THE PHOENIX ARISES. LAPAL CANAL WALK

Opening in 1798 the Dudley No 2 Canal was built to avoid going through Birmingham and having to pay tolls. It ran from the Dudley No 1 Canal at Parkhead to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Selly Oak. 11 miles in length it cut through the hills rather than locking over, giving two tunnels, the 563 yard long Gosty Hill tunnel and the 2.2 mile long Lapal tunnel. The Lapal tunnel was initially worked by legging, which could take up to four hours. Later a pumping engine was installed at the Halesowen end of the tunnel, pumping water over a stop plank to flush boats through. This allowed the tunnel to operate in three hourly slots from alternate ends, the first being at 4 a.m. and the last at 10 p.m. indicating that the canal must have been pretty busy. However, there were regular problems with the straight sided tunnel and it was frequently closed for repairs. When the tunnel was finally closed in 1917 the original width of 9’ had reduced to 7’ 9 “ and the height reduced to 6’. Andy Tidy’s YouTube video explains it well:

The west end of the canal is still navigabale from Parkhead to Windmill End, through Gosty Hill tunnel to Hawne Basin. The Lapal Canal Trust was founded in 1990 to conserve and restore the five and a half miles from Hawne Basin to Selly Oak.  Restoration has started on the ‘lost’ section of the canal but the Lapal tunnel is beyond repair. To rejoin the two ends of the canal would mean taking an alternative route and entail building several locks (more on this later)

Hugh Humphreys, Simon Dearn and Dave Pearson from the Trust kindly agreed to be guides for our walk and provided a wealth of information about the canal, the current restoration and future aims of the Trust. We met at Selly Oak where restoration work has started on the two mile section to California, the eastern end of Lapal tunnel.

A student accommodation building and subsequently Selly Oak shopping centre have been built over the original junction with the Worcester & Birmingham canal but the canal has been diverted to the edge of the development where a concrete channel has already been built as part of the redevelopment programme.

Almost completed, when we visited, is a widening on the opposite side of the Worcester & Birmingham canal to allow boats to turn into the entrance of the Dudley No 2. The junction itself presents difficulties as there is currently a gas main and fibre optic cable running through it. These will need to be lowered below canal bed level. The quote for the gas main alone is a staggering £800k. There is funding of £724k available from the development agreement but this has to be commenced by 2025, so there is pressure to get this first part restored quickly in order to release the money. A swing bridge also needs installing at the junction.

Beyond the concrete channel the line of the canal is obvious and just needs excavating but there are two very narrow sections where the corners of a retailer’s car park and land owned by Homebase jut out into the channel. Both have agreed to these corners being removed.

The canal soon meets Harbourne Lane, a very busy road. A bridge with concrete channel under has been built but is not yet accessible as the towpaths have not been filled in. It also has to have lighting installed as it is classed as a tunnel.

On the other side of the road is Harbourne Wharf Basin, which is in water having been excavated in 2015, this will be the end of the first stage of the restoration.

Just beyond here Selly Oak bridge is the only remaining brick arch bridge on the canal and contender for the oldest bridge on the BCN. The towpath used to continue on this side of the canal but this bridge will become a turnover bridge with the towpath running along the edge of Selly Oak park. In 2016 and 2017 WRG volunteers repaired the canal side wall leading up to the bridge and this summer will be returning to construct a wheelchair accessible path from the bridge down to the towpath.

The next section of the canal is the fairly typical muddy ditch complete with trees and undergrowth. Three new bridges will have to be installed along here: a replica drawbridge, a new fixed bridge and a swing bridge. A little further along the canal crosses Bourne Brook on a fixed bridge, there was originally a small aqueduct here, another obstacle for the Trust.

Soon after this the canal passes alongside Weoley Castle , the remains of a moated manor house owned by Birmingham Museums

https://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/weoley/about

which would provide a good place of interest for boaters on the restored canal.

We were now approaching California where a triple staircase lock is planned leading into a large marina and would initially be limit of navigation. The Eastern end of the Lapal tunnel was here, but there is now no sign of it. The site has also been used for landfill at one time. The plan is to redevelop the whole site for housing and the marina possibly with a boatyard business and hire base.

Our morning walk finished here. We shuffled cars to the Lighthouse pub, handily placed above the southern end of Gosty Hill tunnel, the very obliging landlady putting on a spread for us and allowing us to leave cars there for the afternoon.

We returned to the canal at the Gosty Hill tunnel portal where there are fascinating remains of Steward and Lloyds, the largest steel tube factory in England. Immediately after this the remains of ramps are visible, these were used the slip boats from a boatyard next to Steward and Lloyds.

We were now approaching Hawne Basin and the towpath stops as you reach Coombeswood Trust land. We detoured by road to the Trust’s gates to be given a guided tour of the basin. This was originally a transhipment basin for coal from Hawne Colliery, later for steel tubes from Steward and Lloyds. It now has leisure and residential moorings and boatyard facilities.

Just past the end of the basin the canal comes to a full stop. Beyond here the line of the canal is very overgrown. We retraced our steps to Coombs Bridge, crossed the canal and continued walking along a path on the other side. We soon reached the busy A458 which the canal has to cross but, being elevated, there is room to take the canal underneath.

Once across the road the canal runs on a high embankment alongside the delightful Leasowes Park which has Grade 1 listing of parks and gardens of historic interest. Here the channel has been rebuilt but unfortunately was done cheaply and doesn’t hold water properly.

The next obstacle is Manor Way, another substantial and busy road. The canal will have to be diverted here to cross lower down the hill where an aqueduct could be built. Across Manor Way is the western end of Lapal tunnel. For the canal to become a through route again it would have to divert to the north of the tunnel through Woodgate Valley Country Park. This would mean building several locks to traverse the hill and involve a major junction crossing.

Fully restored the Dudley No 2 canal would provide a great through route from the Stourbridge canal to the Worcester and Birmingham and another loop on the system.

Further information is available on the Trust’s website and facebook site:

www.lapal.org

www.facebook.com/lapalcanaltrust

Many thanks to Hugh, Simon and Dave for a guided walk full of interest and to Hugh for providing transport to return drivers to their cars. Much thanks also to Paul Niblett for his excellent organisation.

Next time out: Saturday 6th August.  In search of the Runcorn and Latchford Canal

The Phoenix Arises: The Lapal Canal

Walk – Saturday 11 June 2022. Start at 10.30am, finish by 4.00pm
Covering parts of the Dudley No2 canal – but certainly not its Lapal tunnel!

OS 139 Birmingham & Wolverhampton
(Old) Pathfinders 933/SO 88/98 Stourbridge & Kinver and 934/SP 08/18 Birmingham

Parking & start: Selly Oak Shopping Park (4 hrs free parking) – Sainsbury’s etc., in front of
Unite Students Battery Park on its canal side (the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, W&BC).
Grid reference: SP043828. What three words: drums.glue.field. Within view of Selly Oak rail station.

The Dudley No2, from Windmill End Junction at Netherton to the W&BC in Selly Oak, is only 8 miles long, just over 2 miles of which was the Lapal tunnel. We shall be walking a total of about five miles, in two sections:

• the full eastern part from the W&BC junction to the site of the eastern tunnel portal;
• part of the western section from near to the western tunnel portal to Gosty Hill tunnel,
incorporating the current end of navigation at Hawne Basin/Coombeswood.

As this is a linear route, some car shuffles will be necessary.

Though a relatively short walk, there is much to see such as the work done, and being done, at the W&BC end to facilitate a new junction. There is some canal still in water in Selly Oak park, Weoley Castle along the route, the Leasowes/Heywood embankment, Hawne Basin, the remains of the vast Stewarts & Lloyds tube works, Gosty Hill tunnel etc etc. Though lacking in the ever-illusory snuff mines, it’s still an area full of interest.

There are several societies involved with waterways in this area of the West Midlands and we are delighted to have a member of the Lapal Trust to accompany us. Lunch will be available at the Lighthouse pub at Old Hill (0121 537 70133). It has a spacious external picnic area. The landlady is willing to arrange a buffet comprising sandwiches, pie, quiche, chips etc, plus tea/coffee, at £7.50 per head. Please advise Paul by Tuesday 7th June if you wish to partake of this offer. Paul would also appreciate knowing the overall numbers attending so please let him know by Friday 10th if you plan to come (01782 641967).

The route is generally good, on well-established paths and pavements but, as always, stout
shoes etc.

Rochdale Canal Walk 2nd April 2022

Building of the Rochdale canal started in 1794 at Sowerby Bridge. It took a workforce of 500 navvies 10 years to build this 32 mile long canal which rises 350 feet through 36 locks to summit level then drops 435 feet through 56 locks into Manchester, making it the most heavily locked canal in the country.

This was the first transpennine canal to open and the only one with no tunnels as William Jessop did not trust the technology at that time. It was however considered to be the most difficult canal on which to work.

Being a wide canal the Rochdale was more successful than the Huddersfield Canal and became the main means of transport between Lancashire and Yorkshire with cotton, wool, coal, timber, salt, cement and grain dominating.

Although inevitably hit by railway competition, by cutting tolls the canal did manage to retain trade and remain profitable until the first world war but by 1920 the Rochdale was in financial trouble. Then in 1923, the Oldham and Rochdale Corporations Water Act paved the way for the transfer of its eight reservoirs to those corporations to supply drinking water. The last cargo of raw cotton arrived at Littleborough in 1929 and the last complete journey of the Rochdale took place in 1937. During the Second World War, barges were plucked from the canal and placed on its reservoir at Blackstone Edge in a cunning plan to stop Hitler landing water planes, their carcasses being found when the reservoir was recently drained.

 Closure was authorised in 1952, except for the 1½ miles at the Manchester end from Ashton Canal junction into Castlefield Basin, then in 1962 the canal was cut in two when the M62 was built.

An Act of Parliament was sought in 1965, to authorise the abandonment of the canal, which the Inland Waterways Association petitioned against. When it was finally passed, it contained a clause that ensured the owners would maintain it until the adjacent Ashton Canal was abandoned.  The Ashton Canal, which joins the canal above lock 84, reopened in 1974, and the nine locks on the Rochdale Canal to Castlefield basin were restored at that time.

The Rochdale Canal Society was formed to promote the restoration of the canal and in the 1980s and 1990s small scale work began to re-open stretches of the canal between Todmorden and Sowerby Bridge. This involved restoring bridges and locks to navigable condition. The Calderdale section of the canal reopened in the 1990s and the real celebrations began when lottery funding became available. Because it had stopped carrying traffic by the 1940s, the canal had not been nationalised and not filled in when it became derelict. This allowed ownership to pass to the Waterways Trust in 2000 and British Waterways were given the monumental task of restoring it to full use.

Funding of 23 million pounds was announced, mostly from the Millennium Commission and English Partnerships that would enable the remaining obstacles to be removed. It entailed refurbishing 24 locks, building 12 new road bridges, 50,000 cubic metres of dredging and building 900 metres of new canal channel. In July 2002 the canal re-opened, almost 200 years after its original opening.

Our walk was from Castleton to Littleborough where the many blockages were removed during this final period of restoration prior to re-opening, between 2001 and 2002. The M62 crossing just south Castleton seemed a good place to start.

No provision had been made for the canal when the motorway was built, however there was a farm access tunnel just to the side of it. As the motorway climbs steeply at this point there was enough height to take the canal through here with the farm access diverted. A public inquiry and a High Court ruling was needed before land could be compulsory purchased from two farmers.

The original lock 53 was replaced with a new lock south of the motorway to raise the canal to the level of the tunnel, the concrete was still drying when the canal was reopened on 1st July 2002.

 A towing path was needed here as there is no way for a walker to cross the M62 but as the tunnel is just wide enough for a wide beam boat a floating towing path was installed leaving enough space for a narrowboat but removable should a wide boat require access.

A few minutes walk took us into Castleton, a relatively modern town by British standards it is believed to date from the early 1700’s and until 1875 was known as Blue Pits, named after a local quarry which mined blue sand. Lock 51 here is named Blue Pit top lock. This lock had been in good condition and just needed cleaning, pointing and new gates fitting but Manchester Road bridge below the lock had been culverted and a brick retaining wall build blocking the canal.

There had been many blockages through Rochdale, the next one on our walk was Edinburgh Way, a major road where a large roundabout had completely blocked the route. The original plan was for the whole roundabout to be raised to allow a new 90 metre long tunnel to pass below. The plan was revised so that the roundabout was replaced by a signal-controlled junction, with a new channel for the canal and a shorter tunnel under the road.

The old route of the canal ran straight under Edinburgh Way. The new route runs to the left and the road system was altered to accommodate it.

There is no towing path through this section, signposts take walkers on a diversion round the roads with just a glimpse of the new cutting.

The next two bridges had been dropped and culverted needing excavating and reconstructing. Then  the canal passes what used to be the Sealocrete works which was built on the site of Dickon Green Cotton Mill. The factory had encroached onto the canal channel narrowing it to only a few feet across, too narrow for even a narrowboat passage. As part of the restoration work a new concrete channel was constructed, wide enough for passage of a wide beamed boat.

Next we reached the junction with Rochdale town arm, running for half a mile from Halfpenny Bridge  –  “a rare survival of a toll bridge over a canal” which is now grade II listed –  to Richard Street basin.

Warehouses once lined its banks but its intrusion into the town meant it was a prime target for redevelopment and it became one of the first parts of the canal to be filled in during the late 1960s. A retail shopping centre now covers most of the canal arm, with the former basin serving as the car park.

Back on the main line and through the turnover bridge are two locks, between these on the offside were Wellfield Cotton Mills and Wellfield Corn Mill, here another arm ran around and between the mills.

Early map showing the half mile Rochdale Arm with its wharves and on the main line between locks the arm running around Wellfield Cotton and Corn Mills.

The mills are long gone and have been replaced by housing with a road running over the line of the canal arm although the start of the arm still remains.

This was the half way point of the walk and soon after a short diversion took us to the Hornet for some very welcome food. The afternoon walk saw us leaving Rochdale and heading into countryside. There are a few more reinstated bridges between here and Littleborough, but also some elegant original stone bridges to admire complete with deep rope marks.

As snow started to fall we approached Clegg Hall which is supposedly haunted by a boggart. This 17th century hall replaced an earlier moated hall where legend has it that a wicked uncle killed his two nephews and then tried to kill his brother in order to gain the Hall and lands. The uncle got his comeuppance and is said to haunt the hall along with one of his nephews.

To one side of the Hall is an attractive row of weavers cottages and to the other side a small stone built mill which has been restored and converted to housing.

There had been two more bridges blocking the channel between here and Littleborough, Smithy Bridge and Ben Healy Bridge. Restoration of these bridges entailed closing and diverting roads and excavating huge amounts of rubble as well as diverting service pipes and cables. Ben Healy Bridge, at Littleborough is now the biggest bridge on the canal at 33 metres long. The road having been widened and angled across the canal, it has cut into an area that used to be a wharf which served Cleggs Wood Colliery where fire clay was extracted. Coking ovens were located at the side of the wharf, between the canal and the road but there is no longer any trace of these.

Left: Ben Healy Bridge, the Railway Hotel and the wharf for Cleggswood Colliery. There had previously been coke ovens here. Right: Ben Healy Bridge from the same spot today. The road has been widened and now sits at an angle over the canal, covering part of the old wharf area.
 

Just through the bridge we arrived at Littleborough Wharf and the end of our walk.  It had been a typical British spring day of sun and snow showers.

Next time out: Saturday 11th June. The Lapal Canal

Return to the Rochdale Canal

Saturday 2nd April 10 a.m. start

This walk will start at Castleton, take us through Rochdale and onto Littleborough – approximately 6 miles.

When the group last walked this section of the Rochdale in 1991 Littleborough was the head of navigation from the east. There were two major roads – at Castleton and in Rochdale – blocking the canal, and a factory had extended its land into the canal. Many bridges had been culverted and a few locks needed restoring.  During the morning we will be looking at the solutions to these problems starting at the M62 crossing at Castleton where there is a floating towpath. 

We will meet at 10 a.m. at The Canal Wharf, Canal Street, Littleborough. Postcode: OL15 0HA, What 3 Words: drop.snake.patrol, grid ref: 940163. Leaving a few cars here we will then drive to Castleton for the start of the walk. For those coming by train there is the option of joining the group at Littleborough or a little later at Castleton, however if you opt to join at Castleton it will entail an extra walk down the towpath to the M62 crossing.

The lunch stop is pretty much the half way point of the walk at The Hornet, a Hungry Horse pub:

https://www.hungryhorse.co.uk/pubs/greater-manchester/hornet/menu/main-menu

Pre-orders are not needed but the pub does want to know numbers in advance, so if you wish to eat there please let us know by Friday 25 March. Otherwise e-mail or ring/text by Friday 1st April:

janandvernbrown@gmail.com /07443834997

In the afternoon we leave Rochdale and head into the countryside, passing the historic grade two listed Clegg Hall and nearby weavers cottages to the end of the summit section of the canal.

Hope to see you there.

Jan and Vern.

Obituary: DAVE HANNAN

By Vern Brown

We have been saddened to hear of the recent death of Dave Hannan, a volunteer at Bugsworth Basin. He had been suffering with pancreatic cancer.

I met Dave at Bugsworth in about 2014. I wasn’t sure what to make of this bluff, opinionated guy, until we began working together. I think our first job was replacing the wooden fence above the end of the lower basin, I soon realised that here was a chap with a wealth of knowledge and the drive to put that knowledge into action. Dave became a mainstay of the maintenance team at the basin, always willing to help where he was needed, whether trimming brambles with Martin or rebuilding wash walls with me. His greatest contribution was in the building of the replica tramway wagon with his engineering knowledge, we would have struggled severely without him.

He will be missed by all the recent volunteers from the basin and by his many friends in Buxton Mountain Rescue, CAMRA and the lock volunteers at Marple. As you can see, a man who got on with life.

Uttoxeter Canal Walk 18th September 2021

The walk was planned to coincide with a Heritage Open Day run by The Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust who would be showing visitors around Crumpwood Wier and have information about the restoration of the canal. A few days earlier the good news had come that a planning application at Froghall for a housing estate to be built over the start of the canal had been turned down on many counts, one of which is that it didn’t make provision for the future restoration of the canal.

The Uttoxeter Canal was short lived, having been something of a white elephant for the Trent and Mersey Canal Company. In 1795 the Commercial Canal had been proposed – a wide canal linking Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire with the River Trent and canals in Cheshire and Newcastle-under-Lyme. If built this would have been a severe competitor to the Trent and Mersey Canal. After a period of conflict the Trent and Mersey’s powerful connections and a promise to widen their canal they won the battle in 1797, with a victory for the Froghall to Uttoxeter canal scheme.

The canal widening never happened and the narrow canal was finally opened in 1811 running for 13.25 miles from Froghall to Uttoxeter with 17 locks along its length. Operating at a loss it closed in 1849 after being sold to the North Staffordshire railway who built their line over much of the canal. Over 170 years later it is amazing that there is anything left of the canal.

The Churnet Valley Railway line now runs from Leek Brook to Froghall with the line laid as far as Oakamoor sand sidings at the north end of Oakamoor village.

Our walk started in Oakamoor. Having parked in the station car park we started by looking at the remains of the railway. The railway didn’t follow the line of the canal through Oakamoor but went around it which necessitated building at tunnel. Several tunnels had to be built for the railway where the river course was hostile At 462 yards Oakamoor tunnel was the longest, it was also the wettest creating endless maintenance problems during its use. At the station side of the tunnel is a road crossing, the original crossing keeper’s cottage is now a holiday home and the current residents kindly showed us historic photos from the cottage.

From here we cut across to Oakamoor Picnic Site, now a pleasantly green site with the River Churnet running through but which had been the site of Oakamoor copper works. Oakamoor had been a site of metal working for some 800 years. In 1790 copper smelting began, mostly for factories in Birmingham. The business was bought in 1852 by Thomas Bolton and Sons, production continuing on the site until closure in 1962, after which the works were demolished. The factory was served first by the canal and then by an arm from the railway.

All that remains of the factory now are two gate posts and some seriously large stones, presumably bases for machinery and/or cranes, we spent some time puzzling over these – although there are several historical information boards around Oakamoor there is no mention of these stones.

In the centre of Oakamoor is the Cricketers Arms where we saw the first trace of the canal. The canal ran through what is now the pub’s garden (the pub predates the canal) and under the main road. The bridge is filled in but still intact.

With the bridge as a starting point we could now follow the line of the canal through the recreation area to Oakamoor station where the platforms survive.

From here we followed the track bed of the railway for a couple of miles to Alton, the Churnet Valley railway also wish to reinstate the line from Oakamoor sands to Alton which could provide the opportunity of a restoration partnership. This stretch is undeveloped and a popular walking and cycling route, making restoration look relatively easy. However underground are large gas, electric and sewage mains, it would be prohibitively expensive to divert or re-lay the 11kV cable which follows the line of the canal so it would be necessary to construct the canal adjacent to the cable, moving it only where required. The canal would have to continue on the north east side of the railway so cuttings and a couple of locks would be needed.

This was a very pleasant stretch through peaceful and pretty countryside, the railway of course ran straight and loops of canal remain on each side.

The morning walk finished at Alton station which has survived and is a Landmark Trust holiday home. We diverted at this point to visit the Talbot Inn for lunch. This proved a delightful place for a break, with large gardens at the side of the river, excellent food, beer, ice cream and service were appreciated by all.

Replete we returned to the station for the afternoon walk. Immediately after the station is Alton tunnel which took the track under the main road. This replaced a smaller canal tunnel which had a slightly different alignment to the railway tunnel but was about the same length.

From here to Denstone is the easiest section to restore as the canal is mostly still there. Significant clearing, dredging and probably re-lining would be needed which could be undertaken by volunteers and a new lock would be needed at the Alton end.

Soon after leaving Alton we were able to leave the railway bed to walk along the towing path which we followed most of the way to Crumpwood weir. The first section to Alton spill weir felt most like walking through forest but the towing path is clear. An intrepid group of walkers braved the undergrowth in search of locks.

Bridge 70 is the only complete original bridge on the canal. Built around 1810 it was saved from collapse by volunteers who restored it between 2012 & 2106. The original wooden rubbing strake is still attached.

And so onward past Carrington’s lock, which dropped boats down to river level, to the star of the show – Crumpwood weir – where the CUCT had a stall with information boards and Alison Smedley gave us a guided tour around this unique feature.

First we passed the Crumpwood Ram Pump House, a very unusual and possibly unique waterworks this was built between 1922 and 1928 to supply the Uttoxeter area with fresh water from nearby springs.

It’s unusual in that the pumps were powered by water turbines, using the head provided by an adjacent weir. There are 3 x 11 hp turbines made by Gilbert Gilkes & Co., each working a set of triple ram pumps, which had a combined output of about 15,000 gallons/hour under favourable conditions.

The pumphouse closed in the late 1970’s/1980 due to increased episodes of pollution in the supply but the pumps are still in place inside. It has recently been modified to allow fish to bypass the weir and get further up the river. Originally the environment agency wanted to get rid of the weir which would have seriously affected the canal restoration and destroyed a the unique structure so this alternative solution was found.

Crumpwood Weir is now protected with a grade II listing being the only structure of it’s type in the world. It was constructed within the River Churnet between 1807 and 1811 as part of the construction of the canal.  

Alison led us across the river on a modern bridge not normally open to the public, the original bridge was further up river leading straight from the towpath of the canal.

The weir is about 30 metres long with a vertical drop of 1.5 metres. At the Denstone end of the weir is the flood lock which has an impressive stone abutment on the weir side with architectural embellishment. Within the abutment at each end of the weir are two large sluices to allow the area behind the weir to be drained in times of low water level for the removal of silt.

The flood lock had double sets of gates that could be closed if the river level was too high or low although they were normally left open.

The canal continued into Denstone but as can be seen there is currently no path to follow so we returned to the railway bed for the final part of the walk into Denstone. Once again there were glimpses of canal bed alongside the path.

In Denstone the railway bed and station platforms still remain but the canal has been lost. The railway and canal took slightly different routes here, the railway having been built about 30 yards to the west of the canal. As this section of the canal was not needed by the railway it was sold and All Saints Church was built on the site.

Proposed restoration is for the canal to run to the east of Denstone, close to the river, necessitating the building of two new locks. This would be the start of a new route into Uttoxeter as the original line is built over there too.

This was the end of our walk and the last walk for this year. We hope to have a full programme of walks for next year and be able to start again in April.

August Walk – The Cromford Canal

Sunday’s walk started with rain and the owner of the burger van in the large public layby on the A6 where we met threatening to report us for using ‘her car park’. We set off undeterred pleased to be walking together again. We joined the canal at Chase Bridge, roughly half way between Ambergate and Whatstandwell, this section is owned by Derbyshire County Council and is an SSSI.

Steve Carver met us at Sims Bridge, this is where stone would have been taken across the canal from Dukes quarries to the Midland Railway. Steve firstly showed us some stones that had recently been uncovered between the canal and railway which were possibly the base of a crane for loading stone onto rail wagons, the 1900 OS map shows a siding at this point.

Steve Carver meeting the group Recently uncovered stone
1880’s map of the area

We crossed Sims Bridge to a cleared concrete floored area which was a three bay stable, possibly with an adjoining smithy, and then to a cleared area between the track from Dukes Quarry and the canal. Here was a large stone with a depression in the centre, reminiscent of a crane base except for an iron staple in the centre of the depression. Was this a crane base or one of a number of stones used to tether a Jib Crane?

The stable remains
The crane base

On entering the garden of Steve’s house there is a stone wall lined pit, similar to a water wheel pit, with a small cascade of water from the natural stream. This is thought to have once powered a water turbine to drive the saw mill and provide electric power. The water from the Ridgeway Sough (draining Wakebridge and Crich lead mines) may have also been used to supplement this. The original sawmill was a little way up the hill, originally powered by a water wheel and at some time destroyed by fire. The outfall from the pit passes under the canal in a culvert and discharges into the River Derwent.

The amazing ‘water feature’ in Steve’s garden

Retracing our steps to Sims Bridge we headed for Leawood Pumphouse. The canal runs through countryside here with wooded hillside to one side and views across the valley on the other – admittedly easier to enjoy on a dry sunny day! The canal goes through the 76 yard long Gregory tunnel and then over the railway on an aqueduct which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It has a cast iron trough supported by wrought iron cross members and dates from the 1840’s.

The portal of Gregory tunnel and cast iron aqueduct over the Midland railway

The first group who were due to see Leawood Pumphouse in steam dashed along to get there for 12pm only to find it wasn’t actually in steam – the message hadn’t reached us that the volunteers had not been able to finish the boiler testing work in time and are now hoping to be back in steam for the August bank holiday. However, we were given an excellent tour by a very knowledgeable guide.

Crossing High Peak aqueduct to Leawood Pumphouse and our wonderful guide in front of the boilers

The original iron boilers from 1849 had to be warmed up slowly which was very inefficient in both coal and labour so in 1900 they were replaced with two locomotive type boilers.

We stopped for lunch at High Peak Workshops at the foot of the Sheep Pasture incline of the Cromford and High Peak Railway, opened in 1831 to connect the Cromford Canal to the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge and originally intended to be a canal route. It was constructed on the same principle as a canal with long level sections (originally worked by horses) connected by inclines where the wagons were raised and lowered on ropes, with the aid of stationary steam engines. The following film shows the Sheep Pasture incline and winding house and a journey over parts of the line (footage from 6.30 minutes – 12.15).

A rather wet lunchtime at High Peak junction

We then headed for the Leawood or Nightingale Arm. Opened in 1802 it originally ran for about 800 yards into Leawood but in 1819 (after complaints about water ‘abuses’ by Mill owners) its length was halved, the terminus then being Peter Nightingale’s hat factory.

At the junction with the main line is Aqueduct cottage built as a lock keepers’ cottage for the stop lock/water control gates at the junction. The cottage was lived in until the 1960’s, then became and bunkhouse for a walking group, but later fell into disrepair. However, the Friends of Aqueduct Cottage and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, who own the cottage and woodland behind it, are now restoring it. When finished it will house a Visitor Interpretation Centre.

Looking along High Peak aqueduct to Aqueduct cottage at the entrance to the Leawood Arm – the exterior has been restored and the lime mortar is currently being left to dry out
Aqueduct cottage before restoration

The ‘stop lock’ outside the cottage is still something of a puzzle. Boats weren’t allowed through unless the level of the water in the Arm was higher than the main line. The lock is 70’ long, there are two gate recesses at the junction end but nothing at the other end, however a map of 1811 shows a conventional lock. The lock wasn’t in use for long so whether the Leawood end of the lock was removed or the map was incorrect is unknown.

There is still some water in the first section of the branch until it crosses the Midland railway, there was a cast iron aqueduct here clad in decorative stone, now there is a pedestrian bridge built across.  The wharfingers house still stands (now extended and a private dwelling) and stone sets and crane base are still in situ.

After returning to the junction and crossing High Peak aqueduct for the third time that day the heavens opened, necessitating sheltering under a High Peak railway canopy for a while until the worst passed. It was then a fairly quick walk to Cromford Wharf. It was good to see Birdswood on the move – not horse drawn currently though and unable to go all the way to Leawood Pumphouse due to a problem with the swing bridge.

Heading towards Cromford Wharf alongside Birdswood

Most of the group know Cromford Wharf fairly well so we didn’t spend much time here, dispersing to train, bus and car shuttles fairly quickly where we could dry off, but a good day was had by all. A huge thanks goes to Steve for his brilliant guided tour and also to Hugh Potter who met with us on the canal a few weeks ago and provided us with much information (I’m sure we forgot some of it but we did our best!).

Steve has subsequently asked us to put out an appeal for volunteers to help with clearing reeds come the autumn. We have his contact details should anyone local be able to help out.

Next time out: Saturday 18th September Uttoxeter Canal

RIGHT THEN! Walks start again

Stockport Branch Canal Walk 22nd May 2021

The Stockport Canal branch of the Ashton canal opened in 1797. 4.2 miles in length with no locks it was very busy from the start. It was mainly used to transport coal from the collieries in the Ashton and Oldham area to many mills and factories along its length as well as coal for domestic use. It also carried grain to Albion Mill at Stockport Basin and raw cotton to the mills, general cargo and finished goods. In the early years there was a passenger carrying service between Manchester and Stockport.

It had a long period of decline and by the 1920s there was very little trade although factories and mills used it as a water supply. It was last used by commercial traffic in the 1930s, then the canal was left to deteriorate. The length from the start of our walk into Stockport, initially owned by Stockport Council, has largely been built over or incorporated into gardens whilst the length in Manchester Council ownership has been maintained as a footpath/cycleway with very little obstruction to restoration.

We were made very welcome by the Manchester and Stockport Canal Society with Roger Bravey,  Society Chairman leading the walk and explaining the society’s aims and aspirations.

Another member of the society, Graham Burns, was a font of local knowledge. He had been a volunteer at Bugsworth basin in the early days of the restoration and involved in the Ashton restoration so there was much reminiscing with our group.

After our enforced break it was good to hear ‘Right Then!’ again and after some easing of unused joints Roger led us just a short way towards Stockport under the two bridges of Hyde Road to the start of the walk.

This is the point where Manchester City Council and Stockport Council meet. Stockport council had not shown an interest in the canal, allowing it to be filled in and built over. Roger explained that there will be opportunities in the future as buildings go out of use to try and get the line of the canal incorporated into future developments – there is one building closure anticipated and the land is likely to be used for social housing, an ideal opportunity for the society. In other places detours could be made.

Thankfully Manchester Council had quite a different attitude and the line of canal to Clayton Junction is protected although it is infilled and currently in use as a footpath and cycleway. So this is the length of canal that the society are currently concentrating on.

The plan is to start restoration at Clayton junction and gradually work towards Gorton Reservoir. The  open space in which we were standing at this point is large enough to take a winding hole as restoration of the canal continues towards Stockport. We retracted our steps under the two Hyde Road bridges after stopping to read the first of the plaques which have been installed along the line of the canal.  

Next stop was at Gorton Reservoir. The reservoir was opened in 1825/6 to provide drinking water for Manchester and the canal ran along the head bank.

No longer used for drinking water Gorton Reservoir it is now the home of Debdale Outdoor Centre who operate a lot of watersports on the reservoir. It has a modern overspill weir crossing the line of the canal, because of this and for safety reasons the canal couldn’t be re-instated here. The idea instead is to build a lock to access the reservoir where there would be a marina – there is already a suitable area not used for watersports that would be ideal.

Debdale Outdoor Centre are keen for this to happen and it would provide a very welcome and much needed safe stopping point for boaters using the Ashton Canal.

In order to continue restoration towards Stockport another lock would need to be built at the other end of the headbank to lock back into the canal.

We now set off down the ‘Yellow Brick Road’, possibly so called because of local houses, now demolished, which were built of yellow brick. Although the line of the canal has been protected it is not only infilled but the level is now much higher than the canal which can be seen at the remaining bridges, all but one of which still exist, mostly in good condition some having indents where rollers for boat ropes were installed.

This obviously means that there is a huge amount of infill to excavate and remove. CRT have done a ground survey which largely came up clear with only a couple of small areas possibly having some contamination.

Prior to lockdown working parties had been concentrating on keeping the canal line clear of rubbish and clearing undergrowth. The Society also keep a keen eye on anything that might impede restoration, such as making sure that no services cross the canal – a possibility with the current improvement of cycleways where there are thoughts of installing lighting. We came across a line of metal posts and asked what they were, apparently some new social housing had installed fence posts along canal land and thanks to the society are now having to move them back onto their own land.

The society are also working hard to persuade local people that the canal would be an asset to the area – as the path is currently a very pleasant walk and cycleway with many trees along its length (many of which would have to be removed) this is quite a task. There is enough width to incorporate canal, towpath and a dedicated cycle path, possibly raised up from the towing path thus keeping walkers and bikes separate!

Footbridges will have to be installed where paths cross the canal. The only road bridge that will need building is at Hollybush Street but this comes with problems: the road is quite short and completely level, it is now a service road to relatively new flats meaning that the usual hump backed bridge is not going to be suitable. There are various options to be considered. 

The canal crossed the Great Central Railway line on an iron trough aqueduct close to Gorton Station. The aqueduct is still in good condition, trees have been removed and a survey showed that it still holds water. A layer of soil has been left in the bottom of the trough to protect it.

Just past Ashton Old Road, about half a mile from Clayton junction is another open area, this would be another ideal space for a winding hole after the start of restoration from Clayton junction.

Remarkably, the bridge over the Gorton canal depot arm, with it’s carved head keystone, is still intact, although the arm and works are long gone and developed for housing. In the widening for boats to turn there are three sunken boats. The society would like to recover and restore one of these.

And so to Clayton junction where the start of the arm is still in water. There was another short arm off the Ashton Canal here which serviced the Armstrong Whitworth North Street Works. This had  railway connections to/from Armstrong’s and after cassation of traffic a gas works was developed on the west side.

 The following link gives further information on North Street Works:-

Historic map showing the railway serving industry and the canal. The canal is marked in blue, Clayton junction is at the top of the map.

This was the end of the guided part of our walk (we found it so interesting we had spent two and a half hours on a mile and three quarters of canal, a record even for us we think!). Roger and his wife left us at this point while Graham and Liz accompanied us a short way up the Ashton to our lunch break at lock 11 next to the Strawberry Duck. Sandwiches were consumed to the accompaniment of water leaking around lock gates before we set off up the remaining locks towards Droylsden Marina. Here we were just in time to purchase hot drinks (and some delicious cakes) from ‘Safari’ the canal boat café based there, right at the point where the Hollinwood Branch would have carried on. There is a very short stretch of the line visible with a bridge still intact which you can peer into, the towing path, coping stones and wooden rubbing strake are still in place.

We were now onto the informal part of the day, Paul and Pauline had been studying their OS maps and spotted that instead of retracing our steps that we could complete a circular route back to the reservoir, starting by continuing up the canal towards Marple. After a brief but pleasant stroll up the Ashton, Andrew led us away from the canal up a footpath which emerged into Fairfield Square, all of the buildings of which are of Special Architectural or Historic interest. Fairfield Square is a Moravian settlement. Opened in 1785 it was planned and built by its own people. At that time it was self contained, even having its own doctors and fire engine. Now it accepts some housing association tenants. Their emphasis is still on Christian life and fellowship which shows in the atmosphere in the square.

From here we headed for Gorton upper reservoir from where there were several routes to return to the starting point and we split into groups to follow our chosen paths (although only two of us found the ice cream van!).

It was really good to be meeting up and be walking again and this was an excellent start. Many thanks to the Manchester and Stockport Canal Society for their time and the wealth of information. Thanks also to Paul, Pauline and Andrew guiding us in the afternoon.

Next time out: Sunday 8th August, the Cromford Canal

November Walk – The Chesterfield Canal

The original intention had been to walk the stretch of the Chesterfield Canal from Retford to Clayworth, however, shortly before the walk was scheduled it was decided to finish after lunch at the Gate Inn, Clarborough as it was thought that the towpath from Clarborough to Clayworth might prove to be a bit tricky in the reduced length of daylight once the clocks had gone back.

A very select band of walkers met at the Gate Inn, Clarborough and transferred in one car to travel to the Churchgate Visitor Car Park in Retford. It started to rain as we pulled into the car park so we all climbed into full waterproof gear before making our way into Kings Park. Once in the park we walked along side the River Idle and as we neared the canal we crossed the river on a footbridge and had a good view of the three arch aqueduct which carries the canal over the river. We then continued a further short distance through the park to join the canal at Inkerman footbridge.

The three arched canal aquaduct crossing the River Idle as viewed from Kings Park
The iron lattice Inkermans footbridge

Once on the towpath we turned left and proceeded in the direction of Retford Town Lock. In a short distance on the canal side opposite we saw a former warehouse which still bears the name Fletcher and Sons in faded letters. It turned out that the couple who converted the building into a private house were friends of Dave and Izzie’s who had visited the property before conversion had started.

The group pauses on the towpath, possibly to acclimatise to the very wet conditions, whilst Paul is already exhibiting significant signs of shrinkage

We then crossed the three arched aquaduct over the River Idle we had first viewed from Kings Park. The next noticeable feature we encountered was Retford Town lock which is the first narrow lock on the canal since the navigation left the River Trent at West Stockwith.

Just below the lock and just beside the towpath we came across The Bay Tree Cafe Bar, since we had by then already been walking for almost twenty minutes and it was extremely wet we thought we would set what we believe may be a IWPS/BBHT walks precedent by stopping for a morning hot drinks, snacks and a temporary dry. Teas, coffees and toasted tea cakes were ordered and thoroughly enjoyed.

A morning stop for teas, coffees and toasted tea cakes an BBHT walks game changer?

The shelter offered by The Bay Tree allowed an extract from James Roffery’s excellent book on the Chesterfield Canal to be consulted. The cafe is situated on what was originally the Corporation Wharf and the book recounts the story of how, in the late 19th century, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company erected gates across the towpath, to prevent pilfering from its warehouse on the wharf, and kept them locked. Retford Corporation brought an injunction for obstruction against the railway company and a legal wrangle began; the Corporation claiming the towpath had always previously been open and the railway claiming they had always had the right to refuse access. The Corporation produced evidence that the local baptists had regularly held open-air baptisms near Town lock. Apparently those being baptised were totally immersed in the canal, after which they were taken into the lock keeper’s cottage to get dry and have a hot drink. The Corporation won the case and the towpath has remained open ever since but apparently according to Roffery “The open-air baptisms were brought to an end by boatmen, who expressed their annoyance if they were delayed in language that did not suit the occasion.”

After we departed The Bay Tree we found, close by, one of the excellent information boards we had spotted previously along the towpath. This board included an explanation of how it was largely thanks to the actions of the Reverend Seth Ellis Stevenson that the final route of the Chesterfield Canal came through Retford. The original route planned for the canal in 1768, did not include Retford but instead it was to go to Bawtry. However, when Seth Ellis Stevenson learnt of the plans he began to work hard to bring the canal to Retford including, writing a promotional pamphlet, visiting influential land owners, talking to engineers and after many public meeting the route of the canal via Retford was agreed in June 1770.

The white building on the far side of the bridge is the Packet Inn and the imposing brick building in the foreground is Grove Mill

The Packet Inn was the terminus for the weekly packet boat from Clayworth that brought villagers and their produce to Retford Market. The Grove Mill building was originally used as a malthouse but was converted to a flour mill around 1900. The canal provided fuel for the boilers, the grain and then took the finished flour to West Stockwith for onward transport.

In 1978 British Waterways were carrying out dredging work close to the mill when a chain was dredged from the bed of the canal and attached to the chain was the wooden lid of a culvert. The water in the canal between Retford Town Lock and the Whitsunday Pie Lock poured out leaving several boats high and dry. The incident received wide coverage in the media and caused some embarrassment to British Waterways who became known as the organisation ‘Who Had Pulled the Plug Out”

Whitsunday Pie Lock is the last wide lock on the journey up the canal from West Stockwith and is possible the most well known lock on the canal because of its unusual name. There are various theories regarding the origin of the name including a neighbouring farmer’s wife baking a huge pie on Whitsunday to celebrate either the completion of the lock or the end of a long stoppage but more recent research has shown the name existed before the lock was built.

Whitsunday Pie Lock (photographed on the recce walk when it was not raining)

Bridge 61 Bone Mill bridge has a slightly flattened and distorted shape to its arch but we were puzzled by the additional courses of brick which had been added to the parapets on both sides of the bridge.

Bridge 61 Bone Mill bridge (again photographed on the recce walk)

The Gate Inn was the end of our short walk where we were very pleased to meet up with Ian Edgar who had joined us for a pleasant lunch and interesting discussions on canal walks and the people who go on them.

Many thanks to Mark and Ruth for organising the walk and for writing this article.

Lancaster Canal Weekend Away

Our weekend started with an interesting illustrated talk on the Friday evening by the Lancaster Canal Trust about the history of the canal and the restoration. 

Running from Preston to Kendal, by 1797 the Lancaster Canal was operating as far as Tewitfield. Work started north of Tewitfield in 1813 and reached Kendal in 1819. This was much needed in Kendal and was of immediate benefit to the town which thrived from then on.  Known as the ‘Black and White Canal’ because coal was brought in and limestone taken out, a passenger service also ran between Preston and Kendal  – the boats managed an amazing 10 mph – loyal customers using it even after the advent of the railways.

In 1941/42 the LMS railway, who owned the canal, closed the top half mile of the canal in Kendal , the LMS tried to close the remainder but as the canal still served the gas works in Kendal this failed.  However this supply was transferred to road in 1944 and commercial traffic ceased in 1947. The canal officially closed in 1955. It had always suffered leakage due to the underlying limestone and due to the leakage it was drained north of Stainton with the two miles into Kendal being filled in. A section at Burton was also drained with a pipe taking water down to Tewitfield.

The Lancaster Canal Trust formed in 1963 with the aim of preventing the northern extension of the M6 closing the navigation north of Carnforth. When this failed the aim of the society became to re-open the canal between Tewitsfield and Kendal. The M6 cuts across the canal at 3 points but it is possible to take the canal underneath, one could be done as a bore but the other two would need excavating and piling, this would have to be done one lane at a time. This would be a multi million pound project.

Saturday’s walk started in Holme. Holme is one of a number of places along the Lancaster Canal where coal was once brought by canal barge to a wharf and then converted to coke for use locally. The Coke ovens are now in a garden on the offside of the canal and the owner allowed the group into his garden to view these early beehive shaped ovens.

From Holme it was a pleasant mornings walk to Crooklands. This section of the canal is in water, running through open countryside although the M6 inevitably runs close by.  After stopping at Crooklands for lunch David Gibson, secretary of the LCT, joined us as guide for the afternoon. At Crooklands Wakefield Wharf served the gunpowder factory C.W.H. Wakefield and Co. at nearby Gatebeck, a small horse drawn tramway was built to link the factory with the wharf and thence to Milnthorpe Station. From here the canal continues through pleasant countryside for another couple of miles to Stainton aqueduct.

Unfortunately, the towing path here is closed as CRT are still working on the aqueduct which was damaged in the floods of 2015 (hopefully this will soon be reopened) and the group had to detour via the road. However Mark and I had an unscheduled detour and were at least able to view the aqueduct from the river below.

Stainton aqueduct after the floods of 2015 and today

Soon after this we reached the ‘first furlong’, running between bridges 172 and 173, where the society are currently lining the canal with a sandwich of geotextile and a high grade pond liner in between, covered in concrete blocks as a physical barrier to damage from above and to hold the liner in place against groundwater pressure. As can be seen the volunteers are having some problems with water getting underneath at the moment.

The start of the first furlong

The canal ran out as we reached Well Head Lane, this farm road runs under the A590 which cuts across the line of the canal. David explained that as this is a little used road mainly used by farm vehicles they are looking at the possibility of the canal using the bridge or sharing the access under the bridge, but both options are unlikely to be practical.

The path from the canal on the left, the A590 cuts across the canal corridor

Passing under the A590 we regained the towpath and were soon at Hincaster tunnel. The 378 yard long tunnel is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the first ten yards at each end and the underwater section are all built of limestone, the rest is lined with approximately 4 million locally made bricks. The engineers were loath to use brick, believing that the structure wouldn’t be strong enough, it was pointed out that brick had been used successfully in tunnels further south and the tunnel became the first major brick-built civil engineering project north of the Mersey at that time.

Inside the tunnel you can still see the fixings for a chain or rope – allowing boats to be pulled through as an alternative to legging. To the left of the tunnel is the horse path with an impressive series of horse tunnels, two at this end and one at the far end, presumably to give farm access over them.

Approaching Hincaster tunnel
The horse tunnels

Continuing towards Sedgewick, it’s possible to follow the line of the canal for a good part of the way but part of the canal has been lost to farmland and a detour has to be made. Sedgewick Aqueduct proved to be a bit far for Saturday’s walk but we visited it later, it’s a fine example of a skew aqueduct, extensive repairs having been carried out by WRG and local volunteers in 1991. This is also a Scheduled Ancient Monument, it was one of five road aqueducts built on the canal – there are also 12 aqueducts built over rivers and streams, all but one still survive.

Sedgewick aqueduct

On Sunday morning we met our guide for the morning, John Bateson of the Kendal Civic Society and former Mayor of Kendal, on Natland Beck Mill Road on the outskirts of Kendal. Natland Beck Mill Road forms the border between two councils, going into Kendal the canal is owned by Kendal town council, but going out of Kendal there are several land owners including councils and farmers, inevitably making things more complicated. The canal is currently regarded as a pathway and there are plans to improve this. Going into Kendal there have been ideas about restoring an isolated length but funding and upkeep is a problem.  We joined the canal at Natland Mill Beck Bridge admiring the unique rope handrail that had been installed by the civic society.

The canal corridor still exists a good way through Kendal, the towpath being tarmacked and the canal itself infilled and grassed over, you can see how easy it would be to restore and make a feature of this section.

The unusual rope handrail and the canal corridor in Kendal

However where the A65 crossed the canal the bridge has been infilled and buried, which is another obstacle for restoration. The next bridge, before the canal becomes a bit more industrial, is a change bridge, the only turnover bridge in Cumbria. After this is the site of the former gasworks. The tarmacked towing path continues but the canal corridor becomes less well defined. Yet another impressive bridge follows, the original stone bridge having been extended for road widening with riveted wrought iron.

Change bridge and the widened bridge

At the end of the canal there are railings on the left through which is a recycling centre. This is the site of the canal basin.

The recycling centre on the site of the canal basin

The basin ran parallel to Canal Head North, there were warehouses, wharves, stabling and workers cottages. The map below also shows an ironworks at the end of the basin.

The canal ticket office remains on Canal Head North, as does the canal manager’s house across the road from the head of navigation.

Canal ticket office and canal manager’s house

This was the end of the canal walking for the weekend and we headed off to the Windermere Steamboat Museum. The group spent a very enjoyable time in the museum, the highlight being the trip on the steam launch, Osprey. Built in 1902 in Bowness, Osprey has always sailed on Windermere, although at times she has been fitted with diesel engines the museum converted her back to steam fitting a Sissons Steam Compound engine, with its obviously polished but sadly unused Windermere kettle.

This was a very informative, interesting and enjoyable weekend and I know several walkers have expressed a wish to return and explore more of the canal. Many thanks to Pauline for her organisation of the weekend and to all those Pauline arranged to speak/act as guides.

Next time out: Saturday 2nd November. The Chesterfield Canal (Retford to Clayworth)