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.