Posted on 29/08/2019
When the M5 motorway was built in the late 1960s, the Stroudwater Navigation was already closed so little thought was given to its tarmac severing the route that had once joined the River Severn to the River Thames. Erased from the landscape, with landowners reimbursed for space taken to build the motorway using tracts of the canal, not only was its course filled in, but several of its locks and bridges were destroyed too.
“At the time none of those involved had any interest in the canal at all,” explains Ken Burgin, Chief Executive of the Cotswold Canals Trust.
“At one end Westfield Lock was partially blown-up and infilled. The owner who had just been given the land went down to investigate the noise and found dynamite charges set in the bridge too. She ended up standing on it until the workmen went home in order to save it.”
Opened in 1779, the Stroudwater Navigation combined with the Thames & Severn Canal to create the first inland waterway link across the south of England. However, by the time the Stroudwater was closed in 1954, canals across the country had fallen into disuse and disrepair.
Now as part of a drive to re-open derelict canals – by those interested in preserving their heritage while recognising their benefit for wellbeing, recreation, wildlife and community engagement – the two systems will once again be rejoined. To allow a connection between the western section of the Cotswold Canals and the inland network, the ‘missing mile’ between the A38 and Meadow Mill will need to be reinstated.
With a five-mile stretch of existing canal between Thrupp and Stonehouse already restored, this trickier second phase will see the reintroduced waterway from Saul Junction to Stonehouse pass under the renovated Westfield Bridge and its adjacent lock, before striking off on a freshly dug course towards the M5.
Requiring an underpass beneath the motorway, while also bringing the route through the middle of an adjacent roundabout, achieving both has required some clever design work. Getting under the M5 will involve the use of the existing wide but low bridge over the River Frome by creating a new separate lower level channel for the canal to provide the necessary headroom.
Heading north, the route will pass through a lock before passing diagonally across the A38/A419 roundabout, where motorists will be party to the surreal sight of boats passing below the rotating traffic over two bridges.
Designed by volunteers, the solutions that will allow the canal to cross both motorway and roundabout will be built by specialist contractors. However, much of the remaining grunt work will be completed by people donating their time.
“A mile of the canal was destroyed, and apart from a lock at one end, everything else is completely gone,” explains Burgin. Currently nothing but flat fields, the new stretch, together with the other work, will require approximately 700,000 hours of work to build.
The construction of two completely new locks and the mile of excavation will take up the majority of the time. “Some will be manning diggers and some will be building the new concrete locks, which we expect to be completely volunteer-built,” explains Burgin.
Canals were the motorways of their age – and unlike their modern equivalents, reinstating the route will improve more than 30 hectares of wildlife habitat, which were lost or damaged when the original canal was removed.
Partly for this reason, along with individuals donating their time, the Heritage Lottery Fund is expected to stump up £10 million, while Highways England is providing a further £4 million. In all the total bill for the project will be around £23.4 million.
Expected to be finished in 2023, the funding for planned further works to the Cotswold Canal network is dependent on the completion of this first section. With the finishing of one phase unlocking the possibility of funding for the next, securing the cash needed remains the main barrier to faster progress.
However, there is another potential source of funding that could be utilised. The canals might again have worth as a transport network and they remain a potential asset for utility providers.
“If we can persuade Thames Water to use the canal to get water to London, that will speed the rest of the project on,” says Burgin. Able to carry water from the Severn to the Thames, if the body can be convinced to use the newly re-linked canal system instead of a pipeline, this could provide a huge boost.
Should this happen it wouldn’t just be people and boats making the journey from the Severn down to London, but also drinking water for the capital too.
The Trust is supporting the restoration of the Cotswold Canal with a combination of cash and support in kind. Our trustees have pledged £625,000 to support the restoration, which will be spread over five years from 2018. This is in addition to the wealth of knowledge and expertise, management support and professional advice that Canal & River Trust staff have been providing and will continue to provide to help make this ambitious project a success. Read more about the ongoing progress of the Cotswold Canal Trust.