Yes, but is there enough money to go around?

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats - KEVIN BLICK From car jour­nal­ism to the canals was a change of pace, but liv­ing on board tug Harry is a con­stant eye-opener

Ihave to ad­mit I have al­ways been a bit cyn­i­cal about canal restora­tion schemes. Even though I do be­long to a couple of canal so­ci­eties. I fre­quently ask my­self: “do we really need any more canals when we can barely af­ford to main­tain the ones we’ve got?” And any­way, aren’t so many of them sim­ply pie-in-the-sky dreams, with their ide­al­is­tic plans for stair­cases, boat lifts, tun­nels un­der mo­tor­ways and the like?

I sup­pose the no­tion, 40 years ago, of restor­ing 37 miles of dis­used and in great part van­ished canal would have been some­thing I would have classed as a pipedream. Es­pe­cially as the route in­cluded a col­lapsed tun­nel over two miles long and was blocked by a mo­tor­way, sev­eral trunk roads, a town ring road, a main rail­way line and an in­dus­trial es­tate.

That pipedream was what be­came the Cotswold Canal Project to res­ur­rect the link be­tween the rivers Sev­ern and Thames. And when we found our­selves moored at Saul Junc­tion on the Glouces­ter & Sharp­ness, where one end of the re­stored canal will join the sys­tem, the Tug Harry crew went for a walk to see just what was hap­pen­ing.

In­ci­den­tally, Seadog Brian is an ex­pe­ri­enced ex­plorer of un­re­stored canals. He’s walked parts of the Lich­field & Hather­ton, the still to be re­claimed top end of the Ch­ester­field, the Buck­ing­ham Arm of the GU and much of the un­re­stored route of the Mont­gomery. If there were ca­nine mem­ber­ships of canal so­ci­eties he’d cer­tainly be in a few.

The stretch we were walk­ing this time was, by co­in­ci­dence, the next ma­jor project for the Cotswold re­stor­ers and, when it’s done, boats from the main sys­tem will be able to take a trip along a sig­nif­i­cant part of the canal for the first time.

Hav­ing spent a couple of hours walk­ing across fields where there was no trace of a canal, puz­zling how it would get past the M5 mo­tor­way and the A38 trunk road, which were tricky even for we walk­ers to ne­go­ti­ate, I’m afraid I had my cyn­i­cal hat firmly on my head.

And then I was stag­gered to dis­cover a canal in wa­ter with its big dou­ble locks all re­stored, re­paired and ready to take boats, and a tow­path too, al­ready in busy use by ram­blers and pic­nick­ers. As we came even­tu­ally into Stroud I found a town ready and wait­ing to em­brace the canal with open arms when those next few miss­ing miles are com­pleted.

A few weeks later and on the Ken­net & Avon, I vis­ited the Canal Trust’s mu­seum – which is, I have to say, one of the best canal mu­se­ums I know. There’s the sort of de­tail to in­ter­est a knowl­edge­able boater and, at the same time, a very well pre­sented story = of how canals were planned, fi­nanced, de­signed and dug out that would in­form any ca­sual tourist.

Cen­tral to the mu­seum, of course, is the story of the canal’s res­cue from dere­lic­tion – a res­cue which per­haps puts even the Cotswold story in the shade. Hav­ing just come up through the im­mac­u­late Caen Hill flight, it’s sim­ply jaw-drop­ping to see the state of ruin th­ese locks were in back in the 1970s.

Yet canal res­ur­rec­tions cost money and even once the canal had been re­stored and re-opened af­ter huge ex­pen­di­tures of time, ef­fort and money, it still needed a mas­sive sec­ond life-saving Lottery cash in­jec­tion a few years later to com­plete the work. And those of us who have suf­fered the frus­tra­tions of trav­el­ling up and down a canal that is of­ten too shal­low, too short of moor­ings and has too many heavy, awk­ward locks would say it needs yet more money spent on it.

Money that we know th­ese days is hard to come by which brings me back to those restora­tion dilem­mas: are there too many canal schemes chas­ing the few lim­ited pots of money and can we af­ford to add more miles to an al­ready un­der-funded net­work? I really don’t know.

‘Hav­ing just come up the Caen Hill flight, it’s sim­ply jaw-drop­ping to see the state of ruin th­ese locks were in back in the 1970s’

The Stroud­wa­ter – re­stored and ( inset) wait­ing peace­fully

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