Restoration tales

DREAMS OF LINKING UP THE SWANSEA CANAL: Meet the canal society working to create a 35-mile navigable stretch of water through the south Welsh countryside

Abi Whyte

Posted on 11/10/2019

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It’s a wet and blustery morning as I walk along Albert Dock in Liverpool, my umbrella blown inside out, weaving my way through tourists in see-through ponchos. But soon I’m in the cosy belly of the SS Daniel Adamson (aka the Danny), warming myself with a cup of tea and taking in the plush surroundings of the Art Deco saloon, complete with bold, geometric patterns and cute, round cocktail tables. The newly restored ship, built in 1903 (making it nine years older than the Titanic) and saved from the scrapheap in 2004, is a fitting venue for the event being held today – a gathering of the leading canal restoration societies in the north west of England to share their inspiring stories with each other and the public.

The showcase, organised by Canal & River Trust and the Inland Waterways Association, is the first of its kind – a chance for canal societies from a particular region to exhibit under one roof – and will hopefully be repeated in other regions around the country. “It’s exciting to meet all these other societies. We’re learning a lot from each other,” Colin Greenall, chairman of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, tells me. The Sankey is a canal I’ve heard little about, so Colin’s keen to tell me about the canal’s importance in our industrial history.

“The Sankey is England’s first industrial waterway, and was one of the last to be closed,” Colin says. “There are so many historical gems along it, but people don’t know about them, such as the Sankey Viaduct, which was the first railway viaduct built to go over a canal. We’re striving to keep this precious heritage alive.”

It seems that the restoration of period architecture along the canal, as well as the canal itself, is a key focus for many of the societies here today. Bernie Jones, chairman of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canals Trust tells me about the exciting plans underway at Wappenshall Wharf, three miles north of Telford. “The wharf would have been buzzing with people in the canal’s heyday, because it’s where goods were trans-shipped into the warehouse. The warehouse is quite unique – it straddles the canal, so the canal actually passes beneath it, to enable the loading and unloading of boats. When it’s restored, it’s going to display items on loan from the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, to pay homage to Thomas Telford, who designed the second, sister warehouse beside it.”

The Montgomery Canal, affectionately known as the Monty, is another waterway boasting an impressive array of industrial architecture, such as its four aqueducts and superbly preserved lime kilns. I wander over to the Montgomery Waterway Restoration Trust’s stall and learn about the exciting projects underway, including the restoration of a further one and a quarter miles of the canal up to Crickheath in Shropshire, and to improve four miles of towpath between Welshpool and Llanymynech.

Chris Bushnell of the MWRT is excited about how improvements to the canal will bring more visitors to the area: “The restored 11-mile section through Welshpool already attracts many visitors for its rich wildlife, and has boosted health and wellbeing with many locals using the towpath for cycling, running and walking. Excitingly, next year Whittington Wharf Narrowboats will be running a small hire fleet in Welshpool, which will greatly enhance tourism in the town.”

I stop to view a vast map of the canal network and marvel at the buzz of activity that seems to be going among the societies in this north-western pocket of the UK, but what about the other regions? Let’s take a look at what these inspiring folk are getting up to on a canal near you.

So far, Swansea Canal Society (SCS) has restored five miles of the canal between Clydach and Ynysmeudwy, with a long term plan of linking the canal with the Neath and Tennant canals, creating a navigable stretch of 35 miles in the south Welsh countryside.

Martin Davies, secretary of the SCS remembers how the canal used to be: “Before the society formed in 1981, the canal was in a dire state. I remember one of my first jobs when I joined the society was to pull out things from the canal – we found five-a-side football goals, shopping trolleys, bikes. It was pretty bad, but then we had a big clean up, gained lots more new members and now we meet up every Tuesday to carry out tasks. We get so much satisfaction from the improvements we’re making to the community, and being out in the fresh air.”

Jerry Hoare