Photo: Andrew Batram
England and Wales have around 2,000 miles of navigable canals and rivers, but after the Second World War, it seemed unlikely that this much of the network would survive. Canals had been in decline for decades and were overwhelmingly seen as slow, old-fashioned and unattractive – partly due to neglect from lack of use.
Many canals seemed doomed, until a nascent restoration movement set in and began reinventing renewed canals for leisure. The Welford Arm of the Grand Union is a case in point. This nub of a waterway was closed in 1946 but now lives again as a place for leisure and tourism, as well as a treasured space for the local community.
The Welford Arm opened in 1814, essentially so the nearby Welford Reservoir and Sulby Reservoir could feed water into the original Grand Union Canal. Barely 1.5 miles long, the canal had a single lock and ended with a wharf at Welford so coal and other produce could be brought to the town. This included limestone, which was turned into quicklime in a complex of seven kilns that lined the wharf – the largest kiln site on the Grand Union. As less goods were transported by canal boat during the first decades of the 20th century, the Welford Arm became increasingly unused and closed in 1946.
In some ways, the small size of the Welford Arm turned out to be a blessing because this short strip of canal became a sort of prototype of the work that could be done by a dedicated restoration movement. The Old Union Canal Society had formed in 1964 to protect all local waterways and it took up the cause of the Welford, fighting for the restoration of the canal – something that was feasible precisely because there was so little of it. The Welford Arm subsequently reopened in 1969 following 15 months of work and the removal of 10,000 tons of mud. It’s now home to two marinas, a pub and the remains of lime kilns, as well as being a good start or end point for a number of local country walks. It’s a tiny gem, and one that might not exist were it not for the dedication of volunteers who recognised a local treasure when they saw it.
Read more about the Welford Arm on our website.
Each year, we hold a number of free Open Days for the public. We’re inviting you along to take a look behind the scenes and find out what it takes to keep our canals and rivers open to everyone. Find an Open Day near you.