RESTORA­TION: COTSWOLD CANALS

Lot­tery fund­ing could see boats from the sys­tem cruise through to Stroud as early as 2024 - we look at what’s in­volved

Canal Boat - - CONTENTS -

The Cotswold Canals are set to be re­con­nected to the na­tional wa­ter­ways net­work thanks to pro­vi­sional agree­ment of £10m of Lot­tery fund­ing to­wards a £23m restora­tion fund­ing pack­age: that’s the big news this year for wa­ter­ways restora­tion, and we’ve cov­ered it on our news pages. In this ar­ti­cle, we’re go­ing to go into the de­tail of what ex­actly that money will buy. What’s ac­tu­ally in­volved in spend­ing £23m on the four-mile Phase 1b length of canal from Saul Junc­tion to Stone­house, and what will it achieve?

But first we owe you an ex­pla­na­tion of the var­i­ous ‘phases’ that are of­ten men­tioned by Cotswold Canals Trust and oth­ers in­volved in the restora­tion – what are they, what or­der are they be­ing re­stored in, and why?

It be­gan with an ac­cep­tance by those sup­port­ing the restora­tion that (un­like the Mil­len­nium restora­tions such as the Rochdale and the Hud­der­s­field), in the case of the Cotswold Canals it was un­likely that any sources of fund­ing would come up with the sums needed to com­plete the en­tire restora­tion in one go. Sure, no in­di­vid­ual prob­lem was any worse than had al­ready been dealt with on other canal restora­tions. But with nu­mer­ous main road and rail cross­ings, a col­lapsed two-mile tun­nel and sev­eral miss­ing lengths of wa­ter­way, and the sheer length and com­plex­ity of the job, the cost of re­open­ing the Stroud­wa­ter Nav­i­ga­tion and the Thames & Sev­ern Canal through from Saul on the Glouces­ter & Sharp­ness Canal to In­gle­sham on the Thames added up to just too much for a sin­gle pack­age.

So it was di­vided into three: Phase 1 was the western length from the Glouces­ter & Sharp­ness Canal through Stroud and on to Brim­scombe Port, the for­mer in­land tran­ship­ment basin where the gauge of the locks changed, and where once Sev­ern Trows and up­per Thames barges ex­changed car­goes. Phase 2 was the east­ern sec­tion from the Thames to the Cotswold Wa­ter Park, a large leisure area cre­ated from flooded for­mer gravel pits. And Phase 3 was the cen­tral sec­tion link­ing these two sec­tions via the steep climb via the many locks from Brim­scombe up the Golden Val­ley to Sap­per­ton Tun­nel, then the gen­tler de­scent to the Wa­ter Park.

Al­though not nec­es­sar­ily the eas­i­est in tech­ni­cal terms, Phase 1 had the ad­van­tage that most of it was still in the own­er­ship of the orig­i­nal Stroud­wa­ter com­pany, there were enough re­stor­able his­toric struc­tures to make it a ‘her­itage’ project, and its route through Stroud’s for­mer mill val­ley would tick the boxes for any ‘re­gen­er­a­tion’ sup­port. On the down side, it was blocked by the Birm­ing­ham to Bris­tol main rail­way line, the M5 mo­tor­way and the A38 main road; a whole ‘miss­ing mile’ west of East­ing­ton had been oblit­er­ated; and a length just east of Stroud would need to be

So why should HLF fund this length, when the wis­dom some years ago was that they would be put off by the lack of her­itage value?

di­verted where its course had been used for the town’s by­pass and for­mer rub­bish tip (al­beit a di­ver­sion­ary route had been re­served).

So Phase 1 was cho­sen as the sub­ject of the first ma­jor fund­ing bid. But an ini­tial ap­proach to the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund for a grant in the re­gion of £22m to pro­vide the bulk of the fund­ing re­ceived a re­ply which might be sum­marised along the lines of “Sorry but we don’t have the re­sources for a grant of that size: come back with a bid for half that amount, and we’ll see what we can do.”

This left the canal re­stor­ers with a dilemma: if they could only re­store half of Phase 1, which half should it be? To many canal boaters the an­swer seemed ob­vi­ous: open­ing up the western end from Saul, and then us­ing that as a spring­board for fur­ther progress east­wards to Stroud and be­yond, made a lot more sense than open­ing an iso­lated length lim­ited to lo­cal boats and small craft which would then need to be linked to the na­tional net­work at a later date.

But the HLF and other po­ten­tial fun­ders weren’t pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in nar­row­boat­ing. The HLF’s in­ter­est was her­itage – and there was rel­a­tively lit­tle her­itage work to be done in the western four miles. Five of the six sur­viv­ing his­toric locks on this length had al­ready at least been partly re­stored, and the work still to be done was more about find­ing en­gi­neer­ing so­lu­tions to the M5, A38 and rail cross­ings and build­ing a mile of new canal with two new locks to re­place the miss­ing length. Like­wise the other likely fun­ders, the re­gional de­vel­op­ment agency, Stroud Dis­trict Coun­cil and other lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, were more in­ter­ested in ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion and long-term job cre­ation – of which there also wasn’t a great deal on the western part.

By con­trast the east­ern six miles of Phase 1, from Stone­house to Brim­scombe, in­cluded nu­mer­ous sur­viv­ing locks and bridges to re­store, and ran through a for­mer mill val­ley with a great deal of re­gen­er­a­tion po­ten­tial and im­me­di­ate ben­e­fits for lo­cal peo­ple. As such it ticked all the boxes for the big fun­ders – and so, to a cer­tain amount of dis­ap­point­ment among boat­ing folks, the Trust plumped for the east­ern sec­tion, dubbed ‘Phase 1a’. And sure enough, the fun­ders sup­ported it to the tune of over £20m in to­tal.

Fast for­ward a few years, and de­spite a few wob­bles along the way (in­clud­ing British Wa­ter­ways’ with­drawal from the part­ner­ship; the need to drop the up­per­most length near Brim­scombe when the eco­nomic down­turn meant that com­mer­cial re­de­vel­op­ment of the Port was no longer go­ing to pay for it; and a much greater vol­un­teer in­volve­ment re­quired to make up for a fund­ing short­fall), it’s now very nearly com­plete. New main road bridges and sev­eral smaller lift­bridges have been built, the Stroud di­ver­sion com­pleted, nine locks

re­stored and re-gated, the chan­nel dredged.

And in the mean­time, Phase 1b (as the western four miles link­ing to Saul Junc­tion have been named) has not been for­got­ten. Once again the HLF was seen as the po­ten­tial ma­jor fun­der, but the re­gional de­vel­op­ment agen­cies no longer ex­ist, so more of the match­ing fund­ing would have to come from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and other sources – in­clud­ing CCT and the Canal & River Trust, which has re­turned sev­eral years af­ter the de­par­ture of pre­de­ces­sor BW.

So why should HLF fund this length, when the wis­dom some years ago was that they would be put off by the lack of her­itage value? Well, as Stroud Dis­trict Coun­cil puts it “Our sup­port for the project is demon­strated by our lead­er­ship of Phase 1A restora­tion and the £4 mil­lion which we com­mit­ted to it. Phase 1B will re­alise the full ben­e­fits of this in­vest­ment.” While the work might not be of great her­itage in­ter­est, it would help to se­cure the fu­ture of the his­toric length al­ready re­stored, be­cause vis­it­ing boats would bring in in­come for the canal and the com­mu­nity.

And de­spite the first bid in 2015 be­ing turned down, the suc­cess of last year’s re­vised ap­pli­ca­tion in pass­ing its first ma­jor hur­dle ap­pears to show that this ap­proach has been suc­cess­ful.

So as­sum­ing it passes the sec­ond hur­dle and the full £23m pack­age can be as­sem­bled, what will the restora­tion in­volve in prac­ti­cal terms? You can see for your­self if you fancy a walk – much of the route can be fol­lowed on foot, start­ing at Saul Junc­tion where it leaves the Glouces­ter & Sharp­ness.

The first length from the junc­tion is fully nav­i­ga­ble and used for moor­ings (as well as for ac­cess to Saul Ma­rina), but soon comes to a stop at Walk Bridge, which car­ries a mi­nor road across at just above wa­ter level and will need to be re­placed with a high level bridge or open­ing struc­ture. A clear length of chan­nel be­yond leads to Whit­min­ster Lock, partly re­stored but look­ing some­what over­grown and with a dam across the cham­ber. Be­yond, the canal and the River Frome share a course for some dis­tance, and this length will need some flood con­trol works plus a new junc­tion where the canal di­verges to the left from the river.

A well-pre­served ( but in some places over­grown) length fol­lows, and while one farm bridge has been re­placed with a low level cul­vert and will need re­build­ing, a sec­ond one sur­vives in good con­di­tion. This length comes to an end at the first of the ‘big three’ ob­struc­tions: the A38, which at this point meets the A419 at a round­about. The re­mark­able so­lu­tion is for the canal to cross the round­about on the di­ag­o­nal via two new bridges.

Be­yond is the start of the ‘miss­ing mile’ – there is lit­tle sign of the canal, and any­way a di­ver­sion is needed to cope with the sec­ond ma­jor block­age, the M5. A new length of canal will bear off to the right from its orig­i­nal route, pass­ing through a new lock be­fore com­ing along­side the River Frome. The canal will squeeze be­side the river as the two wa­ter­courses pass un­der the mo­tor­way side-by-side us­ing the ex­ist­ing river bridge – again with some flood con­trol im­pli­ca­tions – be­fore they part com­pany again.

Ris­ing through a sec­ond new lock, the new canal chan­nel will re­turn to the orig­i­nal course to pass through an­other sur­viv­ing farm bridge. This is fol­lowed by the start of a flight of five locks: the first (West­field Lock) lies buried and part de­mol­ished, with a stream cut­ting through the canal bed above the lock which will need a small aque­duct. But the next two locks (Dock and Pike) are partly re­stored, the ad­ja­cent Pike Bridge road cross­ing was re­built sev­eral years ago, and the fi­nal two locks (Blun­der and New­town) were put back into work­ing or­der many years ago, when this re­wa­tered length saw reg­u­lar use by the Trust’s trip-boat.

This re­stored length con­tin­ues through sev­eral fur­ther bridges, in­clud­ing the un­usual Bonds Mill Bridge, a lift­bridge re­built in the 1990s as a not en­tirely suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ment in the use of ad­vanced struc­tural plas­tics which will need some fur­ther work.

This well-kept length of chan­nel ( ben­e­fit­ing from re­cent at­ten­tion by vis­it­ing Wa­ter­way Re­cov­ery Group vol­un­teers in­clud­ing last win­ter’s Christ­mas Canal Camp) leads to the third and fi­nal ma­jor ob­sta­cle: the Birm­ing­ham to Bris­tol main line rail­way. The tow­path is well catered for with a tun­nel through the rail­way em­bank­ment, but the canal passes through a cul­vert barely big enough for a work punt. Agree­ment will need to be reached with Net­work Rail about how to in­sert a nav­i­ga­ble sized cul­vert through the em­bank­ment with the min­i­mum of (costly) dis­rup­tion to train ser­vices.

And be­yond the rail­way is the wide known as ‘The Ocean’, the end of Phase 1B, and the start of al­most six miles of re­stored Phase 1a

length lead­ing to Stroud and be­yond.

So if the com­plete fund­ing is con­firmed, how long will it take? We spoke to Cotswold Canals Trust, and the re­ply was that boats could be cruis­ing through to Stroud around 2024.

But that won’t be the end of mat­ters. Firstly there’s the un­fin­ished busi­ness at Brim­scombe Port, dropped from Phase 1a be­cause com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ers were no longer in a po­si­tion to pay to re­store the canal as part of a re­gen­er­a­tion scheme. Fol­low­ing grants from the Govern­ment Homes & Com­mu­ni­ties Agency and more re­cently £1.6m from Stroud Dis­trict Coun­cil, the hope is that this can now be put back on track with the same 2024 com­ple­tion tar­get.

And then what? There are still 26 miles to re­store to reach the Thames, but work is al­ready in progress at var­i­ous points along the line. At the east end In­gle­sham Lock is well on the way to com­ple­tion thanks to a fund­ing ap­peal sev­eral years ago by the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion. On the lengths be­tween Cer­ney and Eisey a great deal of mainly vol­un­teer restora­tion has al­ready been com­pleted in­clud­ing sev­eral locks and bridges, and work con­tin­ues on Wey­moor Bridge. And CCT will be on the look­out for any fur­ther op­por­tu­ni­ties to progress the restora­tion as they arise.

But de­spite this progress, there will doubt­less need to be fur­ther ma­jor fund­ing ap­pli­ca­tions in the fu­ture to deal with the more se­ri­ous block­ages – not least, Sap­per­ton Tun­nel.

How­ever, to go back to the start of this ar­ti­cle when we ex­plained that the phased ap­proach to restora­tion was a re­sult of a per­cep­tion that it was just to big and com­plex to be funded in one go: there’s just a chance that that might not be the case af­ter all. Thames Wa­ter is still look­ing at ways to move drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies from the Sev­ern to the Thames, and while it isn’t cur­rently the favoured op­tion, do­ing it by restor­ing the canal as a wa­ter trans­fer chan­nel isn’t en­tirely out of the ques­tion. And that could see the en­tire canal re­opened to through nav­i­ga­tion.

View from Saul Junc­tion to­wards the first ob­struc­tion, Walk Bridge vis­i­ble in the dis­tance

Whit­min­ster Lock was partly re­stored some years ago but wil need fur­ther work

The canal shares its route with the River Frome for some dis­tance near Whit­min­ster

A length of canal chan­nel east of Whit­min­ster sur­vives in fair con­di­tion but is weed-filled

New­town Lock was fully re­stored some years ago

West­field Bridge sur­vives, as do the buried re­mains of the nearby West­field Lock

The re­stored length of canal and tow­path be­tween East­ing­ton and Bonds Mill lift­bridge

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