Restor­ing Wool­sthorpe Locks has been a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but progress is be­ing made

Restor­ing the Gran­tham’s Wool­sthorpe Locks has turned into a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the ground al­most lit­er­ally mov­ing un­der the vol­un­teers’ feet. But it’s mak­ing good progress...

“In the news fairly of­ten – and not all of the news has been good”

That was how we summed up the Gran­tham Canal’s re­cent history when we last fea­tured it in early 2012. But we con­cluded that although it wouldn’t be a quick re­open­ing (is there such a thing?) it seemed that there was “good news in store”, with fin­gers crossed for a £400,000 Her­itage Lottery Fund grant to­wards the Gran­tham Canal So­ci­ety’s pro­gramme to re­store Wool­sthorpe Locks 12 to 15.

So al­most four years on, was that op­ti­mism well-founded? Well, given that I spent a few days in Septem­ber as a vol­un­teer lay­ing bricks at Lock 15 dur­ing three con­tin­u­ous weeks of Wa­ter­way Re­cov­ery Group canal camps, it would seem that there has in­deed been some progress. Not brick­lay­ing on the lock it­self, mind you, but on a brand new weir struc­ture be­ing built ad­ja­cent to it.

To un­der­stand why, we’ll delve a lit­tle deeper (quite lit­er­ally) into what’s hap­pen­ing at Wool­sthorpe, where the news has been a mix of good and not-quite-so-good…

First, the very good news is that the HLF agreed the fund­ing, en­abling the lock work to go ahead. And so, af­ter ini­tial clear­ance and site setup, by sum­mer 2015 it was time for ma­jor work to be­gin on Lock 15.

Given that these locks had been built with­out over­flow bywashes (they re­lied in­stead on sur­plus wa­ter over­flow­ing via ‘let­ter­box’ slots in the brick­work lead­ing into pad­dle cul­verts at the top end; and sim­ply over­flow­ing over the gates at the tail end) a by­wash was to be built first. It would mean that the lock could be dammed off for restora­tion with­out drain­ing the en­tire canal, and make fu­ture main­te­nance eas­ier. And that was what I was do­ing: putting up the side walls on a con­crete stepped weir, lead­ing down to a pipe culvert buried along­side the cham­ber.

While that was go­ing on, work had al­ready be­gun on the lock it­self. Prior in­ves­ti­ga­tions had shown that the up­per parts of the lock walls were lean­ing in­wards, and would need some re­pair or re­build­ing – but the ex­act ex­tent couldn’t be known for sure un­til the dis­man­tling be­gan. And this was where things started to go not quite to plan…

Typ­i­cally on derelict locks, it’s the front sur­face of the brick­work that’s dam­aged. The front 1ft or so of the wall might be loose and sag­ging for­wards, but be­hind it, there is of­ten enough solid brick­work for a re­pair to be prop­erly tied into.

It didn’t take long for the first week’s camp to dis­cover this wasn’t the case here. Ba­si­cally, the en­tire top sec­tion of the wall (about 3ft deep and 3ft thick, plus buried but­tresses be­hind it known as ‘coun­ter­forts’) had bro­ken away and was slowly fall­ing into the lock. Ex­ca­va­tion be­hind the wall re­vealed some im­pres­sively large cracks.

It got worse. Usu­ally lock walls

in­crease in thick­ness to as much as 7ft thick at the bot­tom. Deeper ex­ca­va­tion be­hind the walls re­vealed that this one ap­peared to do the op­po­site! At the base it was no more than 2ft thick.

The op­po­site wall was dif­fer­ent again: it had iron strap­ping to re­in­force the coun­ter­forts, some­thing not seen be­fore.

As GCS Chair­man Mike Stone put it, the canal camps’ work was “Three weeks of learn­ing” – and, at the end of it, a ma­jor pol­icy shift. In­stead of restora­tion, the walls will be taken right down, in par­al­lel (so as not to put un­equal stresses on the ‘in­vert’ – the curved lock base – which might oth­er­wise “rock like a saucer”) and re­built in brick-faced con­crete. It won’t nec­es­sar­ily be more work (it might be less), but it’s a ma­jor change of plan.

Will Lock 14 be the same? Given that Lock 15 is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from Lock 18 (where a wall was re­built sev­eral years ago), who knows? At any rate, one wall was taken down on safety grounds some years ago by Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways, so it will be a com­plete re­build, too.

As for 12 and 13, they look to be in much bet­ter con­di­tion – but a sur­vey later this au­tumn should find out more. It may well be that each lock was built by a dif­fer­ent team, un­der a dif­fer­ent fore­man, with (per­haps) a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to cut­ting corners and skimp­ing. It’s go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing few years ahead. But Mike’s up­beat about it: “A great learn­ing sit­u­a­tion” for the vol­un­teers.

Speak­ing of which, it’s go­ing to be an al­most en­tirely vol­un­teer pro­ject – and much more of a full-time one than most restora­tions. GCS is putting to­gether teams and lead­ers for each day – Mon­day team, Tues­day team and so on – all year, backed up by more WRG sum­mer camps and sup­port from Gran­tham Col­lege.

And it’s not just about restor­ing four locks: part of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for HLF sup­port is the way that the vol­un­teers will ac­quire skills (whether tra­di­tional ones or – say – the abil­ity to op­er­ate an ex­ca­va­tor to in­dus­try stan­dards) which will be trans­fer­able else­where on the canal and to other restora­tion projects.

We’ve con­cen­trated on Wool­sthorpe Locks, but what of the rest of the canal? While the lock work pro­gresses, GCS vol­un­teers will also be keep­ing an eye on main­te­nance of the re­stored three miles above; other lo­cal groups are help­ing to keep the canal tidy on the fi­nal sec­tion in Gran­tham and also at the far end in West Bridgeford; vol­un­teer rangers will keep an eye on each length of the canal, look­ing for any prob­lems and dis­cussing canal is­sues with their lo­cal com­mu­nity.

And for the longer term? The trick­i­est part to re­store is at the west end, where the orig­i­nal route into Not­ting­ham was lost to road-build­ing in the 1970s and a di­ver­sion is pro­posed. There hasn’t been any phys­i­cal work, but there’s progress to­wards the aim of get­ting the ex­act line de­cided and pro­tected in the Lo­cal Plan. While the ba­sic route (tak­ing ad­van­tage of the Polser Brook) has been iden­ti­fied, planned changes to lo­cal roads might pro­vide new op­por­tu­ni­ties for the canal.

“Some­thing for the long term?” I sug­gest. Mike is more op­ti­mistic. He feels that things could be hap­pen­ing at that end of the canal in no more than a decade, and per­haps sub­stan­tially less. And for all the progress be­ing made at Wool­sthorpe, a link to the na­tional net­work would do a great deal to con­firm that the Gran­tham is “go­ing some­where”.

So as I stand back and ad­mire my brick walls climb­ing up the big con­crete steps of the new by­wash weir, I can re­flect that the Gran­tham will be tak­ing some more big steps for­ward in the com­ing years.

The back of the wall shows some bad cracks

Ex­pos­ing the sec­ond lock wall

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey be­fore de­mo­li­tion

Vol­un­teers be­gin dis­man­tling lock walls

Build­ing a new by­wash weir

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