Upsetting Applecarts

Canal restoration, canal re-creation, Montgomery Canal, Arddleen, Berriew

Where can you go on our increasingly busy canal system and get anything like an accurate flavour of a piece of canal in proper working trim, without anachronistic improvements, without glossy pleasure boats and without damned motor cars getting in the way?

By happenstance I was walking near a restored steam railway recently, and I glanced over the fence into one of the stations. It seemed to my non-enthusiast eyes to be a perfect little time warp-- neatly restored buildings, the right colour paint, the proper signs, seats and trolleys, all swept tidy ready for a station master’s inspection, or perhaps a film crew. How is it, I thought, that the railway enthusiasts seem to do it so well, and the canal lobby do it so badly? Where can you go on our increasingly busy canal system and get anything like an accurate flavour of a piece of canal in proper working trim, without anachronistic improvements, without glossy pleasure boats and without damned motor cars getting in the way? The only place that comes to mind is the Black Country Museum, but so it should-- it is an entirely artificial re-creation for just that purpose. Oh, and Andy Rothern’s yard at the top of Atherstone... Everywhere else it is safety signs, unrestricted developments and conversion, lawns, white paint and flags, all the unhistorical clutter of the leisure industry making a living. They market themselves under a traditional-cum-heritage label but steadily chew away at the very qualities that created the interest in the first place. It is an insidious process of small steps and newcomers have to be entirely forgiven for accepting what they are offered as true. But anyone who has witnessed this steady degradation over thirty or forty years is left with that sick-in-the-stomach feeling that it could have been so much better if we had kept control of this unrestricted free enterprise, and had kept better control of British Waterways and their marketing mentality. Where do we turn for relief, for inspiration?

In my case, with the fresh pressure of a new dog needing exercise, it has been walking the towpath, particularly the Montgomery Canal, and particularly the closed parts and the almost unused restored section between Arddleen and Berriew. What a delight, and what a surprise to discover how much of the infrastructure survives—not just the bridges but most of the tiny warehouses that the old Shropshire Union fly boats served, the lock cottages and even some lock-keeper’s huts. Now here is a section that still has atmosphere and evidence and potential for a near perfect restoration. Most readers here will know that discussions are going on-- not to say a huge row—about the style and impact of the future reopening of this canal. The boating lobby want unrestricted access to all and every boat that wants to visit it whilst the nature conservationists want no boats at all, just a derelict canal in perpetuity for bugs and bogweeds. But creeping into my mind is another plan that will upset absolutely everybody in equal measure.

Back in August 1990 Waterways World published an article by Edward Paget-Tomlinson called Keeping the Past Alive on our Waterways and if you have access to back copies it is well worth re-reading. In it he argued that a length of canal should be set aside somewhere and restored and maintained effectively as a linear museum. To be meaningful it had to be thorough and complete in every detail, the right sort of horse drawn boats working to properly restored warehouses “an immaculate towpath soiled only by horse dung, a pair of Barlow boats swimming deep laden in a well dredged channel, the old hand crane at the wharf heaving out bags of grain, the smoke from cabin stoves on a still summer’s evening, the procession of horses from the stable.” He did not pretend that it was going to be easy—“all very fanciful I hear you say, but if something is not done the canal atmosphere will have gone forever.” And that was fourteen years ago!

Could it be that this hiatus in the restoration process on the Montgomery as originally envisaged is actually a blessing in disguise, providence driven, a last chance to re-examine the situation and come up with some radical new answers? Is this the canal for preservation rather than restoration, a perfect time-warp museum piece? Well, I think it could be, although that too would take a huge amount of work and some difficult conservation decisions. Horseboats, historic or not, are already accepted as a good thing in the sustainable development plan, but a properly maintained historic canal would need to be dredged properly with all intrusive vegetation rigorously cut back on both sides of the channel. There would be no place for signs and safety railings where none were deemed necessary for the century beforehand. There would be no cars and no development opportunities within sight of this haven of history, and preferably not within sound either. Parts of this canal are still sufficiently quiet that the crack of the boatman’s smacking whip could still be heard from half a mile as he warns the lock-keeper that the Newtown fly is on its way. “All very fanciful I hear you say, but if something is not done the canal atmosphere will have gone forever.” And that was fourteen years ago! The canal world today is a very different place to that of thirty five years ago when this restoration was started and the important needs of canal history and culture are now different too. Is this a last chance?

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
October 2004


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