Cold Comfort

Canals in winter, canal reconstruction, Montgomery canal

It may be damp, cold and have short days but the winter offers a number of bonuses to the canal explorer.

With the leaves off the trees and the ground vegetation at its lowest it is far easier to see the bare bones of canal engineering in the winter. Iím not talking here about the architectural bits -- bridges and locks and stuff -- but the other 98%, the channel itself, the embankments and cuttings. With the help of low raking winter sunshine and grass kept short by hungry sheep the sculpture of the canal becomes more obvious, the artificiality of its structure which is disguised in the summer by two hundred years worth of vegetation. Here suddenly we can see more clearly the big problems of getting a level water channel from one useful place to another, getting a channel big enough for boats round a hill or across the valley. And just to make it interesting it had to be done economically with just a gang of men with shovels.

In the earliest days the first principal was to follow the contour of the hillside as far as possible before being forced up or down hill with an expensive lock. The earth dug from the hillside need only be moved a few yards to form a slight embankment on the downward slope and the job was done. It certainly led to very winding waterways but that was not initially seen as a big problem. The canal could then service a bigger area, more manure could be delivered to a bigger acreage to benefit a wider locality. Only later did it become obvious that through trade was where the profit was to be made, and that speed and directness were to be of prime importance. Later canals like the Shropshire Union main line hurry directly though the landscape in deep cuttings and over vast embankments. Today their slopes have generally been allowed to become well wooded, the tree roots offering some extra stability to the soil of the embankments but a hard winter and bare trees allows one to see just how impressive this pre-railway engineering had become. At Shelmore embankment you can still see the problems too. Between 1833 and 1835 when the canal finally opened this embankment caused enormous problems as it sagged and collapsed under its own weight, and the extent of the slippage can still be seen, squidged out like a failed blancmange.

In Shropshire we have again a short chance to experience something of the misgivings that must have beset landowners and landscape lovers throughout the country as the new canals cut their muddy way through the fields in the eighteenth century. Between Gronwen wharf and Redwith bridge on the Montgomery Canal we have what is effectively a brand new piece of canal to experience, albeit on the line of the old one. The shovels were mechanical this time and the puddled clay is backed by steel piling and an artificial plastic membrane but the mud looks the same. So too does the stark nakedness of the structure of the channel and its neatly graded supporting embankments, for much of the old hedging has had to be cut right down or removed altogether. Militant lines of fenceposts protect its boundaries in straight lines and it is difficult to believe that it will soften and blend into the surrounding landscape in a couple of years. But it will.

Most surprising of all is the new bridge halfway along the length. Since the official closure back in 1944 the farmer had acquired land on both side of the canal and bull-dozed an access track through from one to the other, so it was agreed to build him a new accommodation bridge as part of the restoration package. It is very impressive indeed, an old style Shropshire Union lift bridge built in timber to what looks to my amateur eye to be a very high standard of historical accuracy. It is fitted with hydraulic lifting gear rather than a bit of chain which I suppose is forgivable, and it has mooring bollards and wharves on the offside in both directions which will be a godsend to single handed boaters. So it is an impressive structure and a fine chunk of craftsmanship but a philosophical niggle still gnaws at the back of my mind. Historically there was no bridge there so this is in no way part of the canalís proper restoration. Therefore, why build a replica, however good? It cannot have been a cheap option. Could not the same amount have been invested in high quality modern architecture and engineering so that we hand down a piece of real history, hopefully a beautiful piece of state-of-the-art twenty-first century history instead of a pastiche pretence? Stop throwing things at me, Iím only askingÖ

©Tony Lewery,
The Brow,
28th December 2007

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