Monthly Archives: July 2018

Road blocks

Grantham Canal:  Woolsthorpe Locks

Grantham Canal: Woolsthorpe Locks

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.

Unsurpassed Englishness

Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire:  east front

Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire: east front

The grouping of Staunton Harold Hall and Church is, according to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England, “unsurpassed in the country – certainly as far as Englishness is concerned”.

In fact, the little church, which looks medieval, is later.  The elegant Palladian house, on the other hand, incorporates an older building.

The story of the estate up to 1954 is the story of the Shirley family, who owned it by 1423.

Sir Robert Shirley, 4th Bt, built the Church of the Holy Trinity in the Commonwealth period “when all thinges Sacred were throughout ye nation either demolisht or profaned” for which he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died in 1656.

Queen Anne elevated the seventh baronet to the peerage as Earl Ferrers and Viscount Tamworth in 1711.

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl (1720-1760) shot and killed his land-steward, Mr Johnson, in the hall at Staunton Harold, and was tried by his peers and condemned to death.  He was the last English peer to die a felon’s death, hanged at Tyburn, supposedly with a silken rope, and publicly dissected at the Surgeon’s Hall:  http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/ferrers.html.

By contrast, his younger brother, Vice-Admiral Washington Shirley, 5th Earl (1722-1778), remodelled the house in the Palladian style.

The magnificent staircase hall (c1764) is part of his improvements and may be attributed to Benjamin Yates, a pupil of Robert Bakewell (1682-1752) who designed the screen at Staunton Harold Church.

The fifth earl is thought to figure on the extreme right in Joseph Wright’s painting ‘A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery’ (1766), which he purchased to hang at Staunton Harold.

Sewallis Shirley (1847-1912), the childless 10th Earl, left the estate burdened with debt.  The title passed to his fourth cousin, Walter Shirley, 11th Earl (1864-1937), an architect who gave up his practice to take care of the family property.

His son, Robert Shirley, 12th Earl (1894-1954) occupied the hall for only three years before it was requisitioned, first for the army and then as a prisoner-of-war camp.  By the time he regained possession in 1947 it was no longer fit to live in, and in 1954 he decided, rather than leave his son and heir “saddled with this white elephant I’ve struggled with all these years”, to sell up the estate and transfer Staunton Harold Church to the National Trust.  He died the night before the auction took place.

A demolition contractor bought the house, and within six months sold it to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC (1917-1992) for use as one of the Cheshire Homes for the Incurably Sick.  The Cheshire Home moved into more convenient premises in 1985 and Staunton Harold became a hospice for Group Captain Cheshire’s wife Sue Ryder’s Foundation.  Declining numbers caused the Sue Ryder Home at Staunton Harold to close in 2002.

It was purchased by John and Jacqueline Blunt in 2003.  In 1955 John Blunt’s father had bought three farms on the estate, including the stable block which they converted to craft workshops and studios and opened as the Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts in 1974.  The Blunts adapted the house to provide living space for themselves and members of their family, and use the state rooms to host a maximum of twelve weddings a year.

Staunton Harold Hall is open to the public in prearranged groups:  http://www.stauntonharoldestate.co.uk/history.

Burying an excavated canal

Nottingham Canal from Carrington Street, Nottingham

Nottingham Canal from Carrington Street, Nottingham

The Great Northern Junction at Langley Mill, on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border, connects three eighteenth-century canals that were once the arteries of the local coal and iron industry.

Once a busy freight facility, it’s now a picturesque marina, renovated by the Erewash Canal & Preservation Trust from the 1970s onwards.

As you stand on the bridge, the Erewash Canal runs to the south, flourishing as a leisure waterway which was never completely closed.  Ahead to the north is the line of the Cromford Canal, of which the first three miles, including six locks, was obliterated by opencast mining in the 1960s.  To the right, the Nottingham Canal ran along the eastern side of the Erewash valley, connecting with the River Trent and the centre of Nottingham.

The Nottingham Canal is a wreck.

It opened in 1796, to the annoyance of the Erewash Canal proprietors who resented its competition though there was more than enough traffic for both.

After the Midland Railway built its Erewash Valley line in 1847 the Nottingham Canal sold out in 1854-55 to the Ambergate, Nottingham & Boston & Eastern Junction Railway & Canal Co, which was in turn leased to the Great Northern Railway in 1861.

The Great Northern, which had no interest in canals, built their own railway branch parallel to the canal and the Midland line, in 1878.

By the early twentieth century most of the traffic on the Nottingham Canal was between Nottingham and the River Trent.

Commercial traffic practically ended in 1928, and the GNR’s successor, the London & North Eastern Railway, leased the section between Nottingham and Lenton to the Trent Navigation in 1936 before abandoning the rest of the canal the following year.

Nottingham Corporation bought the length of abandoned canal within the city boundary in 1952 in order to drain and pipe the line to prevent flooding.

Between 1955 and 1966 most of the canal within the city disappeared and much has since been built over apart from a section used as a diversion for the River Leen.

A Nottingham Canal Society was formed in 1976 to conserve the remains of the canal.

After making some practical efforts the Society admitted defeat when Nottinghamshire County Council declined in 1979 to fund a navigable under-bridge as part of its plans for the Awsworth By-Pass.

Broxtowe District Council bought six miles of the canal from Eastwood to the city boundary at Bramcote and has worked with voluntary and professional organisations to develop its amenity value as a right of way and nature reserve.

When you walk out of Nottingham railway station and turn towards town you cross a bridge over the waters of the remaining length of the Nottingham Canal, a much-used amenity for boaters and gongoozlers alike.

The hopes of reviving the rest of this canal, which ran through populous suburbs and rural farmland, were dashed for the sake of a short-sighted decision over the cost of a bridge.

The Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) tour is based in Nottingham and includes a visit to the Great Northern Basin.  For further details please click here.

Excavating a buried canal

Derby Canal:  Sandiacre

Derby Canal: Sandiacre

The Derby Canal promises to be an unlikely triumph of canal restoration, though it may take decades to accomplish.

The canal was built at the height of Canal Mania, between 1793 and 1796, engineered by the young Benjamin Outram (1764-1805), who had worked with William Jessop (1745-1814) on the Cromford Canal (completed 1794).

There were three branches, each connecting with the River Derwent in the centre of Derby:  a line south joined the River Trent at Swarkestone;  another ran north up the Derwent valley to Little Eaton, and the third went east to join the Erewash Canal at Sandiacre.

The Derby Canal did good business.  The historian Charles Hadfield estimated that its total traffic in 1839 was around 200,000 tons annually.

Then, within a couple of years, the three branches of the Derby Canal were duplicated by the three railways that made Derby a railway town.

Somehow the Derby Canal, like its neighbour the Erewash Canal, remained independent of railway ownership, though generations of directors would have liked to unload the responsibility.

In 1872, when the company offered the canal to the Midland Railway for £90,000, the railway manager, James Allport, chose not to keep an appointment with the committee.

The canal branch to Little Eaton was formally abandoned in 1935.

Imperial Chemical Industries raised an objection to the canal company’s proposal to abandon the Sandiacre line in 1937.

Commercial traffic on the canal ended in 1945 and the following year the proprietors, anxious to avoid reopening the canal, locked the gates at Sandiacre against a commercial boat and its butty, Atlas and Vela.

As a result the canal was not included in the 1948 nationalisation that formed British Transport Commission.

A further protest cruise by the Inland Waterways Association in 1961 was thwarted when the canal company felled a tree across the lock at Sandiacre and chained the gates shut.

The canal company obtained a warrant for abandonment in 1964, and a year later a stretch of the canal bed at Breaston was sold for one shilling for the construction of the M1 motorway.

Just as the loss of the Euston Arch propelled the preservation of St Pancras Station, so the loss of the Derby Canal made local supporters of inland waterways all the more determined to preserve the Erewash Canal.

And because of the success of the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association (ECP&DA) the eventual restoration of the Derby remains practically possible, and thanks to the foresight and acumen of the Derby & Sandiacre Canal Trust, it looks likely that it will happen.

Apart from the M1 crossing, the only other section of the Derby Canal lost to redevelopment is in Derby city centre.  Otherwise, though most of the waterway is dry, the land is available for restoration and protected by local-authority planning policies.  Overbridges have been lowered and locks and the canal bed filled in but these changes are reversible.

Crucially, the Trust was in a position to find funds for a navigable culvert under the Derby Bypass at Swarkestone in 1996.

In 1998 the buried Borrowash Bottom Lock was excavated and partly restored, and since 2015 working parties have begun to return the lock and its adjacent half-mile pound to water.  A length of waterway will be reinstated along the so-called “Golden Mile” at Draycott, where the Trust is restoring a group of canal cottages as a residential and commercial development.

The most exciting development of all is the Derby Arm, a thirty-metre high boat lift to convey boats between the canal and the navigable River Derwent giving access to the city-centre and Silk Mill – a solution to the impracticality of restoring the original Derwent crossing at the Holmes.

Comparable to the highly successful Falkirk Wheel (2002), this structure will be visible from a new visitor centre at the Derby Triangle, adjacent to Pride Park.

Staring at the blocked waterway at the Sandiacre Lock Cottages, where the Derby Canal joins the Erewash Canal, it seems unlikely that boats could ever again float under the bridge and into the currently buried Bottom Lock.

But they will.  One day.

The Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) tour includes a visit to the Sandiacre Lock Cottages.  For further details please click here.