The Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration - An Update

Despite the cold January weather, a packed audience welcomed Bob Williams and Peter Buck from the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust to give an illustrated talk on the Trust's progress in restoring these two canals. This is actually the fourth time we've had an update from the Trust's representatives. Since the first in 1997, we've also enjoyed presentations in 2002 and 2007. Over that period of time, we've witnessed tremendous progress on what must be a challenging, long term project. So this presentation from them predictably brought forth reports of a whole crop of new projects.

Bob started by reminding us of the historical context of the two canals. The Hatherton Canal was constructed from a junction with the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal north of Wolverhampton to tap into the rich Cannock Coalfield. It skirted generally eastwards to the south of Cannock and joined the Wyrley & Essington Canal at Pelsall Junction. The Lichfield Canal set off westwards from Huddlesford Junction on the Coventry Canal, passing to the south of Lichfield to join the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Ogley Junction, just south of Chasewater. By utilising a small section of the Wyrley and Essington Canal between the two junctions, it was possible to use the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals to travel from east to west between the two major canals - the Trent and Mersey and Staffs & Worcs. This avoided a circuitous journey between these two major waterways, which were significant arteries for the transport of goods during the earlier part of the Industrial Revolution. As an aside, Peter explained that Lichfield's role as a potential "Clapham Junction of Canals" has often been overlooked. The canal builders' dream was "the Grand Cross", being canals to link our four great rivers (the Mersey, Severn, Trent and Thames) and their attendant industrial activity. The "Cross" of the two diagonals intersected close to Lichfield and the great canal builder, James Brindley, looked at a scheme linking Minster and Stowe Pools eastwards to the River Trent near Shardlow. It came to nothing, but, with the theoretical addition of a link to the west, Lichfield could have become a major interchange canal port, with a significantly different character than today! However, the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals fell into disrepair during the twentieth century, being abandoned by the mid 1950s. Nowadays, the restored Lichfield and Hatherton Canals would perform an important role by creating a shorter cruising distance between the East and West Midlands for today's boaters, whilst bringing more tourists into our area.

Bob and Peter took us along the routes of both canals in some detail. We were impressed by the Trust's "can do" approach. Opportunities have arisen to acquire land and property to protect the routes and to obtain funding from a variety of sources, including the EU. Despite the abandonment of the two canals over 60 years ago, a surprising amount of infrastructure survives, including many locks (thirty plus on the Lichfield Canal alone), often now buried. Slowly these are being restored as opportunities arise and associated lengths of the former canal bed re-watered. Members may be familiar with the work being undertaken around Darnford Park and Tamworth Road, where an impressive half mile is back in water. They may well have seen the aqueduct suspended in isolation over the M6 Toll road near The Boat public house on Walsall Rd (an appropriate name for a former canalside pub!). They may not realise that a box culvert for the canal has been buried adjacent to the new roundabout on London Road. By Christmas 2019, when the next section of the Lichfield Bypass is driven beneath the adjacent railway line, the Trust plans to drive the canal route under the railway embankment. An appeal for 1m has just been launched to raise the money. Over at the route of the Hatherton Canal, the complex Churchbridge junction on the A5 near Cannock hides a large box culvert ensuring that the canal can thread its way underneath the road network.

These are costly, complex schemes and it is to the credit of the Trust that by dint of sheer enthusiasm and effort, they have ensured that the routes are protected and slowly brought back to life. The Trust has a strong membership and many willing volunteers with a wide range of skills. Perhaps their most eminent "volunteer" is the actor David Suchet. Members will have seen his face in the Lichfield Mercury, attending one of the Trust's many fund raising events. As Vice-President, and clearly a boating enthusiast, he has willingly given his time in support of this project. Currently, he has been promoting the Trust's Tunnel Vision appeal for the 1m.

The audience left the presentation feeling that the enthusiasm and tenacity of the Trust's members will see them through. This multi-million pound project will certainly be completed, but it will be a long haul.

Roger Hockney
January 2017