bedford. In this section there were three new sluices. This venture proved profitable to the Ashleys, bringing them an income from tolls of £400 p.a., a not inconsiderable sum at the time (apparently over £90,000 today).
The younger Ashley also improved the navigation of the River Lark between Mildenhall and Bury St Edmunds, but in this case he acted as engineer only, the navigation rights assigned to the local gentry.
[Great Barford Lock photographed only a few weeks ago]
The plan is to "travel" with the newlyweds Mr & Mrs Rolt on their Honeymoon trip in 1939. I shall quote from the book Narrowboat, which tells this story and add to it from our own experiences on the same stretches of water many years later. You will see from the off why this idea came to me.
Narrowboat by L.T.C Rolt first published by Eyre Methuen in 1944 quotes are in purple italics
My own holiday diaries are in red italics, Wikipedia etc in blue
If you would like to get in touch, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org or use the feedback tab above
Tuesday 17th October 2017
The weather was still brilliant the next morning when we cast off and traversed the lovely tree-bordered pound that extends from Heyford Mill through Lower Heyford to Dashwood Lock.
Cleves Bridge 207 in 2015
At Northbrook, a lonely lock lost amid the trees by the river margin, we paused for a mid-morning cup of coffee before continuing on our way
on our way through Kirtlington Woods, past the secluded 'Pigeons' inn...
William YOUNG was described in 1861 as a victualler and at 87 was living in Kirtlington. From the enumerators district description and the position of the entry in the 1861 census it is clear that William was at The Three Pigeons. The house no longer exists but was outside the village standing between the Oxford Canal and the river Cherwell. There is still a lock called The Pigeons on the canal at the site of the pub. Roger Wickson describes the pub which was kept by his mother during WW2 at the BBC People’s War site http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/60/a5807360.shtml He tells how boatmen could stable their horses while they took refreshment at the Inn. At that time the house had no gas or electric supply and water was collected from a pump in the kitchen which delivered a pint at each pull . (Young family tree pages http://www.mcmullin.plus.com/pub%20oxf%20fam.html)
I must admit I was puzzled to find a house for sale, claiming to be the converted pub
and it certainly looks right from this photo from 2013:
to Gibraltar Lock, at the tail of which we entered the Cherwell. The ensuing river section is a mile long, and abounds in acute turns; moreover, the current is at all times swift, so that in times of flood it often becomes unnavigable. On this account traffic is frequently held up, so that it would seem that the canal engineers showed some lack of foresight in not cutting an independent course throughout.
Gibraltar Lock is now called Baker's Lock, but the problems remain, e.g. the section was closed Dec 2015 to Mar 2016 because of high water. I understand this stretch of the Oxford Canal is a designated Conservation Area and the buildings, locks etc are listed and protected, thus no reconstruction is likely to happen.
Baker's Lock 2001
We left the river's devious windings at Weir, an unusual type of flood-lock with diamond-shaped chamber. The precise reason for its odd construction was not clear, nor could the lock-keeper enlighten us, since, for all its apparent size, it could accommodate only one narrow boat at a time.
I understand that it is to do with the volume of water needed to feed the next section down, as it is fairly shallow, but leave the design to the experts. This section was closed in March of this year for renovation of the lock gates, so I hope passing through is much improved. The lock is now called Shipton(-on-Cherwell) Weir Lock
When we had locked through and rounded the bend beyond the lock tail we sighted the grey church and manor house of Shipton-on-Cherwell overpeering the water from their vantage on the high right bank, while across the river, not a quarter of a mile away stood the tiny chapel of Hampton Gay, dreaming alone in the fields, with only a grass pathway to its door.
The railway crosses the canal/river here several times, and it was one of these bridges that a famous disaster occurred:
The accident happened a few hundred yards from the village of Hampton Gay and close to Shipton on Cherwell. The train with 13 carriages and two engines had left Oxford station for Birmingham Snow Hill at 11:40. The train was about half an hour late and going about 40 miles an hour when after six miles the tyre of the wheel on a third-class carriage broke. The carriage left the track for about 300 yards including the bridge of the River Cherwell. After the bridge and before a similar bridge across the Oxford and Birmingham canal the carriage went down an embankment taking other carriages with it, breaking up as they crossed the field. Three carriages and a goods carried on over the canal bridge, and another fell into the water. The front section of the train carried on for some distance. The owner and men from the Hampton Gay paper mill close to the accident site tried to assist the injured in the snow. Telegrams were sent to local stations to summon medical help but it took an hour and a half before a doctor appeared. A special train was used to move the injured back to hospitals in Oxford. At least 26 died at the scene while four others were dead by the time the special train had arrived at Oxford station. At least one other died in hospital. The canal was dragged but no bodies were found.
Illustrated London News 24 Dec 1874
The manor house and the church are the only two buildings of any antiquity,
Shipton Manor House was built in the 16th or 17th century and in the 19th century was the home of the artist William Turner who is buried in the churchyard with his wife. More recently the manor house was the home of Richard Branson and, until 1995, it was a recording studio for Virgin Records. It is now the country home of the Marquess of Headfort.
In 2010 there was a fire at the manor house, but in an annex building, so it seems to be alright.
Hampton Gay is a fascinating site, an abandoned village, consisting now of just a church, a couple of farms and a manor house in ruins.
The manor house was built in 16th Century on a site dating from 1170, named for the de Gay family, lords of the manor. A fire in 1887 gutted the house and was said to be the result of a curse put on the house for not helping by taking in victims of the train derailment. However, there is much evidence to show that they did. The ruins are now getting dangerous, so I don't know how much longer they will stand. The reason the village has not been restored is one that we are quite familiar with; it stands on a large flood-plain with canal and river snaking through the middle, and is quite impractical for building.
Hampton Gay church 1992
In the golden evening light the combination of grey buildings, green meadows, tall trees and still, sky-reflecting water made a picture so entrancing that we forthwith decided to journey no farther, and moored Cressy where the dry wall of Shipton churchyard sloped down to the water's edge.
[See 2016 photograph above] When I stopped her engine, silence fell swiftly, no breath-bating hush of suspense, but a soundless calm that seemed to lap as closely about us as the water round our hull and which brought with it a sense of peace unassailable and timeless [I do love his prose!]
The willows were casting long fingers of shadow when we walked across the meadows and over the footbridge to Hampton Gay. The morrow would bring us within sight of the many spires and towers of Oxford, the end for a time of four hundred miles of this slow voyaging. What could be better, then, I thought, than in this quiet place to bring the story of our journey to a close, since such a wandering tale should have no ending.
Tom finishes his book with a Conclusion, written in 1948, after the war, in which he says
For the present, at all events, the neglected fields have come to life because the town has once more been made aware of its ultimate dependence upon the land. The pledge has been given that never again will the country be allowed to fall to ruin, and it is the duty of all who hold the welfare of that country dear to ensure that this pledge is honoured.
This applies today as much as it ever did.
Monday 16th October 2017
At long last, however, the seemingly endless spell of clear weather and biting north-east winds came to an end in a day of mist and grey, scurrying clouds. Simultaneously the wind veered sharply to the south-west, and soon the gurgle of running water from every downspout, ditch and culvert proclaimed the thaw. Next morning the sun rose warm above a steaming haze and the Cherwell, swollen by the melting snowdrifts of the Wolds, overran its broad water-meadows. Even on the canal the flood-water coursed down over the ice, submerging the towing-path and thundering over the lock gates, despite the fact that both paddles had been drawn.
When these floods had abated, the ice-breakers set forth once more, and there was great activity down the long line of moored boats. Brasses were polished, trusses of hay were stowed under fore-hatches, and finally, while the motor-boats were starting their long-silent engines, the horses were brought out, looking plump and sleek after their long rest. Amid this bustle and commotion there was much talk and good-natured banter between boat and boat, for everyone was glad to be on the move again.
[photo taken in 2010 showing conditions still the same after 70 years - ice and flooding]
The sun was shining brightly on the morning we set forth on the last stage of our interrupted journey. Banbury's sordid southern outskirts around the railway station were soon passed by, so that we presently found ourselves winding through the familiar Cherwell meadows, our landmarks the towers of Banbury astern and the tall, remarkably slender spire of Kings Sutton rising above the willows to the south-east.
We had been travelling little more than half an hour when we reached Grants Lock, the first below Banbury, and here we met with an unexpected delay. When we came to swing the lower gate...a massive single one, the 'breast', rotted with age, parted from the balance beam, the gate at once dropped...and refused to open. They performed a very Heath Robinson repair and lost no time in reporting the damage to the lock-keeper at King's Sutton wharf
I see that the problem still continues, as there are similar reports only a month ago, despite renovation work in 2015.
Though not so intricately tortuous as on its course north of Banbury, the canal was never so straight as to become dull, but would this way and that in a delightfully haphazard fashion as it followed the loops and curves of the river valley, while the characteristic wooden drawbridges were here so numerous that their spreading beams, uplifted over the fields, were the dominant feature of our landscape. Because they were for the most part little used, affording access from field to field, most of them were open to the waterway, though some were unsecured, and rocked in the breeze to give us some uneasy moments when we slid through the channel beneath them.
[Coles Lift Bridge - bridge 183 - photographed in 2005 with M40 Bridge close by]
[Scrooby's Lift Bridge 181 photographed in 2013]
At Nell Bridge wecame in sight of Aynho, a trim cluster of grey cottages on the crest of a hill a mile distant...here they used stone for the fixed bridges (ie not lift), for we were now entering the stone country proper, the grey Cotswold oolite that flows over the wolds to spill into the valleys of Evenlode and Cherwell.
[Aynho lock and Weir Bridge - no. 188]
Somerton was the next village we sighted; like Aynho and the rest of the villages along the river, it is set on high ground above flood level, and the canal wharf lies immediately at the foot of the sloping street. Here we stopped for tea
before moving on over Heyford Common to moor at nightfall in perfect surroundings by Heyford Mill Lock. The evening was brilliantly clear, and the ranks of pollard willows which marched westward across the meadows were silhouetted with a startling clarity that was almost unreal against the sunset's afterglow. Eastwards we were sheltered by a steep bank, at the top of which, screened by a belt of tall elms, lay the village of Upper Heyford.
I understand what Tom called Heyford Mill Lock is what is now known as Allen's Lock. Heyford Mill was a significant building, mentioned in the Domesday Book, but in 1960s it fell into disrepair and demolition was planned. It has since been 'saved', but plans for a wedding venue came to nothing and it appears that housing has been built on the site
Apparently in the 1970s the housing of the water-wheel could still be seen at Allen's Lock, but no longer.
Sunday 15th October 2017
On the following evening we reached Cropredy - see 24th July below - the old cottages of stone and thatch appearing like old and familiar friends. In sharp contrast to that summer evening, the first of our long journey, when we had last passed by, the air was keen with frost as we walked up the street to 'The Red Lion' after dinner, and when we awoke next morning the canal was covered with ice, all the willows glittering with rime. Ice soon cuts deeply into the timbers of a wooden narrow boat, but we were particularly anxious to reach Banbury if, as seemed highly probable, we were destined to be frozen in. the distance to be covered was short, so we started away, carving through the seemingly solid surface ahead with a loud grinding noise, and leaving behind us a dark, narrow channel fringed with jutting points. When we reached the familiar outskirts of Banbury it was to find that the influx of warm waters from factories had prevented the ice from forming, and so it was through clear water that we reached familiar moorings at the Banbury Boatyard.
[frosty photo Hillmorton 2012]
The threat of frost was fulfilled more thoroughly than ever we had thought possible, and for nearly three months we lay at Banbury, held immovable in the grip of ice six inches thick. It soon became difficult to believe that we had ever been afloat, for the familiar rocking motion with which the boat responded to our movements or to a sudden gust of wind had ceased, and when, after a fortnight of black frost, a heavy fall of snow covered the boat, the canal and the banks in a uniform mantle of white, the illusion of solid foundation was complete
At night the ice creaked and cracked with hollow reverberation or a sharp repetitive knocking, like urgent knuckles rapping against the hull, while sounds from other boats were mysteriously magnified as through some whispering gallery.
Our unorthodox design for living emerged triumphantly from the supreme test of this severe weather, while in the town gas and water supplies were often cut off and many an icicle from sill or down-spout told a sorry tale of burst pipes. Burning night and day with little attention, the stove in our sitting-cabin maintained a constant cheerful warmth, while two small paraffin heaters effectively kept the frost from the drinking-water tank and the independent boiler in the bathroom. Furthermore, the intake of the handpump supplying the galley sink remained below ice level and so maintained an uninterrupted water supply...The time passed pleasantly enough, for not only were there several minor repairs and improvements which we had in any case intended to carry out at Banbury, but they also chatted with the occupants of neighbouring boats and exchanged tales, news and gossip.
After the snowfall came signs of a thaw, and the ice-breakers were brought out. These consist of small but stoutly built steel boats varying from 30 to 50 feet long and, unlike most other canal craft, having completely rounded bilges.
They sometimes have bars attached, from which men rock back & forth, which does look comical but is essential to break up the ice efficiently,
or find other methods, as in this clip: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qxwCucEC_A
Two gangs of breakers made a spectacular arrival at Banbury, one from the north and the other from the south. Long before they came in sight their approach was heralded by a grinding and crashing sound that was like the clash of arms, then round the bend came the sweating horses keeping a fine pace as though entering into the spirit of the adventure. finally the boat itself appeared, rolling almost gunwale under from the efforts of her heaving crew, who, ruddy-faced from the cold wind and strenuous labour, seemed oblivious alike to the jets of icy water which spurted from overside and the dirty puddle which slopped to and fro beneath their feet. At the tiller stood an elderly lengthman, balancing first on one leg, then on the other as he endeavoured to keep the bucketing craft upon some semblance of a course. In the wake of these pioneers came the liberated boats, the ice-floes slithering and grinding round their bows, but Alfred Hone (their neighbour) looked at the clearing sky, shook his head significantly, and made no move to be gone. His weather wisdom was confirmed that night, when, under stars of cold brilliance, the frost set in again with redoubled bitterness..
Saturday 14th October 2017
So Tom and Angela were on the home straight.
We made 'The Bull & Butcher' that night - See 25th July below - and the next, a windy day of bitter cold, the top of Napton Locks at Marston Doles.
[photo of Napton Top Lock taken in similar conditions Jan 2005]
Despite gloomy forecasts of snow, the wind dropped overnight, and the morning was clear and frosty as we set out over the winding summit level. Every man has some particular part of England that he favours most, so perhaps it was mere prejudice on my part that made the rolling country of the North Oxfordshire border appear softer, kindlier and of more subtle colouring, in its shades of blue and green, than any we had seen to the north. Certainly the day gave of its best, especially towards evening, when we approached Fenny Compton Wharf, and the sun, sinking clear and red, bathed the broad fields and gentle hills in such a magic light that the country looked just as lovely as it had done in the languorous days of high summer.
[photo of the approch to Fenny Compton taken in similar conditions 2007]
Friday 13th (!) October 2017
The original course of the canal from Hawkesbury to Napton as laid out by Brindley was even more roundabout than the summit section of the Marston Doles to Claydon is today, but in 1820 new cuts were made to avoid these detours, with the result that the total length of the canal has been reduced by no less than thirteen miles...As we traversed the 'new' embankments and cuttings...the old waterway crossed and recrossed our course, winding away over the fields, in places a barely discernible depression of the ground, in others still a reedy bed spanned by a crumbling brick bridge. For some years after the improved canal was cut, sections of the old remained navigable in the guise of short branches to the neighbouring villages, but with the decline of short-distancetraffic, these too have fallen to ruin. One of these was the branch to Brinklow, and just beyond its reed-grown entrance in a wooded cutting by the park of Newbold Revel we moored and walked into the village.
The way the canal wiggled through the countryside here could still be discerned in 1980, when members of Subterranea Britannica visited, as reported on their website. The tunnel at Newbold was still open (although the canal not navigable) then, and it has been subsequently bricked up (leaving two circular holes to provide access for bats).
The new tunnel was built at right angles to the old, as can be seen on the map above, the old route serving local brickworks & quarries until 1840s.
Brinklow itself has been enlivened by the development of the leisure industry around canals, as can be seen by the above photos contrasting 1961 and 2014. Tom & Angela moored there overnight, then moved on next morning
The next morning dawned fine...travelling well, we reached Newbold-upon-Avon by noon, having passed through the short tunnel...We ate a simple lunch of bread and cheese at the sign of 'The Boat' by the canal side, a sign representing a narrow-boat on the move which did the brewers great credit. In some quarters there is evidence such as this that the neglected art of the inn sign is being belatedly revived...Evidently it is dawning upon the brewers' commercial mind that the average countryman goes to the village inn because he is thirsty and because he wishes to gossip with his neighbours, and therefore that to advertise their beer in foot-high letters across the outside walls is not merely unsightly, but expensive and ineffectual
Tom would be pleased to know that The Boat continued with the inn-sign he so admired for another 65 years at least, as this photo from 2005 shows:
However, by 2011 they were using a modern one (possibly a temporary sign) and shortly afterwards the pub was closed by the brewery:
Passing northwards of Rugby and crossing the valleys of the Swift and Avon, we came that afternoon to the three locks at Hillmorton, where stand the tall steel masts of the Post Office transatlantic beam
The three locks here were all paired, numbered 2&3, 4&5, 6&7 (the stop lock at Hawkesbury being number 1). However, I understand that currently the westernmost of each pair is out of action.
The transmitter masts were used, as Tom said, to link New York and London with telephone communication from 1927, but other means were found and in 1956 these masts were designated the 'Rugby Clock' time signal. They were finally demolished 2004-7
We had been travelling for little over two hours the next morning before we sighted the familiar spire of Braunston church perched upon its hill, and so, at the junction of the Grand Union Canal, we completed the second loop of the huge figure of eight in which we had travelled round the Midlands of England. We did not care that from this point onwards as far as Banbury we should be navigating familiar waters, for no matter how many times one may journey over the same canal, its beauty is ever changing according to the season, and the fascinating character of this slow canal travel is sufficient in itself.
Tuesday 10th October 2017
The steep hill ridge which marches beside the right bank of the canal from Atherstone to Nuneaton has been so eroded by granite quarries that its profile has become a succession of beetling rock faces and towering waste heaps. Every now and again minute locomotives and rows of tipping wagons appeared in sharp silhouette on their high skyline, and we heard repeatedly the deep reverberating thud of blasting. So great is the concussion of these blasts, particularly in the neighbourhood of Tuttle Hill, that the quarrying companies are constantly paying compensation to local inhabitants for broken crockery or window-panes.
Three quarries lasted for some while around Nuneaton; the Midland Quarry at Tuttle Hill, Judkins and Gipsy Lane. Midland was sold in 1980 as a site for spoil disposal, but was resold on for development. There is now at that site a housing development (Camp Hill) and Industrial Estate, along with a reservoir. Judkins became a recycing centre and landfill tip. There are still a couple of small quarries off Gipsy Lane, producing asphalt for road-making. Tom was very unhappy with Nuneaton, especially Chilvers Coton and the canalside pub Ye Olde Wharfe Inne (he hated this "false antiquity" craze). Here is a photo of the pub in 1950s. Tom and Angela were happy to pass it by.
Continuing without pause until we had left this cheerless region well astern, we passed the junction of the Ashby-de-la-Zouch canal at Marston
and moored for lunch at a more honest inn at Bedworth which overlooked a busy wharf where many boats were loading coal from the neighbouring collieries. This was at Charity Wharf, although I cannot find mention of an inn there. They chatted with a 79-year-old local, who had lived alone in the cottage next door since the death of his sister at the age of 98.
This boatyard is rather like the inside of my garage but on a gargantuan scale. By all accounts the operators pride themselves in the jumble of boats and bits stacked high into the sky. Very sadly though I am reminded of the images of harbours after the March 2011 Japanese tsunami. The dock does however have an interesting history. A local and early Bedworth charity bought farmland around the town, and when coal was found and collieries built to extract it the charities became very rich. One such mine nearby was consequently known as the Bedworth Charity Colliery. The nearest point on the canal to the colliery was at the corner here, and a wharf was therefore built with a tramway connection to the colliery in order to transport coal for shipping on narrowboats. Each narrowboat could transport up to 30 tons of coal. The wharf therefore became known as Charity Wharf or Dock. The colliery ceased production in 1924 and the tramway was lifted, so the dock remains as a surviving artefact of Bedworth's former coal mining history. Geograph Contributor 2012
It appears they have taken their name literally, as the wharf is run like a Charity Shop, selling unwanted canal-based items, including boats. Evidently when Tom passed through, the writing was already on the wall for the future of the area, as the tramway had been removed and the collieries on borrowed time (see above).
Though it continued for a further five and a half miles to its terminus in Coventry basin, we came to the end of our journey over the Coventry Canal when we reached its junction with the Oxford Canal at Hawkesbury...Hawkesbury Junction even worse than most (for turning into), the two canals running parallel with each other for a little distance, only a few yards apart, before being connected by an acute hairpin turn beneath a roving bridge.
A clever photograph on the Geograph site shows the acuity:
Coventry Canal on the left, Oxford Canal on the right.
They were being watched during their tricky manoevres, by those boats moored nearby The fates usually ordain that such circumstances lead to some humiliating fiasco, but on this occasion we were lucky. By putting Cressy aternately ahead and astern and at the same time using her rudder as a paddle to swing her stern, we came about in fine style, without having to use lines or shafts.
When we had paid our dues to Oxford in the toll office beside the stop lock, it was a relief to find ourselves heading for open country once more, after so many miles on the sooty fringes of the Black Country, and that night moored at Ansty, the first purely agricultural village we had seen since we left Fradley.
Hawkesbury Junction is quite complex, as the two canals were not built at exactly the same level, so the Oxford Canal starts with a Stop Lock, named Sutton Stop after a family who provided several generations of lock-keepers there in 19th Century. It was here that the tolls were collected and there was an engine room housing some interesting pump machines.
Monday 9th October 2017
Throughout the next day our course lay along the valley of the Anker to Atherstone, where we stopped to replenish our fuel tanks. Atherstone is an old market town which has suffered inevitably from its situation on the Watling Street and its proximity to Birmingham...As a result the town appears to derive more of its revenue from 'commercial gentlemen' than from the farmer, for, as though to carve a particular niche for itself in the complex structure of industrial development that was springing up on every side, Atherstone now manufactures bowler hats in prodigious quantities. Peering through the dusty windows of warehouses, we could see enough to supply a generation of salesmen.
I am afraid this only lasted until the 1970s, when hats went out of fashion, and those that were worn then tended to be cheap imports, and only three companies existed. The final one went out of business in 1999.
[apparently this building was still the same in Autumn 2016]
The flight of twelve locks here were quite the slowest filling of any we had encountered. We had ascended seven before going into the town, and on our return we decided to push on through the remaining five before dark, so that we would have a clear run before us the next morning. We thought we should accomplish this easily, but by the time we moored at the summit night had fallen.
[Atherstone top lock 2016]
Tom & Angela spent the evening moored outside an inn, talking with the boat folk about stories they heard regarding boatmen and their donkeys. I'm not sure where this would be, as I cannot find a canalside pub that still exists, and he didn't give a name.
Thursday 5th October 2017
[Fazeley Junction Toll House, photographed in 2013 when being converted to a private house]
Fazeley Junction became a lot more than Tom Rolt described, as the four canal-building companies came together there to connect with London markets and several factories sprang up here. For a very interesting account from a local man who worked here see
The flight of locks at Farmers Bridge caused a serious bottleneck, and the Tame Valley Canal was built to provide a by-pass, and in 1968 Spaghetti Junction soaring above the canals, taking the traffic off on the M6 etc.
The Rolts didn't hang around, unimpressed as they were. Journeying on again, we soon entered Warwickshire by an aqueduct over the Tame, and worked our way up two locks at Glascote, where we paid our Birmingham Canal toll
We were now in a dour neighbourhood of chimney-stacks and sprawing tenements... They were changing shifts at the collieries around Amington and Alvecote above the locks, for we met many of the pitmen trudging home by twos and threes along the tow-path, their faces so blackened with coal-dust and sweat that as they turned to grin at us teeth and eyeballs flashed like those of a coon at a seaside concert party [sorry, he was writing in 1939 remember]. We passed through the heart of some of these pits, between barren shale-tips, rows of tubs, spinning headgears and basins where boats were loading. On every hand the land had been laid waste by subsidences, pastures had become reedy swamps of stagnant water, while such farm buildings as remained stood empty and were fast falling to ruin.
I am pleased to report this decline ceased not long afterwards, as in 1947 the coal works were nationalized, the Alvecote, Amington and Pooley Hall pits merged in 1951 and eventually closed. Although the Daw Mill Colliery, as it was known, was one of the last to close, only doing so in 2013, after a fire, apparently due to spontaneous combustion. Apparently there is still plenty of coal, should the need arise to reopen in the future. As I have reported so many times here, much to my relief, the canal has helped to rejuvenate the area, although villages of Alvecote and Amington have been absorbed into Tamworth
That night we lay at Pooley Hall, where this new world met the old. They stood side by side on the canal bank, a colliery wreathed in steam and smoke, and the crumbling, battlemented tower of the old hall. The tower returned the blank stare of the tall windows of the winding house from arrow slits that were like eyes veiled with mistrust.
[Pooley Hall from canal 2016 - the colliery was closed after subsidence in 1965, but I understand there are still buildings there]
[colliery basin morrings, unfortunately at risk again, this time from HS2, due to pass through this very spot]
Tuesday 3rd October 2017
The Coventry Canal has had a very chequered history. Its construction was authorised by Parliament in 1768, James Brindley being appointed engineer, but unfortunately the capital of the company proved quite inadequate if the work was to be carried out according to his plans, so, having constucted the first fourteen miles from Coventry to Atherstone, he threw up his appointment, lest it should bring his name into discredit. The canal remained in this unfinished state for many years, until at last, in 1785, the Birmingham and Fazeley and the Grand Trunk Companies between them completed the section from Atherstone to Fradley Junction. The fortunes of the Coventry Company then improved sufficiently to enable them to purchase that portion constructed by the Grand Trunk from Fradley to Whittington Brook near Lichfield, but the remaining 5.5 miles from the latter place to Fazeley is still owned by the Birmingham Canal Company, so that through traffic has to pay two tolls. This is only one instance of the complicated toll payments which beset the long-distance canal trader and constitute one of the reasons why canal transport has declined.
The Coventry Canal survived the severe bombing of the city during the Blitz, but after the war it was in danger of being built over. It was saved by local volunteers. In 1957 Coventry Canal Society was established to promote the proper use and maintenance of the canal, and to protect its interests. The canal acts as a base to Mercia Canoe Club, which is part of Coventry Canal Society.
Having made our way without incident down the familiar length of the Trent and Mersey from Great Haywood, we moored for a night beside The Swan at Fradley Junction before embarking once more upon strange waters.
Strange indeed they proved to be, for on the little-used section as far as Fazeley the mud-banks on the turns were quite the worst we had encountered... We had not been travelling long before our old enemy the wind got up, msking navigation so difficult that by midday we decided to abandon further progress before we became badly stranded, and moored at Huddlesford, the junction of the Wyrley and Essington Canal, in sight of the spires of Lichfield
The arm of what Tom called the Wyrley & Essington here is now called the Birmingham Canal Navigation Lichfield, currently under reconstruction, and the entrance here only gives access to private moorings. It was closed in 1954 and largely filled in in the1960s, Renovation started in 1990 and in 2007 serious work was undertaken after a feasibility study. Much has already been done, despite M6 and A38 modern roadways getting in the way, and necessitating diversions, but much remains to be done.
Curiously enough, Lichfield was the only cathedral town we visited on our travels, if one excludes Leicester, whose parish church of St Martin has only been raised to the dignity of a cathedral in recent years. The birthplace of Samuel Johnson, Lichfield is in theory a market town, but the open market which we saw in the square under the statue of the immortal doctor can have been a shadow of its former self (although it is still going today, held three times a week, which is a lot more frequently than most!) Nevertheless a great deal that is old and graceful still survives... one is made aware of that particular atmosphere of enduring peace and tranquility which seems to permeate the very stones of a cathedral town.
Owing to the continuing high wind we lay for a whole day at Huddlesford before moving on through a dreary country of sodden, neglected pastures in the valley of the River Tame. We were now heading due south, having followed different river valleys around three sides of Cannock. For a short distance our surroundings improved as we passed along the steeply sloping flank of Hopwas Hays Wood, with the river directly below us
Half an hour later we sighted the tower of Tamworth church beside the great sandstone block of the de Frevilles' Norman Castle, and so came to Fazeley, the junction of the Birmingham Canal, and a drab village on Watling Street, where we made a brief stop to buy supplies.
Monday 2nd October 2017
If any proof were needed that we were the first boat to cover the four miles from Baswich to Haywood for many months, it was the dense patch of weed which we struck near Lodgefield Bridge. Fortunately it did not extend very far...but we only just reached clear water without assistance. At Milford, beneath the shadow of the Milford Hills, we crossed the river by an old stone-built aqueduct of the familiar Brindley construction, and approached the last lock on the canal, Old Hill or Tixall.
The lock-keeper...said we were the first boat for six months. He insisted upon working the lock for us, which was probably all to the good, since the lower gates were so decrepit that they looked in iminent danger of collapse and leaked so badly that the lock chamber had half emptied before he had had time to draw the paddles. He assured us, not without pride, that one gate at least was over thirty years old, and we saw no reason to doubt it.
There has recently (earlier this year) been much renovation work at this lock and the gates have been replaced, by all accounts not before time, so I imagine the gates reached their century before being renewed! The Lock House is now rented out, so nobody does the work for you any more.
The canal widens suddenly and enters the stretch known as Tixall Wide - after the very narrow stretches of the canal further south you will feel you have entered something equivalent to a Norfolk Broad at this point. If you look up the hill you can see Tixall gatehouse and the entrance to Shugborough Hall which is now owned by the National Trust but was once the home of the Anson family of whom Patrick Lichfield the photographer was best known. The NT have leased the house and grounds to Staffordshire County Council who now manage the whole estate.
Tom wrote: If we had been struck by the beauty of Great Haywood when we came to it by the Trent & Mersey Canal, the approach from this direction surpassed it. Coming round a bend below the tail of the lock the canal broadened unexectedly, so that we found ourselves sailing out into a long lake fringed by tall flags and dotted with hundreds of coot and moorhen. Though the water was very deep, it was of such remarkable crystal clarity that, looking down from the deck, I could see every pebble on the bottom, and the full shape of our hull. On the crest of a park-like slope overlooking this lake we had noticed a curious building, which we took to be Tixall Hall, so...we set out on foot to explore. What we had seen turned out to be the enormous gatehouse, a most fearsome example of Strawberry Hill Gothic
Tom described the 1580 Gatehouse as a semi-ruin, with floors missing, parts of the walls crumbling. Indeed, I understand that when it was purchased by The Landmark Trust in 1968 this was the case, and they have done a very sympathetic job of restoration. It is nowadays rented out for holiday accommodation and is very popular.
The hall was owned by Thomas Clifford, the fourth son of Hugh Clifford, 3rd Baron Clifford of Chudleigh, and the grounds had been designed on the advice of the landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown. The lake was probably created during the construction of the canal in 1771. It is said he "gave permission for the canal to pass through his land on the condition that it was made ... wide enough to look like a lake from the house" and thus in order not to spoil the view.
After retracing the route out, Tom & Angela returned to Fradley Junction along the Trent & Mersey (see 15th August below), and this time turned into the Coventry Canal.
Friday 29th September 2017
Next morning, Tom described a mass of birds accompanying them on their journey, then
Having followed the Penk to its confluence with the Sow near Stafford, the canal, which had up to now been heading almost due north, swung abruptly south-eastwards to follow the Sow valley, thus circling the high ground which marched continuously on the right bank. At this turning-point was the blocked-up mouth of the Stafford Branch, and also the Stafford Salt Works, where we saw the solitary Day Boat unloading its weekly cargo, and knew that we were entering a disused waterway.
They did indeed, as Tom described a "veritable Sargasso", a weed-filled stretch unused for months. This account provides a fascinating snapshot in time, as the blockage of the Stafford Branch he mentioned was actioned in 1929, and the removal of accessory buildings in 1935/6, so hadn't long happened in 1939 when they passed by. The Stafford Branch Canal left the Staffs & Worcs Canal near St Thomas' Bridge (No. 101), opposite the site of Baswich Salt Works (now Baswich Industrial Estate), where there was an elegant Roving Bridge and a small pound (100ft x 20ft) with sandstone walls, towpath and Lock House on the left. A channel led to a cast-iron trough aqueduct over a drainage channel (Deepmore Drain), which then entered St Thomas/Baswich Lock - a most unusual arrangement (only two others exist on the canal system, one near me on the River Lea, apparently).
The decision to fill in the lock and remove the Aqueduct and small wooden bridge alongside was taken in Jun 1935, and a report in Mar 1936 confirmed it had been done.
18th Aug 2017: The Stafford Riverway Link is working towards the reinstatement of the navigation link between the centre of Stafford and the Staffs & Worcs Canal at Baswich. A lock at this point dropped down from the canal to the canalised River Sow.
An elevated footway/cycle route has already been created, spanning the Rivers Penk and Sow (The Two Waters) and opened in 2015.
[photo taken a month ago, showing original footings of the Lock House, being investigated ]
[site of the junction, photographed 2015 when Stafford Riverway Link erected signpost]
Monday 18th September 2017
Those of you who know me will know that at this time every year we go to Munich to the Oktoberfest. This year we are off tomorrow, so I will return here the following week. See you.
Friday 15th September 2017
Tom described the Day Boat service, which was still partly running. It was like a kind of taxi service, whereby boats would be loaded with a cargo and itinerant drivers would pick them up and take them wherever, then pick up another etc. They had no sleeping quarters etc so were minimalist in build, Tom was of the opinion this was a reflection of the barges of old. I don't think any run nowadays.
In 1939 One Day Boat still makes a weekly journey with coal to the Stafford Salt Works, but otherwise this northern section of the canal to its terminus at Great Haywood is virtually disused, except on rare occasions when through traffic is diverted owing to a stoppage on the Shropshire Union route. The towing-path, up till now a wide, miry track, suddenly became a field path, narrow and overgrown, while the canal itself underwent a similar transformation, resembling the reedy channel of the Leicester canal. The sides of the locks were matted with weeds and coarse grasses, the paddle-gears on their gates dry and rusty from little use. Willows, long unpolled stretched their branches so far and low over the water that Angela's bicycle was swept from the deck to hang precariously by one pedal from the cant rail. It was just after we had retrieved this misfortune that we sighted The Cross Keys, a little lost canal inn standing amid the fields beside the tow-path. Its windows seemed to be gazing over the water with pathetic expectancy for boats which never came, so that we had not the heart to pass it by. Sitting on a bench in the sun before the door, we talked with the landlord while we drank a glass of his mild. Trade had been brisk, he recalled wistfully, until the traffic had passed to the Shropshire Canal, and he remembered the time when never a night passed by but several boatmen would moor by the door and lead their horses to his stable. 'A jolly lot they were' he said, 'and rare times we had when they got in here of an evening a-singing and playing.' Now he had made the best...by letting out his field to campers from the Black Country during the summer months, but in the winter, he confessed with a shake of his head, he 'kept very quiet.'
As is the theme here, much has changed in the intervening 78 years. In 1968 this canal was restored and rebuilt, and the Cross Keys thrived again
The village of Penkridge has expanded south to encompass it
pub marked with blue circle
However, the canal continues to silt up and a dredging project was put into effect last year, intending to remove silt and use it to rehome water voles.
Half a mile from The Cross Keys, through Filance Lock, we came to the village of Penkridge, where we paused again, this time to lay in stores from the village shop. What we saw of the place from the canal was pleasant enough, but the road traveller sees a very different picture. For it has the misfortune to lie on the main road from Wolverhampton to the Potteries and Manchester. The narrow main street was no match for the great Leylands and Scammels which shook the old houses to their foundations, so progress has blasted a bleak three-track motor road through the heart of Penkridge, and yet another English village has been laid waste to save minutes.
The time they came through was a turning point for the village, as WW2 led to its expansion, due to a large army camp nearby. Housing estates added to the village through the 1950s but in 1962 the newly-built M6 motorway solved the through-traffic problems Tom was so upset about. And the area is a Conservation zone, so there are rules prohibiting the large chain supermarkets etc. The market has been revived on a new site, and is now held twice a week. So I think Tom would be pleased.
Penkridge lock 2014
Penkridge bridge 2016
Though it would have been a lovely journey at any season, the country through which we passed appeared at its best advantage in this calm, sunless weather. Our course lay between the marshes of the little river Penk and the dark woods of Teddesley Park, which swept down from the slopes of Cannock on our right. Nowhere, either upon the long levels of the marsh or in the dense coverts which pressed close to the water's edge, was there sign or movement of any living thing, so that Cressy slowly gliding over the mirror-like surface of the water, seemed an intruder in some forbidden sanctuary, and the road she travelled some forgotten river backwater instead of a man-made canal.
This area still looks much the same, but apparently is very noisy, due to the M6 motorway very close by
[Teddesley Park Bridge photographed in 2009
Apparently this bridge used to be more ornamental than it is now, and locally had the name "Fancy Bridge". The Hall (now demolished) in the park was used as a prisoner-of-war camp.]
We returned to the workaday world when we cleared the sheltering trees of the park, for at the hamlet of Acton Trussell a woman in a bright printed apron was feeding her chickens, and a cowman was calling his herd to the evening milking with a 'Come hup!' and a melodious 'Hi ho!'
This is not quite so rural now, due to (albeit very attractive) modern buildings of the Moat House Hotel (originally 14th Century) and adjacent housing estate.
The day's journey came to an end when we moored by the bridge called Roseford under Acton Hill, the sky clearing towards sunset and the night starlit.
Roseford Bridge 2009. An accommodation bridge. When the canals (or railways) were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were often routed in such a way that farmers and other landowners had their land bisected, so bridges had to be provided to allow access to fields on both sides of the canal. These bridges are frequently referred to as accommodation bridges, and however solid and well constructed, often don't lead anywhere except from one field to another.
Tuesday 12th September 2017
Tom reckoned at this point there were 3 options for the route to Oxford:
1) Birmingam Canal then Digby, Warwick & Napton
2) Hatherton branch of Stafford & Worcester, to Coventry canal at Huddlesford near Litchfield
3) turn north to Great Haywood and then retrace route to Fradley
He chose the third option as Though the milage was greater, the lockage was reduced by half, and the way promised to be of greater interest (i.e. much less industrial)
Though it was blowing half a gale the next morning, we decided to struggle on at all costs rather than spend the day in such dismal surroundings. The wind was coming off the tow-path dead on our beam, so Angela walked ahead with a bow-line to keep Cressy from being blown onto the mud until we gained the welcome lee of a cutting so narrow that passing places had been cut into the banks at intervals. Thereafter we travelled better than we had expected, thanks mainly to the fact that the canal was much deeper than the muddy waterways of Shropshire. It was a welcome change to be back once more on an old canal with its tantalising twists and turns. A unique feature were the old brick bridges, which were not merely numbered, but bore, on weathered cast-iron plaques, such intriguing names as Mops Farm, Moat House, Long Moll's and Hazelstrine.
Autherley Narrows is still the same :
Autherley Narrows, locally known to generations of boatmen as the Pendeford Rockin'. Here, on either side of the Forston Bridge, the early navvies met an outcrop of Keuper Sandstone, which was enough of a problem to their primitive technology to force them to dig a shallow, narrow cutting. Stretching for about 600 yards, it is only about 10 ft deep, but it is only wide enough for one boat. Three passing places were dug out, one by the towpath and two on the off side.
[Bridges: Mops Farm photographed in 2016, Moat House 2006, Long Moll's 2007 & Hazelstrine 2006]
We were congratulating ourselves on having successfully shaken off the purlieus of Wolverhampton, having passed the junction of the Hatherton branch five miles from Autherley, when, at an acute turn, a violent gust caught us fairly broadside to sweep us uncontrollably on to the bank, where we landed, not upon mud, but on a rocky bottom with a most alarming series of bumps. It took us an hour of bitter struggling with both bow and stern lines ashore to haul Cressy into the shelter of a bridge-hole a hundred yards ahead. We then tried again, but at Calf Heath Bridge, half a mile beyond, despite all our efforts, the wind, now risen to a gale force, beat us again.
Calf Heath Bridge 2011
Apparently, this stretch was widened in 1989, but not much evidently!
The storm blew itself out and the next morning dawned clear and sunny. In view of the perfect morning, we lost no time in getting under way, and were soon taking our turn to lock down through the busy locks at Gailey
Monday 11th September 2017
Before I rejoin Tom & Angela in 1939, I thought I would bring you the photos I took yesterday, on my visit to Aylesbury. The event we were there for was run by the Canal & River Trust (the organisation that used to be British Waterways) and my husband ran in the Half Marathon. So, after the runners left, I was able to wander along the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union in one direction, while they ran in the other. The course followed the other branch, the Wendover Arm as well, and I travelled to Wendover by train to meet them at the finish.
We left Tom & Angela at Norbury Junction. At Norbury, as at Fradley, the village proper was some little distance away from the canal, and a second community had grown up, grouped around the wide basin where a roving bridge carried the towing-path of the main canal over the mouth of the branch. These included The Junction Inn, several cottages, and the extensive workshops and yards which form the southern headquarters of the canal company. Here were stored all the materials necessary for canal repairs - piles of bricks, clay puddle and gravel, ironwork and spare beams for the locks. Here too the captains of maintenance boats reported for orders.
As I said, we hired the narrowboat out from the yard at Norbury Junction, and in 1984 it was still much as described. Nowadays, I understand the pub is still there
and the boatyard
The bridge he mentioned is now just a footbridge
Passing through the village of Gnoshall (pronounced Nawzall by the boatmen), we entered another of the chasm-like cuttings which are the dominant feature of this canal. In places the rock sides fell sheer to the water's edge, the streamers of ground ivy a living arras upon them. Here too was the short Cowley Tunnel, the only one on the canal.
On our final day in 1984 we went out to the tunnel, turned round and moored for the night at Gnosall
On the way out we had stopped at the Anchor Inn, High Offley, which is still run by the same family, I understand, although there is a caravan site attached nowadays.
We stopped at a pub in the early evening, at The Anchor Inn, High Offley (I had some 6X! Already!) where we all sat in the garden.
Tom described pheasant hunting and fishing along this stretch (or not, as the landowners discouraged both) and the water birds he saw. Then: As the afternoon wore on the country around us began to assume the desolate, blackened look we had now come to know so well. Sure enough the tall chimney-stacks on the outskirts of Wolverhampton came in sight as we drew clear of the woods of Chillington Park, and the remaining three miles of the Shroppie to Autherley led us into a veritable no-man's land. The water became black with pollution, there was a desolate swamp upon either hand and, as if this were not enough, it began to rain heavily from a leaden sky.
At Autherley stop lock - or Cut End as the boatmen call it - the Shropshire Canal terminates in a junction with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, usually more briefly referred to as the Stour Cut. When I walked into the toll office beside the lock to pay my dues, my spirits, somewhat dampened by the weather, were revived no little by the toll collector's greeting. Though I had never set eyes on him in my life, he jumped from his stool with a hearty 'How are you?', clapping me on the shoulder and wringing me by the hand as though I were his prodigal son or had just made a solo crossing of the Atlantic. When we had obtained the necessary passes we lost no time in mooring up just beyond the mouth of the junction, and were glad to draw curtains and light lamps, shutting out our wet and dreary surroundings.
He evidently didn't know it, but he had just made acquaintance of the famous Sam Lomas, who had joined the canal company in 1926 and was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1958 for Meritorious Services (to Inland Waterways)
toll booth in 1961
[Sam Lomas at the toll booth]
Saturday 9th September 2017
We then made short work of the seven-and-a-half mile level to Norbury Junction, which we reached soon after noon, in ample time to visit the nearby town of Newport for supplies. We passed through an undulating, sparsely populated countryside, densely wooded cuttings alternating with high embankments - or 'valleys' as the boatmen call them - which afforded us wide views across the plain to westward. Shebdon was the only village we passed, but there were several canal-side inns, a feature with which the Shropshire Union main line seems uncommonly well-supplied. Norbury is the junction of the Newport and Old Shrewsbury Canal Branch, a waterway that is on our list for future exploration, not only because it passes through the heart of the lovely rural district in the Vale of Shrewsbury, but because it is in many ways unique.
Things have changed a lot at this point since Tom and Angela passed through. I suspect that they never did experience the Shrewsbury branch, as it closed in 1944, when the book was published and the country was still under wartime restrictions. Despite still being called Junction, Norbury is not. The Shropshire Union still runs through, but there is a short arm serving just the boatyard now. We picked up the Marco Polo from there on 2nd June 1984 and returned her there on 16th June 1984.
2nd June 1984 Norbury Junction
Actually, at the end of our trip we were somewhat early, so travelled on a way beyond the boatyard before turning round and returning on time. It is hard to predict exactly when you will arrive at a place a week in advance. Tom goes on to describe the Shrewsbury Branch:
It is twenty-five miles long, falling to Newport by a flight of eighteen locks, and then proceeding by Wappenshall Junction, through Berwick Tunnel to Shrewsbury Basin. At Wappenshall the disused Shropshire Tub Boat Canal commenced...At The Trench, two miles from Wappenstall, they (the tub boats) were hauled up one of the earliest inclined plane lifts in the country. It was 227 yards long, with a vertical rise of 73 feet, the ascending and descending trolleys drawn by wire cables, each carrying one tub...the 970 yard tunnel at Berwick must be the most restricted of any in England, being only seven feet in width by six feet high. It must also have been the scene of even fiercer disputes than those which took place in the early days at Harecastle.
Here is what the tunnel looks like today:
Both ends are bricked up and the whole stretch closed off. I see they are still hoping to renovate parts of the canal, but funds still fall far short of target, especially since a hoped-for Lottery Grant fell through.
Wappenstall Wharf now
Tom ponders the truth in his book; he had heard that the canal was in a state of disrepair but some boaters claimed it was still in operation. He said he would return to investigate. Unfortunately it would not have been good news.
Wednesday 6th September 2017
Construction of the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal was not commenced until 1826, and so far as I know it was the last important waterway, excluding ship canals, to be built in this country. Its inception was entirely due to the success of George Stephenson's Liverpool & Manchester Railway, for the canal proprietors, alarmed at the threat of their new competitor, desired a quicker and easier route between the two great industrial areas. For this reason it is unequalled by any other waterway in the magnitude of its earthworks and the directness of its course. Across the level pastures from Nantwich, through Hack Green, to Audlem it cuts as straight as a Roman road, and for the first and only time on our travels we found ourselves wishing that Cressy was capable of a little more speed. The older winding waterways lie around the next corner, but here, when our attention became focussed on a bridge perhaps a mile distant, this element was entirely lacking and our progress seemed intolerably slow. By nightfall we reached the end of this monotonous stretch, crossing the Weaver by Hankelow Mill, and mooring below the Audlem flight of fifteen locks by which the canal leaves the plain.
In 2009, we turned round at Nantwich, so didn't venture along this stretch, but in 1984, starting and ending at Norbury meant that we tackled the locks in both directions. I didn't describe the experience on our first full day, except to say that At Nantwich we had travelled 18¾ miles and done 27 locks and were very proficient at them by the end. On the return leg a week later Started at 7.30 and made good progress to Audlem for lunch, then through 27 locks. Audlem was very nice. We all had drinks at a couple of pubs and went to shops (Post Office with toys, woolshop with newspapers, sweetshop and that's about all).
I think this pub was the Shroppie Fly, and if so, this is the bar:
Tom's account reads similarly: Having worked over a hundred and fifty locks by this time, lockage had become a matter of easy routine, and we made short work of the Audlem flight next morning, even though they were all against us. (This means, if you are not aware, that they had to empty each one first before entering, then fill, rise and exit. It wastes water, and can involve twice as much time and work, but you leave the lock ready for the next boat, not knowing from which direction it will come.) Angela went ahead on her bicycle to set them, closing the top gates and drawing the bottom paddles, so that when they were empty Cressy could push the lower gates open for herself. When I had filled the locks she could open the top gates also, an advantage when working a boat with so small a crew. (On this trip we had a crew of seven, so there was no shortage of hands.) Halfway up the locks we paused at Audlem, a sleepy group of old houses, inns and shops clustering about a church perched upon a mound; an agricultural town so small that it might equally well be described as a large village...bought some Chorley cakes and home-made treacle toffee at the baker's shop, and continued on our way.
[view of the village from church tower]
At the summit of the flight we crossed the border of Shropshire and found the rolling wooded country between this point and the next five locks at Adderley a welcome change after the monotony of the Cheshire levels. By this time the westerly breeze had freshened considerably and a wrack of swift chasing clouds was sweeping like smoke out of Wales. We had climbed to the last of the five locks when a cold rain began to fall, so we lost no time in tying up, and were soon settling down to tea in the welcome warmth of the sitting-cabin, eating hot buttered chorley cakes in the flickering firelight while the rain beat against the windows and pattered on the deck above. (I believe there is no better sound)
Adderley Locks 3 Jun 1984
Our experiences of Market Drayton are similar, in that I and my mother-in-law took baby Alden to the shops while the others went off to pubs. We got soaked to the skin with rain and hailstones (in June!), having to shelter under a tree and standing over the pram.
Tom described in his book the 'Dirty Fair', or annual Horse Fair, that they attended (held every October since 1245), saying The weather on fair day certainly lived up to tradition, but because it was obviously accepted as a time-honoured matter of course, everyone had come prepared for the worst, and the pouring rain made not a jot of difference...When the motor car has finally routed the last of these old country festivals, when the last gipsy caravan has gone from the camping-place and the Welshmen no longer drive their ponies across the border, we shall still remember 'Dirty Fair'.
Unfortunately, on this subject at least, he was correct in his prediction, as the last horse Fair was held in Market Drayton in 2012.
Having conveniently replenished our coal-bunkers at Victoria Wharf (still has a coal merchant), we left Market Drayton at noon on a perfect day, crossing the valley of the Tern on a lofty embankment fringed with pine trees, between whose boles we caught glimpses of the wooded slopes and sunlit levels through which the little river wound.
On regaining the high ground on the farther side, we almost immediately entered a cutting through bare sandstone so narrow and soarched and overgrown by trees and hazel bushes that it more nearly resembled a flooded Devon lane than a canal. Thys brought us to the Tyrley flight of five locks, the last for many miles to come, and when we had reached the summit we moored for tea beside a scented pinewood.
Tyrley locks 3 Jun 1984
Determined to make the most of this fine, still weather, we travelled on... and soon entered a second cutting of far greater magnitude than that below the locks. Over a mile long and from 50-60 feet deep, it carved a way through the same central ridge that the Trent & Mersey Canal pierces at Harecastle. Though doubtless less costly to construct than a tunnel, it was obvious, from the way in which the crumbling rock had in many places slipped down the almost precipitous sides onto the towing path or into the water, that it was a constant source of trouble and expense to the canal maintenance department. (I have seen recent photos online of ongoing renovation work, so nothing has changed)
[Woodseaves Cutting 2012]
To journey through it as we did in the subdued half-light of dusk brought a strange sense of remoteness and unreality. The narrow ribbon of still water ahead and our slowly gliding boat seemed more than ever to be the stuff of dreams shut away from the world of men...Even the familiar canal bridges had here assumed strange and fanciful proportions, their arches airily heightened in their leap from lip to lip of the gorge
high bridge 2011
He described how they eventually emerged into a muddy mooring, wharf and isolated pub, the Wharf Inn, their visit and the conversations they had with landlord and locals. Investigating, I see it is still very much in evidence, now with an attached caravan park, having hugely benefitted from the development of the canal leisure industry.
[horse-boat approaching the mooring, horse off the right hand side]
[view from the Wharf Tavern]
This was Goldstone Common, Cheswardine, and on the way out in 1984 we moored there overnight, waking to this lovely view on our first morning.
On the return leg, we just stopped off there for a short while, mooring at Shebdon
mooring at Shebdon
right by the pub (also a Wharf Inn, sadly now no longer a pub, as it closed in 2013 and was converted to a house) I took my container of 6X in with me but couldn't drink it. The Landlord let us all in, including Alden, and we had food and he wandered about.
[that is the canal going over the road to the right side, on an aqueduct]
2017 now a house
Tuesday 5th September 2017
At Hurleston, the mouth of the Welsh Canal climbing westwards towards the Marches was a sore temptation
but we passed it by and soon came in sight of the fine sandstone tower of Acton church, a prominent landmark on the summit of a gentle slope overlooking Nantwich
...mooring outside the basin and walking up the hill to Acton village, where we took a lunch of bread and cheese at 'The Star', a fine old timbered inn with a mounting block on the cobbles before the door...an attractive example of the roadside 'hedge-tavern'.
Unfortunately this building has a familiar story attached. It was renovated in 2009 and taken over by a chain, then allowed to decline until closed in 2015. Now it has been (or is about to be) turned into flats, with further homes in the car park (no recent photo is available since planning permission was granted a year ago).
Until it became part of a through route by the construction of Telford's 'Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal', the old Chester Navigation terminated in a broad basin between Acton and Nantwich which is still known locally as 'Basin End'. Wide boats once traded regularly between Ellesmere Port and the basin, but now it has fallen into disuse, the old warehouse having become a store for Cheshire cheeses, a better fate than has befallen most...
[postcard 1965 basin end]
This is happily another of those areas improved by the effects of this book in perking up the canal industry for tourism, there is now at the basin a smart marina. I think this is the warehouse mentioned, for years the HQ of the Shropshire Union Canal Co. but as of last year looking rather dilapidated:
There were four hundred salt workings in Nantwich at the time of Henry VIII, but their numbers slowly dwindled until, unlike the neighbouring '-wiches', the trade vanished altogether, its only traces being the brine baths and the way in which the subsidence of old workings has caused many houses to sink below street level. Three times visited by plague, twice laid waste by fire, beseiged in the civil way, the old town now faces a new and insidious peril, the invasion of its upstart neighbour Crewe, which is threatening to engulf it in a spate of 'desirable housing estates'. Though these have encroached perilously near, Nantwich still contrives to preserve the atmosphere of an old market town catering solely for the needs of an agricultural district.
This is familiar to me, as the existence of Stevenage New Town was a worry for us in the county town of Hertford some decades ago. But we have weathered the storm, and so has Nantwich. We have visited the town several times, firstly in 1984 on our canal holiday, but that was essentially a pub-crawl, as my diary noted After dinner we went into town, leaving the grandparents babysitting. Nice town with lots of tudor buildings and interesting pubs - Red Cow (Robinsons), Union (Marstons), Wickstead Arms (Boddingtons) and Vine Inn (Free House)
Red Cow 2008
Wickstead Arms 2012
Vine Inn 2007
In 2009 we Stopped on the outskirts of Nantwich, moored up right on the end of a mooring, opposite a little weir near the aqueduct...
We set off for the town at about 6.30 and walked all over the place, comparing menus and Good Beer Guide pubs and asking people, only to end up back at the first - the Oddfellows Arms...At 9.00 a Quiz Night was about to start, so we left and walked back, not far.
Tom continued: When we had breakfasted and laid in a further stock of provisions from the town, we cast off, crossing the Chester road and the Vale of Nantwich by a cast-iron aqueduct and mile-long embankment
Monday 4th September 2017
We could scarcely have chanced upon a better surviving example of the traditional English village had we purposefully scoured the countryside. Here was no show village of stockbroker-Tudor as false as a harlot's smile, and, more surprising still, it had escaped the fate of becoming an industrial dormitory, Crewe... being perilously near. Happily immune from these evils, and too unassuming to attract the sightseer, Church Minshull shelters securely under Weaver bank, a self-sufficient rural community that in numbers and activity has changed but little through the centuries.
Tom waxed lyrical about the rural farming community here, but I was sad to see that, over the intervening decades, what he was so glad not to see here has arrived. The small businesses of independent shop and petrol station have gone, the Home Farm is now a caravan park, and a new housing development has arrived. However, all is not lost as it is still a Conservation Area with bluebell woods and still has productive dairy farms. The Badger pub went into a decline but is now under new management (2012) and is looking promising.
Our stay at Church Minshull was so prolonged that when we finally decided to cast off once more, autumn was already far advanced. We had thought of voyaging up the Welsh canal to Llangollen, but the outbreak of war and the prospect of winter's imminence brought about a change of plan, and we decided instead to turn south along a different route, with Oxford our ultimate objective.
In case the fact has passed you by, it was on 1st Sep 1939 that Adolf Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, and Britain was well aware of the significance of this (chillingly familiar, but I don't intend to go there now). War was declared on 3rd September, and I would guess this point in Tom's account was October. He had decided to have Cressy converted to paraffin-power, as petrol was expensive and hard to get hold of. Hence the delay. On leaving they immediately hit difficulty, as the Middlewich canal was wide but shallow, This is still the case - info pages give maximum draught of 4ft 10ins.
Because of the low banks and these shallow margins, the canal was a favoured haunt of herons. Soon after we had passed through Minshull lock and crossed the Weaver by a lofty aqueduct we sighted a heron
Tom described at length how the heron used their wake to locate fish and caught several. I photographed herons near this point both in 1984 and 2009.
Photographs of the aqueduct are hard to come by, as it is no longer "lofty" but rather overgrown, it seems
2009, from river Weaver
2017 from canal
This systematic fishing went on for some time, until we neared the next lock at Cholmondeston, which was evidently the boundary of his beat, for he winged away over the fields to alight some distance astern...we concluded that...the fish tend to lie on the bottom as winter approaches, and that the passage of a boat creates a disturbance among them which the heron finds very welcome. Cholmondeston was a good example of the way in which local place names can defeat the stranger by their unexpected pronunciation. I had felt tolerably certain that it would be abbreviated to 'Chumston', until I was enlightened by an old canal lengthman at Nantwich...'I was born CholermonDESton way'...and he should know. (This may have been a joke, as I see from the Waterways site that it is pronounced 'Churmston')
Twenty minutes' more running brought us in sight of 'The Jolly Tar' at Barbridge, whose windows command the junction of the Middlewich Branch with the old Chester Canal section of the Shropshire Union 'main line'. Here we turned southward to moor for the night between an old warehouse spanning the waterway from bank to bank and a wooden mission room on the water's edge.
I told a similar story on 26 Oct 2009: Middlewich was too full of traffic, so we pressed on...we finally ran out of daylight and moored for the night above the locks near the Barbridge junction with the Shroppie...we ended up walking to the pub at the junction (about a mile along the towpath with a selection of torches)...We ate and drank and had a good time, especially when the live music started
I was very sad to read, when researching for this account, that the Jolly Tar closed in 2015 and has now been demolished
I found the old warehouse Tom mentioned has also gone I'm afraid.
Sunday 3rd September 2017
At dusk the tall chimneys of the Middlewich salt works were a welcome sight ahead, for we knew that they marked the end of the locks and the gateway to open country. We had had our fill of the industrial Midlands by this time, and could think only of quiet waters and green fields. Our seventy-six mile journey on the Trent and Mersey Canal came to an end the next morning, when we entered the Shropshire Union Canal at Wardle Lock Junction.
It was nice of Tom & Angela to follow our route of 1984, albeit in the wrong direction! Actually, we came this way too in 2009, approaching from the north that time, but turning into the Shropshire Union the way the Rolts did, at Middlewich
In 1984 we Stopped at Middlewich for a quick look round...but not much in town except church.
11 Jun 1984
Now, as I said, we did the Cheshire Ring, and when we returned we went off to Chester as tourists. Thus we passed along this section in both directions. Also on a holiday in 2009 we passed along this part, to visit Chester again and take our nieces.
In 1984 We stopped for lunch at Newton Brewery in Middlewich, with large gardens leading down to the canal...we had ploughman's
We chose this pub because of the garden and "Children Welcome" reputation. May I introduce our Cabin Boy on the 1984 trip, our son Alden, who now has a daughter of his own of not far off the same age
Wardle Lock Junction:
This lock is very pretty, and was looked after by the lady who lived in the lock cottage, above on the left, Maureen Shaw, until she died in Mar 2012. It is known locally as "Maureen's Lock" out of love and respect and there is now a large plaque in her memory
She lived there for many years with her husband Jack, after years living on boats, and her funeral involved transporting her coffin on board a narrowboat through the lock she loved so much. I don't know whether the Shaws were in residence when Tom & Angela came through. He doesn't say in his book.
Like most of the Shropshire canal system, the Middlewich branch is one of the more recent waterways constructed by Thomas Telford, and although it is now well over a century old, it is habitually referred to as 'The New Cut'. Following the edge of a shelf of high ground on the right bank of the River Weaver, its more recent origin was at once manifested in the bold embankments and cuttings by which it crossed the narrow, wooded valleys of tributary streams or the intervening ridges, obstructions which Brindley would have carried his canal many tortuous miles to avoid
11 Jun 1984
The Rolts stopped off at the village of Church Minshull, about half way along the Middlewich Branch, We travelled on to Bunbury, although as a fan of Oscar Wilde, to me 'Bunburying' has an entirely different meaning (look it up if you don't know) and moored for the night there. Tom described how the River Weaver did just that across the valley to the west of the canal - weaved. It flows out of springs in the hills to the west near Peckforton and wanders for 50 miles before exiting to the Manchester Ship Canal. The Anderton Lift (see 1st Aug below and hopefully later) is used to transport boats & cargo from the river to the canal, originally salt but now all sorts of things, I understand. We had reached a point where the bank between the canal and the Weaver was particularly steep, the river meandering in great loops through the levels directly below, its slow-moving surface reflecting the evening sky like a burnished shield. In the middle distance the stream was spanned by a bridge of several arches, and on the farther bank a church tower rose above encircling trees to catch the last rays of the sun, which had already left the roofs of the village which clustered about it.
[the view of the village from the canal, but photographed in summer so you can't see the bridge]
The Rolts remained in Church Minshull for some while. It is no longer possible at Minshullhill Bridge, but there are moorings just before, or at the wharf
Friday 1st September 2017
We left Tom & Angela in the Harecastle Tunnel. We were nearly three-quarters of an hour below ground before we crept out into the evening sunlight at Hardings Wood, trans-shipped our ballast, re-started the engine and bade farewell to the tug crew. We had scarcely lost sight of the tunnel mouth before we passed the junction of the Macclesfield canal. This waterway branches off to the south, but shortly afterwards crosses over the Trent and Mersey by an aqueduct and heads due north, along the edge of the Derbyshire uplands, to its junction with the Peak Forest Canal at Marple.
We have encountered another of our family trips, this time with Clive's family in 1984. We did what is known as the Cheshire Ring, and this next portion coincided with the route we took on 2nd - 5th June, We travelled from the Shropshire Union canal, along a part of the Trent & Mersey, passing in the opposite direction, so it is easy to imagine Tom & Angela in 1939 aboard Cressy passing our narrowboat the Marco Polo 45 years later. We turned (with a bump) into the Macclesfield Canal at this junction and did a further couple of miles up to Kent Green
[entrance to Macclesfield Canal photographed 5 Jun 1984]
A further half-hour's travelling brought us to our day's objective, 'The Red Bull Inn' at Lawton, on the Cheshire border, once a well-known stage on the pack-horse route between the Potteries and the Mersey. It was almost dark by the time we had moored at Red Bull Wharf, and astern the lights of the Five Towns made a glare in the sky over Harecastle Hill
[photograph taken from What Pub website. The canal is immediately to the right]
Red Bull wharf is now a Service Station for boats, with pump-out and water etc., so it probably isn't a coincidence we stopped there too.
[photographed 5 Jun 1984, looking back at previous lock, so onwards for the Rolts]
We moored a little further north, at Rode Heath, stopped at a canal shop at Rode Heath, then at Broughton Arms, canalside.
Our experience of this area was similar to Tom's, but we put it down to the weather, shown in these photos of the locks at Rode Heath:
It was still raining (rained virtually all day - hence sou'wester and oilskins!) on my mother-in-law.
Tom said Of our day's journey from Red Bull to Middlewich there is little to be told, except that it involved a deal of hard labour, the canal descending into the great plain of Cheshire by a seemingly endless succession of thirty-two locks. Owing to the heavier traffic on this section, these 'Cheshire Locks', as the boatmen call them, are arranged in duplicate, an interconnecting paddle allowing a full lock to discharge into its empty fellow, so that one acts as a side-pond to the other. All day long we slowly worked our way downwards while the solitary bastion of Mow Cop and the long scarp line of 'the backbone of England' receded into the distance astern. Not only were the locks very heavy to work, but the surroundings depressing in the extreme - a dreary industrial hinterland that was neither town nor country. The poverty-stricken farms and ruined factories of Rode Heath, Hassall Green and Wheelock spoke only too plainly of a rural life transformed by a brief period of industrial expantion, which, having laid waste the land and claimed its husbandmen, had passed on to factories new.
I didn't describe Wheelock, although we overnighted there, as unfortunately we had problems with our water & electricity and had to call someone out to fix them. My husband went for a run up Mow Cop (1100 feet) but his brother wouldn't go with him.
The area is much less run down than Tom suggests, maybe again the regeneration of the canal for the leisure industry had a say in that. The lock at Rode Heath illustrates this. There used to be a large salt mill on the canal, but it was abandoned in the 1930s (may be one of the ruined factories he mentions) but suddenly collapsed (as the ceramics factory in Stoke) and could be seen 30 feet below canal-level. Several homes were damaged too, and the paired lock was blamed. So British Waterways built a huge steel contraption in 1957, as an experiment. This was unsuccessful, and in 1988 was removed and sold for scrap
At Hassall Green, dilapidated grain stores by the canal have been sympathetically renovated
Tuesday 29th August 2017
Leaving Etruria, the canal flows northwards past Wolstanton and soon reaches the point at which there used to be an arm feeding the potteries of Burslem. The Burslem branch opened in 1805, first burst its banks in the 1860s, and was finally filled in and closed in 1961 after a serious breach
Now, very little can be seen from the canal, but there are plans to dredge the half-mile stretch and reopen it, at some point in the future.
Middleport pottery is still there, a little way along the canal, and has recently undergone some very sympathetic renovation and a book has been written about it (2015)
Tom said: Beyond Burslem we passed by a busy boatyard where we heard the familiar sound of caulking mallets, while at Longport Wharf many boats were unloading their dazzling white cargoes of china clay. At Chatterley by Tunstall the seemingly interminable vista of ovens and chimneys began to thin out, the valley to close in upon us, and soon we sighted the portals of the two tunnels under Harecastle hill. We had reached the head-waters of the Trent, and the northern boundary of the Potteries.
The greatest obstacle in the path of James Brindley's canal was the ridge of high ground, a continuation of the Pennine Chain, which divides the valley of the upper Trent from the great plain of Cheshire and extends as far south as the Wrekin in Shropshire. Harecastle Hill being the narrowest point of this ridge, it was here that the engineer decided to drive a tunnel 2880 yards long. No work of such magnitude had ever been contemplated in eighteenth-century England, and the project appeared so fantastic that it was referred to by local sceptics as 'Brindley's air castle'. Nevertheless, as soon as the Act authorising the construction of the canal had been passed, Brindley set to work upon his 'impossible' task. He first sank vertical shafts at various points along the hill-top down to canal level, the spoil being drawn up by horse-gins, while the workings were kept free from water by windmills. As the work progressed, however, water was encountered in such quantities that the wind pumps were no longer adequate, but Brindley was nothing daunted, having actually counted on the presence of such springs for the necessary supply of water to the summit level. He therefore erected a beam pumping engine, or 'fire-engine' as it was then called, which, working night and day, effectively kept the waters under control. Meanwhile the attitude of the local inhabitants changed swiftly from ridicule to awe... The great engineer never lived to see the work completed, for he died in September 1772 as a rusult of a chill contracted during his survey of the Caldon Branch... It was not until 1777 that the tunnel was at last opened, after eleven years of unremitting toil by six hundred men. Even so it proved a serious handicap to traffic, for the shaft was extremely small, being only nine feel wide and twelve feet high, so that boats could not pass each other. Since it took two hours to 'leg' through, there being no towing path, the delay and congestion can readily be realised, and it is not surprising to read that fierce arguments, frequently leading to blows, ocurred among the boat crews waiting at the tunnel mouths for the privelege of the next turn through. In 1824 the canal company decided to remedy this state of affairs, and sought the advice of Brindley's successor, Thomas Telford. His solution was to construct a new tunnel parallel with the old, so great being the advance of civil engineering in the intervening years that although of far larger section, it was completed in less than three years. For ninety years thereafter both tunnels continued in use, the old tunnel carrying the southbound traffic, and vice versa.
In 1914 an electric tug was installed in the new tunnel and the old...soon fell into disuse. The subsidence of old workings has since still further reduced the restricted headroom, so that it is now quite impassable
[remains of Brindley's entrance, south end]
[Telford tunnel south end]
[north end 2007]
When Tom and Angela passed through they were taken by a tug, as these were used until 1954. To Tom's surprise they were considered too light for the process, and sandbags wereu sed as ballast to weigh Cressy down. I suppose this was because the process was designed for barges carrying cargo.
Changes were made in 1954, including the construction of the square brick building you can see above at the south end of the Telford tunnel. It contains fans to remove the noxious fumes which used to build up in the tunnel from the diesel engines. So now when you drive through you are shut in and fans blow on you as you go, which can be disconcerting. There is a timetable, and a keeper to organise matters.
Friday 25th August 2017
We left Tom & Angela in Stoke-on-Trent as we approached Etruria summit lock and the junction of the canal to Leek and Froghall, yet another branch of the 'Great Trunk'. Just beyond the lock head we passed Josiah Wedgwood's famous pottery and presently found ourselves in the heart of Shelton Steel Works, home of H G Wells' macabre short story 'The Cone'.
See 21st Aug below, where I explained the movement of factories by the Wedgwood company. Here is the site of the old building, which was demolished due to subsidence. In 1767 Josiah bought a piece of land from a Mrs Ashenhurst, Ridge House Estate, and built a house and a factory
[this engraving was found in the rubble in 1963 and shows the factory and hall in context]
Wedgwood must have seen its potential when he helped draw up the plans for the Trent and Mersey Canal. On the sloping land above the brook he began building a fine mansion and gardens. Then, on Tuesday 13 Jun 1769, an important day in the history of the Potteries, he opened his new factory together with a row of cottages for his specialist workforce and gave it the inspired name – Etruria.
The growth of industry in Etruria was due to the proximity of the external routes, the canal and the railway. After Josiah's death in 1795 Etruria Hall stood empty for some time and only then temporarily occupied by family members until they moved away altogether. In turn the hall was used as a boarding school and by a younger son of Josiah II, Francis Wedgwood, who ultimately sold it. By 1854 it was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster and four years later by Earl Granville who was enlarging his Shelton ironworks. The hall was later used as offices by the Shelton Iron Steel and Coal Company. It’s part of the Moat House Hotel now. [Steve Birks, local historian]
The factory can be seen in this close-up taken from the Ordnance Survey map of 1877. The tower shown in red is the only part that remains
In this photo of the remaining roundhouse it can be seen how the land it stands on fell substantially below the canal - and it was taken in the mid 1970s
Nowadays, it sits quietly in the corner of the car park at Bet365, preserved for eternity but completely out of context. For some years the site was used by the Sentinel newspaper press, but in 2013 was redeveloped by Bet365 and modern offices are now in residence. It does look as if it is being kept in good condition, though the only information I could find online was a 2015 application to convert it into a creche for workers.
In the background of the 1970s photo above can be seen what happened to the rest of the site. In 1840s neighbour Earl Granville of the Leveson-Gower family (see Tuesday below) developed Shelton Bar as a large steel-works with mills and blast furnaces, mines and railways. It was damaged in WW2, (when bombers could see the furnaces clearly in the blackout), nationalised in 1951 and closed in 1978.
[1950 - as Tom would have seen it]
He said: Cressy's white windows, that for so long had seen unfold before them a slowly moving pattern of field, hedgerow and tree, now looked directly into a clangorous rolling mill, lofty as the nave of a cathedral, where white-hot billets of steel were being flattened as easily as pastry under a rolling-pin, or grappled by the electric cranes which rumbled high overhead. Workmen, their faces streaked with sweat and grime, looked up from their task of feeding the rolls to grin and nod...A damp white mist shot through by the sunlight with miniature rainbows momentarily enveloped us as we passed the cooling towers, and beyond these the coke-ovens were belching steam and flame alternately...
Since then the land has been rescued in a multi-million pound operation to feature in the National Garden Festival and is now known as Festival Park.
Moat House Hotel is in the park, the original Etruria Hall, the Wedgwood Family home.
Just before Lock 39 on the canal is a now magnificent building, preserved from those industrial days, evidently unaffected by the mining beneath, originally called Etruscan Mill, built in 1857 beside the canal, to grind materials for the agricultural & pottery industries e.g. cattle bone and flint. Bone meal was used as fertiliser and ground, burnt bone was added to Cornish stone and China Clay at the pottery factory to make bone china. The mill ceased production in 1972 and in 1975 was listed as an Ancient Monument. It sits at the junction with the Caldon Canal and is now the Etruria Industrial Museum
On the site is a handsome statue of our hero James Brindley
Continuing with Tom's account: A sharp turn under a bridge and a canyon of slag as barren and desolate as the mountains of the moon...not a blade of grass finds foothold on these wastes, and the smoke of internal fires filters through fissures in their lava-like crust...Just as we emerged from their shadow on to a long embankment, we saw a locomotive panting up to the summit, pushing before it a ladle of slag, and appearing from our vantage below to be no bigger than a fly. Minute figures appeared, coupling the chain which operated the tipping mechanism to the front draw-hook of the engine. Then the latter ran backwards, and the ladle discharged its contents down the precipitous slope. On its journey from the furnaces, the slag had cooled enough to form a hard outer crust, so that for some yards it bounded along like a great boulder, until, striking an obstacle, it burst with a flash of light that was blinding even in the bright sunlight, and its molten heart coursed downwards like some infernal mountain torrent, a livid vein set with flickering tongues of flame.
These things just don't happen in this country any more. There are very few pits left, and no deep mines since 2015. Slag heaps were frowned on after the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when a slag-heap collapsed on a village in Wales, killing many children and teachers, as there was a school in its path. I remember it well, as I was ten years old and many of the dead were my age.
Now many of these eyesores are being reclaimed, if vegetation can be persuaded to grow on them
Tuesday 22nd August 2017
Trentham Hall, once the seat of the Leveson-Gower family, Earls Gower and Dukes of Sutherland, is beautifully placed at the head of a large artificial lake situated between the river and the wooded slopes of the park, which in places rise steeply to a height of over six hundred feet. As early as 1758, before canals were heard of in this country, it was the Earl Gower of that time who first commissioned Brindley to survey a line of water-way that would connect Liverpool, Hull and Bristol, and in the following year the engineer, as his diary records, frequently visited the Earl at Trentham 'a bout the novogation'. It is now many years since the family left Trentham, however, and of the great Palladian mansion only a stabling and an arbour of the type beloved by Victorian romantics remain. Local legend has it that the smell of the polluted river flowing through the grounds was responsible for this exodus, and if this be true, the inhabitants of the Potteries have to thank the reeking effluent of their factories for providing them with one of the finest public parks in England.
Lost Heritage said in 2014: Abandoned by 1907, no-one would buy it and it could not even be given away - the County of Staffordshire and the Borough of Stoke-on-Trent were offered it for free in 1905 - and so it was pulled down in 1912. All that remains today are the curved west entrance front and the stable block with the grounds and buildings used for exhibitions and conferences
Since then the gardens, designed by Capability Brown, have gone from strength to strength and they regularly win awards. A charge of (currently) £11 per head covers upkeep and development of new features, like the adventure playground, monkey forest and barefoot garden. A property developer has plans for a shopping mall, hotel & spa on the grounds too.
Because the canal was the nucleus around which the Potteries developed, we formed a better general impression of the district from the water than was possible in the confining maze of narrow, cobbled streets. Planning to cross the border of Cheshire before nightfall, we made an early start from Trentham Park Lock, and were soon passing the collieries of the Stafford Coal and Iron Company - monstrous black slag-heaps, droning fans and gaunt pithead gears whose spinning wheels whirled in shrouds of drifting steam from the winding houses.
The approach to Stoke presented a scene of utter desolation and ruin, on the one hand a dismal water-logged waste caused by the subsidence of old worked-out coal seams, on the other derelict blast furnaces, cold and rust-reddened.
[Stafford Colliery, Stoke in 1963
the canal nearby in 1964, and in 1985
Stafford Coal & Iron Company was formed in 1873, closed 1969 and most of the land is now dominated by the Stoke City Bet365 Stadium
[this picture is a plan, but the canal can be seen over on the right side]
Mooring by Stoke wharf, we walked into the city to buy supplies. This was not easy, for in a district where so many house-wives work the day through in the decorating rooms, the modern method of cooking with a can-opener is so popular that butchers and greengrocers were few and far between, the streets being lined by the shop-fronts of cheap chain grocers stacked with canned foods.
So Tom had a view of the future of shopping! I assume this is where "Stoke wharf" was, as there is no such thing there now. This photograph was taken in 2011, but it appears to be the same now
Tom described a 'bird-fancier's shop', but I would imagine that is long gone.
Situated among the broken southern foothills of the Peak district of Derbyshire, the Potteries present some unique industrial landscapes. As we climbed the four locks out of Stoke, the grimy slate rooves of cottages and factories rose tier upon tier towards the black tower of Shelton church, while mean streets covered with a geometrical pattern the opposite heights of Hartshill and Basford.
Now the flight is five locks, and I cannot find out which is the more recent addition
Bottom Lock 36
[I really hate graffiti. Apparently this was a lovely spot when newly painted in 1995, but evidently doesn't merit any attention to remedy the mess]
Top Lock 40
Tom continues re Hartshill and Basford, two parts of town to the west, now split off from the rest by the big dual-carrageway A500, here called the Queensway. These were indistinct in the haze of steam and smoke which rose from the valley bottom, like steam from a cauldron. But the dominant inescapable feature of the scene were the pottery ovens. Rows of them met the eye on every side. Shaped like gigantic bottles, blackened and squat,
[illustration from the book]
those that were belching dense coils of smoke from their necks looked as actively satanic as a volcano, but those that stood cold and dead had an appearance that was strangely ancient and oriental. They might well have been the pagodas of some temple to strange gods, or monuments that marked the burial-places of kings who held court when the sabre-toothed tiger ranged the forests of Europe.
The kilns are being incorporated into the new housing springing up on the sites now being cleared of old industrial ruins. Long may this consideration of our history continue.
Monday 21st August 2017
The Trent Valley once more becomes broad and shallow above Haywood, and our journey thence to Stone, though pleasant enough, lacked any special feature worthy of mention. It included four locks, at Hoo Mill, Weston, Sandon and Aston, but with the exception of these villages the canal wound through open pastures close to the river bank and overlooked by the tree-girt slopes of Ingestre Park, seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury. It may be recalled that we passed two villages named Weston and Aston soon after we left Shardlow, so it should be explained that there are two pairs of villages so called upon Trent, a state of affairs that must cause no little confusion in postal sorting offices.
Evidently Tom did not foresee the use of Postcodes! Actually, this "state of affairs" was solved by this Aston - in Staffordshire - becoming known as Aston-by-Stone. The two Westons are designated Weston, Staffs ST18 and Weston, Derbys DE72. Aston now has a marina with boat facilities, party venue and brand new restaurant
There are two breweries and a pottery-works at Stone...to walk down the single main street from the church past The Crown Hotel, with its graceful bowed front, is to feel that the place is still at heart a small country market town.
Crown Hotel 2009
I'm not sure about that, as the High Street is narrow and lots of the larger companies are pulling out of the area. Locals are worried and I don't know what will replace them. We have the same problem in Hertford, where I live. At least the canalside area seems to be healthy, and the area around the river is designated a Nature Reserve
It was hard to believe that at Meaford Locks, a mile north of Stone, we were only six miles from the heart of Stoke-on-Trent. From the rose-covered cottage at the foot, the flight of four locks climbed in leisurely fashion up a gentle grassy slope set about with trees in a manner reminiscent of Great Haywood. There is something incomparably restful and unfailingly satisfying to the eye in this combination of woodland and still water, so we paused by the top lock to eat a simple lunch of bread and cheese in the sunshine on the foredeck.
I see that the flight of locks at Meaford have been entirely replaced, as the canal was straightened at this point (apparently you can still see the route it took in the fields alongside) but as this happened in 1831, Tom saw it just as it is now. Apart from the housing, of course, which extends this far north now (see top photo) and the main road A34 just off to the left.
Soon after we drew clear of the trees of Meaford we sighted the village of Barlaston, backed by the chimneys of the Potteries and half an hour later we found moorings immediately above Trentham Park Lock, a point within easy reach of the city, but just outside the suburbs
Tom doesn't mention it, but right here the "new" factory for making the famous Wedgwood jasper pottery was built. The family purchased a 382 acre site next to the canal in 1936 and moved the business in on 10 Sep 1938. The old Etruria site was closed in 1950 and is now long gone, due to subsidence caused by local mining
Etruria site photo 1898
The Barlaston factory had a museum gallery from 1952, where the public could watch the process of ceramics production and documents were stored. In 1987 Wedgwood merged with Waterford Crystal and from 2009-2015 changed hands and merged several times, currently part of the Fiskars Corporation. The Barlaston factory is now a Visitor's Centre and Museum called World of Wedgwood:
The collection of Wedgwood wares belongs to London's Victoria & Albert Museum (purchased to pay off the debt on liquidisation of Wedgwood Waterford in 2009) but is loaned to the World of Wedgwood for display.
Sunday 20th August 2017
In Shuckburgh Park at Great Haywood they were loading the last wain of a belated hay harvest, although by this time the sun had set and already a thin mist was gathering in the meadows, a portent of September and of summer's end. On the opposite bank trees leaned so far and low over the water that their branches scraped along our deck, bestrewing it with leaves and twigs, while the stove chimney fell with a clatter, to dangle by its safety chain.
At Haywood Lock they grew on both sides of the canal, but were taller, their branches interlacing overhead to make a tunnel of cool green shade whose intricate pattern the water reflected with unruffled perfection of detail. It was in this quiet, dim place that we moored for the night, awaking to see moted beams of sunlight glancing on the water through gaps in the network of branches.
Between the boles of the trees we could see the river spanned by Essex Bridge, surely one of the most beautiful and least celebrated in England. It is a pack-horse bridge over the river Trent, which flows alongside the canal at this point, and is a beautiful spectacle with many arches, apparently built in 16th century by the Earl of Essex to give access to hunting on the other side
Great Haywood is not only a junction of canals, for the Rivers Trent and Sow unite just above Essex Bridge. The waters of the Sow run clear and unpolluted from their source in the high ground of Staffordshire's western border, but the Trent is so black and foul after its journey through the pottery towns that even the grass shrinks from its banks. For several hundred yards below their confluence the smoky line of demarcation between the two streams is clearly visible, and constitutes a striking natural commentary upon the old and the new.
Don't worry, Tom, this is no longer the case, as shown by a photo from just last year at Essex Bridge.
Nowadays this whole region is a flourishing celebration of the magic of canals and rivers:
Right in the middle of this map is a bridge over the Staffs & Worcs Canal which is mentioned by Tom:
There is a second bridge worthy of note at Great Haywood. It carries the towing path of the Trent & Mersey over the mouth of the canal to the Severn, the breadth of its single span being remarkable in a bridge of this type...the result is an arch so light in its flight from bank to bank...
Beside this bridge, an ivy-covered warehouse crumbling to ruin, a dock filled with tall reeds, and a shuttered toll office no bigger than a garden tool-shed are all that make up this meeting place of coast-to-coast waterways. It seemed typical of the remote and unassuming manner in which the canals make their way through the countryside that the village of Haywood, although only a quarter of a mile distant, had remained aloof from this important junction, as though unaware of its existence.
Nowadays this is slightly different in that the toll office he described above has been bought up by Anglo Welsh Ltd (a boat-hire company) along with the site seen on the right of the photo above. I understand the toll building is now a craft shop and the dock he mentioned now a little marina. Just north of the junction there is a venue called Canalside Farm. The family bought a piece of land between the canal and the railway in 1983 and grew fruits and vegetables, selling them on a stall to the public. Over the years since, they have developed it; the farm shop was enlarged in 2011 and a café opened in 2014, overlooking the canal. It seems strange that this place was not even mentioned in my 2009 canal guide, but is now a large and thriving business. In this photo it can be seen in the foreground, in the background is the Anglo Welsh marina and Yellow Power workshops behind.
Saturday 19th August 2017
It was a welcome relief to be in clear water again, heading for the villages of Handacre and Armitage, and once more in sight of the Trent...There was evidence that Armitage had once been an exclusively rural community attractively placed on the edge of the Chase overlooking the river, but thanks to the establishment of a large sanitary pottery in the vicinity, the village now bears a sadly blackened and semi-industrialised appearance.
Oddly, it was WW2 which resulted in mass replacement of housing, with the need for their wares, and thus increased the productivity but also the industrialisation of the area. However, in 1965 they merged with a Scottish company called Shanks and became Armitage Shanks - you may be familiar with that brand name - still going strong, I understand
The most interesting feature we encountered there was the canal tunnel. Though only 130 yards long, it more nearly resembled a natural cavern, Brindley's 'navigators' having roughly hewn their way through an outcrop of solid sandstone, the marks of their crude implements appearing so fresh that it was difficult to believe they had been made a century and a half ago.
This is another place that has changed unimaginably, and not for the best of reasons. In 1971 mining in the vicinity caused subsidence and the tunnel roof was removed, so it is now a cutting, not a tunnel at all. This was similar to Fenny Compton 'Tunnel' - see 24th July below.
[the illustration in his book 1944]
Next was Rugeley, described by Tom as one of the drabbest and dreariest small towns we had ever seen...squalid cottages, neglected allotments and odorous tannery
It didn't improve in subsequent years, as a power station was constucted between 1956 & 1961, and a second one 1965-72. The colliery supplying them closed in 1991, so the first was demolished 1994-5, then the second closed last year, due to be demolished soon. Housing developments are planned; several supermarkets etc are in place.
Tom was soon much happier, though. On our left the river wound through sunlit levels of pasture which glowed richly green against the steep slopes of the Chase beyond, which were in deep shadow. These included Oakedge Park, Haywood Warren and the Satnall Hills, heights of bracken and ancient trees that have seen little change since Plantagenet and Tudor hunted the boar along their flanks
This is undoubtedly still true, as the photograph above shows, taken in 2015 by a narrowboater.
Below Colwich Lock an ancient labourer, with long white side-whiskers, clad in a sky-blue overall jacket and trousers of buff corduroy buckled below the knee, was siting at his cottage door enjoying the last of the evening sun, and waved cheerily as we passed by.
Colwich Lock 2012
Tuesday 15th August 2017
When he popped back to Swarkestone for the windlasses, Tom could only find one, which is a real inconvenience, but...
The lock-keeper at Wichnor by whose cottage we moored was even more agreeable than most, which is saying a great deal. Not only did he provide us with a windlass to replace the one we had lost at Swarkestone, but he insisted on making us a present of a fine basket of blackberries. Lock-keepers lead solitary lives, for their cottages are often remote from villages, or even roads, so that they welcome a gossip with the crew of a passing boat. Their job is not as easy as it would appear, for their responsibility is not confined to the lock by their cottage, but extends over some miles of canal, which may include several more locks. As the prosperity of the canals sinks into eclipse, so each man's length grows longer and longer, intermediate lock cottages being either let to agricultural labourers or left to fall to ruin. In addition to maintaining the locks in working order, there are hedges to be trimmed and banks to be mown, while the towing path must be kept in a reasonable state of repair. It is also the lock-keeper's task to maintain a more or less constant level of water in the pounds under his charge through winter floods or summer droughts, by adjusting the sluices which govern the flow of water from feeders or outfalls. Any minor leaks which may develop in the banks must be stopped with clay puddle before they assume serious proportions, and it is his duty to notify the maintenance department of any major repairs which may become necessary, or of sections which may require dredging.
Things have changed since this book was written - as I have said, it was largely this very thing which caused a sea-change in attitude and funding in the years that followed. Nowadays, the Canal & River Trust own a lot of the canal network, and Tom's Inland Waterways Association urge them to fully open all the disused canals he mentions, and to renovate and maintain them. I'm not sure how many lock cottages now get involved in the lock upkeep, e.g. the one at Swarkestone, as the cottages are more and more being sold off privately. In recent years, the lock cottage near me, in Hertford, was up for sale and it took a very long time to sell, and finally had to resort to Homes Under the Hammer on BBC TV!
The lock-keeper of Wichnor had been born in his cottage, for his father had spent his lifetime on the same job.
Midway between Wichnor and Alrewas the River Trent flows through the canal. It enters at the tail of Alrewas lock, to flow out over a weir some two hundred yards below...Our friend the lock-keeper, who insisted on accompanying us as far as Alrewas lock, complained bitterly of the trouble caused to him by the masses of floating weed which the river was continually piling against the gates of the lower lock.
Nowadays the entrance of the river is cordoned off by a barrier of rubber floats, with attendant notices and advice to avoid when the river is high. But of course this wouldn't affect the flow of weed, so it probably still is as much trouble as it was.
Alrewas lock 2010
The towpath has to cross the river and this makes for an unusual vista, where it strides across on a bridge
[this photo was taken in 1981, but it is exactly the same today]
Tom wasn't really impressed with Alrewas itself, so they passed on and moored in the countryside between Alrewas and Fradley
The ancient village of Fradley lies some distance to the east, but a second village has grown up about the canal junction, centring around the yards of the district maintenance department and The Swan, a typical canal inn with stabling attached which overlooks the wide basin formed by the meeting of the two waterways
The Canal & River Trust stated last February that they were doing renovation work on Lock 17 nearby. They said of this area The canalside settlement at Fradley Junction grew up after the Coventry Canal was linked to the Trent & Mersey Canal in 1790. Fradley was a major junction in the canal network, both the Trent & Mersey and the Coventry Canal companies built houses and cottages for their workers, while two warehouses complete with hoists, were erected at Junction Row alongside a public house. The nearby maintenance yard, built by the Trent & Mersey Canal Company, now houses our offices, a canalside café, shop and information centre.
Lock 17 and the adjacent bridge are Grade II listed and in the Fradley Junction Conservation Area. There is a reservoir behind the buildings, formed from the overflow from the weir, piped under the pub, and the area has been developed into Fradleypool Nature Reserve
We moored Cressy to the rings conveniently placed before the door of The Swan while we drank a glass of mild beer in the cool but sunlit bar. The window of the little-used toll office opposite was set out with bowls of fruit for sale, and when Angela crossed over the lock to buy some it did not seem in any way remarkable, so naturally was it in keeping with the character of the place, that her purchase should be weighed upon a steelyard, that early form of hanging balance once common in the English farmhouse.
There is now a caravan park just beyond the Swan, which worried me, but by all accounts it is a good addition and provides a nice restaurant/café.
The next part of Tom Rolf's epistle is taken up with a vivid description of how they suffered, on passing through the next few locks, from an apalling stench emanating from a nearby "Milk Factory", which poured effluent into the canal and spoiled everything in the area. He was amazed that the local angling group and locals did nothing to stop it.
[photo of remains of the old manager's cottage and milk factory- unfortunately undated]
On the site there is now a lovely new marina (built 2001) and the whole area is just superb:
Another example of the power for the good that his campaign led to, following publication of this book!
Monday 14th August 2017
Walking through Burton's dirty streets it is impossible for a moment to forget the town's major industry. Brewers' drays or lorries rattle past over the uneven setts, and the air is filled with the pungent aroma of the tall brewhouses and maltings which meet the eye on every hand. these streets are intersected by innumerable level crossings. Every now and again, at the strident clang of a bell, the gates swing to, compelling the traffic of Burton to wait with patient deference while a squat, shunting locomotive, glittering with polished brasswork and bright paint, puffs fussily across with a lumbering trainload of great pot-bellied casks bearing the familiar names of Bass, Worthington, Allsopp or Ind Coope. Obviously we could not leave without visiting a brewery, and we singled out Allsopps for no better reason than that their products appealed most to our taste. We found a resplendent commissionaire in a lofty entrance hall as grandiose as the Bank of England, and a striking testimony to the profits derived from slaking the national thirst...
I feel I need to say at this point that the brewery in question dated from 1860 and the 'writing was already on the wall' regarding their future. I shall save the history until Tom has finished, though...
...the beer barrel is ubiquitous in Burton; it is the town's one inescapable feature, so that when I recall it to my mind it is to picture not streets, buildings or faces, but the mountainous piles of barrels which we saw as we crossed the cobbled yard to Allsopps' brewery. There were barrels, too, in railway wagons and lorries; even the air above was not free of them, for they rumbled high overhead on a roller conveyor, lurching along like a row of drunken men.
Allsopps Cooperage Yard 1912
Climbing many flights of steps, we saw how the malt was forced up through pipe-lines from the maltings into yawning hoppers the height of a house, and we followed the 'liquor' on its complicated course from the great hooded copper vats, where the delicate process of brewing takes place, up to the cooling-room at the very top of the tall building, down again through the foaming open vats, where the yeast does its work, and finally to the cold bottling-rooms and cellars, where bottles and barrels are filled with the finished product, which only then goes by the name of beer... the brew we sampled was a dark mild beer which glowed the colour of deepest amber in the tall sampling glasses, and it tasted as good as it looked...We carried away an impression of cleanliness and efficiency calculated to heighten rather than detract from the pleasure of drinking a glass ot the sign of the red hand;
moreover, it was obvious that brewing was a trade which still demanded individual initiative from the operative. Nevertheless, I still feel the old regret that such an essentially rural and individual process should have become indutrialised upon so vast a scale. As we walked back to the boat I recalled somewhat wistfully the litle brewhouse of Cotswold stone behind the Noel Arms at Chipping Camden, one of the last licensed houses in England to evade the clutches of big business and preserve its ancient rights.
Here again I would love to embrace Tom and reassure him that two generations on, we have his interests at heart. By that I mean CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, which Clive and I joined in 1980, and I am proud to claim that the campaign worked, and today Real Ale is available almost everywhere. We did have to work very hard through the decades, though, to beat what he called "big business", i.e. the big brewers. Last year, we went on a tour of our local brewery in Hertford, McMullens, led by Fergus McMullen himself, and it was almost identical to Tom's description.
As to the history of Allsopp's it was started by Benjamin Wilson in the 1740s, when he started selling the beer he brewed himself to the other pubs in the area. Burton-on-Trent is world famous as the best place to brew beer, due to the chemical make-up of the water. The Trent Navigation had come to Burton in 1712 and thanks to this ale could be shipped as far as London & Hull. In 1777 the Trent & Mersey Canal allowed trading with Liverpool & Manchester. By 1788 Benjamin's son, also Benjamin, was employing twelve men and producing 5000 barrels a year. Limits were imposed by lack of refrigeration, so brewing only took place between October & April each year and also depended on the quality of barley. In 1800 his nephew Samuel Allsopp joined the company, but due to the Napoleonic Wars, among other things, trade took a downturn. In 1807 Samuel bought the company and things improved. In 1859-60 the huge building next to the railway was built and the company was second only to Bass (also brewing in Burton) in size.
The railway was expanding fast at this time, and led to an intricate network of railways through the town linking various breweries and maltings to the main line. These were operated partly by the rail companies and partly by the leading breweries who owned their own locomotives and rolling stock. It became a Public Limited Company in 1887 but, however, in 1913 had to call in The Receivers.The company was reconstructed through investment and did reasonably well, but merged with Ind Coope in 1935. The number of individual brewing companies in Burton fell steadily, from 31 in 1890 to 17 in 1911 and a mere five by the end of WW2. Unfortunately WW2 and the "Big Six" international keg breweries we fought against through the 1970s & 80s, took their toll and many breweries were bought up and closed, including Allsopps in 1971 by Allied Breweries.
Marston's is still going strong, but looking a little closer, this isn't really the company started by John Marston in 1834 at Horninglow Brewery. Over the years, breweries have combined and re-grouped and in 1898 they merged with John Thompson and relocated to Albion Brewery, Shobhall Road (a bit futher down the canal), in 1905 they merged with Evershed, then in 1999 Marston's was purchased by Wolverhampton & Dudley brewery. It is this group who in 2007 changed their name to Marstons, and can now brew Draught Bass. Anyway, moving on...
We found that the seven miles of canal from Horninglow Wharf to Wichnor Bridges was the most uninteresting we had so far encountered. The canal crossed a flat plain of semi-derelict pasture whose boundaries were the chimneys of Marston's Brewery, the low hills of Needwood, and the Burton-Lichfield main road. We soon approached to within a few yards of the latter, following it for several straight and seemingly interminable miles. The knowledge that this busy highway was once the Roman Rykneld Street was small compensation for the din of hurrying traffic, the glaring road-signs, ribbon-built bungalows and all the tawdry ugliness which the motor-car has brought to the English road.
Here, not a lot has changed, except it has got worse. In 1967 the A38 he describes so well, was developed into a dual-carriageway with much concrete and steel replacing the wharf at which the Rolts had moored. A vestige is left, and efforts have been made to brighten up the concrete with a suitable mural, but only a tiny pump-out facility remains, and some spaces for narrowboats under its shadow
The wharf 2016, but he may approve of this sign!
Features Tom may also approve of are the Navigation pub and Bass Museum right on the canal
Shobnall Fields have been tidied up and the canal passing through is beautifully kept. There has also sprung up in recent years an almost complete regeneration of the village of Barton-under-Needwood, involving the construction of a large Marina, Barton Turns. This stemmed from the development of the A38 dual carriageway, and Travelodge choosing to build their very first hotel here in 1985. New properties are still being added to this development as we speak.
We were thankful when, just as dusk was beginning to fall, we reached Wichnor Bridges, where canal and road diverged.
Sunday 13th August 2017
The weather was overcast and threatening, for a thunderstorm in the night had not cleared the air, and when we met our friend the lock-keeper at Aston Lock (singer at the Tavern) it began to rain heavily. Nothing daunted, we continued on our way up the valley towards Weston-upon-Trent, and were rewarded not only by an improvement in the weather, but by a more than usually attractive canal scene. For a mile or more the waterway hugged the wooded slope of the river bank, and between the boles of the trees which leant gracefully over the water we caught glimpses of the winding river, with the green slopes of Donnington Park beyond.
There are lots of bridges and three locks on this section, although Tom doesn't mention most.
The locks hereabouts were wide, and so deep that it was sometimes impossible to clamber from Cressy's deck onto the lock parapet. Several of the cottages beside them were small shops, selling twist tobacco, highly coloured sweets or mineral waters and one at Weston Lock served as Toll Office for west-bound boats. By the time we reached the lock at Swarkestone, the junction of the Derby Canal, the sun, which had at last struggled clear of a sultry, steaming haze, was blazing down from a cloudless sky with such intensity that every solid outline appeared to waver in the shimmering air, and the tar blistered on our deck.
After Shardlow comes the bridge taking the A50 across the canal
but this would not have been there in the Rolts' time as it was only constructed in 1990s. Aston Lock is followed by Weston Lock and the railway bridge nearby
This is designated as bridge 7a, 9-12 follow, then Cuttle Bridge is 13:
A canal lock, with its outspread beams, graceful bridge and attendant cottage ringed about with flowers, is an addition to any landscape and the dominant feature of the canal scene. The lock at Swarkestone was still further enhanced by the garden of a second cottage, which occupied the narrow triangular plot of ground between the two converging waterways. With its massed borders of sweet-scented country flowers, smooth lawn and heavy-laden apple trees, it resembled an enchanted island in the still water, and so beguiled us that it was not until we had journeyed some two miles on our way that we realised that we had left both our lock windlasses behind.
Unfortunately, this image is no longer with us, as the Derby Canal is closed and largely dry and the Swarkestone Lock just one of many, the only marked feature nowadays is the ferocious waterflow when you open the paddles. The lock-keepers's cottage is now a private house, and fenced off from the lock. There are plans to renew the Derby Canal, but no time-scale given, I am afraid.
The Rolts had to stop and ask for help at Arleston House, who kindly sold them some milk and lent them a bicycle with which to double back and fetch the windlasses, a feat that is very difficult in a narrowboat! They then had to endure a very bad storm before proceeding.
On the afternoon of the day following, which was fresh and clear after the great storm, we reached Horninglow Wharf, in the home of beer, Burton-on-Trent...the only point of interest being the aqueduct of twenty-three arches by which we crossed the River Dove. Although dwarfed by the modern concrete road bridge beside it, this is a monumental work, considering the age in which it was built and taking into account the enormous weight of the canal in its puddled clay bed. No other work of the day compared in magnitude with these aqueducts of Brindley's making. Crowds flocked to see them while they were described by contemporary writers as 'the greatest artificial curiosities in the world' or 'rivers hung in the air'. They are a distinguishing feature of Brindley's canals, for Rennie and Telford, who followed after him, dispensed with the great weight of the puddled bed by carrying the water in a trough of cast-iron sections bolted together and enclosed in masonry.
The Waterways Officials recognise there are eight aqueducts here, three called Floodplain. I'm not sure how many arches each has, but in 1802 the General Gazeteer stated the "canal is carried over the River Dove in a aqueduct of 23 arches and over the Trent by six arches".I don't know how many are still in place, especially as much renovation work was done in 2002.
Friday 11th August 2017
Tom Rolt took a shine to Shardlow, remarking on and praising the many classical warehouses and other buildings he saw had sprung up around the canal. He waxed lyrical about three pubs in particular, although he named only one; the Canal Tavern, beside Shardlow Lock.
[apparently the extension was an on-site butchery & bakery used to provide boatmen with fresh meat and bread, now further extended]
It is now a private house, but I hope you won't mind if I quote Tom Rolt here, as his account of it in 1939 is so evocative, I can't resist.
By day the jovial landlord of this inn plies his trade as a blacksmith, but in the evenings, he turns musician, settling his burly figure onto the stool before the old bar piano and rattling off all the old familiar songs, simple, sentimental or bawdy, while his patrons sing themselves hoarse. We heard the strains of 'Daisy Bell' drifting over the water long before we reached the house, and when we entered we were at once invited to swell the chorus of singers who lined the benches round the walls, with their pint glasses set before them. the company was representative of both sexes and every age...(He describes turns by the landlady, an elderly local, and the neighbouring lock-keeper) Meanwhile the drawing and carrying of beer were entrusted, with delightful informality, to voluntary helpers, most notable among these being an elderly engine-driver. 'Uncle Jack', as he was affectionately called, bustled untiringly to and fro in his shirt sleeves, singing lustily, a cloth cap perched on the back of his silvery head. His rosy countenance radiated benevolent good humour in a perpetual grin, and his blue eye was as sharp and quizzical as a robin's...The scene in the bar...swept the imagination into that past where the countrymen were still merry...It was with genuine regret that we took our leave of this jovial company, and on the morrow looked back until a bend in the canal hid the wharves and inns of Shardlow from our sight.
It is a shame that his favourite water-hole was the one which didn't last until the present day. I can't find any information as to when or why it closed (possibly in 1957), but the Clock Warehouse is in one account called "previously Canal Tavern", so maybe the licence was transferred to there. It is very close indeed, and both buildings can be seen in the photo below (Tuesday - Clock Warehouse).
The recorded history of Shardlow itself dates from 1738 (apart from being mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 that is), when the first turnpike road in southern Derbyshire came through here, but the river was crossed by ferry until 1760 when the Cavendish Bridge was built - this was here in 1939 when Tom & Angela passed by, but was swept away by a storm in 1947 and rebuilt.
The oldest building in Shardlow is reckoned to be the Dog & Duck pub, dating from 1482, but this isn't on the canal, so wasn't one of those mentioned by Tom (The Shakespeare Inn likewise, although that only dates from the early 1800s). When the canal was built in 1777 it was obvious that warehouses, homes and pubs would follow. I can say that the New Inn and the Malt Shovel both date from 1799 but the Navigation Inn was already there some years before. The New Inn was constructed as a brewery and called The Maltings originally, and sits on the right bank as you come into the village from the east:
The Malt Shovel was mentioned by Tom in passing, pointing out the lovely unique windows on the adjoining warehouse buildings:
They date from the 1820s, so were old in Tom's time, but they are still there. Originally used to store salt, then corn, then timber.
A campaign led by the newly-formed Trent & Mersey Canal Society resulted in the designation in 1975 of the Shardlow Wharf Conservation Area, which nowadays has over 50 Grade II listed buildings. Other pubs include Smithy's Marina Bar (there is a marina & caravan park over by the River Trent) and the Old Crown by the rebuilt bridge.
Tuesday 8th August 2017
After visiting the churches mentioned yesterday, at Normanton & Radcliffe, the latter accessed by wading across the weir on a ford made with very sharp stones, Tom & Angela set off again. They passed through Redhill Lock, the last of the Soar locks and on to the junction with the River Trent.
Redhill lock 2006
We had met little traffic on the Soar, but now we found ourselves in the middle of a mêlée of boats of every sort and size. (They had arrived in the midst of a race event run by the sailing centre on the opposite bank, it seems)... Turning left...we forged steadily up-river...in this fashion we came to Sawley Lock
[Trent junction photographed from mouth of the Soar in 2005 - Thrumpston weir is to the right, the lock opposite leads to the Erewash Canal/GUC to Derby, River Trent rounds the bend to the left]
Sawley Lock 2003
Tom was amazed at the number of pleasure-boats moored nearby, the occupants sunbathing, swimming and playing music. We had thought of spending a night on the Trent, but the spectacle of this throng at Sawley induced us to change our plans, and so we continued upstream, passing under the great girder which carries the Leicester pipe of the Derwent Valley water supply over the river in a single span. The river hereabouts must have been fully a hundred yards wide, and since the westering sun was dead ahead, it was over a dazzling golden pathway that we came to the end of our river journey at Derwent Mouth.
Nowadays just prior to the pipe over the river is another big structure - the M1 motorway swoops across, a short distance downstream from the pipe bridge, and can be seen behind it in this photo:
On our right was the mouth of the tributary Derwent, and between the converging rivers lay the entrance of the Trent & Mersey Canal, England's first coast-to-coast waterway, and James Brindley's masterpiece. (In other words they were at approximately the circle marked above, where the motorboat is in the photo, but going in the opposite direction, towards the west) By this time we had become so accustomed to travelling on broad rivers that it seemed strange to find ourselves once more confined to such a narrow channel of dead water. The banks, overgrown with tall reeds, appeared to crowd in upon us, an effect that was heightened by the great clumps of reed which had broken away from the banks and floated into deep water, often forming what appeared to be an impassable barrier until they were swung aside by Cressy's bows. By the time we had worked our way through the first two canal locks and had come to Shardlow, darkness was falling fast, so we moored for the night in the meadows just beyond the village.
This part of the canal was completed in 1770, and lots of warehouses etc grew up around it, including the Clock Warehouse shown above. In 1970 this was converted to a pub/restaurant.
Monday 7th August 2017
That the river had still better things in store we discovered the next day when we reached the lock at Barrow-upon-Soar...we were already in two minds whether or not to continue our journey to Loughborough, as we had originally planned, but the sight of the lovely reach below the lock decided matters. We moored up, and did no more voyaging for four days
There have been changes to this area over the decades between, of course. The Barrow-upon-Soar area is centred around the junction of two rivers, basically the Old River Soar joins up with the Grand Union Canal and there are nowadays a marina, two locks & three bridges. Tom said:
...Later, when we had returned to Barrow (after a day out at Woodhouse Eaves), hot and dusty after our walk, we hired a rowing boat, and in the cool of the evening rowed round the unnavigable loop of the river by Quorn Hall. Our row ended, appropriately, at the Navigation Inn, its stone-flagged bar overlooking the white, foaming fall of the weir..
It is assumed that this pub dates from 1794, the date of construction of the canal
Deeds of the Navigation Pub refer back to 1803, the exact date of the building is not specified but it may have been established to serve the diggers (navigators) or certainly the early boat crews who stopped there to exchange cargoes with the mill owner on the opposite bank.
In 1803 on 9th July, John Bradshaw passed it over to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband William Barlow. After that various members of the Bradshaw family seemed to be involved until March 28th 1861 when it was bought by the Leicester Navigation Company. Sharpe's Brewery of Sileby provided the ales for most of this time until 7th June 1920 when it was bought by Frederic Stenson, a wine and spirit merchant from Loughborough. However on 22nd July 1924 it was bought by James Shipstone and Son. It remained a Shipstone house until 1978 when Anne Whittingham, the landlady at the time, bought it and it became a Free House. There are a number of old photographs of the 'Navvy' showing evidence of Sharp's Ales and Good Stabling.
Barrow Weir was originally spanned by a stone and brick, three-arched bridge, which carried part of the towpath from Mill Lane, Barrow, on its route towards Mountsorrel. It was built as part of the navigational route and was believed to be well over 100 years old. For a weir bridge, it was an architectural feature of its time
On the 21st March, 1971, the bridge unexpectedly collapsed overnight , leaving a gap of over 40 feet across the river. It also resulted in part of the weir subsiding. The collapse was caused by the swollen waters of the River Soar, although it had obviously been weakened by the torrents over the years.
The bridge was beyond repair and loss of water levels had left the river un-navigable to river traffic and the towpath inaccessible. After several months of work by British Waterway's crews, the clearance work and the re-construction of the weir, watercourse, and banking was completed, allowing navigation of the river and canal to re-commence. Re-construction of the bridge in 1998 has resulted in the present-day model and re-use of the towpath
Barrow weir today
The project was not fully completed until 2002. The Navigation pub has also just undergone renovation after a change of hands last year
Barrow Deep Lock is so called because it was the deepest on this canal, being about 9 feet deep (3m), but is very much not the deepest of all on the canal system. This is Tuel Lane lock on the Rochdale Canal, twice as deep as this!
When we reluctantly cast off from our moorings at Barrow it was not long before we once more left the river for an artificial channel. and presently found ourselves approaching the town of Loughborough. The surroundings were an unprepossessing replica of Leicester, although fortunately upon a smaller scale, and as the weather was still perfect, we were sorely tempted to push forward until we rejoined the river. Yet there was one feature of the town we had resolved not to miss, so we moored up and tramped through a seemingly interminable maze of mean streets, until we came upon our objective, the works of Messrs John Taylor, a small unpretentious foundry, famous the world over as the birthplace of bells since 1366.
Loughborough is justly proud of this ancient industry and boasts a public official whose office is unique in England. He is the Town Carilloneur, and twice a week through the summer months he gives recitals on what must surely be the finest War Memorial in the country, a carillon tower of forty-three bells... Tom described the place, the bells concerned and a demonstration they attended, in great detail - a lot more than is required here, so I shall just provide some pictures:
The company dates back to Johannes de Stafford in the 14th Century. The Taylor family became involved in 1784 and the foundry was established on its current site in 1839. Despite their fame the company struggled in the late 20th century and on 18 Sep 2009 went into Administration. However, a consortium of ringers, members of the bell industry and other investors bought it up and reopened on 19 Oct under the old name of John Taylor & Co. They are still going strong, employing 21 men, including apprentices, and only last week launched a set of new bells at the Open Day. These are 3 new bells to commemorate the centenary of WW1 battles
The numerous slender spires of the village churches are a feature of the soft river scenery between Loughborough and the Trent. First comes Normanton, so close upon the bank that it ponders its image in the water, then Kegworth, rising from a screen of sheltering trees, and lastly Radcliffe, a church of more humble proportions crowning a knoll in the open fields
[Radcliffe Holy Trinity church from main road - canal just visible in foreground]
Friday 4th August 2017
Basically, Tom Rolt was not at all impressed by what he saw in Market Harborough, saying it was a small, run-down shadow of its former self, with no market (this had been moved indoors the previous year, as was the fashion of the time) and no character. I see from the Wikipedia account that he was instrumental in its regeneration
In 1950 the canal basin was the venue for a week long National Festival of Boats, the first such festival organised by the Inland Waterways Association and marking the beginning of the revival of the canal network for leisure use.
There were large housing developments and renovations of the old town over the next 3 decades (after the traffic was moved out on a by-pass) and now these have been replaced in turn, making the town much more "user-friendly". Another thing Tom was very unhappy about was the state of British Cooking in the 1940s, and the lack of enterprise and pride in this shown by British innkeepers. Again he would marvel at the changes in recent years, and I'm sure he would love the current obsession on TV with this very subject. Restaurants/inns are quite the reverse nowadays, often extending the menu out of all recognition due to their influence.
As the canal stops here, his next chapter pops back to Foxton, in order to move on from there to Leicester. I haven't personal experience of this part of the canal network, although if you have followed my genealogy blog over the years you will know my maternal grandmother's tree is largely centred around this area.
Tom Rolt wrote: Because the city of Leicester has exerted its urban influence on the countryside over a wide area, the sixteen miles of canal from Foxton to Aylestone Mill within the city boundary had little to commend them. The first few miles between the villages of Smeeton Westerby and Gumley, perched upon its hilltop, were pleasant enough, but when we emerged from Saddington Tunnel it was to behold the first portent of things to come - a livid rash of jerry-built houses surrounding Fleckney.
Looking at the area on Google Streetview I cannot understand his outrage, as these villages are all charming and the factories etc he bemoans are not in evidence. I won't claim that the subsequent development of canals and the tourist trade has done this, but evidently the need to preserve the countryside has helped.
South Wigston had become industrialised, a fragment of a city slum dropped in the green fields
[South Wigston at the Grand Union Canal 1960 - not quite as he describes]
while Blaby was a typical urban dormitory. Railways, power-lines and roads lined by ribbon development began to converge on either hand.
I think I see why he was so grumpy - this map shows how much work this section entails, with the concentration of locks, and he probably didn't think it was worth it
And also, while they were drinking in a bar by the canalside in Blaby, they looked out on Cressy, moored nearby, and saw some teenage boys climb aboard and jump about on her. The cabin was locked, but this tainted city boating forever for him, as this wasn't the only time. I understand from internet blogs and articles that this was the County Arms, his description fitting this photo
It was Art Deco but fell into disrepair and in 2011 was converted to accommodation for the elderly.
It took us a little over an hour to cover the remaining distance from Blaby to the tail of King's Lock at Aylestone, where we left the canal and entered the River Soar, from whose ancient name of Leire the city derived its title.
Tom & Angela went into the city and visited the market and an old church,and were thrilled with both, but when they left again aboard Cressy, up the River Soar, he called this "Leicester's back door", remarking on gas-works, dumps, power-station and rats in the locks. I can offer some pretty pictures though:
Aylestone Mill - and the view from this:
Aylestone Packhorse Bridge aka Bridge 105 - 13th Century with 11 arches:
Frog Island - a link between my blogs, as several of my ancestors lived here many years before Tom ventured along.
As Wikipedia says about Leicester
With the decline of industry in the 1960s, the warehouses and factories which were once the core of Leicester’s economy had fallen into dereliction. Leicester City Council has made a move towards re-developing the waterfront "offering one of the most exciting waterside regeneration opportunities in the country."The company is currently building luxury waterside apartments. This will enhance the area's aesthetic values. Research conducted by Newcastle University suggests that people’s desire to reside on the waterfront and enjoy recreation offered by the canal is upset by "visually unattractive features, such as run-down derelict areas and poor design".
The re-development plan has included the building of the Walkers stadium, home to Leicester City FC along the canal in 2002, "from a barren, desolate piece of waste-ground has risen a stunning futuristic collaboration of steel and glass that dominates the skyline of Leicester." Old warehouses have also been converted into student accommodation for De Montfort University.
Leicester has not marched so far into the country to the north; its frontiers, the suburban villages of Birstall and Thurmaston on Fosse Way were soon passed, and we found ourselves in open fields at last, with the tall fingers of the mill chimneys fading in the smoke haze astern.
Near the village of Wanlip we entered another artificial channel, the river making a wide circle to westward, and before rejoining it at Cossington we met the little river Wreak, flowing through a green tunnel of overhanging trees on its way to Melton Mowbray.
Cossington bridge 1940s
This bridge spans the River Soar where it runs to Cossington Mill, with the Grand Union running on the left here up to Cossington Lock.
Having achieved our object of getting clear of the city, we went no farther that day, but moored up in the water-meadows below the lock by Cossington Mill.
Cossington Old Mill 2008
Tuesday 1st August 2017
It was still raining when we cast off next morning and entered Husbands Bosworth Tunnel,
but by the time we reached daylight once more the sky was clearing, and before long the sun came out. This was fortunate, because scenically these last few miles of this of this long summit level were the best of the twenty.
The steep, bracken-covered slopes of the Laughton Hills rose sheer from the water's edge as the canal wound along their flank, and, opposite, the land shelved away more gradually into the shallow upper valley of the Welland. As we journeyed on, the hills became more gentle of contour and covered with woodland, to fall away altogether just before noon when we sighted the whitewashed cottage which I knew marked the top of Foxton Locks.
We visited Foxton Locks once on the way to or from somewhere, but as I cannot remember where or when I cannot find the photos. As I have said, largely due to this book, the life of these canals has been saved and enhanced, so spectacles like this are built on and enjoyed now more than ever. Foxton Locks has a new visitors' centre where you can enjoy the history of the place in ways Tom would not have dreamed of. And in a few weeks' time they are holding the inaugural Foxton Vintage Festival there; a steam rally, craft fair and vintage boat event. Should be good!
The descent at Foxton is greater and even steeper than the ascent at Watford, there being no less than five pairs of staircase locks having a combined fall of seventy-five feet...The paddles of these locks were extremely heavy, and we were assisted on our way down by the lock-keeper, who had a windlass with an extra-long crank, made especially for the purpose. He was a most kindly and helpful old man, having only one leg, but with the aid of a single crutch he made his way about the locks with most remarkable agility and speed, balancing himself dextrously on his solitary foot when he wound up the paddles.
Nowadays there are several lock-keepers on hand to assist, but in high season it is recommended you book places on the staircase, so the whole process can be run efficiently.
Such a concentration of narrow locks takes some time to negotiate, and constitutes a serious hindrance to traffic, because boats are unable to pass each other except between the groups of 'risers'. It was with the object of obviating this delay that the Foxton Inclined Plane Lift was constructed and opened for traffic in the spring of 1900...
It consisted of two enormous cast-iron caissons, each capable of floating two narrow boats, these being mounted upon ten wheels which ran on five parallel sets of rails laid down the inclined plane. These were raised and lowered sideways by means of cables, one counterbalancing the other, a winding engine being employed for the extra power required. Unfortunately the rails were constantly giving way beneath the colossal weight of the caissons, and the infrequent traffic did not justify the expense...All that we saw of it...was a steep ramp of crumbling concrete up the face of the hill overgrown with briars, and, on the summit, the ruins of the engine-house. Canal lifts have never been widely employed, and the only one still in use today is the Anderton Vertical Lift at Northwich, which lowers boats from the Trent & Mersey Canal to the River Weaver, a fall of fifty feet.