KEEPING UP APPEARANCES
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