Yes, but is there enough money to go around?
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