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’
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