The valley of the River Erewash, which forms a border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, is remarkable mainly for being unremarkable – a wide flood plain with a diminutive stream meandering across the flat meadows.
Its market towns perch on the hills above – Heanor, Ilkeston and Eastwood – the last of which associates the area with the epithet “the Lawrence country”, for here the young author, David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930), known round about as “Bert”. grew up in what he later called “the country of my heart”.
Lawrence’s childhood, described in such novels as Sons and Lovers (1913), was the heyday of the local coal industry, now gone, which began when a couple of canny eighteenth-century landowners, Robert Barber and Thomas Walker, eyeing their Leicester competitors’ efforts to gain a waterway from their coalmines to the River Trent, obtained an Act of Parliament in 1777 to build the Erewash Canal from the Trent near Long Eaton to Langley Mill, which sits in the valley between Heanor and Eastwood.
They engaged the Heanor-born John Varley (1740-1809), surveyor and resident engineer of the Chesterfield Canal, but despite his achievements building the 2,850-yard Norwood Tunnel and the great flights of locks at each end of it, his reputation was questionable and after he mistook the levels at the top of the canal he was dismissed.
Construction of the canal was in fact straightforward – a waterway of fourteen broad locks with a single low aqueduct over the River Erewash near Shipley. Despite the difficulty with the top lock, the canal cost £21,000 – a couple of thousand pounds below budget – and opened ahead of schedule.
Not only did the Erewash Canal open up the coalfield along its course, but it prompted the construction of a whole network of connecting waterways – the Cromford Canal (1794) and, with the same year, 1796, three further waterways, the Derby Canal, the short Nutbrook Canal and the Nottingham Canal, which made Langley Mill a three-way junction providing the Cromford Canal with a shorter, competing route for traffic heading downstream on the Trent.
Erewash Canal shares were worth having: when the first railways appeared in the area in 1839-40, its dividends slumped from 64% to 45% in 1841, and remained above 21% for the following fifteen years. Indeed, the canal remained independent until it was nationalised after the Second World War. While the other local canals declined and closed, the Erewash Canal had the advantage that its direct connection to London by the Grand Junction and the Old Grand Union canals remained free of railway ownership.
Barge traffic eventually ceased in 1952 and British Waterways nominally closed the top section of the Erewash Canal in 1962, but had to maintain it in order to supply water from the Nottingham Canal’s Moorgreen Reservoir for navigation in the lower section and to supply Stanton Ironworks.
Members of the Inland Waterways Association, having lost the battle to keep the Derby Canal open, formed the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association (ECP&DA), leased the threatened lock cottages at Sandiacre and organised working parties to keep the waterway navigable.
In 1971-1973 the Association reclaimed the derelict terminal basin at Langley Mill, reinstating the connections with the moribund Cromford and Nottingham canals.
The importance of this restoration work cannot be overstated. Apart from keeping the Erewash Canal open to pleasure craft, the Association’s work makes possible the ultimate restoration of the Cromford and Derby Canals, however many decades each might take.
But for the foresight of less than a dozen individuals in the late 1960s, the canals of the Erewash valley would have been quite literally gone and forgotten.
The Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) tour includes visits to the Great Northern Basin and the Sandiacre Lock Cottages. For further details please click here.