GROUNDS FOR OP­TI­MISM?

Is it re­al­is­tic to hope that the re­cent grant to re­store half a mile of the Montgomery Canal could lead to 20 more miles be­ing opened up? We meet a man who says ‘yes’

Canal Boat - - This Month - WORDS AND PIC­TURES BY MARTIN LUDGATE

Could a grant to re­store half a mile of the Monty lead to a fur­ther 20 miles be­ing re-opened?

It’s fair to say that there hasn’t been the same air of op­ti­mism among many canal re­stor­ers that there was a decade or more ago, when the re­cent re­open­ings of the trans-Pen­nine routes and the Scot­tish low­land canals made it look like the sky was the limit. Not so much ‘any­thing is pos­si­ble’ now; more ‘we’re in it for a long slog’.

To a cer­tain ex­tent, they have a point. The last com­plete re­open­ing was the Droitwich five years ago; the Mil­len­nium Fund is a dis­tant mem­ory; lo­cal au­thor­i­ties are strapped for cash; there won’t be much com­ing from Euro­pean funds in fu­ture. Al­though the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund is still a vi­tal source of sup­port, find­ing the ‘match­ing fund­ing’ for its grants is get­ting harder. And all the while, as the ‘easy’ projects are com­pleted, the restora­tion work be­ing tacked is get­ting more and more dif­fi­cult.

In­deed, there are some in the restora­tion move­ment who look at the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, consider the in­creas­ing costs of re­build­ing badly ob­structed canals, and pre­dict gloomily that there will be no ma­jor open­ings in the next decade or so.

But are they be­ing overly pes­simistic? Does any­one really know what new sources of fund­ing or labour might be just around the cor­ner? Might some of those in­creas­ing costs be brought down to size? And could it be that the cau­tious ‘no open­ings for ten years’ pre­dic­tion might be­come a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy? Might the op­po­site ap­proach – a pos­i­tive “we could get this canal open in no more

than ten years if things went well” at­ti­tude – be more likely to suc­ceed?

John Dod­well, Chair­man of the Montgomery Canal Part­ner­ship and a Trustee of the Canal & River Trust thinks so. He’s al­ready gone on record say­ing that the 40th an­niver­sary of the start of the canal’s restora­tion was “noth­ing to cel­e­brate”, as it shouldn’t take that long to open a canal. And now, his re­sponse to the con­fir­ma­tion of £2.5m of HLF money to­wards a £4.4m pack­age to rebuild the next sec­tion of the Montgomery Canal is that this marks a step to­wards fur­ther re­open­ings. He isn’t just talk­ing about get­ting to the Welsh bor­der in five years, but through to the iso­lated re­stored 12 mile Welsh­pool length in ten.

We caught up with John, to find out how re­al­is­tic his tar­gets are, and his thoughts on how to reach them.

But first, let’s look at the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and what the re­cent Lot­tery grant will achieve. And on the face of it, in terms of ac­tual canal restora­tion, it isn’t much. It will rebuild the chan­nel for around half a mile from Pryces Bridge to Crick­heath Wharf: at that rate, get­ting to Welsh­pool would be a slow and ex­pen­sive process.

But there’s more: firstly, from the cur­rent limit of nav­i­ga­tion for boats vis­it­ing from the Llan­gollen at Gron­wen Bridge, a fur­ther half mile to Red­with Bridge was re­built sev­eral years ago by con­trac­tors. More re­cently, an­other quar­ter mile from Red­with to Pryces Bridge was re­stored by vol­un­teers from the Shrop­shire Union Canal So­ci­ety. But these sec­tions aren’t in use, be­cause there’s nowhere to turn. So open­ing the length to Crick­heath, where there is a full length wind­ing hole that can be re­stored (not to men­tion a foot­path lead­ing across the fields to a pub) will ac­tu­ally add a mile and a quar­ter of new wa­ter to the na­tional net­work by 2021.

Sec­ondly, the grant will also pay for wildlife mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures. Dur­ing the time that it was aban­doned, the canal be­came a haven for in­creas­ingly rare wet­land plants, to the point where 20-plus years ago it was at the cen­tre of dis­agree­ments be­tween con­ser­va­tion­ists (who wanted to se­verely re­strict boat move­ments be­cause of po­ten­tial dam­age to habi­tats) and nav­i­ga­tion in­ter­ests (who felt that, as they were the ones putting in the ef­fort to re­store it, they should be able to use it with­out lim­its).

Fi­nally (af­ter so much wran­gling that few of those in­volved would want to open this can of worms again) a Con­ser­va­tion Man­age­ment Plan was agreed by all, which set more le­nient lim­its on boat move­ments, cou­pled to cre­ation of in-line and off-line na­ture re­serves. And the work paid for by the cur­rent fund­ing pack­age will al­low us­age of the English sec­tion to dou­ble from 2500 to 5000 boat move­ments per year, as well as al­low­ing fu­ture re­open­ing of a fur­ther two miles through Pant to the Welsh bor­der at Llanymynech (where a

mile of canal has al­ready been re­stored) with­out any fur­ther wildlife mea­sures.

In other words, it’s paving the way for adding a fur­ther three miles of nav­i­ga­tion. But John Dod­well reck­ons it needn’t just pave the way; he be­lieves that open­ing to Llanymynech could be com­pleted con­cur­rently and to the same five-year timescale: com­plete by 2021.

To sug­ges­tions that at an es­ti­mated £15m cost that sounds a tall or­der, he points out that that sum rep­re­sents the for­mer Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways’ specification for a “first class job” (some would say ‘gold plated’) by con­trac­tors. So firstly, CRT can take a new look at the “cheapest ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion”. And sec­ondly, given that most of the work will con­sist of cre­at­ing a new chan­nel lin­ing (this dry sec­tion suf­fered from leak­age and ground shrink­age) just like the sec­tions from Gron­wen to Crick­heath, it should be sim­i­larly pos­si­ble for vol­un­teers to do the work. En­gi­neers es­ti­mate this could cut the bill by two thirds to just £ 5m.

There is also one de­mol­ished road bridge (School House Bridge) for which plans are be­ing worked-up with the high­ways au­thor­i­ties with a view to re­build­ing it in 2018: John points to the Wey & Arun Canal, where con­trac­tors built the ba­sic struc­ture for Com­passes Bridge ( CB Dec 2016) but vol­un­teers added the wing walls and fac­ing brick­work. Then there’s an old rail­way em­bank­ment at Pant, whose re­moval Wa­ter­way Re­cov­ery Group’s vol­un­teers are al­ready plan­ning to tackle. And that’s it: no locks, no other low­ered bridges, no fur­ther engi­neer­ing is­sues.

But John reck­ons the cost could come down fur­ther. So far, plans have as­sumed that the en­tire sec­tion will need re-lin­ing, but at the mid-point at Pant, the ground changes from peat to lime­stone – which while still por­ous, at least doesn’t suf­fer from ground shrink­age prob­lems. Does that mean it won’t need so much re­lin­ing work? This time John refers to the Buck­ing­ham Arm restora­tion, where trial sec­tions at Cos­grove are be­ing re­wa­tered and tested a few me­tres at a time – and sug­gests the same ap­proach.

And the five-year timescale? John is full of praise for the SUCS vol­un­teer team, but ac­cepts that, with their monthly week­end work par­ties, it would cer­tainly take a lot longer than that. How­ever, the HLF money has paid for a full-time vol­un­teer man­ager, due to start work in early 2017. Once again, John draws com­par­isons with else­where: as at Wool­sthorpe on the Gran­tham Canal, the vol­un­teer man­ager should be able to build up the vol­un­teer in­put with CRT-led

‘It should be pos­si­ble for vol­un­teers to do the work. En­gi­neers es­ti­mate this could cut the bill by two thirds to £5m’

teams, vis­it­ing WRG canal camps, and other sources such as Com­mu­nity Pay­back (pro­ba­tion) vol­un­teers or lo­cal agri­cul­tural col­leges.

That leaves the is­sue of rais­ing the money: it could be con­sid­er­ably less than £ 5m, but will still be a size­able sum. How­ever, fundrais­ing has be­gun: one bene­fac­tor has come up with £12,000 per year for five years; an­other has made the same of­fer but con­di­tional upon the same amount be­ing raised else­where. So if the Part­ner­ship and its mem­bers can raise a fur­ther £ 60,000, it will have £180,000 – “a start”, as John puts it.

So if five years really can get the canal to the Welsh bor­der, what chance of link­ing it to Welsh­pool in ten? This will be con­sid­er­ably more dif­fi­cult, as a quick tour of the main ob­sta­cles demon­strates:

Walls Bridge, be­yond Llanymynech. A mi­nor road crosses on a cause­way along­side the old hump-backed bridge which is not re­garded as suit­able for re­use. A road di­ver­sion in­clud­ing a new high-level or open­ing bridge is needed.

Wil­liams Bridge, a mile fur­ther on. A B-road crosses on a cause­way where the old bridge has been de­mol­ished. An open­ing bridge is needed.

Vyrnwy Aqueduct. The Grade 2* his­toric struc­ture suf­fers se­ri­ous leak­age (it is mainly filled with clay to pro­tect it) and will need ma­jor re­pairs.

Maerdy Bridge. The A483 crosses at low level, and a canal di­ver­sion will be needed with a deep cut­ting and bridges for the main road and a side road.

Ard­dleen Bridge. The A483 crosses again, but this time a low level cul­vert was in­cluded – big enough for nav­i­ga­tion, but re­quir­ing the canal level to be low­ered. A drop-lock or ‘drop pound’ with a new lock ei­ther side is needed.

On the plus side, the en­tire four and a half mile length is in wa­ter and the only two orig­i­nal locks were re­stored many years ago by SUCS vol­un­teers.

It does look daunt­ing, and the price tag put on it by a Re­open­ing Plan put to­gether by the Part­ner­ship with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties is around £25m. But once again, John be­lieves that costs can be brought down sig­nif­i­cantly by us­ing vol­un­teers. For the road bridges, the Wey & Arun ap­proach al­ready men­tioned could be adopted, while for the new Ard­dleen lock or locks, it’s the turn of the Ch­ester­field for a men­tion – their new lock at Stave­ley was largely built by vol­un­teers, and looks set to be the first of many. And the ma­jor earth­works for the Maerdy di­ver­sion could per­haps form a con­struc­tion skills train­ing pro­gramme.

There’s also £ 8m for an­other ma­jor na­ture re­serve – but WRG al­ready built one of those at As­ton, back in the 1990s, so clearly vol­un­teers are up to the job.

Could use of vol­un­teers once again bring the cost down by two thirds? Might we be look­ing at more like £ 8m than £25m to reconnect to Welsh­pool and bring the to­tal nav­i­ga­ble length of the Montgomery Canal to not far short of 30 miles? And will it be pos­si­ble to plan this work over the next five years, so that it’s all ready to start as soon as the cur­rent scheme is fin­ished, and com­pleted and open within a decade?

John Dod­well thinks so. Is he be­ing un­re­al­is­tic? Time will tell. Re­mem­ber, back in 1992, a lot of peo­ple would have said the same about open­ing the Hud­der­s­field, Rib­ble Link, Forth & Clyde, Union and Rochdale in a decade. I would have been one of them my­self…

Re­stored canal and new bridge north of Red­with await re­open­ing

Gron­wen Bridge, the cur­rent limit of nav­i­ga­tion Chan­nel south of Red­with re­built by SUCS and be­ing re­wa­tered

The next tar­get: the Welsh bor­der at Llanymynech

Low level cause­way along­side Wil­liams Bridge will re­quire a road di­ver­sion

Vol­un­teer job? Dry sec­tion through Pant

Crick­heath Wharf: open to here in 2021

Could boats reach Welsh­pool in ten years?

The A483 at Ard­dleen: drop-lock needed?

The Vyrnwy Aqueduct needs ma­jor re­pairs

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