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Montgomery Canal Restoration Review 2013

 

This year must rank as the most productive in the history of the Society’s restoration efforts. It was a year of remarkable progress in which all of the targets set early on were achieved or exceeded.

The principal target was to finish both the channel shaping and the lining operations along the whole length before the end of the restoration season. This was a pretty ambitious aim given that there was over 200 metres of channel to be shaped and 245 metres of channel to line. It was realised right from the off that there was no hope of achieving the target using the working practices of past years. The main problem hitherto had been the conflicting demands on plant and labour of the shaping and lining operations, with the result that neither worked as efficiently as they could. To overcome this separate work parties for the two operations were held, and this more single-minded approach overcame most of the former problems. The other notable feature of the work parties was that the volunteers worked longer and more efficiently than in previous years due, in no small part, to the use of some innovative bits of equipment

Happily the winter hedge laying work concluded in January allowing the planned February slot to be switched to preparatory work for the restoration effort. The weather in the first two months of 2013 was a continuation of monsoon conditions that caused so much trouble during the 2012 restoration campaign. The rainy season had deposited an estimated 800 cubic meters of water in the channel giving almost navigable depth between the bridges and before any work could start this lot had to be removed. The bulk of the water was pumped through Redwith Bridge into the watered section of canal, an operation lasting two working days using four pumps. This, together with surveying and some other enabling works, set us up for the sterner tasks to come.

The first week of March saw the start of the new monthly ‘two part’ format with a six day long shaping work party. The participants were half a dozen or so machine drivers, surveyors, first aiders/welfare personnel together with an impressive array of diggers, dumpers and pumps. The most eye-catching item was a 14 tonne digger which had the power and reach to shape the offside bank slope in one operation. Aided by dry, but very cold, weather a 100m section of bank was finished in one and a half working days, a process that would have taken probably ten times as long using the smaller 3 tonne machines. Also for most of the week the Society’s digger was working to reduce the adjacent channel base to just above grade. Six days of work transformed the appearance of the channel and the early indications were that the new working practices were delivering. This notion was reinforced by the March lining work party which took place a fortnight later. During this a full complement of volunteers lined 34 metres of channel, easily beating the previous best of 25m in a weekend. This work party turned out to be notable for another reason, namely, being the last in which blocks were transported by dumper along the bed of the canal. During the weekend tests were made on the Society’s ‘secret weapon’ – a home-made block chute – which allowed blocks to be transported along the top of the bank and delivered to the channel base without damage to the shaped channel bottom. Wading around in mud was to be a thing of the past, but would it work?

Volunteers for the April shaping work party arrived at a site resembling a Christmas card scene with snow and ice very much in evidence. The weather was bitterly cold throughout the weekend but, crucially, it was also dry which greatly aided the cause. The 14 tonner was on site again and made short work of the shaping of the offside bank between tip slope and the compound. The other earthmoving operations concentrated on the base of the channel which was now beginning to resemble a canal from bridge to bridge. The April lining work party must go down as one of the most remarkable in the Society’s history. Not only did it smash the record for most lining in a weekend, established the previous month, but it did so in freezing conditions with an average of only 15 volunteers on site through the weekend. The block delivery chute turned out to be a spectacular success. It was used to deliver blocks from a dumper located on the top of the bank and into the lined section of the channel. In this way the lining gang were always working off the previously laid section of channel. And, wow, did this speed things up! We completed 38 metres for the weekend before we ran out of materials, and still had time to do some work on the land drains. To give some idea of how much things had accelerated the total of lining for the two work parties in 2013 was exactly 50% of the total for the whole of 2012. Maybe the target was achievable....

The May Bank Holiday weekend saw the third and final shaping-only work party. The weather once more proved co-operative. Dry conditions assisted progress and at close of play all the offside bank was shaped, and only 130 metres or so of channel bottom awaited final shaping. So, all the major earthmoving was finished. The May lining work party saw a further major landmark achieved with the remaining 25 m of channel lined to complete the lining at the Pryces Bridge end of the site, and 25 m of the base laid at the other end of the site in preparation for the next month’s effort.

June saw the record for the length of lining laid in a weekend broken yet again. There were two major contributory factors to this success - a lot of preparatory work and some very substantial reinforcements on the first day. The reinforcements were in the form of 16 members of JATCC 394 Course based at RAF Shawbury. The trainee air traffic controllers really entered into the volunteering spirit and worked very hard all day to shift a prodigious amount of blocks into the section of channel adjacent to the compound. With the Society volunteers lining the base of the channel, and our visitors completing the sides nearly 60m of channel was finished during the day, comfortably breaking all records. This result could not have been achieved without the help of the RAF volunteers and such were their efforts that, as they left the site, they received a spontaneous round of applause from the Society members present. The result meant that it was now possible to stand on the end of the lined channel bed and see the lined channel at the other end some 100 m away.

Alas the gap remained at 100 m during July due to one of the recurring problems of the restoration – non delivery of the lining material. The lining gang thus spent the whole weekend doing the essential, but unglamorous, job of grouting the large area of blocks which had already been laid. Delivery of the liner enabled normal service to be resumed in August and the lining gang worked wonders to reduce the gap to 65 m. By the end of September it was 40 m and by the end of October it was reduced to 20 m. There was now only one more work party to finish the lining, but this story has a happy ending.

The rains can back with a vengeance in October and so the November work party kicked off on the Friday with yet another frantic day long pumping session. However come Saturday, dry weather and a full complement of experienced block layers ensured that the gap between the unlined sections was remorselessly closed. By mid afternoon on the Sunday the job was finished. We had done it.

The other big news in October was, of course, the award of Phase 1 of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to CRT for work on the Montgomery. This will be followed by a Phase 2 application which, if successful, will include funding for the Pryces Bridge to Crickheath section. To publicise this award the Society were asked to put on a special ‘work party’ for the benefit of the BBC cameras. There was a healthy turnout of volunteers (photogenic or otherwise) who both demonstrated the use of the block chute and gave a series of interviews. The viewers of BBC West Midlands Today were treated to this televisual epic a few days later.

With a view to the future survey work started in November on the Pryces Bridge to Crickheath section. This included inspection of some of the watercourses around the canal and making a start on establishing levels at important locations along the section. The inspections highlighted the extent to which nature has reclaimed many of the areas which were cleared during the Society’s previous work on the length, and the sheer magnitude of the task ahead. That, however, is for the future.

Although a number of jobs remain to be done – notably grouting, rip-rap, landscaping, and hedges - SUCS' Council agreed that the completion date for the Redwith to Pryces length will be 12th May 2014. It is likely that the official opening will take place at some time in late May. The Society also plans to have an event for all of the volunteers who have worked on the section. Both promise to be memorable occasions.

So, a year of remarkable progress,and one that will doubtless get an honourable mention in the history of the Society. We have had a lot of fun doing the work and we look forward with more than usual anticipation to 2014.

David Carter

 

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The 14 tonne machine profiles the offside bank
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Delivering blocks along the channel base in March
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Profiling in the snow in April
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Delivering blocks down the bank in May
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The RAF visit in June
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The final stretch in November
November 2013
2012 Review
March 2014
2014 Review

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