Thursday, January 20, 2011

Barging Ahead

“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
George Bernard Shaw

Last week, I was at Stratford Park in Stroud (left). This is a 17th century mansion, extensively remodelled in the 18th, which stands in a much-loved public open space. It now houses the town’s museum, which is one of the best in Wessex, especially strong on the local industries, such as cloth-making. I must declare a personal interest, as past owners the Winchcombe family were among my ancestors.

James Winchcombe was a shareholder in the Company of Proprietors of the Stroudwater Navigation (seen below at Blunder Lock, near Eastington). This waterway opened in 1779 as the first eight miles towards linking the River Severn to the River Thames. The remaining 28 miles, the Thames & Severn Canal through to Lechlade, followed ten years later.

Attempts at canal-building in Stroud stretched back to the time of Elizabeth I. All had failed because, while the mill-owners wanted a canal, they insisted that it must not compete with the mills for the use of water. An interesting technical problem! It was solved by not using locks but instead craning goods in crates from a boat on one section across the weir to a boat on the next. This then just plied up and down as required. It was possibly the world’s first example of containerisation, but not the first successful example, as the cranes kept breaking down. By the end of the 18th century, mill technology had moved on. Steam was taking the place of water-power and the need was now to get coal in at the lowest possible price.

Not only does the Company of Proprietors still exist - a heritage asset in its own right - but it still owns the canal and all the property that goes with it. Traffic having ceased during the Second World War, it was overlooked in the general nationalisation of transport in 1948 and is today the oldest private canal company in the world. A majority of the 200 shares is held by a local trust for the benefit of the people of Stroud. The company archive, held at Gloucester, is thought to be one of the most complete in the industry. The venerable company, with roots going back to the 1730’s, is committed to digitising the lot.

At the museum, a well-attended talk was being given by Ken Burgin, Chief Executive of the Cotswold Canals Trust (and a director of the Company of Proprietors into the bargain). I had expected a largely historical account – and history was not neglected – but most of what was said concerned the phenomenal energy now being put into re-opening the canals. All 36 miles of them, including Sapperton Tunnel, at over 2 miles once the longest tunnel in the world and a major geological challenge. The project enjoys huge public support, with total commitment from the local councils and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The possibility that the re-opened route might be used to convey water from the Severn to the thirsty south-eastern corner of this island has yet another group of stakeholders on board.

Abandoned for over half a century, the canals need much tender loving care. Many of the 18th century over-bridges have been saved from collapse in the nick of time. Diversions are being planned where later development poses too intractable an obstruction. A new route under Junction 13 of the M5 is being provided, using part of the channel for the River Frome while maintaining the full river width in times of flood: a clever piece of engineering. Massive road works are underway in the centre of Stroud to once more accommodate the canal. At Brimscombe, there used to be a complex canal basin that served as a bustling inland port. Here goods would be transhipped from the short, wide Severn trows to the longer, narrower Thames barges. Filled-in and redeveloped as an industrial estate, it seemed lost forever. Plans were made for a diversion. Now it has been acquired, the industrial estate will be going and the water returning, funded by the leisure craft the new basin is expected to attract. Other sections are to be quarried for gravel and the canal re-instated in full at the developer’s expense.

The scale of the ambition is matched only by the absolute determination to see it through. The restoration campaign is nearing its 40th year and it must be very gratifying for those – like Ken Burgin – who have been with it from the start to now see it so definitely underway. Canals are such a civilised form of transport that they inevitably attract many, many friends and hardly ever an enemy. Those farmers and landowners who cannot see the potential for diversification will not be around for ever and even if they were, the councils already have all the compulsory purchase powers they need. British Waterways, who were the lead partner, have now taken a back seat, their own future in the balance as the Axis of Evil applies the axe to public enterprise. But other partners are stepping forward, with new ideas and new sources of money.

It will be a day to remember when the first craft passes once again from the Severn to the Thames. There are – and will be – many days to remember, as canals, railway lines and stations, all gone but not forgotten, return as the backbone of 21st century transport. I am a life member of the group working seriously hard on the re-opening of the Somerset & Dorset Railway. Where these pioneering projects lead, many more will follow. And all will agree with Shaw.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Looking Over Bath

Christmas and New Year have come and gone. For much of the time – at least mentally – seasonal cheer had to take second place to the quarterly rush to publish the Wessex Chronicle. To this issue I contributed a six-page article on William Beckford, Regency rake, Jamaican slave-owner and pioneer Goth, best known as the builder of the now-lost Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire.

With Fonthill a victim of self-implosion in 1825, the result of structural recklessness, Wiltshire has little to show of Beckford’s mania for building tall. On the north side of Bath, Somerset can offer Beckford’s Tower on Lansdown Hill. A splendidly idiosyncratic place it is too, its museum a fine introduction to the man and his works, the restored ‘Belvidere’ at its summit furnished as it was when it was Beckford’s sitting-room (above).

Beckford’s Plan A, after selling Fonthill to retire to Bath, was to buy Prior Park, on the southern outskirts of the city, but the price wasn’t right. On the first Sunday of 2011 I was at Prior Park to enjoy the landscape garden, now managed by the National Trust, which is busy restoring its 18th century architectural features. The garden tumbles down the hill from the house to a lake with a Palladian-style bridge (below), scratched over with antique graffiti. Regency lads presumably used penknives in place of spray-cans and they made sure they carved the serifs properly too. They wouldn’t have wanted to seem less than gentlemen, after all.

Palladian bridges of this design are especially rare. The Prior Park bridge was built in 1755, a generation after the prototype, at Wilton House near Salisbury, completed in 1737, and its contemporary copy at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. The fourth and only other surviving example in the world is in Russia, at Tsarkoe Selo, near St Petersburg. There was a fifth, at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, but that has been demolished.

Prior Park itself, now a school, commands a fine view over the city. And the city can look back. It was an inspired piece of advertising, built by the Cornishman Ralph Allen, one of the men who created Georgian Bath. He made his money in running a postal franchise – the previous time the Royal Mail was privatised – and then sank it into the mines from which Bath stone is extracted. (Strange but true – Bath stone is mined, not quarried, which has left a legacy of problems for ground stability only recently resolved.) Allen’s house was built of his product and meant to be seen by all who wished to imitate it on a more modest scale.

Set into one of the hillsides are the well-concealed remains of an ice-house which during the Second World War was fitted out for use by the British Resistance, should things have come to that. Bath was also one of five English cities hit in the Baedeker raids of 1942, when heritage was targeted in retaliation for damage done to the Hanseatic city of L├╝beck. An eye for an eye doesn’t only leave the whole world blind, but with nothing much to look at either.