The Montgomery Canal
The Montgomery canal as it is known today runs for 38 miles from a junction with the Llangollen Canal near Ellesmere in Shropshire to Newtown in Montgomeryshire, now part of Powys. Unfortunately it is not possible to navigate the full length and some sections are not in water, others are isolated.
Much of it is still closed to navigation after its official abandonment back in 1944, but it was one of the first canals to be considered for reopening by the emerging canal enthusiast movement in the 1960s and a long and dogged restoration campaign is slowly but steadily achieving results. Seven miles through six locks are now navigable from the junction with the Llangollen Canal (three of them added in 2003) and a further isolated 17 mile section is usable through Welshpool. See trip report along the Welshpool section.
The connected navigable section, although quite short, has much to offer the holiday cruiser. Historic interest is provided by the locks and the old warehouses at Rednal and Queens Head, and the inner man can be satisfied with the pub and restaurants at Queens Head and Maesbury. The whole route is quiet and rural, and because access to the canal is controlled by the lock keeper at Welsh Frankton there are only a limited number of boats on the length at any one time. What a delight! Sample it soon. Walkers already have access to the towpath all the way through to Newtown whilst volunteer working parties continue to work towards full restoration for boats as well. Click here for more restoration details.
Although now under one name the canal is historically an amalgam of three separate enterprises, further complicated with a number of arms and branches, and changing minds.
The Montgomery Canal proper is just the length that runs from Llanymynech to Garthmyl and dates from 1794. It was designed to connect with a side branch of the Ellesmere Canal that was at that time projected to run from Chester through Wrexham and Ruabon to the River Severn at Shrewsbury. However the speed of development of rival canals and, as ever, a shortage of money caused a pause of several years. That route was abandoned and the completed part at Welsh Frankton, by then connected to the Montgomery, had to wait a number of years before being connected to the rest of the system by a new route to Hurlestone near Nantwich in 1805. The unfinished ‘main’ line towards Shrewsbury then remained as a side arm, the Weston Lullingfield arm, whilst the Llanymynech ‘branch’ of the Ellesmere Canal became the through route to the Montgomery. OK so far?
At the other end the Montgomery had run out of money too and although originally projected to go to Newtown the canal was only finished as far as Garthmyl. Consequently a new canal company was formed in 1815 to finish the canal line the remaining seven miles right into Newtown, a section that subsequently became known, confusingly, as the Western Branch whilst the original bit with an arm to Guilsfield became the Eastern Branch. After a few years small scale but relatively successful trading the threat of the new-fangled railways loomed over the industry and in 1847 the whole lot became part of the Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company, whose original intention was to convert a lot of it into railway lines.
Subsequent swift takeovers however found the ownership of the SUR&CC transferred to the London and North Western Railway who then found themselves with a canal network probing deep into the territory of their main railway rival, the Great Western. It seems to have suited them to keep an efficient canal operation running almost to spite the GWR. Under the LNWR and their successor, the LMS, the Montgomery Canal in all its parts continued to operate throughout the nineteenth century.
Traffic on the canal was mainly local and self contained, much of it centred on the limestone quarries and limekilns at Pant and Llanymynech with coal coming onto the canal from local pits on the Llangollen Canal. A significant traffic was developed by the SU company bringing imported grain in to Maesbury Mill from Ellesmere Port whilst general cargo of all sorts was carried by the company, some of it in their famous ‘fly’ boats which operated as a regular timed ‘next-day’ delivery service until 1920. Some of the small warehouses for this traffic still remain in existence, whilst the tiny half timbered one at Rednal (above right) still has pull-out stop and go boards that told the fly boat captain whether there was a collection to be made that day.
The same building also operated for a while as an interchange station for passengers and luggage transferring from express canal ‘packet’ boats to the railway. By the early twentieth century traffic was slight and the canal was really only viable as a feeder to the main SU system. Thus, when a major breach happened below Welsh Frankton locks in 1936 the decision was taken to abandon the canal. Official closure to navigation was finally ratified by Act of Parliament in 1944. Only twenty years later the battle began to reopen it again.
The beauty and remoteness of much of the ‘Monty’ has led to some extraordinary problems for the restoration group. So well did the derelict canal revert to nature that much of it has become a haven for several rare plants and animals and some sections have been designated as S.S.S.I. – Sights of Special Scientific Importance. This may be good news for nature but it has made extra difficulties for the restoration movement. They have now to create and preserve a delicate balance between the needs of a navigation built for boats with the important, though accidental, ecology that developed in the derelict canal.
The compromise that is being forged is likely to be an important fingerpost for many other canal restorations in the future.