Will £14M really restore the Montgomery canal?

‘£16 Million Funding Announced to Restore the Montgomery Canal’ a headline proclaimed. Sadly even these useful millions (actually £13.9M) from the Government ‘Levelling Up fund’ won’t get boats cruising 33 fully restored miles down to Newtown any day soon. So just what will this money be able to achieve, given that it will be spent on an isolated 4.4 miles stretch of the canal, currently accessible to only trailboats, paddleboats and walkers?

What is the money for?
In October 2021 Powys County Council made a successful bid to the Government ‘Levelling Up Fund’ to help progress the restoration of the Montgomery Canal in eastern Powys and north-west Shropshire. £13.9m of the grant has now been allocated to help remove some of the obstructions between Llanymynech and Arddleen. It is hoped this Government funding can accelerate the rate of progress towards reopening the canal from the border near Llanymynech towards the isolated 12 mile Welshpool section, and this is a canal restoration that really could do with some extra push! Nearly 60 years ago the ‘Monty’ was one of the first canals targeted for restoration. Just twenty years after the canal was officially closed in 1944 the battle to reopen it began with the ‘Welshpool Big Dig’ when over an October weekend in 1969 hundreds of volunteers appeared from all over the country and cleaned and restored three quarters of a mile of the mud and rubbish filled canal in Welshpool, under threat by a by-pass road scheme. However the beauty, remoteness and the English/Welsh border straddling location of much of the Monty has led to some extraordinary problems for the restoration group. It took 35 years for those three quarter miles to grow to 20 miles open to navigation, and only 7 miles of that currently accessible from the rest of the canal network.

The current state of restoration (2023).

  • Frankton to Queens Head – reopened in 1996 – 4 miles
  • Queens Head/Aston Locks to Gronwen – reopened 2003 – 3 miles
  • Gronwen to Crickheath Basin – hoped to be reopened 2023 – 1 mile
  • Crickheath Basin to Llanymynech -restoration ongoing – 2 miles
  • Llanymynech to Arddleen – levelling up grant allocated – 4 miles
  • Arddleen to Burgedin reopened 2000 – 1 mile
  • Burgedin to Welshpool reopened 1992 – 5 miles
  • Welshpool to Berriew reopened 1996 – 5 miles
  • Berriew to Newtown – awaiting restoration (Newhouse locks restored 2006) – 8 miles

What will it be spent on?
This new phase of restoration aims to restore the channel of a 4 mile section of the canal between Llanymynech and Arddleen, which has not been navigable since the 1930s, so that ‘navigation will eventually be possible’. Some of this money will go on a ‘carefully tailored’ dredging programme south from Llanymynech to ensure the supply of water for boats and for wildlife. It will be phased over the next two years to overcome the natural succession of species by which invasive species have reduced biodiversity and impacted some of the canal’s rare plants. Three off-line water-based nature reserves will be created alongside the canal to protect the canal’s natural standing as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, in line with an agreed Conservation Management Plan to increase water traffic. Work will also include the development of a community cultural hub on the canal at Welshpool Wharf using historic canal-side buildings. It will see the re-building of Walls Bridge and Williams Bridge on side roads near Llanymynech which where were demolished and the roads dropped to canal level.

When will boats get down to Welshpool and Newtown?This work will not be enough to connect the 4 mile Llanymynech section to the adjacent in-water Welshpool section because of blockages around Arddleen where 2 bridges on the main A483 road were dropped to canal level soon after the canal’s closure. These crossings create much more significant problems in terms of cost and complexity, although the engineering options are being considered. The Welshpool section itself, although in water for over 20 years, needs dredging and weed removal, issues which currently impede boating for the few boats on that section. And south of Welshpool there is still a further unrestored 8 miles to Newtown, the last 3 miles of which have been completely lost or built over. Full restoration is still a long way off.

What can be achieved ‘soonish’?
Extending the navigable length from the Llangollen Canal down to Llanymynech would add 7 miles to the cruisable length. The canal from Gronwen Bridge is hoped to be reopened to Crickheath Basin, where boats can turn, in 2023, the dropped Schoolhouse Bridge is currently being rebuilt. Work is needed on 12 heritage structures in Wales and additional nature reserve provision at Aston to support the rest of the canal in Shropshire, plus dredging to improve the water quality for water plants and navigation. Just two miles of derelict canal then remain to make that link to Llanymynech; funding must still be found for most of this work.

So these levelling up millions added to the ongoing restoration above Llanymynech should help extend the limit of navigation a further 7 miles south, in fact doubling the distance which boats can cruise from the main system. After 20 years of restriction the beautiful Monty may in the next few years be offering boaters a peaceful week’s cruising holiday, rather than just a 2 day short break! Two weeks to Newtown and back is decades away, at least at the current rate of progress.

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