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

Canal Boat - - Contents -

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

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