60 RESTORATION: LICHFIELD CANAL
The author spends a week at the ‘sharp end’ of canal restoration, laying bricks and concrete on a Waterway Recovery Group Canal Camp supporting the project to reopen the Lichfield Canal
Our deputy editor gets his boots and hard hat on and spends a week on a WRG camp building a new towpath wall
We don’t need no education”, sang Pink Floyd in the opening line of a song which shares its title with this article. And that’s where we differ…
It’s a sunny evening in late July and I’m with a bunch of 16 people standing on an earth bank at Fosseway Heath on the edge of Lichfield, looking across a dry ditch to a similar earth bank, but one with a vast number of old bricks heaped up on top of it. This was once the towpath wall of the Lichfield Canal. And with the help of the volunteers of Waterway Recovery Group’s Canal Camp 2018-15 (one of over 20 week-long working holidays supporting local canal restoration trusts all over the country this summer), it will hopefully be looking rather more like a canal wall again by the end of the week.
And while a couple of us have laid a fair few bricks in the past, others might just benefit from a little education, or at least some training and guidance from more experienced volunteers, over the next seven days.
Our ages range from 18-year-old school leavers Will, Joel and Callum, using the camp as part of the gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, to several retired people. Our experience of canal restoration varies from first-timers to 40-plus years. And there’s not necessarily any correlation between the two. For example, our leader Emma (a civil engineering project manager in her day job) is still in her mid-20s but already has the best part of a decade’s experience, having met the WRGies while still a teenager helping at festivals; meanwhile retired couple Sandy and Liz enjoyed their first ever experience of canal restoration barely three months earlier at the WRG Easter Camp on the Lancaster Canal – so much so that they’re back for more.
What we all have in common is that we’re looking forward to making a positive contribution to canal restoration – and hopefully having some fun too. It’s the evening before our first day of work, and Emma’s explaining the job to us as part of an introduction which also includes a WRG health & safety video (starring yours truly as a careless bloke accidentally knocking a pile of bricks over) and the issuing of hard hats, gloves and other safety gear. She also introduces us to the cook, Harri, who serves up a simple but tasty meal of bangers & mash as we get to know each other and familiarise ourselves with our accommodation. This takes the form of two former canal cottages which have been converted into the Lichfield Cruising Club headquarters, and which the Club has kindly let us have the use of for the week.
It’s situated at Huddlesford, by the junction of the Coventry Canal and the Lichfield Canal (historically the disused easternmost seven miles of the Wyrley & Essington Canal), which the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust aims to restore. This will reopen a useful link to Lichfield city and to the underused northern parts of the Birmingham Canal Navigations network. It’s not going to be an easy restoration, but the first couple of hundred yards are already in existence and in use as the club moorings (which at least gives us an idea of what the restored canal could look like), and we get the opportunity during the week to see several more hopeful signs of the route being brought back to life. A plan on the wall of the club shows how the HS2 railway (yes, it’s coming through here!) will unfortunately mean that the relatively recently built Cappers Lane Bridge is set to be demolished without ever seeing a boat, but also how HS2 Ltd will be paying for a canal diversion and new cruising club moorings which will actually help the restoration.
The next morning the mood is a tiny bit less optimistic, as six weeks of hot dry weather appear to have come to an end, and it’s raining steadily. But we don’t let that stop us, we get into the minibuses and head for the worksite where it’s already eased off a little as we start work. The main job for the week is reinstating the brick wall which formed the south (towpath side) wall of the canal, but which has not only
deteriorated into a state of collapse since the canal closed in the 1950s, but needs to be rebuilt slightly further north as a result of changes to the field boundaries.
The Canal Trust has already begun work on the wall, which has been built up to various stages at different points along the wall – so we can start on a variety of tasks: Dismantling the remains of the old wall Digging out and levelling a foundation trench Putting up wooden shuttering Casting a concrete foundation (we’re going for a combination of traditional appearance above water level with use of modern materials where they can’t be seen) Laying two courses (layers) of concrete blocks, which will form the lower part of the wall below water level Laying three courses of brickwork forming the upper part of the wall Laying the coping made of bricks on end and on edge, to finish off the wall
And then there are the supporting jobs of sorting the old bricks, cleaning old mortar off the reusable ones and stacking them ready for the bricklayers, mixing mortar, and moving materials.
We don’t start on all of these tasks immediately, but (thanks to a commendably faffing-free start of work for the first day of a camp on a new WRG site) we do actually manage to get some bricks laid before morning tea-break. Ah yes, tea breaks. WRG sites don’t seem to be able to function without hot beverages (often accompanied by copious amounts of home-made cake), so the first jobs every day include setting up the gazebo and filling and lighting the Burco (water boiler).
By lunchtime, a team has started measuring out and driving in wooden pegs to create the shuttering for the next section of wall foundation, and although a sharp shower in mid-afternoon sends us rushing for cover (and to cover up our brickwork to stop it being ruined), by the end of the day we’ve already made some noticeable progress – and both the WRG leaders and LHCRT representatives are pleased.
A detour via a local sports club (which has kindly allowed us to use its showers) sees us back at the accommodation in time for another delicious meal courtesy of Harri, following which there’s an evening trip into Lichfield to take part in a local history treasure trail quiz around the historic city. In fact the leaders organise some kind of entertainment every evening: there’s no pressure to take part, you can simply relax in the accommodation, take a stroll or whatever you like; but those who want to partake manage to fit in a ten-pin bowling evening, crazy golf, a tour organised by LHCRT of a Victorian steam pumping station that’s being restored (and
What we all have in common is that we’re looking forward to making a positive contribution to canal restoration – and hopefully having some fun too.
may one day steam again), a lively game of croquet on the lawn outside the cruising club, and couple of trips to the pub.
The second day dawns sunny and apart from the odd shower, it’s back to the warm dry weather for the rest of the week. Meanwhile work on the wall progresses: a quick check with a surveyor’s level shows that a few errors have crept into the wall (this can easily happen when knocking the foundation shuttering pegs into uneven ground), but by spotting it early enough we can correct it before the wall gets up to the eventual water level. And this gives us a chance to train young volunteer Will (who is aiming for a civil engineering career) in the use of the level.
On the way back to the cruising club we take a detour to have a look at a completed length of the canal. Two locks have already been restored (apart from gates) to create the Borrowcop Locks Canal Park, and a long section of towpath wall below the locks (leading around a corner onto a brand-new section being built as part of a diversion to get under the A38 road) shows us what our wall might look like when it’s complete. And on another evening, we take a look at a length of canal at Darnford Lane, where another section of this diversion has already been dug out, and a row of concrete box culvert sections are waiting to be used to create a new road bridge over the canal in a couple of years’ time.
I mentioned earlier that the old bricks were sorted and the reusable ones salvaged – but what of those that are too badly damaged? By the middle of the week, we’re using an excavator with a crusher attachment to reduce them to rubble. This is then delivered by dumper truck to an already completed section of the towpath wall, where it is lifted over the wall using another excavator and spread out to form the base for the new towpath surface, with a final layer of fine limestone chips on top. This gives volunteers Inka and Laura a chance to be trained on the excavator by experienced volunteer (and instructor, under WRG’s comprehensive plant and vehicle driver authorisation scheme) Paul, who also teaches one of the local LHCRT volunteers to work the crusher.
There’s a slight interruption to the routine on the Wednesday and Thursday, as the site is being used to shoot a video for WRG’s parent organisation the Inland
Waterways Association, for use as part of its Restoration Hub initiative to provide help and sharing of information and best practice around the waterway restoration movement. Several of us get to ‘star’ in it, but we don’t let it get in the way of the main priority of making as much progress on the wall as possible. In fact not much gets in the way of the smooth running of the camp, not even the odd glitch such as the occasional struggle to start a slightly temperamental mixer (which we quickly get around by mixing mortar by hand while assistant leader Pete tinkers with it), or (much worse!) the Burco running out of gas at tea time!
And then it’s Friday night, we have an end-of-camp party at the Cruising Club, the leaders thank all the volunteers (and vice versa) for their hard work on what’s been a very enjoyable and productive camp – and on Saturday we all say our farewells. And that’s it? No, most of us will be back at the Lichfield either in October (when a mobile WRG group that several of us are involved in is returning for a weekend of work) or November (when the canal will be the site for the annual WRG Reunion major working party) – and there are set to be more camps next year.
And what have we achieved? Well, on an immediate practical level we’ve laid an impressive number of bricks and blocks, and made very good progress towards completing this length of towpath wall – as well as learning some new skills. But taking a wider view, we’ve helped to progress the project quite significantly.
Sure, this length won’t be seeing boats for a while (there are several serious obstructions between here and Huddlesford Junction, in between the examples of good progress that we’ve seen on our journeys to and from the worksite), and it’s only a couple of hundred yards long. But in the short term it will create a public path and wetland nature reserve; it will put yet another section of the canal on the map (helping to put forward the case for those with the money to fund the more difficult sections); and in the longer term it will form a short but significant part of the eventual seven-mile navigable route from Huddlesford to Ogley. It’s another brick in the wall, as it were…
To find out more about WRG Canal Camps see wrg.org.uk. To find out more about the Lichfield restoration see lhcrt.org.uk and our article in the May 2018 issue.
Laying the first of three courses of brickwork which take the wall up to water level
The wall is finished off with a coping using bricks laid on end and on edge
Leader Emma shows how to lay the concrete blocks forming the lower part of the wall
Reusable bricks are cleaned, while (opposite) the rest are used for rubble to form the towpath base
“One we made earlier” - an evening detour to see a part-completed length at Borrowcop Locks Canal Park
Another load of broken bricks for crushing