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Dawdling Down the Years

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Crossing the Vyrnwy 2007 Courtesy of Harry Arnold/Waterway Images

Picture yourself lazily paddling along a picturesque rural canal on a beautiful summer’s day. Or taking a leisurely stroll along the towpath, admiring the boats and the scenery…
That’s the Montgomery Meander and Dinghy Dawdle – in theory at least!

Inclement weather?

The Dawdle seems to have acquired something of a reputation for bad weather. Admittedly the very first Dawdle, in 1985, stays in the memory as much for its sheeting rain as for any other reason, and the 2009 Dawdle was described as “extreme Dawdling – only for the brave (or the daft)”. Yet remarkably, in both years well over thirty boats stayed the course. In 1985 the day started out perfectly sunny and the heavens didn’t open until after the boats had set off. But in 2009 they already knew the worst – the appalling weather had started early – yet amazingly some people even turned up at the last minute as late entries. There’s just no accounting for taste!

But over the years, most of the Dawdles seem to have been blessed with more favourable weather. There are phrases like “blue skies and warm sunshine”, “perfect weather”, and “bright and beautiful”, interspersed with rather more mundane descriptions such as “the sun got hotter and hotter – we began to get sunburnt” or just the plain, down-to-earth “good weather”. This is not to say that there weren’t bad years – in 1991, for instance, it was raining on and off all day – but overall there have been many more fine Dawdles than wet ones.

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Newhouse Lock 2006
Courtesy of A Talbot/M Lawrence.Writeimage

A political agenda

The Dawdle was launched in 1985 with two specific aims in mind: to draw public attention to the numerous ‘dropped’ or ‘flatted’ bridges which obstruct navigation, and to show the canal in use by boats. “It is important to demonstrate that a restored canal will provide a valuable local and tourist amenity.” The Dawdle was Mary Awcock’s brainchild, and she and her husband Derrick cheerfully acted as organisers for the first twelve years.

True to its aims, the very first Dawdle included a portage over Gallowstree Bridge at Welshpool, which at that time was dropped. The traffic was stopped and whilst the thirty-odd boats were carried across the busy A483, leaflets were handed out to car drivers explaining the reason for the portage. The extent of media interest was gratifying, with coverage in local newspapers and on the radio.

The next few Dawdles continued to concentrate on the dropped bridges either side of Welshpool, namely Gallowstree Bridge and Whitehouse Bridge, with a view to making the restored lengths of canal into a continuous navigation.

By 1988 the interest in the canal generated by the Dawdles and by various other means had started to bear fruit, and for a few heady months it seemed that full restoration was not only possible, but imminent. Indeed at the end of the 1988 Dawdle Mary Awcock said, “Next year will be the Fifth and Final Dawdle as we hope the need to campaign for restoration will no longer be necessary, as there will be no more road bridges to portage”.

There was good reason for her optimism. In the previous year British Waterways had obtained an Act of Parliament allowing it to restore and reopen the Montgomery Canal from Frankton to Newtown. And of course this brought the question of how best to fund the restoration into sharp focus.

European grant aid was available, but 50% match funding needed to be raised locally. The figures involved were in the region of £16 million, which was the amount that full restoration of the canal in Wales was expected to cost. Four statutory authorities: Powys County Council, Montgomeryshire District Council, the Welsh Tourist Board and the Mid-Wales Development Board could all see the benefits of restoration, and the linking of the restored canal to the main waterway network, and all four pledged the necessary funds. The case was felt to be proven in terms of economics, employment and tourist potential, and Euro MP Beatta Brookes was able to confirm that the European funding was available. It seemed that at last all the hard work had paid off.

Betrayal

But the euphoria was short-lived. Because of the amount of money involved, the four statutory authorities had to seek the approval of the Welsh Office. On a black day in December 1988 Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Wales, infamously refused to grant that approval.

Condemnation came thick and fast. Baroness White, Welsh Office minister in the 1970s and a firm supporter of the restoration, did not mince her words. “The short-sighted decision of the Welsh Office not to support the application for European funds for the restoration of the Montgomery Canal is a stinging and stingy rebuff to the Mid-Wales local authorities, Welsh Tourist Board, Mid-Wales Development, and a remarkable band of voluntary workers. Mr Peter Walker clearly does not share the conviction of the Prince of Wales who in the 70s put tremendous time and effort into the restoration of the central length, now named after him.”

Back to business as usual

Resilience, perseverance and patience are qualities which have been very finely honed in all the groups involved in the restoration of the Montgomery. So once the initial shock of disbelief had ebbed, it was back to business as usual. And of course business as usual meant more Dawdles. The Fifth was not the Final, after all.

Successive Dawdles continued to portage over Gallowstree Bridge and Whitehouse Bridge, and there were ups as well as downs. In 1992 David Suchet attended the eighth Dawdle and officially opened the new (raised) Gallowstree Bridge. Three years later the new (raised) Whitehouse Bridge was also opened, and the 1996 Dawdle paddled triumphantly beneath it.

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David Suchet presenting plaques at Welshpool, after the official opening of Gallowstree Bridge (7th June 1992)
Courtesy of Harry Arnold/Waterway Images

By 1997 the organisers felt confident that “with restoration of the canal as far as Welshpool either in planning, in hand or complete”, it was time to start concentrating on other sections of the canal.

There were dropped bridges to both north and south, but there were also a number of restoration success stories to celebrate, and the Dawdle reflects this. Janet Lewis-Jones, a non-executive Board member of British Waterways, reopened Brynderwen Lock at the 2002 Dawdle. The 2003 Dawdle celebrated the reopening of the stretch from Gronwen Wharf to Queen’s Head. The next two Dawdles were back on the Welshpool section, partly “because we can“, and partly to continue to reinforce the message that boats bring a canal alive. And bring it alive they did – sixty five boats went from Welshpool to Burgedin in 2005, with the sun shining brightly all day. In 2006 the Dawdle went south again, and Lembit Öpik cut the ribbon to reopen Newhouse Lock.

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Lembit Öpik reopens Newhouse Lock 2006
Courtesy of A Talbot/M Lawrence.Writeimage

But despite the successes the Dawdle stayed true to its aims – to demonstrate the benefits of a restored canal, and to raise the dropped bridges. There are still ten dropped bridges carrying roads across the Montgomery Canal. Five of them carry the busy A483 (a major arterial road running from Swansea to Chester), so the problem is not going to be resolved any time soon. But politicians of all persuasions, both locally and nationally, are becoming more and more aware of the social and economic benefits a fully functioning canal can bring to a region. So the answer is to keep up the pressure – to carry on with the restoration work, and at the same time to carry on shouting about the bridges.

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Before the Dawdle

The Montgomery Meander & Dinghy Dawdle was by no means a novel idea. In fact over the years a number of walks and dinghy rallies had taken place with the aim of promoting the restoration of the canal. The walks tended towards the sponsored “full thirty five miles” variety, although there were shorter ones as well. But the rallies deserve a few paragraphs to themselves.

From 1970 to 1976 there was a series of seven Welshpool Dinghy Rallies. The first five all followed very much the same format – a one day event, always in September, with a fairground and stalls as well as a wide range of competitions and races for dinghies and canoes. There was a blindfold race, a fancy dress race and, best of all, wife swapping. Apparently “the oarsmen had to swap their passengers in mid-stream”…

Another regular and evidently very popular feature was the Ducking Stool: “For a shilling you had four throws at the prop which balanced a ‘volunteer’ on the end of a see-saw overhanging the canal. If your aim was true, and the prop dislodged, the said ‘volunteer’ got ducked. From the frequent roars of the crowd, there were some accurate throwing arms present. The initial worry of this sideshow was whether Mr Bateson’s daughter would be on the wetting end all day, as she was the only original volunteer, but it was soon apparent that there would be no shortage of assistants, and about a dozen different people ‘took the plunge’ during the day.”

The last two Welshpool Dinghy Rallies were rather more ambitious. Still in September, they were two day events with a Rally Dance on the Saturday evening, in the course of which a Rally Queen was chosen. These were the first rallies to have trailed boats: “The advent of trailed boats made a striking impact on the local population and clearly demonstrated that the Montgomery Canal is indeed alive again.”

Then there was a gap of three years until the Magnificent Seven Miles Rally in June 1980 and the Welshpool Extravaganza in July 1981. The planning and organisation of these two rallies was a joint venture with the British Waterways Board, and the Board’s employees and their wives joined in with gusto. The Welshpool Extravaganza uniquely featured “a Royal Wedding water carnival”.

And after that there was another three year gap until the first Dinghy Dawdle in 1985. These six ‘gap’ years were not idle years, by any means. There were boat rallies going on all over the place – Ellesmere, Nantwich, Market Drayton, Cheswardine, Whixall – you name it! Perhaps the organisers were so busy with these events that they had no time to  spare, or perhaps they felt that there was so much going on elsewhere that there was no need for further events on the Montgomery. Or perhaps a bit of both…

Past, present and future

People talk about the restoration of the Montgomery Canal as though it’s something that’s going to happen in the future. It isn’t. By and large it’s already happened. A modicum of history will serve to explain the background to the current limits of navigation.

The restoration effectively began in 1969, when the Welshpool Big Dig helped to scuttle plans to run a bypass along the line of the canal. Thereafter the restoration spread to either side of Welshpool, with Prince Charles enthusiastically involved in a seven mile stretch now known as the Prince of Wales length. This first flush of restoration resulted in a fully navigable canal for eleven miles from Burgedin Locks to Efail Fach Bridge. Then a series of locks were restored to either side of the navigable stretch, and nature reserves were constructed.

So there is actually very little left to do in order to achieve full navigation of the twenty seven mile stretch from Frankton to Efail Fach Bridge. There are no insurmountable engineering problems – just three miles of dry channel to be reprofiled, lined and watered, and the little matter of five dropped bridges… And with the Montgomery Canal Conservation Management Strategy in place, ecological considerations can be addressed and made good at all stages of the planning process.

And once that twenty seven mile stretch is finished, attention can turn again to the southern end of the canal, and the other five dropped bridges, in an effort to achieve full navigation to Freestone and perhaps, eventually, to Newtown.

At the moment, it appears that the most serious obstacle to restoration of this three mile stretch is the dropped Schoolhouse Bridge, which must be raised if full navigation to Llanymynech is to become a reality.

Current works

The current push is to extend the navigable section southwards to Llanymynech. This will increase the length of canal accessible from the main waterway network to ten miles, and will give visiting boaters the opportunity to explore the extensive industrial heritage area and nature reserves at Llanymynech. It will also provide another winding point; at the moment a full length narrow boat has to wind at Gronwen Wharf, before reaching Redwith.

Current volunteer work is therefore concentrated on the three miles of dry channel between Redwith Bridge and Llanymynech. The Society’s volunteers are currently reprofiling and lining the channel between Redwith Bridge and Pryces Bridge.

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Twentyfifth Anniversary Dawdle 2010

Exploring the Montgomery Canal

If you want to do the full Monty, as it were, there are several ways of going about it. You can walk – the towpath is good throughout. If you have a trailboat, there are a number of slipways along the canal. If you fancy having your narrowboat or cruiser on the eleven mile stretch for a while, it’s not impossible – it can be craned in, and there are moorings available. Or you can use a portable boat. If you don’t have one, the Friends of the Montgomery Canal have a number of Canadian style canoes which may be borrowed in return for a donation – ring 01938 590543 or 01691 831455 for details.

Catherine O’Brien

A slightly different version of this article was first published in the June 2010 issue of Waterways World. Many thanks to Richard Fairhurst and Waterways World, and also to
Harry Arnold and Andrew Talbot for their photographs