Report from our Talks Programme
by Peter Keen
The Lancaster Canal Trust
SCARS has previously been addressed by members of the Trust who have described the state of their canal and their hopes for its restoration. Dave Slater of the Trust came to speak to us in November but this time the agenda has changed in that the restoration is going ahead and is no longer a vague target in the future.
Originally built to link the Wigan coalfield to Cumbria, it materialised in two sections, the first from Wigan to Preston, the second from Preston to Kendal linked by a tram road across the River Ribble. A canal link would have required up to 32 locks to negotiate a height difference of 300 feet and was too expensive.
There were variations in its planned routes, especially in north Lancashire where the influence of the Leeds Liverpool Canal came into effect, but the chosen route served well for many years, carrying coal northwards and limestone to the south.
Although Liverpool was the major west coast port at the time Lancaster wished to develop its own port facilities but was defeated by the silting of the Ribble, leaving its quays and custom house deserted. A branch canal was constructed off the Lancaster Canal to Glasson where sea going craft could access a purpose built dock and transfer cargoes to canal craft for transfer to Lancaster but the growing size of ships prevented them from entering the dock which eventually put paid to Lancaster's ambitions as a port.
Some of the southern section of canal survives as part of the Leeds Liverpool, but from Johnson's Hillock northwards only remnants can be found, some opened out tunnels here, or a dry channel below a road there. Much of the rest has been built over whilst the tram road bridge across the river was destroyed by flood waters in the 1950s. Fortunately the local authority replaced it with a concrete look-alike to mark its position.
North of the Ribble the tram/canal boat transhipment area has disappeared below the University of Central Lancashire campus, after which the canal is in water northwards for a short distance before reaching the beginning of the Ribble Link, the brand new waterway which in all probability acted as a catalyst for the restoration. This waterway, more of a navigation than a canal, allows boats to use the canalised Savick Brook to reach the Ribble, from where they can use the Douglas Navigation to access the Leeds Liverpool Canal and thus the national waterway network. Without this vital link the restoration would have been impractical.
Continuing northwards the canal originally provided 42 miles of lock-free sailing with some wonderful views across Morecambe Bay. Its greatest engineering feat is the great aqueduct across the River Lune at Lancaster, along with smaller ones at Brock and across the Wyre at Garstang. Later than the Sankey, the vessels which used the Lancaster were horse drawn so swing bridges were not needed and the traditional hump-backed bridge is a regular feature, built of brick or stone according to the materials available locally.
The lock-free nature of the canal lent itself to packet boat services which carried passengers at 12 m.p.h. between destinations. Four boats a day were provided with horse changes every 5 miles. Some of the stabling blocks survive alongside the canal. The boats offered two classes with a dividing galley to serve refreshments. This service was of course replaced by the railway which was to become the West Coast main line.
Not far beyond Carnforth the canal needed to climb and here, at Tewitfield, a series of locks was built and these survive although with concrete weirs instead of gates. Unfortunately the M6 was built across the course of the canal in three places so continued progress by water is presently impossible. North of the locks the canal remains in water and it is along this stretch that the Trust has its trip boat, used to raise funds and raise awareness of the canal in the minds of the public.
At Hincaster the canal plunges into a tunnel without a tow path. Strangely, whilst the horse path and tunnel, once used to take the horses over the hill, are scheduled monuments the actual canal tunnel is not. The portals however are listed.
From here to Kendal the canal is dry but not without interest. Most of its tow path survives and is popular with walkers. At intervals they will come across canal bridges in the middle of the fields, with the tow path passing below one side of the bridge. These still carry the roads which they were built to serve back in the late 1770s.
Sedgewick Village boasts a very tall but narrow aqueduct, intact but thickly clothed with undergrowth. More isolated bridges are encountered until the outskirts of Kendal are reached. Here short sections of the canal have been built over but most of the tow path is well used by walkers and cyclists although the canal alongside has been filled in and is used by local industry for storage purposes.
Finally the path leads northwards, below the recently restored change-line bridge, past the site of the castle to the original terminus basin, also filled in, but with a surviving warehouse still in use.
The restoration of the canal is not only the responsibility of the Trust. There are up to thirty other organizations involved including the usual waterway groups, all the local Councils and most importantly the Cumbria Tourist Board. The development of the canal as a gateway to the Lake District is another key element in getting the restoration up and running. The major engineering demanded during the restoration would be beyond the capability of the Trust so the larger group is essential to draw in funding and expertise and manage the whole project.
Work is to commence at the northern end at Kendal where phase one will consist of the first 2.5 miles of the canal from the town out into the country. Phase two will be the section down to the Stainton and phase three south of the M6. A range of difficulties will have to be dealt with during the reconstruction including obtaining an adequate water supply. The canal will have to pass below the M6 no less than three times so realignment, culverting and water level changes will be necessary.
At other places too, where the canal's course has gone, realignment will be needed, to the south of Kendal at Natland where a bridge has disappeared under a road and north of the tunnel where the deep cutting containing the A590 Kendal by-pass has obliterated the canal. In the centre of Kendal, Parkside Road, which carried a heavy traffic obliterated the canal. In the centre of Kendal, Parkside Road, which carried a heavy traffic load, is presently carried over the canal near water level. A new crossing will have to be provided, either an elevated fixed span with accompanying approach embankments or a lift bridge. At the northern terminus, Canal Head, there are proposals for a Canal Cultural Quarter including residential, retail, recreational, commercial and light industrial uses.
In the meantime the Trust will devote its energies to smaller projects, controlling undergrowth, restoring bridges and improving access. Canal-side buildings and wharves will be restored and converted to new usage whilst new milestones will be installed at appropriate locations. Alongside the practical work will run a range of other activities to raise funds and awareness with increased publicity and a new trip boat.
SCARS wishes the Trust every success in its restoration work and hopes to follow in its footsteps in the not too distant future.
Our thanks to Dave for an excellent evening.
Above: Minor access road bridge across filled in canal, fenced off
Below: Minor access road bridge, canal channel clear, tow path extant
Photographs by courtesy of John Hall
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