Isolated 14 mile Northern Reaches of Lancaster Canal ‘will re-open’ say campaigners

Working on the "first furlong". Picture courtesy of Lancaster Canal Trust
Working on the "first furlong". Picture courtesy of Lancaster Canal Trust
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A 14-mile stretch of Lancaster Canal north of Carnforth which has been isolated for decades “will re-open” say campaigners.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the Lancaster Canal, and there’s plenty to look back on.

The future, however, is still to be determined for the “Northern Reaches”, a 14-mile stretch of the canal which was isolated during the 1960s when the M6 motorway was built.

While the canal between Preston and Tewitfield remained classed as a “cruising waterway”, the Northern Reaches was deemed to be “remainder waterway”, following a 1955 Act of Parliament, and the canal was carved up by road transport.

Consequently, the Lancaster Canal Trust was formed in 1963, and has been fighting to restore and reopen the Northern Reaches of the canal ever since.

Secretary David Gibson is confident about its future, but says it will still take some time.

“The Northern Reaches will open, but probably not in my lifetime,” he said.

“The money was nearly forthcoming around the year 2000 but the coordinating government agency was abolished.

“The engineering problems aren’t difficult, but they’re expensive, however there’s no engineering reason it can’t be achieved.

“The biggest challenges are a couple of motorway bridges - one north of Tewitfield, the other at Millness - and an aqueduct over the A590 near Sedgwick.”

Meanwhile the Lancaster Canal Regeneration Partnership (LCRP) - a partnership of local authorities and the voluntary sector - is working on an accessible towpath trail between Kendal and Tewitfield - reinstating hardstanding services, and bringing the long neglected public right of way back into use.

Missing waymarkers identified by the Lancaster Canal Trust are also being replaced, and there is funding from Sport England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, South Lakeland District Council and others for the trail itself, and for major repairs to structures along the canal such as Stainton Aqueduct, which was damaged by flooding, as well as Hincaster Tunnel and Sedgwick Aqueduct.

Audrey Smith OBE, chair of LCRP and vice president of the Inland Waterways Association, said that the current focus of the towpath trail is the stretch of canal from Kendal to Crooklands.

She said: “LCRP’s vision for an accessible towpath trail will help to promote the government agenda for health and wellbeing.

(l-r) Bill Froggatt (Canal and Rivers Trust), Richard Trevitt (Lancashire Canal Trust), Alan Lord (Sculpture), David Borrow (Mayor of Preston), David Whittaker (Mayor of Lancaster) and Doug Rathbone (Deputy Mayor of Kendal) with the new milestones. Photo: Kelvin Stuttard

(l-r) Bill Froggatt (Canal and Rivers Trust), Richard Trevitt (Lancashire Canal Trust), Alan Lord (Sculpture), David Borrow (Mayor of Preston), David Whittaker (Mayor of Lancaster) and Doug Rathbone (Deputy Mayor of Kendal) with the new milestones. Photo: Kelvin Stuttard

“Both rural and urban communities will find the towpath trail gives them an opportunity to exercise and increase their sense of wellbeing.”

The Lancaster Canal Trust is currently working on a 200m section of canal beyond Stainton, which it calls the “first furlong”. 

Audrey said that a big part of the challenge of re-instating the Northern Reaches was “winning the hearts and minds” of landowners along the route, which in many instances is now privately owned, and has slowly been absorbed back into the surrounding countryside.

The curve of a canal bridge jutting out of a field or a shallow depression in the ground sometimes the only reminder there was once a waterway there at all.

The “first furlong”, says David, is costing around £60-70,000 to re-instate.

“We’ve been busy digging out what was a field between bridges 172 and 173, and lining the bottom of the canal with impermeable materials to prevent leakage,” he said. 

“We’re now working on the last section of the lining. 

We have our trained volunteers who are licensed to drive dumpers and excavators and there is an organisation called the Waterway Recovery Group, who train and certify people to do the work.

“We’ve nearly finished on that section and will then link it to the Canal and River Trust who own the length to Millness which is still in water.

“When we’ve finished this section, there’s another 400m beyond bridge 173 to Wellheads Lane.

“The idea is to get it as close to Hincaster Tunnel as we can. 

“Our best bet for fundraising is that when we get to Hincaster Tunnel, there could be some interest from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

“When it comes to tunnelling under the M6, half of the carriageway would need to close while the work takes place, and that’s not cheap!

“We have no definite plans yet for going under the A590.

“There are various proposals, but these have to be the ‘most feasible, least expensive’ ones, a tunnel through the embankment possibly. But there’s nothing here that’s insurmountable.

“The more publicity we can get, the more interest there is, and therefore the more pressure there is to restore it.”

The Lancaster Canal was connected to the national waterway network via the Ribble Link in 2002, thus spending the majority of its life in isolation.

National charity The Canal and River Trust, formerly British Waterways, has been the navigation authority for the Lancaster Canal since 2012, and says due to that isolation, the canal has developed its own unique character.

As part of the bicentenary celebrations, it has joined forces with the Lancaster Canal Trust and Lancaster sculptor Alan Ward to restore the missing canal milestones between Preston and Kendal.

Andrea Barrett, partnerships & external relationships manager at the trust, said: “Canals may have originally been built to serve the commercial needs of the Industrial Revolution, but in the 21st century they are just as important for the amazing leisure opportunities they provide.

“The Lancaster Canal has a very bright future. In 2002, it was connected to the rest of the inland waterway network via the grand new Millennium Ribble Link at Preston – the first new canal to be constructed for nearly a century.

“As we mark its bicentenary year, we celebrate its rich industrial heritage but very firmly look forwards and rejoice how this wonderful waterway, winding through Lancashire and Cumbria, can enhance all our lives.”

Lancaster Canal Trust has a trip boat on the Millness-Stainton section which runs every Sunday at around 11am until 4pm, and also on Saturdays in August.

It can take 12 people and runs from opposite the Crooklands Hotel.

Recent research by marketing students at Lancaster University, commissioned by LCRP, suggest sculpture trails, festivals, events and circular walks would all add value to the developing towpath trail.

The recent Trailboat Festival, organised by the Inland Waterways Association along the stretch of canal adjacent to the County Showground near Crooklands, allowed people to see the ongoing work.

Audrey added: “It gave people a flavour of what it’s like when you put water back in it, and when you put boats in that water”.

The Lancaster Canal Trust is made up of around 35 volunteers, but is always looking for more people to get involved.

Email info@lancastercanaltrust.org.uk for more information, or visit https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/lancaster-canal for things to do on the canal.