The dream that lies hidden in the bulrushes.
A £500m overhaul of Britain's canal network was announced this week. Jeremy Seal explores the Cotswolds Canal, the largest of the projects. Independent on Sunday, 24/3/2002
After a final bend, the road calls it a day deep in the Gloucestershire lowlands, outside the church in Upper Framilode. In this village which lies hard by the banks of the Severn it seems there is nowhere left to go. Look closely at this apparent dead end, however, and you may notice evidence, ancient but admissible, of a former bustling junction. A sign reads ‘Lock House’ and a brief stretch of weed-choked watery wilderness heads east from the river in the company of an overgrown towpath; a remnant end of the 39-mile canal which once linked England’s great rivers, the Severn and Thames, across the Cotswolds. The Cotswold Canal, formally the 11-mile Stroudwater Canal in the west and the 28-mile Thames and Severn Canal in the east, was built in the 1770s, when the Cotswold hills were a formidable engineering barrier and was soon struggling from debt and competition. The canal was finally abandoned during the first half of the twentieth century. Now, ambitious plans are afoot to change all that.
150 years after the rise of the railways signaled the start of their lengthy decline, canals are once more back in vogue but for a basket of grant-attracting reasons - environment, conservation and heritage, leisure and tourism – in place of the original freight-carrying one. The canal network, comprising much of Britain’s 2,000 miles of inland waterways, is currently being restored at a faster rate than it was first created back in the late-eighteenth century. Ongoing projects include the restoration of the Rochdale Canal across the Pennines, the Millennium Link reconnecting Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Ribble Link joining the Lancaster Canal to the rest of the network, all due for completion this summer. The Huddersfield Narrow Canal reopened last summer while the Kennet & Avon has been undergoing an extensive overhaul, largely financed by the Lottery, which will eventually be completed early next year.
The biggest project by far, however, is the Cotswold Canal where raising the money – an estimated £82 million is required – may be the least of the restorers’ problems. Long stretches of the old watercourse have been ploughed under or have disappeared beneath car parks. Other sections, particularly east of Cirencester, are in the possession of unsympathetic landowners who have understandable objections to a waterway being driven across their farms and gardens. Several major roads and scores of minor ones have been built across the route; one lock is currently buried under the small matter of junction 13 of the M5.
None of which deters the restoration partnership formed last year including British Waterways, the Waterways Trust, and the Cotswold Canals Trust (CCT), regional development agencies and county councils, which plans to complete the work in ten years. ‘We’re confident that the canals, which run through outstandingly beautiful countryside, can be successfully and sensitively restored,’ says Andy Stumpf, British Waterways’ regeneration programme manager. ‘The potential for tourism and the money it brings with it being spent within towns and villages along the route is enormous’.
The CCT boasts over 3,000 active members, motivated by enthusiasms from Victorian engineering, ornithology and towpath walking to mucking about in boats. Restoring this canal would complete a natural boating circuit, already dubbed the Cotswold Ring, considerably enriching Southern England’s waterway route map. Permutations would include the Midlands network via the Sharpness Canal to Gloucester, the Oxford Canal via the Thames and even the Kennet & Avon from the west via the Severn (though perhaps not for narrowboat novices) and the River Avon, making it the Northwest Passage of canal restorations.
The canal contains 41 locks, however, and there are further concerns that technical difficulties will arise about finding the water to service the through traffic. Even so, British Waterways project that some 3,000 craft will pass along the new canal five years after it reopens, and that ten trip boats will operate along it. Trip boats already service three surviving sections on an occasional basis, notably one that ventures, sufficient water levels permitting, 1 kilometre into the 2.25 mile Sapperton Tunnel, one of the 18th century’s great engineering achievements.
The restoration partnership is working to reestablish a public right of way the entire length of the canal as a priority. It certainly makes an alluringly offbeat walking route in its present state, particularly for backcountry aficionados with an interest in industrial heritage. As things stand, there are two main walkable stretches; between Siddington and Cerney Wick, with Siddington’s splendid run of overgrown locks including one converted into a Japanese water garden, and from Upper Framilode at the western end to Sapperton, a largely uninterrupted route of 15 miles which I walked in a long day late last summer. The canal was choked with buddleia and wild mint, and the bulrushes tipped with their matchheads of brown moleskin. A detour took me over the A38 and M5 and returned me to the route at Westfield Bridge, a handsome brick canal bridge surreally sited in the middle of an evidently infilled field. The canal soon reappeared, complete with water, ducks and moorhens, herons and swans, and the CCT’s restoration work was evident along this stretch. At the restored Newtown Lock the new gates were inscribed with the words ‘Better to say here it is, than here it was’.
At Stonehouse, Stroud and Brimscombe, handsome corn, wool and cloth mills flanked the canal, some housing industrial units where men in overalls as quaint as their hairlicks lifted pallets on ancient forklifts. Dated cars – beige Rangerovers and navy minis – mouldered beneaths blankets of bindweed. The smell of epoxy escaped from air vents.
Things turned rural in the afternoon as I climbed Golden Valley through ash and hazel woods. Steep-sided locks, their gates dripping, were covered with baizes of duckweed or edged by neat kitchen gardens enclosed in lavender. A 1790s roundhouse with a conical roof, a design unique to the canal, stood deep in cypress and ornamental raspberries. Chalford resident Michael Mills owns a nearby stretch of the canal which he has leased to the CCT. ‘I’m all in favour of restoration; it would be a great asset to the district,’ says Mills whose great grandfather was a barge master on the canal. ‘But I don’t doubt that they’ve some challenges ahead.’
One such challenge may take the form of less enthuiastic locals, with some 70 local farmers and homeowners ranged against the project. At Kempsford, the line of the canal runs along the bottom of Ipek Williamson’s garden as a shallow watery depression overgrown with willows, alders and reeds which provides a fine wildlife habitat. ‘I often see muntjac deer, owls, wild duck and reptiles there, and there's always a remarkable number of insects,' she says. 'There would also be the disruption, and the question of my own security since I live alone.' Mrs Williamson, who runs a B&B operation from her home, is also concerned that the canal may pose a danger to guests' children.
My walk ended at the Sapperton Tunnel’s western portal, fully restored to its mock-Gothic glory in 1996. All along the length of this atmospheric backwater, it seemed that future plans and past ghosts wrestled for the place’s soul. It remains to be seen whether restoration proceeds apace or founders on local objections and other, more technical challenges.
The CCT (www.cotswoldcanals.com) runs trips at Blunder Lock through the summer on weekends and bank holidays, and 35-minute floodlit trips along Sapperton Tunnel during the winter. Details on 01285 643440 or at www.cotswoldcruises.co.uk. Private charters and public cruises also available at Lechlade through the summer (01793 574499; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Stroud District Council publish a towpath map of the canal between Upper Framilode and Sapperton, available at £3.50 from the Tourist Information Centre, Stroud (01453 760960).