At some point overnight between the 15th and 16th of March this year, part of the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal collapsed. A section of the canal, which connects the Trent & Mersey with the Shropshire Union, breached after lock paddles were opened. This overloaded the canal, causing it to overtop and sent the equivalent of 200 lorry loads of embankment crashing into the nearby River Wheelock. A huge gash was left where the canal had once been, with several boats stranded and one in particular perilously close to the hole.
Almost immediately, the Canal & River Trust began work to make the site safe and then begin the repair work. The Trust’s engineers and their contractor, Kier, were on site in less than 24 hours armed with heavy plant machinery and plenty of willpower to clear the debris and make the site safe. Thanks to them – and to everyone who donated to an appeal for donations, launched within days of the breach – thousands of pounds and countless hours of support helped start and continue the long process of repairing the damage.
The response to the Trust’s appeal was incredible. “The Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal is hugely popular with the local community and boaters and we’ve been overwhelmed already by the love and support everyone is offering,” said Ani Sutton, engagement manager at the Canal & River Trust in the days following the breach. “So far, I’ve heard from people planning to wash cars at Tesco, offers of help from Morrisons, support from the Council, and others planning local tombolas.”
The 10-mile Middlewich Branch was constructed 200 years ago and is connected to the Trent and Mersey by the Wardle Canal, the shortest canal in the UK. It served an important function as one of the country’s busiest waterways and has remained a popular and picturesque route for leisure craft. It was estimated that the bill to fix the breach could be as high as £3m, so the Trust launched an urgent appeal for donations.
By September 2018, more than £30,000 including offline donations and Gift Aid has been raised from supporters, and, thanks to the players of People’s Postcode Lottery, £1.42 million in funding has been provided to support the emergency works.
Local on-the-ground support helped clear a section of canal bed following the loss of water. Local volunteer group SUMBA (Shropshire Union Middlewich Branch Adoption Group) teamed up with Trust’s local customer operation teams to remove rubbish from the drained canal. The Trust arranged meetings in a supermarket with local fundraisers to discuss what needed to be done and to talk about fundraising events. Locals came up with a variety of initiatives for raising money, and also offered manual help and the free use of meeting rooms. The Trust also used the occasion to appeal for volunteers to join their Towpath Taskforce
Jason Watts, volunteer coordinator at the Canal & River Trust said: “It was great that we were able to invite people along to see the great work that is being done to repair the canal. We received great feedback and everyone was astounded by the scale of the job and were really fascinated to be able to get close to the work. The local community in Middlewich and all over the country have given us amazing support throughout the works, and it just shows how much the canals mean to local communities”.
The Canal & River Trust have also used the opportunity to engage with young people, meeting Guides and local primary schools. Pupils from St Mary’s Primary School visited the breach site in June to have a close look at the works needed to repair the breach.
Everyone who donated to the appeal has been emailed with updates about the work, and were also asked to share the appeal via email social media or word of mouth. A challenging time for the Shropshire Union Canal and for the Canal & River Trust has been made a little easier thanks to the support and engagement of volunteers, fundraisers and donors – and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their help. Generous donations have really demonstrated the love that people have for this beautiful canal and the important part it plays in people’s everyday lives.
To bring things up to date on the reconstruction work, following the good weather over the summer, great progress is being made. The collapsed embankment has been rebuilt up to a level approximately equal to the level of the bed of the new section of canal. The new canal walls either side of the canal itself are currently being constructed. This will be followed by completion of the embankment to bring it up to towpath level. We will then reline the canal to make it waterproof.
Some of the future works need reasonable weather to complete them, but we are currently still on programme for opening the navigation by Christmas. The hard work is far from over, but we’re immensely grateful for your help getting us this far.
If you’d still like to support the ongoing work please go to www.canalrivertrust.org.uk/breach or alternatively text LEAK515 to 70070 to donate £5. Donations will go directly to repairing the canal.