BACKING FOR BUCKS
With prospects of the first bridge being rebuilt, the next length of canal rewatered and a reopening to navigation in the not too distant future, prospects are improving for the Buckingham Canal
The future looks bright towards a reopening to navigation of the Buckingham
When we last featured the Buckingham Canal in early 2013, we remarked that (unlike many canal restoration projects) it was at least possible to ‘start at the beginning’. Reopening could begin at the junction of this former branch canal with the Grand Union main line at Cosgrove, where the first few hundred yards are still used as moorings. And we looked forward to the rewatering in the near future of the next length heading towards Old Stratford.
So just over four years on, exactly how much further can you get your boat? Disappointingly, the answer is ‘no further at all’. But, as is so often the case, that doesn’t mean there’s been no real progress – and indeed, one of the major causes of delays could turn into a benefit for the restoration in the longer term. So having got the bad news out of the way early on, I’ll spend the rest of the article giving you the good news…
And the first piece of good news concerns Bridge 1, at the end of the moorings. This hump-backed farm and footpath crossing was demolished back in the 1970s, and it wasn’t clear how much if anything remained. But last year, following the usual delays organising access and other paperwork, the Buckingham Canal Society began excavating the infill to expose what was left. This is now around 85 percent complete, revealing some serious chunks of bridge abutment on either side, with a big gap between them. Once the remaining trees have been taken out (a job for Waterway Recovery Group’s forestry volunteers), the society’s engineers will be able to get in and find out if it’s possible to rebuild from what’s left: if so, Weymoor Bridge on the Cotswold Canals (see CB June 2016), rebuilt by volunteers, will provide a useful template.
So when the bridge is complete (in 2018, all being well), will it lead on to a restored length of waterway? Well, despite slower-than-expected progress since our 2013 report, it’s looking optimistic. The next three quarters of a mile, which survives as a dry bed running across farmland, has been cleared by the society to the point where it was possible to temporarily rewater in trial sections all the way to just short of Bridge 2. And to continue the good news, the trial has shown that leakage is well within the Canal & River Trust’s limits for maximum seepage,
“On the plus side, the new canal sections would help with flood alleviation and the quarry remediation works might just involve building a length”
meaning that the original puddled clay lining is doing its job and (subject to dealing with a few leaks and towpath slips) relining won’t be necessary.
In fact the delays in rewatering weren’t for practical reasons, but connected with a change in the adjacent land ownership. Formerly farm land, this was sold a couple of years ago to MK Dons Football Club, who hoped to use it for a training ground – and were very keen on a restored canal as a feature – but they’ve now found a more suitable site elsewhere. However they retain the land, have facilitated access for BCS, and for the future they’re interested in commercial development: might this include a marina which could help to get the canal completed?
It’s rather harder to see any kind of ‘good news’ in the fate of the canal beyond Bridge 2. After a further quarter mile it stops dead at the A5 crossing, the 1970s road cutting through it at near canal bed level, and on the other side of the road, the route’s been obliterated through Old Stratford. Oh, and beyond there, two obstructions where the A422 main road crosses the line are separated by blockages in Deanshanger Village.
BCS’s approach to this has been to plan a canal diversion bypassing the whole area – and (resisting the temptation to use the phrase ‘good news’ again), there are positives here too. The route would turn sharp left at Bridge 2, descending through three new locks as it follows a small stream down to the River Great Ouse. Rather than joining the river (which brings flooding and other issues), the canal would turn to run parallel, passing under one of the side arches of the viaduct carrying the modern A5. A further bridge carrying the original A5 is likely to need rebuilding in the not too distant future, providing an option for adding a canal span; beyond there a new route would climb through a further three new locks to pass through a quarry site south of Deanshanger and return to the original route.
It sounds like a lot of new construction and it is. But on the plus side there is only one other minor road crossing needed; the new canal sections would help with flood alleviation (by providing a temporary holding capacity for run-off water from Deanshanger heading for the river); the quarry remediation works might just involve building a length of canal; and parts of the land needed have
already been bought by Milton Keynes Parks Department. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but planning has reached the stage of surveying the route, initial permission for change of land use, and agreement in principle by the local authorities.
West of Deanshanger, it’s more of a restoration and less of a new canal. A long section through Little Hill Farm survives, with a restored bridge and a mile length which regularly holds water after rain. BCS plans to keep it permanently watered from the river by solar-powered pump – of which more later.
The section from Thornton to Leckhampstead has yet to see any restoration (although the towpath is open) but west of there is the next BCS worksite. Hyde Lane Lock saw some initial restoration ten years ago (plus a set of life-expired gates donated by CRT to make it look more like a lock); some further work (mainly repointing of mortar joints) is planned during the next two years. This lock forms part of a length of canal maintained as a nature reserve by the Canal Society on behalf of the local wildlife trust, and as part of this a further rewatering above the lock is planned, using another solar pump. Towpath resurfacing as a rural grassy path will complete this site.
The next mile and a half to the outskirts of Buckingham is more problematic, having been filled in so long ago that nobody is sure what the infill is. It could be old road surfacing, or something more unpleasant – and the
society will seek funding grants for investigations. But the landowner has agreed in principle to the canal being reinstated, subject to the need for one new bridge.
This section also includes the site where the canal merged with the river for a short distance. There’s no trace of the canal today and it would be preferable if the restoration avoided use the river, but with a steep riverbank it would need some serious earthworks (or possibly a diversion of the river).
Not far beyond there is the second of the two locks on the canal at Bourton, which now looks unlikely to be restored. The lock cottage has been extended right up to the lockside which could make it impracticable; also it might work out easier to combine building a new lock with the earthworks described above, in a single engineering project.
The length above the lock leading to the edge of Buckingham was restored and rewatered as a showpiece length and reopened in 2013. Unfortunately a serious leakage problem developed, as a result of the chemical composition of the ground and water being unsuited to the bentonite clay liner used. This has now been supplemented by a HDPE (plastic) liner and it now holds water. It’s also the trial site for BCS’s first solar-powered pumping station. This is made from an adapted borehole pump (of Australian design), and raises 20,000 litres of water per day from the river. That’s a very modest amount compared to what a working canal with locks would use, but handy for keeping restored lengths topped-up in the meantime. And importantly, it’s within the limit the Environment Agency will permit individuals to take without a licence (The EA has agreed to extend this limit to BCS’s pumps, even though it isn’t an ‘individual’.) If successful, similar pumps will be installed at Hyde Lane, Little Hill, and other sites on restored lengths.
That’s almost but not quite the end of the canal: the society sees extending back to the original terminus as impracticable, but it could to a little further, subject to Aylesbury Vale District Council’s Local Plan, which is still being debated with a referendum likely this summer. It is hoped that when finally agreed it will include provision for a new canal crossing under the A413 to end at a new terminus basin on the edge of the town – which would be the final piece of good news for the canal restoration.
“It’s also the trial site for BCS’s first solar-powered pumping station. If successful, similar pumps will be installed at Hyde Lane, Little Hill and other sites”
Official opening of the Bourton length
...and what’s left of it today, prior to the start of rebuilding
Bridge 1 before demolition in the 1970s...
Rewatering begins at Cosgrove
The canal linked Buckingham to the Grand Union main line at Cosgrove Cosgrove to Old Stratford 1½ miles; to Buckingham 11 miles 2 locks. DISTANCE
Corporate volunteer team build a temporary dam for trial rewatering
Hyde Lane Lock and interpretation board
Repointing Little Hill Farm Bridge
Volunteers clear the bed at Bourton and ( below) the rewatered canal