This way please

Trwstllewelyn, Shropshire Union canal, Montgomery Canal

And then there was this old gate. It was a simple friendly footpath gate by a bridge on the Montgomery Canal, at the top of a slope up from the towpath. Now, in these days of public footpaths and public access-by-right it is easily forgotten that quite recently all towing paths were private property, part of the essential business structure of canal transport and definitely not for the public to wander on at will. In country areas I’m sure they always did but technically they were always trespassing on private property, even if with the amiable acquiescence of the canal company. In busy towns the rules might be more rigidly enforced and those with memories of the Birmingham canals in their last working days will remember that even then there were very few places that one could get onto the towpath and many of those were kept firmly locked. This was not just to keep people out but to keep any loose boat-horses in and confined to their own canal world. It also preserved the canal company’s rights of private ownership, by not allowing the paths to become public rights of way by common use. On the Shropshire Union in the early 1960s the company still maintained the comical tradition of locking all their towpath gates on Christmas Eve for twenty four hours to preserve their legal rights. At Norbury Junction the gate was only ever used on that one day a year, but it was of little inconvenience as you could walk round either side of it anyway.

So an old gate from the private towpath to the wider world has a broader historical significance than a simple convenience for dog walkers. There was once a reason for that access, but it is difficult to know now what that purpose was here at this bridge at Trwstllewelyn on a narrow lane, apparently miles from anywhere significant. As there is a slope up to the gate it was clearly intended for horses, but why? Was there a farm wharf here, or stabling, or a pub or shop, or a warehouse? Burnt lime for farmland might be the answer but it is all such a long time ago. This waterway saw its last traffic before the Second World War and nature and decay have had plenty of time to soften what might have been a small industrial settlement into the romantic rural idyll that I am enjoying so much today. The gate remains, however, hanging slightly askew but still doing its job.

It is a paling gate, vertical boards nailed to a strong diagonally-braced frame, all apparently in straight grained larch except for the hanging post which is oak. All the framing joints are tenoned together and pegged through with oak dowels, and each member of the main frame is stop-chamfered to give that bit of extra grace and comfort without sacrificing any strength at the joints. It was painted grey or green once, perhaps both, but they have faded to a neutral naturalness that sits quietly in the roadside weeds and ivy, as if in a sentimental Victorian book illustration, or a romantic chocolate box picture of a cottage garden. The iron hinges are rusty of course, but still strong, and the ends are forged into a little linen-fold design to taper the thickness down to the woodwork. And-- good heavens! what’s this...? Half way along are stamped the initials SUCo for the Shropshire Union Company that ran the canal from the 1850s until it closed. Amazing! Surely this simple gate cannot have lasted that long?

Well, no, actually. Subsequent enquiries revealed that a lot of these old gates on the Montgomery Canal have been rebuilt over the years by the British Waterways company carpenters at Welshpool, many re-using the old SU ironwork over again. This knowledge pleases me even more in some ways, knowing that the skills and craftsman’s attitude used for this humble job is actually quite recent and not necessarily lost in the mists of time like so much other canal craftsmanship. But this emotive one of mine is certainly getting on a bit, twenty or more years judging by its condition, and will need attention soon. Will today’s modern management allow that much craftsman’s time to be re-invested in a simple gate again? Can they afford to conserve such a subtle set of values which few people will even notice, never mind mourn? Even here at Trwstllewelyn the signs are not good. The old oak gatepost that it hangs from is still pretty sound although it is clearly very old and could easily date back to SU days, but its partner to which the gate closed against the bridge abutment has gone. You can see where it was because the craftsman stone mason had cut a neat recess in the stonework to accommodate it. Sadly it seems to have been too much work to put it back properly and it has been replaced by a tanalised fencepost driven into the ground alongside with a bit of a bent wire hook to hold the gate shut instead of a proper iron latch. Sad, but not yet irredeemable. If only we could concentrate on getting the conservation correct on these tiny details perhaps the bigger historic canal story would be safe for the future too. Our descendants deserve it.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
June 2005


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