Ellesmere Time Warp

Ellesmere, Shropshire Union maintenance yard, Llangollen canal

You will probably have read at some time a travel writers’ review of some particularly wonderful and unspoilt place that they are nervous of extolling too much in case too many more visitors spoil it.

I feel something of the same reticence about discussing the quite extraordinary qualities of the old Shropshire Union waterways maintenance yard in Ellesmere on the Llangollen Canal. It is a remarkable blend of utilitarian grace and character, a place about which I am developing a closer working knowledge having completed several painting jobs in the dry dock there recently. Like the travel writer I am very keen that more people know about it and enjoy its atmosphere and the canal history that simply seeps out of every surface. However, the worry is that some B.W. suit will also see it and recognise its development potential and promptly ruin it with the usual corporate cack-handed attempt at modernisation and asset stripping. Surely that couldn’t happen? Surely it is so obviously remarkable and interesting that nobody would set out to spoil it? Well, a lot of people thought that about the Bulbourne workshops on the Grand Junction. Beware, and remember that vigilance is the best defence.

The whole complex at Ellesmere, elaborate enough to be properly called a canal estate, is made up of three big main sections and a separate cottage that once housed the yard office. There is the maintenance yard itself with a range of workshops and stores all around it, there is the covered dry dock building with the local canal office now incorporated in it and there is the big house on the corner. According to Edward Wilson’s book on the Llangollen canal (published Phillimore and Co. Ltd. 1975) Beech House as it is now known was built and opened as the main canal office in 1805, the same year that the Pontcysyllte aqueduct was completed and the whole canal opened to the sea at Netherpool, soon to become Ellesmere Port. It had a large committee room and offices and apartments for the accountant and the resident engineer, a post occupied by that time by Thomas Telford. How much he actually lived there is unknown, but local tradition says he did. Beech House (top image) is a very handsome brick building in the serious late Georgian classical style of the time, made particularly memorable by the circular committee room built on the corner so that members might more easily see their profitable cargoes sailing by. Although it was internally sub-divided into five separate residences many years ago it still looks satisfyingly complete and original, with an interesting accretion of more humble outbuildings on one end (2nd image). This still includes the stable for the company’s boat horse Molly who was kept in regular work for the maintenance fleet into the 1950’s.

The most impressive single unit is the range of buildings that steps away from the canal in a series of rising workshops and stores that seem to have grown up and into the hill along the western side of the maintenance yard proper (2 middle images). The biggest section is the lock gate making shop with its five sets of doors and windows onto the yard, complete with its own internal crane spanning the whole airy space. Next door is the forge and metalwork shop dug into the hill to become the basement for a long joinery workshop in the roof above lit by a continuous wall of extra windows set into the roof at a later date. The whole building is amazing, characterful, amusing even, although architecturally it has to admitted it is something of an architectural hotch-potch, more an anthology than an essay. Parts are in stone, parts are in brick and parts are in both. The boundary buildings on the landward side have, rather surprisingly, red brick arches with stonework infill, a reversal of the usual order. The gate shop is vertically boarded above the doors with tarred planks and battens. And then somebody bridged a gap upstairs with a timber framed section infilled with brick to provide a space for the pattern store in something approaching mock tudor style. What a conservation problem, but what an absolute delight, an accretion of buildings in a variety of materials, all tacked together, added on or extended as need demanded over two hundred years. What binds it all together is practical function, knitted together with tradesman’s craftsmanship.

The most architecturally unified structure on the estate is the stone-built dry dock building (2 lower images). It was originally built as a gauging dock where new carrying boats could be taken to be progressively loaded with iron weights so that the draught could be accurately measured and indexed. From then on that particular boat’s average draught could be gauged anywhere and its load calculated so that the correct tolls could be charged. This dock’s bonus to the modern age is that because it was constructed to accommodate a fully loaded boat it can still cope with modern deep-draughted motorboats and it is in full use. A fine photograph from the 1950’s in Edward Wilson’s book shows all the gauging weights stacked on the dockside with the two cranes for placing them in the boats but nothing remains today except for the recesses in the wall where the crane operator could stand as the jib was swung out over the water. Just a few of the weights still survive, resting at present as very historic ballast cargo in the hold of the restored fly boat Saturn which is spending the winter nearby.

Although what remains at Ellesmere is still very remarkable much has inevitably already gone over the years. The most noticeable change was the removal of the overhead crane that ran over the whole yard on huge wooden gantries that projected out over the canal. It could lift trees out of the boats from Welshpool and carry them across to the sawmill for conversion to lockgate timber. Then it could lift the completed gates back into boats for delivery anywhere on the Shropshire Union system. It was clearly a valuable tool in the early days but it did require an enormous amount of manpower to operate it with many chains and pulley blocks to move it around. It was replaced in the 1950’s by a steel jib crane which still remains in situ, although unused for some years. On the ground below it was a system of tram rails with heavily built wooden bogey trucks for moving the timber and gates around, and two old trucks and a few sections of rail still remain in place. It is possible that much more survives under the modern tarmac surface.

For me the experience of the whole complex is made extra special by the survival of so many small details that speak of older attitudes and work practises. Most of the original doors still carry a number screwed on in tiny cast iron letters, the remnant of some old inventory system one supposes, where the contents of every store and workshop would have been carefully listed and checked regularly. The blacksmith’s shop is number 26, the joiners’ shop above is number 29 whilst the painters’ shop at the end of the gate making workshop is numbered 20. The stable door and the pedestrian door into the dry dock (no. 11) both have an arched hole cut out at the bottom so that the yard cat could do his rat and mouse patrol. The dry dock door is locked with an elaborate cast iron key that could grace a cathedral, whilst the double doors across the boat dock entrance are fitted with the simplest hasp and staple on the inside. They are locked by the simple expedient of dropping a blacksmith made tapered iron pin through the staple, hung in position from a chain that looks as if it has kept this foolproof system functioning from the day the doors were installed.

Do look out for any opportunity to visit this remarkable place. There are usually open days over the Ellesmere Festival in September, and British Waterways are usually very cooperative in allowing access to any organised and pre-booked party. Contact the Northwich office about that. But make sure you do see it-- sometime soon.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
6 January 2006


back to our main menu.


more issues

canal heritage

comments to Tony

All materials and images
© Canal Junction Ltd.
No unauthorised reproduction.