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Montgomery Canal Restoration Review 2014

 

The 2014 restoration season was, to misuse a sporting expression, a year of two halves. The early months were devoted to finishing off the Redwith to Pryces Bridge section ready for the scheduled mid-May completion. From June onwards a start was made on the section from Pryces to Crickheath. In between we had no less than three ‘official’ opening ceremonies and one of our own!

Work got off to a spectacular start in February. With the lining now complete, a second consecutive exceptionally wet winter had left the channel with a good half-metre depth of water and for us a major problem of how to get rid of it. Happily the Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service rode to the rescue using their High Volume Pump as part of a training exercise. This beast pumped an estimated one and a half million litres of water out of the channel and under Redwith Bridge in just 4 hours – a far cry from our hired 3-inch pumps.

The March and April work parties were devoted to ‘finishing off a few jobs’. This description, although true, conveys a completely misleading impression of the level of activity over those hectic days. In fact the work parties turned out to be some of the hardest physically since the heady days of the block laying. The main tasks were levelling the erstwhile ‘tip’ to make it suitable for agriculture again, placing rip-rap on the offside bank, remedial pointing on the stone walls, and grouting along the base of the piling. More on the subject of grouting later......

By now planning was already taking place for the anticipated move to the Pryces Bridge to Crickheath section later in the year. This length is a nature reserve and contains a number of rare and protected species including Great Crested Newts. The basic principle of working in such locations is that any habitat lost must be replaced by an equivalent habitat elsewhere. The section where work was due to start contained a small newt breeding area, and that needed to be replicated elsewhere prior to commencement of work on the length. Thus the valedictory works at Redwith were the construction of a replacement newt pond in the corner of the old tip area. The pond was duly excavated, lined, filled with water, and with the surrounding land enclosed by two hedges. It very much looks the part.

May arrived and after so many years during which there seemed no prospect of the end of the work we now had one work party – three days – remaining before completion. In the grand tradition of the May Bank Holiday work parties the weather was dry throughout which greatly helped proceedings. The first two days were occupied with finishing the seemingly endless task of grouting at the junction between the lining and the piling on the towpath side, doing remedial work on the brickwork at Pryces Bridge and fitting fenders (for boats no less!) on the offside approach to Redwith Bridge.

May 5th - the last restoration day at Redwith. The work kicked off with profiling of the temporary access slope by the compound and the rest of the blocks in the section were rapidly laid using the block chute. Before it was finished off by addition of the rip-rap there was a ceremony. A golden block (well, actually a block painted yellow) was laid by Pat Wilson, then in her third term as Society Chair. The whole area was topped off by the erection of the Society banner at the top of the slope. Redwith to Pryces Bridge was finished!

The June work party was quite a weekend. It will go down in the record books as the month when the Redwith to Pryces section saw boats for the first time since 1935, and work on the Pryces to Crickheath section was started. The events had extensive coverage on TV, radio and in the press. Judging by the number of visitors over the weekend the canal had been magically transformed into a significant tourist attraction. Work on the re-watering in fact started a few days before the work party when CRT removed the clay dam at Redwith Bridge. This was followed a few days later by a ceremony, again with the media in attendance, to raise the top plank under Redwith Bridge. The section took several days to fill up and the stop planks were then removed completely.

The volunteers arrived on the first morning of the June work party to be greeted by a sight which they had all worked so long for – the canal in water. The extraordinary thing was that the channel already had the appearance of a mature canal with plants already populating the banks. A casual observer would not have realised that it had only been in water for a matter of a couple of days. Then we had the first boats on the section for nigh on eighty years. Five narrowboats made the journey to Pryces Bridge, accompanied by yet more TV reporters. The first boat sported a barrel of beer on its bows – for later consumption. The evening saw a celebration at Canal Central for the volunteers who had worked on the section. The barrel of beer was duly opened and the celebrations, as they say, went on long into the night. The evening also gave the volunteers the opportunity to thank Mike and Jan for their massive contribution to the restoration over many years. On Sunday an immediate start was made on the Pryces to Crickheath section involving erection of a stock fence and some surveying.

Work on the Pryces to Crickheath section was predicated on two things. The first was the granting of a newt licence to permit access to the channel. The second was the relocation of our Redwith base to somewhere adjacent to the new section of channel.

The process of obtaining a newt licence involved an application in early June by CRT to Natural England. Hitherto such applications had been turned round within 30 days but it quickly became apparent that there was a problem. Natural England had been one of the public bodies affected by public spending cuts which had resulted in a reduction in their staff numbers and this, coupled with a new application system and a surge in national construction activity, meant that the decision was likely to take more than the 30 days. However before we had any cause to enter the channel we had to learn all aspects of working in areas inhabited by newts. So in July, with the assistance of CRT staff, we got stuck into the initial vegetation clearance and erected our first newt fences. This fence was to enclose the first 75 metres of channel from Pryces Bridge which would form the first phase of our work. As work was progressing we came face to face with our first Great Crested Newt. The two year old female was cared for by CRT ecologists and, after posing for photographs, was returned to a suitable location in the channel. The other work in July was at the Redwith compound to prepare for both the impending move and the official opening of the canal by CRT on 19th July. The fourth and final opening was hosted by the CRT Board and attended by national and local politicians, local dignitaries and volunteers. The press, TV and radio were again much in evidence.

August dawned – still no newt licence – and work erecting the newt fence around phase 1 was finished. However there was good news on a new base for the restoration work. Negotiations by CRT resulted in agreement with Lloyd’s Animal Feeds for a base within their premises. This was an ideal location, sited in two clearings in a wood, and that permitted access to the channel adjacent to Pryces Bridge. The site was prepared by CRT contractors during August and during the September work party we moved in. The first jobs were installing yet another newt fence around the entire Lloyd’s compound and associated access and haul roads so as to exclude newts from both the working and storage areas. On the last day of the work party we took delivery of two 20-foot containers, replacements for the two containers which have served the Society so well for many years, and which first saw service at Burgedin. Two vehicles shuttled back and forth between the two sites bringing various heavy items including our faithful old mixer and, arguably, the most important item in the compound – the tea shelter. The work brought to an end the Society’s presence at Redwith where we had been based since 2008. Like all new arrivals we celebrated with a cup of tea whilst surrounded by random heaps of our possessions.

Having waited some four months for news on the newts licence, Natural England delivered the unwelcome verdict of refusal to CRT the day before the October work party. The reason for the decision related to a number of technical problems with the proposals. Although these matters could be relatively easily addressed, the timing of the decision, and the start of the cold weather, made further progress on the channel impossible during 2014. Work on the channel will thus recommence in the Spring when both newts and restoration volunteers emerge from their winter slumbers. In the meantime volunteer efforts in October and November were concentrated on the preparation of the new compound area. In contrast to the wide open spaces of Redwith the new base is quite small and thus space must be utilised carefully for materials storage. The most important storage areas - the containers – received considerable attention. They were painted internally, and externally in a very smart ‘Brunswick Green’, and the tool containers were fitted out with shelving. The welfare container was revamped with changing and drying areas. The facilities are a far cry from the more basic facilities on offer at, say, Brynderwyn or Newhouse, as many of the old restoration hands will testify!

There is a coda to the story of the Redwith to Pryces length. It might seem surprising that a section which required the fire brigade to remove the water before work could commence was later found to leak. There is evidence that water is escaping both into both the brook which is culverted under the canal and into some of the surrounding fields. Investigations by CRT established that the leaks were via the piling which forms part of the construction of the towpath side, and were caused by the waterproof membrane at the back of the piling having perished. The piling and towpath was the one part of the restoration which the society did not do but, nevertheless, the fact that the water level in the section has had to be lowered gives a general sense that the section is unfinished. Work is going on at the time of writing to find a solution based on grouting the offending sections of piling.

So a year that started at Redwith and ended at Lloyds has seen its fair share of highs and lows. There was the euphoria of finishing the section in May and the attendant ceremonies and media attention, followed by the downer of the leaks. The optimistic prospects of an immediate start on the Pryces to Crickheath section were chipped away by each successive week without a decision on the newts licence, and the resulting delay to the programme. On the other hand this was partially compensated for by the establishment of our excellent new base which ensures an immediate start on the channel when circumstances permit.

It has been quite a year! As always we look forward to the new restoration year and the new challenges that it will bring. Roll on 2015.

David Carter

 

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Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service in action
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The last blocks laid
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Ceremony 1 – the ‘Golden Block’
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Our first newt pond

Image5 Montgomery Canal - stop-plank lifted June 2014 448
Ceremony 2 – lifting the stop planks
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Ceremony 3 – the Society celebrates!
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Ceremony 4 – the official opening
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Our first newt!
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The new length of channel
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The new compound
November 2014
2013 Review
May 2015
2015 Review

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