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Monday 19 August

Another canal mill destroyed

Barely a week after a blaze destroyed the Walkley Clogs building on the Rochdale Canal, another historic canalside mill was destroyed on the Ashton Canal on 6th August.

Oxford Mill, at Ashton-under-Lyne, was the creation of Hugh Mason, a pioneering and enlightened mill owner and later Liberal MP.

Chris Leah of the Wooden Boat Society was a witness to the conflagration, during one of his society's regular recycling trips (as described in WW January 2019). He told us: “Ominous black smoke was billowing from a big fire close to our intended route. I had noted previously that [one section of the mill had been] used for storing stuff in cardboard boxes.

“By the time we were ready to return it was nearly dark. At Brewery Bridge, at the South end of Pottinger Street, we got a good view of the fire. The brigade's efforts had seemingly been in vain. The whole area was now blazing well, particularly in the section of the building where I had seen the boxes, presumably turbocharged by whatever was being stored.”

Chris said he had to tie up for the night in a nearby bridgehole, fearful that the building might collapse on the boat if he tried to pass. Fortunately no one was injured in the blaze.

“The streets had a carnival atmosphere, like a huge free bonfire party for the whole community,” he added. “[Every so often] I would hear a rumble as another bit of historic mill tumbled.”

Andrew Denny  | 2.00pm | add a comment

Sunday 18 August

Public viewing point for New Cut

The New Cut Heritage & Ecology Group, the society caring for what remains of the old New Cut Canal in Warrington, has opened a public viewing point to see the remains of Woolston Lock.

The group formed in 2016 (WW August 2016) to identify and protect archaeological structures and wildlife habitats, while further developing Paddington Meadows, part of the riverbank between the New Cut and the river.

The new platform also gives a view of the non-tidal River Mersey as it might have appeared to the old working boatmen, and explains the significance of the area's history.

The New Cut Canal opened in 1821, and was once a part of the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, linking Manchester to the tidal Mersey at Warrington. The Manchester Ship Canal eventually superseded it.

Also commemorated with a plaque was Old Billy, said to have been the world’s oldest working boat horse when he died, aged 62, in 1822. His portrait hangs in Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.

A drone view of the New Cut can be seen at youtu.be/9U10QSQhs24.

The New Cut Heritage and Ecology Group unveiled a viewing platform on 16th July, also paying tribute to Billy, at 62 said to have been the world oldest working horse.

Andrew Denny  | 1.40pm | add a comment

Thursday 15 August

Emergency at Whaley Bridge 

Potential disaster was narrowly averted in possibly the darkest hour for the Canal & River Trust in its seven-year history

A deluge of rain fell on the Peak District on the night of 31st July, and some observers felt like half of it had descended on Toddbrook Reservoir, overlooking Whaley Bridge at the head of the Upper Peak Forest Canal. 

By the following day the water began overtopping the spill weir, and suddenly a section of the concrete gave way, with water eating away at the soil underneath. 

Fearful of a collapse, the police called for an immediate evacuation of a quarter of the town’s 6,500 population.

To prevent disaster, dam pumps were soon installed to lower the water level and RAF Chinook helicopters dropped hundreds of aggregate-filled bags to stabilise the structure. 

An additional worry was that if the dam had collapsed the torrent of water could have swept away the modest 35ft aqueduct that carries the canal over the River Goyt. Twenty-three miles of the Upper Peak Forest and Macclesfield canals, which effectively hold more water than Toddbrook itself, would then also empty back into the River Goyt, compounding any disaster. Stop planks were inserted along the canal near New Mills to forestall this.

The reservoir slowly began to lower and worries eased. But it was six days before residents were allowed to return to the affected area, while rail services through the town were halted for the duration.


Toddbrook, a canal reservoir completed in 1839, takes water from the Todd Brook, a tributary of the River Goyt. Water only goes into the reservoir during high flows in the brook; this was done to ensure mill owners on the River Goyt always had a water supply. Since the emergency, this inlet has been blocked so that all the water now flows around the reservoir into the bypass channel.

Originally the reservoir keeper lived on site. He would watch the weather and reduce the level when heavy rain was predicted. Now monitoring is through an electronic SCADA system, and the reservoir inspected twice a week, a requirement under the Reservoirs Act. 

The current spill weir was built in the late 1960s after a flood risk analysis decided that the original structure was inadequate. It is 83 yards long and nearly a foot higher than the 1839 weir, and at the time was doing exactly what it was designed for.

Engineers said the amount of water flowing over the weir at the end of July was nowhere close to the maximum predicted for the design, so the subsequent failure of the concrete capping slabs gives cause for concern. 

The UK’s 1975 Reservoirs Act is claimed to have the most stringent inspection protocols in the world, amended further by the Flood & Water Management Act 2010. Toddbrook had a mandatory ten-year inspection in November 2018 and had been given a clean bill of health.

Initial works include a temporary repair to the spill weir and pressure grouting of the top capping. The next stage is a detailed investigation into the structure to decide on the necessary repair works, which are likely to be lengthy and expensive. 

Eleven 12in submersible electric pumps are still in place, with over half a mile of piping. They are supported by a floating platform to stop them becoming clogged with silt. These will be used to keep the water level low until the repair works are finished. 

A fish rescue took place once the water level fell below emergency levels, with around 30,000 transferred to Bittell Reservoir, south of Birmingham, which itself had been drained and repaired in 2018.

Meanwhile, for boaters, water levels in the long 23-mile pound from Whaley Bridge to Bosley are not in immediate danger; there are three other canal reservoirs (Combs, Bosley and Sutton) feeding this summit length. 

Businesses affected  

One business caught up in the emergency was the Judith Mary trip-boat, which has operated from Whaley Bridge since 1983. Owner Suzy Kelsall said they were carrying 40 people on a cream-tea cruise when friends phoned to tell them to get off the boat as soon as possible, something not easily accomplished for the (mainly elderly) passengers.  

“We felt we were in the middle of a huge disaster movie film set,” Suzy Kelsall told WW. “There were evacuees, roads closed, that Chinook flying overhead, emergency services everywhere, volunteers and our fantastic community offering shelter, beds and food to one another along with neighbouring communities. 

“After six days of being out of our homes I have never enjoyed putting my key in the lock in my front door and walking in so much. The next day we were able to collect the Judith Mary, and the one-hour journey back was incredibly emotional.” 

FAB day 

The Whaley Bridge Canal Group, a community interest company set up earlier this year to restore the transhipment warehouse, said it would be holding a special FAB (Food & Art at the Basin) market on 7th September and asked boaters to return to the town. 

Rupert Smedley 

Andrew Denny  | 2.32pm | add a comment

Olympic cycling champ opens Ashton towpath link

Erstwhile Olympic cycling champion Chris Boardman did the honours on 31st July when a new access ramp onto the Ashton Canal was officially opened at Guide Bridge, in Audenshaw.

The towpath of the 7-mile canal was upgraded in 2015 with a £1.2m grant for both wheels and walkers, but until now the neighbourhood at Guide Bridge, 30ft above the canal, has been tantalisingly out of reach from the towpath.

The ramp was built by the Canal & River Trust, but the Department for Transport’s Cycle City Ambition Grant paid the £724,000 cost.

Chris Boardman, now Manchester's new Cycling & Walking Commissioner, praised the ramp as a benefit for towpath users, but boaters may also find it a useful shortcut, especially to the handy suburban railway station of Guide Bridge.

CRT region director Daniel Greenhalgh (l) and Chris Boardman (second from l) open the ramp at Guide Bridge on the Ashton Canal. Photo: CRT

Andrew Denny  | 2.15pm | add a comment

New C-Fest adds to Shropshire Union events

G-Fest, a fortnight-long biennial village festival in Gnosall, Staffordshire, which has been running for several years, was this year joined by C-Fest, a brand-new weekend bash that extended the celebrations to the nearby Shropshire Union Canal.

Held the week before the regular Audlem Festival of Transport, C-Fest was able to attract historic boats on the way to Audlem, along with roving traders attending an event at Market Drayton.

Two canalside pubs, the Boat Inn and the Navigation, held a gin and cider festival and provided musical venues to give a soundtrack to the weekend.

The organisers said it was successful enough that, despite G-Fest being only once every two years, the new event could become annual and stamp Gnosall more firmly on the canal festival map. While the canal is some distance from the village, the presence of a quarter-mile of good linear mooring, bookended by two good pubs, makes it a natural canal venue.

The first C-Fest at Gnosall could have found its feet as a regular canal event.

Andrew Denny  | 2.06pm | add a comment

Wednesday 14 August

Mixed reception for Regent's Canal 'upturned dustbins'

A modern canalside supermarket and residential development in London has been Grade II-listed, drawing scathing comments from local canal supporters. They ask why it has not been possible to list some other, more traditional structures on London's waterways.

The Sainsbury’s Grand Union development, overlooking the canal in Camden, is the first purpose-built supermarket to be added to the National Heritage List. Built in the 1980s, it transformed a former industrial site which had previously included a wharf.

Ian Shacklock, chair of the Friends of the Regent's Canal, said he was not alone in questioning the lack of effort to protect more traditional structures on London's waterways.

“Asking Historic England to list anything on the Regent's Canal is like getting blood out of a stone,” he told WW.

“They have resisted throwing their weight behind the iconic gasholders at Bethnal Green and the former ironworks at Holborn Studios, which have undeniable connections with the canal's early decades. So it came as quite a surprise to us to hear that their most treasured structure on the canal is a modern building resembling a row of upturned dustbins.”

However he gave grudging acceptance of the decision: “This building is an acquired taste and it wins the approval of some of the architects in our group. All in all, it's good to see something on the canal gaining recognition, and at the very least this should guarantee that there will no attempts to create roof extensions in this narrow stretch of the Regent's Canal."

Andrew Denny  | 1.57pm | add a comment

Tuesday 13 August

Obituary: John Williams

Carpenter who pioneered fitouts for the first steel leisure narrowboats and had a huge influence on the hire-boat industry. 

Trained as a high-quality housebuilding carpenter by his father in Shrewsbury, John Williams came to the new Shropshire Union Cruises hire company at Norbury Junction in 1965, just as it was building the first steel leisure narrowboat shells.

He became responsible for fit-outs of this pioneering firm, inventing and developing new techniques, and played a key role in establishing their standards of construction and operation.

John represented Shropshire Union Cruises on the then-new Association of Pleasure Craft Operators, later British Marine Inland Boating. He brought together many hire operators in supporting restoration schemes, realising that hire-boaters could turn into new purchasers of private boats and become enthusiastic supporters of restoration. He was recruited as a key advisor to the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council, playing a significant role in changing political attitudes to waterways.

In the 1970s he moved to the Norfolk Broads, joining Porter & Haylett of Wroxham which, from 1979, built and operated Connoisseur Cruisers.

Eventually John opened his own boatyard at Stalham, building, restoring and servicing classic Broads sailing yachts and motor cruisers. In the 1990s he became involved with the Electric Boat Association, pioneering trailable electric-powered cabin launches.

Paul Wagstaffe, former chief executive of British Marine and a friend, said: “He was very much a character but always a complete professional.“

Andrew Denny  | 2.04pm | add a comment

Today's news from the web

  • On a quiet canal, a church peace garden remembers the brave nurses of WWI's 'floating hospitals' christiantoday.com

    Meandering its way through the suburbs of Edinburgh is the historic Union Canal, a once bustling waterway that was at the heart of Scottish Victorian industry. Polwarth Parish Church, which sits on its banks, wants to utilise this historic waterway for the spiritual benefit of locals. Affectionately known as the "Kirk on the Canal", the church is fundraising to buy a barge that will be used to provide spiritual, recreational and education activities. For the barge project, called "All Aboard", the church is teaming up with local social innovation charity, People Know How, which works with children and young people in the city. A jetty has already been constructed at the bottom of the church's garden bordering the canal. The next step is to raise enough funds to buy the barge. ...

  • Canal barge spotted submerged in Yorkshire yorkshirepost.co.uk

    A sunken barge was spotted in a Yorkshire canal by a worried witness. The submerged canal boat was spotted at Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire by a passing motorist who "feared the worst."...

Monday 12 August

Rain mars Audlem

Extremes of weather made for some discomfort in the run-up to this year's Audlem Festival of Transport on 26th-28th July. Attended by 28 historic boats, the event was marred by weather too hot for enjoyable locking in the run-up, and too wet over the weekend, almost wiping out attendances by the general public.

Nevertheless Audlem has become a fixture on the historic boat tour, one of the half-dozen favourite gatherings for enthusiasts, and the crews still enjoyed themselves.

The Saturday hogroast at the lock cottage was abandoned during the downpours, but the Historic Narrow Boat Club found an alternative venue in marquees left up in a field after an earlier Ramblers Club annual picnic.

The attenders and organisers, all enjoyed the weekend, but the purpose was to put on a spectacle for the public, to remind them of this marvellous form of transport and wonderful setting, and the weather worked against this. Better luck next year!

Peter Silvester, Audlem Mill 

Andrew Denny  | 2.18pm | add a comment

Grantham celebrates 50th birthday

On 28th July the Grantham Canal Society held a 50th birthday party at its headquarters in the Woolsthorpe depot.

The society came into being as an idea of the Grantham Civic Society in 1969, and held its inaugural meeting at The Plough Inn, Hickling, overlooking Hickling Basin.

That first meeting was chaired by local architect and archaeologist Garland Grylls, who died in 2006. His daughter Jane, current treasurer and membership secretary, was present at the birthday party, along with two of the original members from 1969, Chris Tizzard and Jim Barker.

Chris and Jim represented those who, in the 1970s and early '80s, fought attempts to turn the canal into a linear rubbish dump, helped thwart the mining of the Vale of Belvoir (subsidence would have destroyed the line) and challenged the indifference and negativity of British Waterways at the time.

Also present was Francis Bailey, who in the early days was instrumental in setting up what became the Hickling Reach Project, the first real success of the canal. Hickling Basin was rejuvenated, nearly 3 miles of canal dredged and three new accommodation bridges

The society celebrated its birthday with optimism. The lottery-funded restoration of Woolsthorpe locks 15 and 14 should be completed next year, membership has nearly tripled to over 650 and it has over 70 active volunteers.

Plans are now shaping up for the completion of the two remaining locks of the Woolsthorpe flight, while the society has also turned its attention to the Cropwell Bishop dry section as its next project.

Andrew Denny  | 1.47pm | add a comment

Friday 9 August

A trow for Stourport

The Hereford Bull, a replica Severn Trow built for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, is seeking a new home, after the consortium that owns it decided its location in Gloucester felt too limiting.

The boat was commissioned by an informal Hereford collective of naval officers, rowers, sea cadets and others, and was based for a few years on the Wye. It was built in Tommi Nielsen's yard in Gloucester Docks, and is back there while a decision is being made. 

Now a new group has put forward the case for Stourport. Calling itself the Stourport Trow Sailing Trust, the group will hold an inaugural meeting on 24th September, with the aim of agreeing any conditions of transfer and to start fundraising. 

Trows were historically the native barges of the Severn, Wye and tributaries, but apart from the replica have not been seen afloat for over a century. When the canal arrived in Stourport in the 1770s they transhipped with narrowboats, and were a familiar sight in the two basins, but their trade ceased before World War I.

David Struckett, a member of IWA's Navigation Committee who is heading the campaign, said “The town has a heritage narrowboat in Bramble, but a trow would be even more appropriate as it pre-dates the canal.”

For more information email david.struckett@waterways.org.uk.

Andrew Denny  | 2.30pm | add a comment

Today's news from the web

  • Historic Ashton-under-Lyne canalside mill destroyed by fire bbc.co.uk

    Residents were evacuated from their homes overnight as up to 70 firefighters tackled a blaze at a complex of canalside mill buildings. Oxford Mills was the creation of self-made businessman and Liberal MP Hugh Mason (1817-1881), who created a worker's neighbourhood by the canal as well as a thriving cotton business. The Ashton canal was closed while demolition of the ruins was arranged. ...

Thursday 8 August

Campaign to build replica Sutton Hoo ship

A £1m fundraising campaign has been launched to build a full-sized replica of the 7th century burial ship at Sutton Hoo. Uncovered in 1939, it was said to be the grave of an early Saxon King, and was believed to have been buried about 625 AD.

The impression of the rotted ship’s timbers in the sand suggested it to have been a mastless, clinker-built rowboat about 90ft long, using around 3,500 rivets. Yet while the hull shape has been well mapped out, much is still speculation.

The replica will be tested with a crew of up to 40 rowers. They will also erect a mast and see how well it sails.

A half-length replica, Sae Wylfing, was built in 1993. But this was only one eighth the total displacement, did not properly test the concept, and omits the staggering impressiveness of the full-sized boat.

The build will be a staged appeal, with the first step offering sponsorship of 3,500 numbered metal rivets to hold the ship together.

Details of the project can be found at makeshiphappen.co.uk.

Andrew Denny  | 2.26pm | add a comment

Appeal for BCN canal steps funding

A volunteer group has restored a disused railway line near Birmingham as a leisure greenway, and is now appealing for help to link it with a Birmingham Canal Navigations aqueduct over the line. 

The greenway, which opened this year, uses the old South Staffordshire Railway that once ran between Brownhills and Walsall but closed 30 years ago.

The group's founder, Tim Kitchen, says that at one point the line crosses underneath the Wyrley & Essington Canal on the Anglesey Arm, and it is here that they are appealing for funds to create steps up to the canal.

The aqueduct, dating from 1856, is Grade II-listed, and Tim Kitchen says they are limited in their options.

“Steps to the towpath would created a completely traffic-free route from Walsall to Chasewater and enable many more circular walks to be enjoyed,” he told WW. “We would also add a cycle channel.”

"But the steps are costing considerably more than we estimated when we started,” he added. “This is due the slope requiring a zig-zag and a resting place in the middle to meet regulations.”

More details can be found at backthetrack.org.uk.

The aqueduct on the Wyrley & Essington Canal where Back The Track want to build the steps.

Andrew Denny  | 2.22pm | add a comment

Today's news from the web

  • Horse-drawn barge near misses prompt safety action on Grand Western Canal devonlive.com

    Grand Western Canal visitors are being warned of the hazards surrounding the horse-drawn barge and cycling thanks to new signs. The signs at the Canal Basin and Tiverton Road Bridge inform visitors that they are entering the horse-drawn barge operating zone. Canal ranger Mark Baker said: “These signs use photos and text to demonstrate some of the hazards and the safe behaviour requested of towpath users in this zone. “These A2-sized signs have been developed in response to several near misses in recent years whereby towpath users have acted dangerously around the horse that pulls the barge....

Wednesday 7 August

Memorial unveiled to new 'Rochdale pioneer'

In front of a crowd of 40 Rochdale Canal supporters, a memorial bench was unveiled on 16th July at Canal Street, Littleborough, in memory of Brian Holden.

Brian, who died in September last year aged 88, was the founder and life-long secretary of the Rochdale Canal Society from 1974, seeing the restoration through to its full reopening in 2002. The seat honours his decades of fundraising and physical hard work in reopening the waterway.

“Without Brian it would not have happened,” said his friend Bob Weatherley of the Littleborough Civic Trust. “He truly was a latter-day Rochdale Pioneer. In a sense, the canal itself is his memorial.”

Andrew Denny  | 1.49pm | add a comment

Historic Rochdale Canal mill destroyed by fire

The historic Walkley Clogs Mill alongside the Rochdale Canal at Mytholmroyd has been demolished after being devastated by fire on 1st August. Although the blaze was quickly brought under control, the local council took the decision to demolish the building for safety.

Previously home to clog manufacturers Walkley, the Victorian building had been turned into a World of Clogs tourist attraction when the company moved its manufacturing to another mill nearby.

Successive plans to convert it to housing or find a canal-related use fell through and it had become derelict.

The building was better known to succeeding generations of working boatmen as Maude's Clog Mill, and was built to take advantage of the canal. As Maude's it was the largest manufacturer of clog soles in the world, reaching a peak of 1.2m pairs by World War II, although the canal's role in their production ceased in the 1920s.

Andrew Denny  | 1.19pm | add a comment

Tuesday 6 August

Near-misses prompt safety action on Grand Western Canal

The Grand Western Canal Country Park has introduced new safety measures, after reports of several near-misses by towpath users around the popular horse-drawn barge service at the Tiverton end of the canal.

A 3 mile long ‘horse-drawn barge operating zone’ – the UK's first – is now indicated by new signs at either end of the zone, with smaller versions of the sign at towpath access points.

The near-misses occurred in particular under some of the bridges in recent years, when other towpath users acted dangerously or unwittingly around the barge horse.

New signs have also been introduced to encourage more considerate behaviour among cyclists, encouraging them to dismount and walk under the canal’s bridges.

Andrew Denny  | 2.18pm | add a comment

Whaley Bridge reservoir draining almost completed

The emergency draining of Toddbrook Reservoir was close to completion on Tuesday, easing fears that it might collapse and cause catastrophic damage to Whaley Bridge and other local areas.

The near-disaster has caused the evacuation of a quarter of the town's 6,500 inhabitants and the closure of the Upper Peak Forest Canal from Bridge 26 to Whaley Bridge and Bugsworth Basin.

The Canal & River Trust closed the Upper Peak Forest Canal with stop planks at Dryhurst Bridge (No.26) near Disley. This was intended to avoid potential flooding or risk of breaching further down the canal, should the worst happen.

Over 530 tonnes of aggregate has been dropped in bags by helicopter to reinforce the damaged spillway and prevent further collapse.

In an initial response on the first day of the emergency, Canal & River Trust chief executive Richard Parry said a detailed inspection was last carried out in November 2018, when it was found to be "absolutely fine".

He added that the failure had not been caused by underfunding: “We aren’t short of money to spend on reservoirs... we’re urgently anxious to understand what has happened in this case.”

The new prime minister, Boris Johnson, immediately promised that the reservoir will be repaired or rebuilt. However, since it is the responsibility of the Canal & River Trust, and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, who funds this will be up for debate, and Mr Parry's words might well come back to haunt him.

Andrew Denny  | 2.09pm | add a comment

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