Many wa­ter­ways take decades to re­store, but here’s one which could be com­pleted much more quickly. We look at a new scheme to re­vive north Kent’s Dart­ford & Cray­ford Nav­i­ga­tion

Canal Boat - - Contents -

It might be less than three miles long and only aban­doned in the 1980s, but it could be one of the most achiev­able projects

You’ll be used to read­ing in these ar­ti­cles about canal restora­tion projects whose life­time is mea­sured in decades, whose cost runs into tens of mil­lions, where aban­doned wa­ter­ways have been ob­structed by in­fill­ing, by new roads, build­ings and even rail­way lines. And this of­ten ap­plies even more so to the more re­cently launched projects, where there has been more op­por­tu­nity for mod­ern con­struc­tion to de­stroy much of the his­toric fab­ric be­fore restora­tion was even pro­posed – but where de­spite ev­ery­thing, ded­i­cated teams of en­thu­si­asts have plans to over­come all these dif­fi­cul­ties, al­beit the ex­pres­sion “not in my life­time” may oc­ca­sion­ally be heard from some of the older sup­port­ers…

So it comes as rather a change to en­counter a rel­a­tively re­cently launched new wa­ter­way restora­tion scheme where there are no such block­ages, the sum to­tal of the engi­neer­ing work needed for com­ple­tion is the restora­tion of a sin­gle lock and the re­moval of one un­used bridge, and al­most all of the wa­ter­way is al­ready sort-of nav­i­ga­ble af­ter a fash­ion. At least suf­fi­ciently nav­i­ga­ble that if you’d vis­ited it in late May, you’d have found a sail­ing barge and a flotilla of nar­row­boats moored on it.

Sure, it’s only a short wa­ter­way at less than three miles long, so it’s not quite in the same league as the Cotswold, the Ch­ester­field, the Montgomery and all the other long-term restora­tions. But it could still be a re­ally good ex­am­ple of a ‘quick win’ which would show how in some cases

wa­ter­way restora­tion can pro­vide good re­sults at a mod­est cost and to a short timescale.

This wa­ter­way in ques­tion is the River Dar­ent – some­times re­ferred to as the Dart­ford Creek, and his­tor­i­cally as the Dart­ford & Cray­ford Nav­i­ga­tion. It con­sists of just un­der three miles of the tidal creek which forms the lower reaches of the Dar­ent from Dart­ford to where it meets the Thames a cou­ple of miles up­stream of the QE2 Bridge. Just up­stream of its mid­point, it’s joined by the River Cray whose tidal reaches form a branch lead­ing to Cray­ford.

Un­til the early 19th cen­tury it wasn’t much dif­fer­ent from a num­ber of other tidal creeks join­ing the Thames es­tu­ary. And de­spite it be­ing used reg­u­larly by sail­ing barges and other cargo craft, it might have seemed fan­ci­ful to talk of this unim­proved muddy creek as a nav­i­ga­tion. But fol­low­ing an un­suc­cess­ful plan in 1835 to re­place it with a short ship canal which would have been ca­pa­ble of tak­ing 300-400 ton ves­sels to Dart­ford, a more mod­est project saw it short­ened and straight­ened in sev­eral places to im­prove nav­i­ga­tion. And if that didn’t qual­ify it as a nav­i­ga­tion, surely the con­struc­tion of a lock and ad­ja­cent set of sluices in 1895, turn­ing the top half mile into an im­pounded length with wa­ter in it at all times, surely jus­ti­fied re­gard­ing it as an in­land wa­ter­way.

Un­for­tu­nately by the mid-1980s the last cargo-car­ry­ing craft had long since left the wa­ter­way, and the then nav­i­ga­tion au­thor­ity pro­posed to chain back the lock gates, turn it back into an en­tirely tidal creek, and ef­fec­tively aban­don the nav­i­ga­tion. Even at the time I re­mem­ber think­ing (as some­one who’d al­ready been in­volved in canal restora­tion for sev­eral years) that it seemed odd and a very back­ward step for a nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­way to be pro­posed for aban­don­ment. How­ever de­spite protes­ta­tions from the Lon­don branch of the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion that it would mean the loss of a pub­lic amenity and a po­ten­tially use­ful non-tidal refuge off the es­tu­ary, the au­thor­ity saw no like­li­hood of it be­ing used as such, and went ahead with the chain­ing­back of the gates.

But as men­tioned ear­lier, that didn’t stop if from still be­ing ‘sort-of nav­i­ga­ble af­ter a fash­ion’: for in­trepid boaters pre­pared to head up the creek and through the derelict lock cham­ber on a ris­ing tide, avoid be­ing trapped un­der the non-func­tion­ing swing­bridge above, and get out again be­fore the ebb tide meant the creek dried out again, it pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to cross off an­other wa­ter­way on your map. We re­ported in our >???>? is­sue on the Tues­day Night Club vis­it­ing it as part of their mis­sion to nav­i­gate the en­tire net­work. And St Pan­cras Cruis­ing Club have paid oc­ca­sional vis­its on their var­i­ous Thames tide­way for­ays.

But this year’s SPCC ‘Five Creeks’ cruise, the lat­est to visit Dart­ford, was dif­fer­ent. Be­cause in re­cent years, a lo­cal group has been formed with the aim of putting the lock back into use and turn­ing the creek back into a ‘proper’ nav­i­ga­tion – so the cruise wasn’t just a bit of ad­ven­tur­ous boat­ing, it was part of a cam­paign event to sup­port the restora­tion.

The story goes back to 2015, when a group of peo­ple met in the Huf­flers pub (it takes its name from the men who used to make a liv­ing as ca­sual labour help­ing sail­ing barge crews with the hard work of get­ting their craft up and down the creek). Their aim was agree on “what to do about this for­got­ten back­wa­ter”. The banks of the creek and the lock had be­come

over­grown, the chan­nel was full of rub­bish, the place was a mess, and it had be­come thor­oughly un­invit­ing for any boaters who might want to visit.

They formed a Face­book group called ‘Friends of the Dart­ford and Cray­ford Creek’, set about re­cruit­ing vol­un­teers and be­gan or­gan­is­ing clear­ance work­ing par­ties. An as­sort­ment of bikes, shop­ping trol­leys, tyres and the oc­ca­sional wheely bin full of mud (“like try­ing to haul an un­co­op­er­a­tive ele­phant out”) were hooked out of the creek, while lit­ter-pick­ers cleared the banks. They also mon­i­tored the height and tim­ing of the tides (there were no tide ta­bles for the creek) to build up knowl­edge of when it was safe to nav­i­gate, and ap­pointed a vol­un­teer length­s­man to look af­ter the wa­ter­way.

A first wa­ter­borne vis­i­tor, nar­row­boat Pen­tar­gon Springer, was fol­lowed by oth­ers. And in March 2016 the The Dart­ford and Cray­ford Creek Restora­tion Trust was for­mally in­cor­po­rated, with aims in­clud­ing restor­ing the creeks for nav­i­ga­tion, im­prov­ing recre­ational fa­cil­i­ties, and pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion on her­itage and wildlife.

Two years on, the lock­sides whose cop­ing stones had dis­ap­peared un­der the un­der­growth are neat and tidy, a slip­way near the head of nav­i­ga­tion has been cleared, and work on clear­ing the creek has pro­gressed from haul­ing out rub­bish to dig­ging out the silt. And in late 2017 an im­por­tant vis­i­tor ar­rived: the Thames sail­ing barge Dec­ima, which has been there since then, sit­ting on the mud above the lock at low tide or float­ing at high wa­ter. Not only has this made a good place for the owner to over­win­ter and work on her, but she has been an ex­cel­lent generator of pub­lic­ity for the Trust and its aims. She also led to the first step to­wards get­ting the lock work­ing: clear­ance of silt around the gates (by hand, at low tide) to en­able them to be opened far enough to get the barge through. This work con­tin­ues in the area just be­low the lock, be­cause the Dec­ima will need to turn there be­fore she re­turns to the es­tu­ary this sum­mer.

In late May, ev­ery­thing came to­gether for the first Dart­ford Nau­ti­cal Fes­ti­val. SPCC’s cruise saw a flotilla of nar­row­boats ar­rive and stay for a week, sit­ting on the bot­tom in and just above the lock cham­ber at low wa­ter. The fes­ti­val, on the week­end that the nar­row­boats ar­rived, fea­tured mu­sic, dancers, ca­noes and small craft – with the lo­cal res­i­dents and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties now very much ‘on board’ (quite lit­er­ally, the Mayor was wel­comed aboard the Dec­ima dur­ing the event).

So what’s changed since the 1980s to make the Dar­ent a po­ten­tially at­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion for boaters, mak­ing it worth restor­ing the lock? Well, a look at what’s go­ing on around the head of the nav­i­ga­tion in Dart­ford gives an idea: what 30 years ago was a heav­ily in­dus­trial area is now a build­ing site, with new hous­ing un­der con­struc­tion. Look at the de­vel­op­ers’ pub­lic­ity, and you’ll see artists’ im­pres­sions of the waterside hous­ing – com­plete with nar­row­boats!

The Trust be­lieves that it could make an at­trac­tive place to moor boats, a use­ful non-tidal refuge off the es­tu­ary, and per­haps home to a liveaboard com­mu­nity.

But what of the prac­ti­cal­i­ties? De­spite three decades of dis­use, the tim­ber lock gates are still in sur­pris­ingly good con­di­tion – cer­tainly the fram­ing ap­pears solid, even if some plank­ing needs

re­plac­ing. And it will only be nec­es­sary to re­store one set of gates (at least ini­tially), as craft will gen­er­ally be ar­riv­ing and leav­ing when the tide is high enough to make a level. And it has even proved pos­si­ble to get the unusual worm-driven pad­dle gear to move. But re­ally, the first aim is to clear enough silt to get the gates to oper­ate, and then it will be­come clearer how much work on the lock is ac­tu­ally needed.

If the gates do have to come out, it will cost – but with the lo­cal coun­cil favourable and hous­ing de­vel­op­ments go­ing on above the lock, it’s not out of the ques­tion for money to come from ‘Sec­tion 106’ plan­ning agree­ments where de­vel­op­ers pay for lo­cal im­prove­ments as part of the terms of the ap­proval.

At the same time as restor­ing it to op­er­a­tion, the for­mer walk­way across the lock gates and ad­ja­cent weir and sluices could be re­in­stated, giv­ing ac­cess be­tween the lock and the mod­ern hous­ing op­po­site.

Other than the lock (and a fair bit of dredg­ing), what else is needed to make it a use­ful nav­i­ga­tion? Ob­vi­ously some­where to moor – and with the sec­tion above the lock still sub­ject to some vari­a­tion in wa­ter level around high wa­ter, that means pon­toons.

There’s also one for­mer man­u­ally op­er­ated lift­bridge some dis­tance up­stream of the lock, but the Trust be­lieves this can be put back into work­ing or­der. And just be­yond, not far short of the ter­mi­nus basin, is a fixed low level con­crete bridge. But it no longer serves any use­ful pur­pose since the re­de­vel­op­ment of the area around the wa­ter­way, so it could be re­moved.

So far we haven’t men­tioned the Cray­ford Creek, which branches off some dis­tance be­low the lock. I ask the Trust if they have plans for this too. It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent as it has no lock, so any boats vis­it­ing will need to be able to sit on the bot­tom at low wa­ter – but the ground con­di­tions are more suited to this in Cray­ford. Any­way, the Trust’s view is ‘Let’s do Dart­ford first’ – but given how much they’ve achieved, and how achiev­able the Dar­ent restora­tion is, that might not be too long.

Any­way, the Trust’s view is ‘Let’s do Dart­ford first’ – but given how much they’ve achieved, and how achiev­able the Dar­ent restora­tion is, that might not be too long.

Sail­ing Barge Dec­ima, which spent the whole win­ter in the Cray­ford Creek above the lock Boats moored in the for­mer lock - at low tide it dries out and they sit on the mud

The top end of the Cray­ford Creek, which branches off the Dart­ford Creek

De­spite over 30 years of dis­use, the lock gates are in sur­pris­ingly good con­di­tion and may be ca­pa­ble of re­pair and fur­ther use

The mayor and may­oress visit the lock dur­ing the first Dart­ford Nau­ti­cal Fes­ti­val in late May

Younger vis­i­tors to the fes­ti­val check out the unusual worm-driven pad­dle gear

Top: Near the Dart­ford ter­mi­nus is a low level con­crete bridge which now serves no pur­pose Above: A for­mer swing­bridge car­ry­ing a foot­path could be made to oper­ate again

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