A Montgomery Muse

Montgomery Canal, Newtown, Welshpool,

The Montgomery Canal continues to amaze me.

Yes, I realise that I am becoming uncomfortably obsessive about it, but its survival, conservation and future development potential just seems to sum up so many philosophical canal problems all in one place. Much of it is in a peculiar slow motion limbo of an existence with much work done to keep it in being, but so many decisions still to make about its future. There is much to gain but there is also so much to lose.

This train of thought was again focussed by another exploratory walk along one of the closed sections halfway between Newtown and Welshpool. At one of the notorious dropped bridges of the noisy A483 I stepped through a gate on to the towpath and instantly into a different world—grass, rushes, trees and the calming reflective power of still water. Round the corner to the first bridge and—good heavens! What’s this?... Let me quote to you a short passage from the as yet unpublished autobiography of Jack Roberts, who worked as a Shropshire Union fly boat captain. He first travelled this way with his father on the Newtown fly when he was at school, round about 1906, and he described that first trip in detail. They left Berriew by moonlight at about three in the morning:

“With all the goods signed for, we were on our way again, passing up Finney straight. We came to Halfway House, a very small shop situated between the canal and the main road to Newtown. I was sent to the back door to knock and ask for the key of the tiny warehouse. The Missus lowered the key from the window in a little round cup and asked if I could manage. I said yes, and went across twenty yards and unlocked the small hut. These people always trusted the boatmen. My father and Charlie put the goods in, one bag of sugar, one back of bacon, one box of onions, two boxes of figs, a box of oranges and a case of tobacco. We locked up and I took the key back. The cup was lowered and I put the key in it and also the note to be signed, and up it went and was returned duly signed. I said good morning and we set off.”

And incredibly that warehouse is still there, ramshackle and obviously used as a calf shed or pigsty for many years, but still there nestled against the bridge. The trademark SUCo is stamped into the ironwork and there is still a timber pad above the door to cushion the bump of the jib of a crane that must have been of the most diminutive dimensions. This for me was an almost forgotten piece of canal history brought instantly to life by the survival of this very humble piece of canal architecture—so humble that even Jack referred to it as a hut a hundred years ago. What possible future could that have on a fully restored pleasure boat canal? How expensive it would be to conserve this rotten wood the way it is, but how impossible to recreate that patina of age and use from new.

A short walk to the next bridge brought me to yet another idyllic scene, pretty enough for an old-fashioned sentimental advertisement picture. Ivy crept up the abuttments of a graceful little footbridge with white railings that framed the view of the old swing bridge beyond it. Dragonflies flashed above the crystal clear water in which lazy fish sunned themselves whilst a pair of ducks paddled amongst the water lilies just coming to their early summer flowering. All it needed was a couple of little girls in Victorian frocks feeding them to complete the sentimental scene to cloying perfection. It was all a bit too much really! How on earth do we restore this scene of romantic delightful decay without losing more than we gain? Very, very carefully I suggest. In the meantime try and find time to explore this lovely waterway in any way you can. It is still full of surprises and there won’t be many people in your way.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
July 2005

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