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Narrowboat Magazine

Latest news for Monday 13 June

Boris revives Pownall's Grand Contour Canal waterwaysworld.com

Cycling to work in the rain on Friday, Boris Johnson got soaked. As he was drying off, he watched on TV as Environment minister Caroline Spelman warned we were in the middle of a drought.

"Drought! I said bitterly," he writes in today's Daily Telegraph. "You must be joking. How can we tell people that they can't have baths, when they only have to step outside to be soaked to the skin? 
"Then I listened a bit longer, and of course I saw her point. We have just had the driest spring for 20 years, and across the country rainfall has been down about 45 per cent. The crops are miserable and wilted; the brewers and the farmers have been so short of water that the price of food and beer is apparently set to rise even higher – exactly what people don't need in the current economic conditions. We ought to forget this June dampness and concentrate on the drought of the past few months."
Boris Johnson goes on to ask why canals cannot be used to bring water to the Southeast from the wet north, and adds:  

"I believe we might go even further, and retrieve J F Pownall's magnificent 1942 plan for a Grand Contour Canal, which would follow the 310 ft contour of the hills all the way from the Scottish borders to the South East."

It's interesting to see this concept resurface. In WW2 Mr Pownall observed that there was a natural 'contour' down the spine of England, around the 300ft level, and put forward the idea that this could be used as a large (by British standards) ship canal. Pownall's Grand Contour Canal would have taken 300-ton continental-size barges from Teeside to Lancashire, Gloucester, London and Southampton, with no locks and just a boat lift at a few stopping points.

It was pointed out that even at the time, such freight might be uncompetitive with road transport.  However, Pownall said that water transfer would be another benefit, and his draft map shows water-supply extensions, from Wales and through to Norfolk.    

But in the 1940s Britain had more immediate, pressing problems. Waterways were seen as dying, and the energy for such massive projects was channelled into road transport. 

It's interesting to speculate on the cost of reviving the Pownall project. It would likely come way under the cost of the new HS2 high speed rail project.  It could reduce the need for freight-carrying motorways and it could have long-term economic benefits. 

On the other hand there's the H-word - Heritage. This ambitious scheme would destroy many of the more charming and historic aspects of our cute little peregrinating waterways, in a far more drastic way than the motorways did. 
 
There's not a lot online about Pownall's Grand Contour Canal.  Wikipedia has a short outline article here, and Granny Buttons did a piece several years ago.  

But I've been looking in the back issues of Waterways World, and there are two excellent,  detailed and interesting articles about it in the September and October 1975 issues, written and researched by Michael Baldwin, including a map specially drawn for the feature (below).  Currently these articles aren't available for download, but if there's enough interest we might be prepared to scan them.  


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