Linking Lichfield: the Lichfield Canal restoration

 Summerhill towpath work, with M6 Toll aqueduct in the background

Linking up: Summerhill towpath work, with M6 Toll aqueduct in the background - Credit: Martin Ludgate

After 30 years of restoration driven more by opportunity and necessity than logic, things are starting to come together on the Lichfield, as Martin Ludgate reports...

Concrete box sections ready for the new Darnford Lane bridge

Concrete box sections ready for the new Darnford Lane bridge - Credit: Martin Ludgate

There comes a time in many waterway restoration schemes where the “work wherever you can” ethos of the early days gradually gives way to what seems like a more logical “join the dots” approach to linking up the restored sections and connecting them to the outside world. And the Lichfield Canal restoration is showing signs of having reached that stage.

But why not do that right from the beginning? “Why don’t you just start at one end and work your way through to the other?” is a question that Peter Buck, in charge of engineering on the Lichfield, is often asked. The answer is that when a canal’s been as badly knocked-about as the Lichfield has since it was abandoned in the 1950s, there will be blockages to restoration that are way beyond the capabilities of a small volunteer canal society in its formative years. But elsewhere there will almost certainly be much easier stretches whose restoration is within the fund-raising and volunteering capabilities of the canal society - and by doing so, it will gain experience and credibility. Unfortunately, very rarely are these easier stretches at the ends of the canal, where it meets up with already navigable waterways.

The liftbridge at Darnford Lane waits for boats to arrive

The liftbridge at Darnford Lane waits for boats to arrive - Credit: Martin Ludgate

Getting to the specifics of the Lichfield, when the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust was founded in 1988, the blockages included the A5, A38 and A461 dual carriageway main roads, the smaller but still important A51 Tamworth Road and A5127 Birmingham Road, and the Birmingham to Lichfield railway, all of which blocked the route and would need expensive new bridges. In addition the restored canal would need to be diverted around a length of the original route in Lichfield which had been built on (one of up to five diversions needed in the canal’s seven miles), and there were several smaller road blockages from Barracks Lane to the west (not far from where the canal leaves the navigable length of the Wyrley & Essington at Ogley Junction) to Cappers Lane in the east (a few hundred yards short of where it meets the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford Junction). Not to mention 30 locks to restore, or in some cases to replace, plus the issue of getting permission to work on a canal that had been sold off to various landowners.

So the Trust had no choice but to take a “work where you can” approach. And one available worksite was at exactly the worst point when it came to the “Why don’t you just start at one end...” question. Lock 18 was slap bang in the middle of the canal, equidistant from Ogley and Huddlesford, and on just a short length of unobstructed canal, cut off at one end by a flattened road bridge, and at the other by the missing section in Lichfield. But the lock had survived in a reasonable state, it was accessible from Fosseway Lane, and the Trust got permission to work on it. Supported by visiting teams from Waterway Recovery Group, the Trust completely restored the lock chamber in the mid-1990s.

This was followed in the late 1990s by another project in a slightly more logical location, towards the east end of the canal near Darnford Lane. Crossing the lane was going to be tricky, as reinstating the original hump backed bridge would not be permissible, so a decision was made to lower and divert a length of canal, bypassing the original Lock 29. The new channel was dug, linked up with the existing channel below the old lock, a length of the channel was rebuilt with steel piled banks, a new culvert was built to carry a stream under the canal, and set of abutments were built to carry a liftbridge, which was installed.

WRG voluteers rebuilding the towpath wall at Fosseway Heath

WRG voluteers rebuilding the towpath wall at Fosseway Heath - Credit: Martin Ludgate

Next came a worksite at Tamworth Road on the edge of Lichfield, where locks 24 to 26 run parallel to the A51 road. During the first 20 years of the new century locks 25 and 26 were rebuilt, the channel was rebuilt, a considerable part of the ‘big pipe’ (a concrete landwater drain cut into the canal bed and through the locks after closure ) was removed, and a popular local towpath walk was created. And below the locks, the first section was constructed of a diversion which will eventually see the canal burrow through the A51 embankment, descend via two new staircase locks in Darnford Park (much of the excavation for this has already been done), and tunnel under the A38.

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At the same time as this “work where you can” approach, there was also a certain amount of “do what you have to” - on two occasions new road construction threatened to block the restoration, and the Trust had to concentrate its efforts on dealing with these threats. First there was the M6 Toll, which would cut through the canal not far from Ogley Junction, as well as blocking the Hatherton Canal (a second route whose reopening LHCRT is also promoting, although it has perforce taken a back seat for much of the time) at Churchbridge. Raising the funds for navigable crossings to be created during the road’s construction was imperative, as building them later would be prohibitively expensive and disruptive.

An appeal, spearheaded by the Trust’s patron and great supporter Sir David Suchet, raised £100,000 towards the costs; the Manifold Trust provided £250,000; the money also acted as ‘matching funding’ to a similar-sized EU grant. Between them they funded both an aqueduct over the motorway for the Lichfield Canal, and navigable culverts under it for the Hatherton. And following the publicity generated, the Government introduced guidance that in future new roads should give due consideration to making provision for canals under restoration - in other words that building any necessary aqueducts or culverts should be part of the road scheme, not an extra that a canal society would need to fund.

Restored length at Tamworth Road locks

Restored length at Tamworth Road locks - Credit: Martin Ludgate

In terms of physical progress with reopening the canal, it could be said that the new motorway crossings didn’t actually move it forward; they merely prevented any additional barriers to reopening. However in demonstrating the Trust’s ability to raise significant sums of money, convincing public bodies and funders of the viability of the project, and establishing the future planning guidelines, it was a massive step forward.

But then the Trust had to do it all over again. The new Lichfield Southern Bypass road was planned to cross the A5127 Birmingham Road on the edge of Lichfield; the proposed diversion to take the canal around the infilled length in Lichfield would run alongside the bypass, and would therefore also need to cross the Birmingham Road at the same point. Surely the new planning guidance would mean that the canal crossing would be provided by the road builders? But no, they avoided it on the grounds that the Birmingham Road was an existing road, not a new one. Once again Sir David Suchet led an appeal, and once again the public responded, resulting in a navigable concrete culvert (temporarily buried) under the roundabout where the bypass meets the Birmingham Road.

And this time, it did actually represent the removal of one of the serious blockages to restoration - not to mention another step forward for its credibility.

Channel clearance and towpath work at Summerhill

Channel clearance and towpath work at Summerhill - Credit: Martin Ludgate

Between these campaigns practical work has continued, another more recent project being the Summerhill length of canal, from the A461 crossing to the M6 Toll Aqueduct, which was intact but overgrown. It’s now been cleared, the towpath reinstated, and a wharf wall rebuilt. More recently the Trust tackled another section in Lichfield, between the Tamworth Road and Lock 18 restoration sites, and based around Gallows Wharf by the surviving bridge carrying London Road over the canal. The towpath wall became a major focus for the Trust’s bricklayers and visiting groups in 2019, and is now rebuilt for some distance either side of the wharf.

What’s happened since then, though, is that we’ve seen moves towards linking up these isolated successes from the last three decades to create longer restored sections, as the Trust ups its game and takes on the more complex work that this will entail. On the Summerhill section just mentioned, there are plans to create a single deep lock (replacing two original locks) to connect the canal up to the M6 Toll aqueduct, while at the other end of the same length there are plans for a new lock to lower the canal to a level that will enable it to pass under the A461. But it’s in the area south of Lichfield that this joined-up thinking is really beginning to happen.

Rebuilding the Gallows Wharf towpath

Rebuilding the Gallows Wharf towpath - Credit: Martin Ludgate

It began three years ago with a ‘Kickstart grant’ from Staffordshire Council towards reinstating a collapsed towpath wall and restoring a length of canal at Fosseway Heath, initially as a local reserve (I spent a week’s WRG Canal Camp there as a volunteer - see the article in the October 2018 Canal Boat). This length has now been largely completed, and a second path has been completed on the offside to create a walking circuit. But perhaps more importantly, it has also been extended west to link up with Lock 18, restored back in the 1990s. And the other end of this length is also being extended - not on the original route, but taking a sharp turn to the right (christened ‘Railway Turn’ by the Canal Trust) beginning the diversion around the missing length in Lichfield.

Although slowed down by the lockdowns, good progress has been made on creating a new channel alongside the Falkland Road section of the Lichfield Southern Bypass. The first length is largely complete, and initial work has begun on a second section where it enters a cutting as the road rises. At the deepest point the canal route is crossed by Claypit Lane, a providing access to a new housing development. It had been hoped that (as covered in the Local Plan) a canal bridge would be provided as part of the housing scheme, but in something of a setback to the Trust, the developer didn’t include a bridge in the plans, and the Council still gave them the go-ahead. So a new bridge will need to be funded at some point.

Beyond Claypit Lane a third section of the new canal diversion will continue (once the transfer of land to the Canal Trust has been completed) alongside the bypass to the Birmingham Road roundabout, with a staircase of two new deep locks (which might just be a major volunteer job) to replace three that were on the original route. It will link up to the buried concrete culvert under the Birmingham Road roundabout.

New channel under construction by Falkland Road

New channel under construction by Falkland Road - Credit: LHCRT

The next piece of connectivity will be rather more tricky: after Birmingham Road, the canal route crosses the Lichfield to Birmingham railway line. The next section of the bypass road will also cross the railway, and it had been hoped to combine the road bridge and a canal tunnel through the railway embankment into one construction project - so Sir David fronted another appeal, christened ‘Tunnel Vision’ and aiming for £1m as the estimated cost of the canal part of this combined structure. Unfortunately this proved impracticable: the separate canal structure will probably now cost around three times as much, but at least the preliminary work on the approaches to the tunnel can be done with the money raised.

Beyond the railway, two more new canal bridges will provide access to another housing development - but Persimmon Homes has already built one, and is about to start on the second. To make things more complicated, the canal (which returns to its historic route at this point) and the new section of the bypass road alongside it have to squeeze through a tight ‘pinch point’ by Lock 23. This involves a retaining wall (already under construction) to keep them apart, and also modification of the top end of the historic lock, to allow the canal to turn away from the new road.

Tight squeeze: heritage Lock 23 alongside the new bypass road

Tight squeeze: heritage Lock 23 alongside the new bypass road - Credit: LHCRT

Finally, the canal will link up with the Gallows Reach section, which has now been completed past Gallows Wharf, under London Road, and on almost to Cricket Lane. And from there, there’s the issue of getting under Cricket Lane, which used to cross using the sort of hump-backed bridge that today’s highways authorities would never agree to in close proximity to a road junction. The solution involves building a new Lock 24 on the west side of the bridge and lowering a section of canal between there and the original lock, allowing a bridge to be built at a lower level.

And that will link up to the restored Tamworth Road Locks site, which in turn leads to the Darnford Park site. Meanwhile at Darnford Lane, there are now a set of concrete culvert sections lined up in the canal bed ready for the bridge carrying Darnford Lane over the canal to be built. And towards the east end of the canal, beyond the restored liftbridge, a new bridge now carries Cappers Lane over

the canal, just before the start of the final section of canal which is in water and forms Lichfield Cruising Club’s moorings.

Yes, there’s a lot more to be done besides what I’ve mentioned: the A51 and A38 crossings, for a start. And the HS2 railway is set to come right through the Danford area on a viaduct, and looks like destroying the new Cappers Lane Bridge before it’s even seen a boat - LHCRT is in discussions with HS2 Ltd for a replacement, and hopes to get a length of canal restored as part of the railway works, but there are some tough negotiations ahead. And we’ve only briefly covered the western half of the canal, where there are still major challenges to be dealt with in connecting the Fosseway Lane length to the Summerhill section, and then on from the motorway aqueduct through to Ogley Junction. It will probably still be quite some years before we cruise through from Huddlesford to Ogley.

But in the Lichfield area it is starting to look less like a series of isolated projects, and more like joined-up restoration. To find out more see lhcrt.org.uk