The canal-builders usu­ally went in for prac­ti­cal, un­pre­ten­tious con­struc­tion, but just oc­ca­sion­ally there was a call for some­thing dif­fer­ent…


The un­usual bridges, route changes and other fea­tures that had to be in­cor­po­rated into canal con­struc­tion to meet landown­ers’ de­mands

The wa­ter­way wi­dens out and makes a sharp right turn, pass­ing un­der an at­trac­tive broad arched foot­bridge be­fore mak­ing a sweep­ing bend to the left. Ahead, a stately three-arch white painted bridge spans the wa­ter, which me­an­ders to the left in the dis­tance…

A de­scrip­tion of a river in the Home Coun­ties, per­haps? Or an or­na­men­tal lake in a coun­try es­tate? No, this is ac­tu­ally a length of that for­mer freight­car­ry­ing artery and back­bone of south­ern Eng­land’s wa­ter­ways, the Grand Union Canal. So why is it do­ing a pass­able im­i­ta­tion of a river? It’s all down to that bane of the canal builders’ lives – the landown­ers.

Cross­ing hills and val­leys may have brought en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenges, but deal­ing with those whose land the new canal crossed could be equally tricky – es­pe­cially if they were rich and in­flu­en­tial. Sure, many of the landed gen­try (in­clud­ing the most fa­mous in canal cir­cles, the Duke of Bridgewater) were also in­vestors in canal-build­ing and own­ers of lo­cal in­dus­tries who stood to ben­e­fit from the trade and prof­its the canal would bring. But there were plenty more for whom it was an un­wel­come in­tru­sion, spoil­ing their view and threat­en­ing to de­stroy their peace with the ar­rival of the work­ing boat­men and – worse still – the navvies who built it.

Al­most all canals were built us­ing an Act of Par­lia­ment – which gave the com­pany pow­ers of com­pul­sory pur­chase to ac­quire land for the route. But to get the Act, the canal’s pro­mot­ers had to gain par­lia­men­tary ap­proval. In the­ory this meant suc­cess­fully ar­gu­ing the case on the ba­sis of the great ben­e­fits that the new wa­ter­way would bring to the coun­try that it served; in

prac­tice it could be more about buy­ing off op­po­si­tion from sup­port­ers of ri­val canals and oth­ers who might be af­fected – in­clud­ing wealthy landown­ers.

Often, routes were changed to ap­pease op­po­nents, some­times at con­sid­er­able added ex­pense. The me­an­der­ing Ox­ford Canal sum­mit level isn’t just a prod­uct of the early en­gi­neers’ ‘con­tour canal’ method of avoid­ing un­nec­es­sary earth­works; the re­fusal of a landowner to coun­te­nance a lock on his land (he didn’t mind the boats pass­ing, he just didn’t want them stop­ping!) added a mile to its length.

The Shrop­shire Union’s mile-long 60ft high Shel­more Em­bank­ment, whose con­struc­tion prob­lems en­sured that Thomas Telford wouldn’t live to see his last great wa­ter­way fin­ished, was only nec­es­sary be­cause a much eas­ier route would have dis­turbed Lord An­son’s pheas­ant-shoot­ing re­serves. Both the Ed­in­burgh & Glas­gow Union Canal and the Ch­ester­field re­sorted to tun­nelling to ap­pease the landed gen­try – and the Grand Junc­tion only avoided it with a £15,000 sweet­ener to Lord Es­sex.

But at other times, sim­ply im­prov­ing the ap­pear­ance of the canal would help to gain their favour. Per­haps a bridge could be made grander, or more at­trac­tive and less func­tional, or a canal could be widened to look like a lake, or given some bends to give the ap­pear­ance of a me­an­der­ing river.

North of Wat­ford, the Grand Junc­tion (now the Grand Union) passed through Lord Es­sex’s Grove Park es­tate: a mere £5,000 was enough to buy off his ob­jec­tions, but in re­turn the canal com­pany ‘gen­tri­fied’ the canal by adding two or­nate bridges and four right-an­gle bends which will have earned his lord­ship some curses from the steer­ers of full-length boats over the years.

Fur­ther north on the same canal at Cos­grove is the splen­didly or­nate lime­stone-built Solo­man’s Bridge, said to be named af­ter the landowner whose land the canal cut through.

On the Shrop­shire Union, while Shel­more Bank may have been the big­ger headache for the canal builders, the more ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple to­day of an im­prove­ment to pla­cate a landowner is ten miles fur­ther south: the fine

‘The Staffs & Worcs Canal was en­larged to al­most 100 yards wide for some dis­tance to im­prove the view from Tix­all Hall’

balustraded Av­enue Bridge which car­ries the two-mile long drive­way to Chilling­ton Hall. And on the Cal­don, Cherry Eye Bridge’s un­usual ‘goth­ic­style’ pointed arch is be­lieved to have been built that way for sim­i­lar rea­sons.

Even more un­usual than these two is the bizarre Dray­ton Manor Bridge, where a low-level swing­bridge is ac­com­pa­nied by a high-level foot­bridge ac­cessed by a pair of minia­ture stair­case tow­ers – surely in some way con­nected with the for­mer Dray­ton Manor Es­tate, once home to Prime Min­is­ter Sir Robert Peel’s fam­ily and now a theme park?

And in a 19th Cen­tury equiv­a­lent of a theme park, the ar­rival of the Ken­net & Avon Canal with its or­na­men­tal bridges and tun­nels was seen as adding to the ‘pic­turesque beau­ties’ of Bath’s Syd­ney Gar­dens com­mer­cial plea­sure grounds.

Fur­ther east on the K& A is an­other type of or­na­men­tal fea­ture: near Wil­cot, west of Pewsey, the canal broad­ens out into Wide Wa­ter. In­tended to re­sem­ble a lake, this ex­panse of wa­ter was for the ben­e­fit of Lady Su­san­nah Wroughton, as com­mem­o­rated in the name of the or­nate Lady’s Bridge at its west end.

In sim­i­lar vein but bet­ter known is Tix­all Wide, where the Staffs & Worcs was en­larged to al­most 100 yards wide for some dis­tance to im­prove the view from Tix­all Hall. The hall was de­mol­ished in the 1920s, but the gate­house was res­cued from ruin and is now a Land­mark Trust hol­i­day let.

Down in Som­er­set there’s even a case of an aqueduct em­bel­lished for the ben­e­fit of the landowner. The splen­did Nyne­head Aqueduct built in finely dressed stone, which car­ried the now long derelict Grand Western Canal over the car­riage drive to Nyne­head Court, still stands and has seen restora­tion work in re­cent years. And an even more splen­did struc­ture car­ried the Shrop­shire Union’s for­mer New­port Branch over the Duke of Suther­land’s drive – un­til it was de­mol­ished in the 1960s, even though the canal was pro­posed for restora­tion. Speak­ing of canal restora­tion, might there be a fu­ture for this kind of or­na­men­ta­tion as a way of mak­ing re­stored canals more at­trac­tive to the neigh­bours? Prob­a­bly not, given that canals are now seen as a pos­i­tive ben­e­fit (and can add to house val­ues in the area). On the other hand, the Ashby Canal’s restora­tion was put back by over a decade be­cause a landowner wouldn’t sell – per­haps they should have of­fered him a nice or­nate bridge?

Al­ter­na­tively, per­haps to­day’s equiv­a­lents of Syd­ney Gar­dens Tun­nels and Solo­man’s Bridge are the likes of the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies. Not ex­actly nec­es­sary, they have added sig­nif­i­cantly to the cost of the canal works – but many would see it as a price worth pay­ing, like the Grand Junc­tion Canal Com­pany did at Cas­siobury in the 1790s. I won­der what folks will make of them in a cou­ple of cen­turies’ time…

Tix­all Wide, with the for­mer Hall’s gate­house (now a hol­i­day home)

Was Dray­ton Manor Bridge built for the ben­e­fit of the lo­cal squire?

The Ken­net & Avon in Syd­ney Gar­dens

The or­nate Grove Bridge, near Wat­ford

Cherry Eye Bridge on the Cal­don

Solo­man’s Bridge at Cos­grove, said to be named af­ter the lo­cal landowner Wide Wa­ter, in­tended to make the Ken­net & Avon look more like a lake

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