The twentieth-century mismanagement of the decline of canals and railways in Britain is most obvious in the planners’ assumption that these moribund routes would never again be needed.
Essential road-developments rendered waterways practically useless for lack of foresight. Lengthy routes could have been protected at a fraction of the cost of the reverse solutions now needed to restore canals as environmental assets.
The Grantham Canal was built in 1793-1797 to connect the Great North Road and the Vale of Belvoir to the River Trent, giving access to the coal-carrying canals of the Erewash valley and the rich manufacturing towns of the East Midlands.
Traffic was never heavy. The highest dividend was paid in 1839, 1841 and 1842 – £13, equivalent to 8.67%, after which traffic fell away.
The company was sold in 1854 to the competing Ambergate, Nottingham, Boston & Eastern Junction Railway which promptly leased itself to the Great Northern Railway.
The Grantham Canal was formally abandoned in 1936, subject to an agreement to keep the waterway in water for agricultural use. This guaranteed the integrity of the route but not the termini, both of which were destroyed by post-war trunk-road construction. Furthermore 49 out of 69 hump-backed road bridges over the canal were levelled and piped.
Local resistance to filling in the canal began in 1963. After the Inland Waterways Association defeated a British Waterways Board attempt to stop maintaining the water supply along the canal the Grantham Canal Society was formed in 1969 to work towards restoring navigation.
Slowly but surely, the Society has returned parts of the canal to navigable standard.
A railway embankment, constructed to replace a rickety timber bridge over the canal, was cleared away in 1992 as part of a project to restore the top three of the Woolsthorpe flight of locks.
Another 2¼-mile section from Hickling Basin to Hose was restored in 1994.
The subsequent rebuilding of the piped Casthorpe Bridge in 1995 restored navigation to a 4½-mile stretch of waterway.
The ongoing restoration of the bottom locks at Woolsthorpe will extend this section to ten navigable miles.
The most serious problem facing the Society is linking the canal with the River Trent. The old alignment is blocked by the modern A52 trunk road and the plan to build a new canal on a different route doesn’t qualify for restoration funding because it’s not a restoration of an existing structure.
Yet the Trent Link is strategically crucial to the practical restoration of the whole canal and the economic benefits that would spring from it.
The Department of Transport’s flat refusal to pay for a high-level replacement for the piped Mann’s Bridge was perverse, since a short distance away a new high-level bridge crosses the A46 trunk road the canal at Cropwell Locks.
Plans for a cycle tunnel under the A1 west of Grantham could provide an opportunity to reach and redevelop the original terminal wharf, which is now a scrapyard. A culvert could have been budgeted and built in the first place.
In the post-war boom of road building the possibility that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century networks of canals and railways might have environmental value was largely ignored.
The huge popularity of leisure boating, the demand for marinas and waterside housing, and the economic advantages of bringing tourists to less-frequented parts of rural England are each reproaches to the narrow vision of planners and civil servants.
Future generations will salute the determination of canal enthusiasts and local people who saw possibilities in dried-up canals and ruinous wharfs and continue to work year in, year out, to bring the boats back to Grantham and many other places around the UK.
A visit to Woolsthorpe Locks is included in the Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) tour. For further details please click here.