PUBLISHED: 11:54 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013
Six months after the British Waterways pull-out threw the Cotswold Canals into doubt, Martin Ludgate looks at how restoration is getting back on track
It's a damp afternoon in July, and I'm at the bottom of Gough's Orchard Lock near Stroud with a bunch of fellow Waterway Recovery Group volunteers. We're spending the day alternating between repairing 200-year-old brickwork on the upper wing-walls and sheltering under a gazebo drinking tea when it rains. Yes, it's summer 2008 and WRG Canal Camps have returned to the Cotswold Canals, and the Stroud valley for the first time in several years.
So is this burst of activity a sign that things are getting back on track with the Cotswold Canals after the hiatus caused by British Waterways' controversial decision to pull out of the project earlier this year? Well, the answer is yes - but a qualified 'yes', because the final endorsement of Stroud District Council's propoal to take over as lead partner in the 25m Lottery-supported Phase 1a restoration from Stonehouse via Stroud to Brimscombe Port has yet to be made. But while it would be wrong to pre-empt the decision of the elected councillors, the key decisions in June to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund to take over, and the HLF's acceptance later that month - albeit with certain conditions, which are thought not to be too onerous - indicate that things are moving in the right direction.
All being well, the final go-ahead by Stroud
- increasing its support by around 2.3m to 5.6m to cover some of the funding pulled by BW - will be given at a meeting in early Autumn. So does that mean the bulldozers can then move in and the major work can finally get under way? Unfortunately not, as Cotswold Canals Trust Chief Executive Ken Burgin explains to me. (He spends a fair amount of time at the bottom of locks talking to volunteers, as well as dealing with restoration politics!) There is still a huge amount of paperwork to be dealt with before serious engineering can begin: a full planning application for the six-mile length, a whole series of land ownership agreements to be concluded, discussions with the Environment Agency on flood management issues, and everything involved in putting together a Project Plan for the whole exercise.
As Ken details what needs to be put in place before the 'real work' starts, it becomes clear that the target opening date of 2009 for the six miles of canal is not only unachievable, but was almost certainly unrealistic even before BW's pull-out. To the more conspiracy-minded in the restoration movement, this is enough to suggest that BW never intended to finish the job; to others, simply that there was more to be done than had been anticipated. Either way, there's a huge amount still to be done, much of which would have been needed with or without with the change of lead partner.
And there's some additional planning to be done: in particular the engineering solutions to the major problems. Just below Brimscombe Port the canal needs to cross the River Frome with insufficient headroom for an aqueduct capable of taking maximum flood flows. BW's solution was a crossing allowing the river to flow across the bed of the canal with gates shutting it off from adjacent canal sections; when a boat needed to pass, side gates across the river would be closed, and the canal rewatered. At Capel Mill the railway crosses the valley on a viaduct, and the Stroud Bypass now passes through the original canal span - so it will need to be diverted to use one of the other arches, which may involve diverting the river too. And below Stroud, the canal has been adapted to form a storm-water relief channel, with flood control implications. The Partnership intends to revisit each of these to decide whether the BW solution is in fact the best - bearing in mind the constant increase in construction costs, the tightness of the budget and ever more onerous flood regulations.
Once the planning is done, Ken estimates construction for Phase 1a need not take more than 18-24 months. "But there's a very big pile of work to do before everything can happen."
That's not to say nothing can happen in the meantime: while it's reasonable to direct most effort at preparing for the major engineering jobs which will take the longest to complete, it also makes sense in the meantime to go for a few smaller 'quick win' volunteer projects: to show some actual progress on the ground and to make use of the resource of volunteer labour that's waiting to get to work.
And that's what WRG's volunteers are doing at Gough's Orchard: on a dry (or at least
dry-ish this summer!) length of canal with no flooding or land ownership issues, where a simple (!) planning application can allow work to start on a programme to repair the lock's decayed walls over the next year.
Their work signals the start of a much greater volunteer involvement overall than had originally been planned. Not just WRG, but CCT's own volunteers - and the possibility of using inmates from Leyhill Prison is also being looked at. Between them, the volunteer teams could complete much of the work on most of the 11 locks to be restored as well as tackling vegetation management (the specialist WRG Forestry Team are likely to be invited to deal with some of the larger trees), leaving the road crossings and other major engineering to professional contractors.
One major job will b e where the A46/A419 road junction sits astride the infilled canal west of Stroud town centre. Gloucestershire County Council is keen to start work to reinstate the canal and remodel the junction (which is currently almost as big an impediment to traffic as it is to boats!) - and this is likely to begin during 2009.
The $64,000 question (or should that be the 25m question?) is when the Phase 1a length will reopen in full - and while Ken Burgin is understandably reticent, sometime around 2011 appears to be the 'best guess'.
One might expect that with the effort to get Phase 1a back on track, any work outside of the six miles from Stonehouse to Brimscombe would take a back seat, but that isn't true.
Naturally the Partnership would like to see progress on Phase 1b, the link from Stonehouse to Saul. While not many would agree with the description 'a six-mile duckpond' (from one of the few Stroud councillors not supportive of the scheme), the Phase 1a length will initially be an isolated navigation, which would certainly benefit from being linked to the waterways network. And getting boats from the main system through to Brimscombe would give a huge boost to the eventual aim of full reopening of the entire 36 miles from the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal to the Thames.
Unfortunately, despite the progress achieved in the past on the Phase 1b section
- including a length of re-watered canal with several restored locks and bridges around Eastington - it also contains three expensive blockages. These are the M5 (where the original route is likely to be bypassed by a channel which will share the bridge that currently takes the River Frome under the motorway); the A38 (where reinstatement will involve two new bridges to take the canal diagonally under a roundabout) and the Bristol to Birmingham railway.
The first two are budgeted at around 1.2m each, but the third is the trickiest: roads can be temporarily diverted, but the nature of railway operation makes it logistically difficult and expensive, even if the work of inserting a navigable culvert in an embankment is technically not particularly complex. As a small example of the issues involved, simply slowing trains down for a speed restriction on temporary trackwork could result in a 19,000 bill for wear on brake shoes!
Ken accepts that at the moment, for Phase 1b the Trust has 'aspirations' rather than plans, but foresees progress on the less complex western part of this section. Walk Bridge, the first obstruction from Saul Junction, carries a minor road and could be replaced for around 600,000-700,000,
while the first lock at Whitminster is already part-restored. Some funding is available for these works, and this could lead to reopening from Saul as far as the A38, a viable length that Ken "would dearly like to see happen".
There are signs of life at the eastern end of the canal too on the Phase 2 length that runs from the Thames at Inglesham to the Cotswold Water Park (an area of extensive flooded former gravel workings north of Cricklade, used for leisure). Several locks near South Cerney were restored a number of years ago, the Water Park Spine Road bridge was rebuilt by contractors in 2005, since then Rucks Bridge has been repaired by volunteers, and the Dig Deep consortium of mobile volunteer groups based in the South of England has recently adopted restoration of Eisey Lock as one of its projects.
It may be years before navigable lengths open in this area, but there are few major obstructions compared with the west end. An added impetus is the junction near Cricklade with the North Wilts Canal, a branch of the Wilts & Berks. Given the difficulties elsewhere on the Wilts & Berks restoration, this could provide it with the first of its three potential links to the navigable network. Finally, one of the biggest issues for the eastern end - a water supply - could be solved by converting some former (or yet to be dug) gravel pits to reservoirs, and eventually backpumping towards the Sapperton summit.
Mention of Sapperton brings us to what is likely to be the final part of the restoration - the Phase 3 section from the Water Park to Brimscombe Port, and Ken Burgin accepts that it has its problems: not least the 3817 yard Sapperton Tunnel, blocked by roof falls.
There's also a missing aqueduct that carried the canal over the A429 Cirencester to Kemble road, a new road bridge needed for the A433, and two more railway crossings in the Golden Valley above Stroud to be dealt with plus a couple of dozen locks and the only house built directly on the canal's line, in Siddington. Even so, Ken believes that the problems are not as bad as those already being tackled on the Phase 1 section - although he isn't talking about reopening dates just yet!
Back at the bottom of Gough's Orchard Lock the sun has come out, I've finished my coffee and I'm back to laying bricks on the wing walls. And I can't help taking a couple of impressions away from the Canal Camp (along with a lot of muddy clothes): firstly that after several years of frustration, things are starting to buzz again on the Cotswold restoration, as a 'can do' attitude prevails. And secondly that I'm going to be spending a lot of time over the next few months at the bottom of this particular lock - I hope the weather improves!
What we call the Cotswold Canals was built as two waterways. The Stroudwater Navigation opened from the Severn to Stroud in 1779. Then, ten years later, the Thames & Severn Canal connected it via the 3817-yard Sapperton Tunnel to the Thames at Inglesham. Although the Stroudwater prospered, the Thames & Severn never lived up to its promoters' dreams of a busy long-distance through route for several reasons. Leakage due to porous ground conditions, inadequate water supplies, the poor state of the upper Thames navigation and later a takeover by the Great Western Railway all hastened its demise. An attempt by Gloucester County Council to keep it going was in vain as trade was dying, the Thames & Severn closed in sections from 1927 to 1933, and the Stroudwater went in 1954.