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Montgomery Canal Big Dig

 - 40 years on...

 

David Carter, a Shropshire Union Canal Society restoration volunteer, offers a personal view of the significance of the Big Dig celebrations:

 

It is 40 years since the Welshpool Big Dig which marked the start of the restoration work on the canal. Since then the Montgomery restoration has moved on to become one of the great causes of canal restoration. When I tell other canal people that I am a Montgomery restoration volunteer there is always a silence followed by "When will it be finished?" It is a good question.

 

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Newhouse Lock in 2006 after restoration by Society volunteers

 

Before we can speculate about the answer, it is perhaps worth examining where the restoration is now and how it got here. As we know there are seven miles of navigation open and connected to the main system and a further thirteen miles of isolated navigable water either side of the site of the original Big Dig site at Welshpool. The voluntary sector has been influential in the restoration. Waterway Recovery Group (W.R.G.) has restored both Frankton and Aston Locks. In parallel Shropshire Union Canal Society were involved in the partial or total restoration of all of the other locks bar one on the British Waterways owned section. British Waterways have used a variety of funding sources to do much of the channel work on both currently navigable sections.

Thus the restoration has followed the well trodden path of first doing the easy bits, those with most external impact and those attracting external funding, leaving the sections in between”usually channel”to be done at a later date. The canal at present resembles one of those 'join up the dots' pictures I used to do as a child. You can guess what it is from the dots but to get a proper image you need to join them up with the lines.

 

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The restored Brynderwen Lock near Abermule

 

Many of the significant dots are complete including an invisible one, the Conservation Management Strategy (CMS), which reconciles the many conflicting interests in the canal. Without agreement on this, little further progress toward restoration of navigation would have been possible. Some of the dots and lines were completed many years ago. The received wisdom is that the isolated sections - notably the Welshpool section and that either side of Abermule - are deteriorating due to lack of regular use by boats. Also by now it is likely that some of the restored locks are likely to need re-restoring before they can be used. Thus there is urgency about getting on with this job. We can't wait another 40 years!

The tale of the Welshpool Big Dig on 18th and 19th October 1969 has been told many times and is the stuff of legend. Three hundred volunteers comprising members of Shropshire Union Canal Society, the soon to be formed W.R.G. and the local anglers cleared much of the canal in the town centre. To top it off the Mayor of Welshpool was treated to a Sunday afternoon cruise down the cleared canal.

Let me say straight away that I was not there! At that time I was an insignificant cog in the Marple Locks restoration machine and experienced my own Big Dig some months later on the Ashton. It was all so very different 40 years ago. 1960's canal restoration was an anti-establishment activity, and this was, to me at least, one of its charms. The attitude of British Waterways and local authorities to the Peak Forest restoration then could best be described in most cases as 'unhelpful'.

The idea of spending my Saturdays restoring something that authority wished to close and fill-in appealed to me. Alas the sundry long haired bolshies of that time are now respectable retired gentlefolk, a surprising number of whom still retain an interest in canal restoration.

It is perhaps fair to say that volunteers then had a somewhat more cavalier attitude to the process of doing the work than exists today. The inevitable 'elf 'n' safety has changed things, undoubtedly for the better. Some of it still grates though. I was asked to paint a lock gate a couple of years ago, and was presented with a method statement. I am not sure if the revelation that I would be poisoned if I drank the bitumen paint or that I would be hurt if I fell off the ladder helped the job significantly, but it is the thought that counts.

The general nature of voluntary work on canals has changed profoundly over the years. Gone are the unwelcome visitors to British Waterways land - replaced by volunteers working in close co-operation with British Waterways. The result of British Waterways input is that the finished product is much better these days. It is perhaps for this reason that some parts of the early restoration schemes - the Stratford Canal being an example - had subsequently to be substantially rebuilt. Whether this is the case on the Montgomery remains to be seen.

 

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The trip boat at Llanymynech that operates on a short section of navigable canal that crosses the border

 

There have been two other major changes both of which particularly affect the Montgomery. The first is that 40 years ago Wales and England were effectively the same country. Now, of course, they have gone their separate ways. Each has very different attitudes to canal restoration and the economic and social benefits that that brings. The second change is the involvement of what we now refer to as other ˜stakeholders' in the restoration. The CMS satisfies many of the concerns of the nature lobby.

The tourism industry really has yet to exploit the canal but there are exciting potential opportunities to, for example, link the canal, the Llanymynech Heritage Area and the Cambrian Railways as major visitor attractions.

Since the Big Dig, the Shropshire Union Canal Society has had a constant presence as a restoration organisation on the Montgomery. The Society has one of the larger restoration capabilities of the various canal societies. It has developed a considerable expertise in restoration of canal structures. Its repertoire has recently, as we shall see, been extended to channel works. The Society, suitably inspired by the Big Dig, started its solo restoration career on locks - Carreghofa, the various locks between Bank and Berriew and finally Burgeddin through until the end of the Millennium.

All, with the exception of Carreghofa, are on currently navigable sections. Since 2000 work has restored Brynderwen Lock which as well as being photogenic has a high profile location adjacent to the A483 trunk road. Work then moved a mile or so up the canal to Newhouse Lock, as well as fitting in a few visits to Llanymynech to ready the canal there for the trip boat.

Newhouse Lock was in a very bad state, but with a considerable input from British Waterways this too was finished in 2006. The celebrations at the opening by Member of Parliament Lembit Opik made the years of hard work worthwhile!

This lock is the last in BW ownership and the Society was thus in danger of running out of dots to work on. It resisted the urge to go to the next lock (Freestone) and beyond, despite this offering the irresistible destination of Newtown Sewage Works as the next potential winding point. The Council of the Society made the major decision to change from dots to lines - back into England to work on the dry section. The effort thus shifted back to where it started all those years ago - restoration of the channel.

 

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Lembit Opik MP opens Newhouse Lock in 2006

 

Initially the destination was Crickheath Wharf where the first winding hole, beyond the current head of navigation at Gronwen, is located. Work there consisted of a particularly vicious six month campaign of jungle warfare, followed by reconstruction of the original wharf wall, and construction of a visitor mooring of modern design. What had not been appreciated by anybody at commencement of work were the ground conditions. Although there was evidence of subsidence it was generally assumed to have ceased many years ago. Sadly this is not the case and subsequent ground investigation showed that the culprit was deep peat layers beneath the channel - cue another move.

 

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Restoration of Crickheath Wharf

 

At this time BW contractors were completing on the Gronwen - Redwith channel, and they went on to do the towpath piling on the next section to Pryces Bridge before the grant money ran out. With a certain amount of trepidation the Society agreed to move from Crickheath to finish this section.

This was a much bigger site than anything previously attempted - 430 m long, involving the construction of 90 m of reinforced concrete retaining wall and 500 m of stone wash wall. The work gives substance to the old jibe that civil engineers only 'dig it up, cart it around, and concrete it in', but as the illustrations show, old dogs can learn new tricks.

It is my view that the time has come to stop working on the 'dots', and have a well thought out and concerted effort on the 'lines'. Certainly the consensus of opinion among the Society's volunteers is that the whole restoration effort should be concentrated on the dry section working progressively from Redwith. It appears that W.R.G. are of the same mind judging from the location of their work-sites over the past couple of years. This strategy has the attraction that it will enable the finished sections to be progressively added to the main network.

The Society has just started channel lining work between Redwith Bridge and Pryces Bridge, and there is an opportunity for everyone to make a telling contribution to this work. The channel is to be lined with a bentonite mat weighed down by a sand and concrete block overburden - some 4,000 tonnes in total! Shropshire Union Canal Society has launched a ˜Buy a Barrow of Boulders' appeal for well-wishers to contribute by buying materials for this work (see the Barrow of Boulders page).

 

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The start of channel profiling at Redwith Bridge ready for the liner

 

The key to answering the question posed earlier is getting the navigation through to the Welsh Border in the next few years. This involves tackling the worst remaining engineering problems on the dry section of the canal. It can be done but we need to maintain the spirit of the Big Dig for a Big Push to Llanymynech!

 

 

This article was written for the 40th anniversary of the Welshpool Big Dig, the start of restoration work on the Montgomery Canal, and featured in the commemorative programme for the special anniversary work party. It was also published in the November 2009 issue of Canal Boat magazine.

For more detail on the restoration work described here, please see the Restoration Archive page.

For information about the restoration work underway currently, please see the Main Restoration page page.