Wood Anemone The Churnet Valley - Uttoxeter Canal: Beautiful Failure
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The Uttoxeter Canal was a short-lived commercial flop that owed its existence to politics, rather than economics. Despite this, and after over 150 years of dereliction, there are plans to revive it and open up the beautiful scenery of the lower Churnet Valley. In April 2009, consulting engineers Halcrow Group Limited were appointed to carry out an outline feasibility study for its restoration. The outcome was favourable, from an engineering point of view, but the cost was estimated at around £90,000,000. The full results are on the Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust website.

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Entrance to the Uttoxeter Canal at Froghall Junction
The Trent and Mersey Canal Company didn't want this canal. The plan to build it came about as a counter to the Commercial Canal: a broad canal proposed in 1796 to run through Uttoxeter and the Potteries. This would have hurt trade on the narrow Trent and Mersey, so its owners and their allies used every trick in the book, including the submission of plans for their own canal, to ensure that it wasn't built. Victory left only one problem: the commitment to build a canal that had no prospect of making money.
Various factors, including foot-dragging by the Trent and Mersey Company, delayed the start of construction until 1807. The project was overseen by John Rennie, who also engineered the 1804 Caldon Low Tramroad. The work proceeded in a leisurely fashion, although it was completed to a high standard, and the canal was opened in stages between 1808 and 1811. The canal ran from its junction with the Caldon Canal at Froghall; down the Churnet Valley through Alton, Oakamoor and Denstone; and then down the Dove Valley to an area of Uttoxeter still known as "The Wharf". A planned branch to Hanging Bridge, near Ashbourne, was never built.


Oakamoor Limekilns

Rope Wear Seventy Bridge

Wharf at Alton Towers
Although the canal was, essentially, a white elephant which lost money from the day it opened, it had its users. The main industrial users were the copper works at Oakamoor and Alton and the collieries in Gibridding Wood and around Cheadle, which were connected to the canal by the Woodhead Tramroad. In addition, limestone from Caldon Low fed limekilns at Oakamoor, Alton, Rocester and Uttoxeter. The rest of the traffic was mostly domestic and agricultural.
Evidence for the wear and tear caused by boat passage can be seen at a surviving bridge, called Seventy Bridge, where towing ropes have cut grooves into the stonework. A knotched wooden plank, bolted to one side of the bridge, that was supposed to protect the stonework, is still in place after 160+ years.
Tree clearance over the winter of 2017/18 revealed a forgotten wharf below Park Banks. An old track leads from there, up through Slain Hollow to Alton Towers. This was, presumably, used to supply the big house with coal and other goods. Its existence had been suspected but its location, this far down the valley, was a surprise. The Earl of Shrewsbury had a separate mooring and boat house further up the valley, by Lord's Bridge and Earl's Drive.


Seventy Bridge on an Abandoned Loop

The Old Canal beside the Railway at Lords Bridge
By the late 1840s, when the North Staffordshire Railway Company took over the Trent and Mersey Company, the canal was still losing money. The railwaymen wanted the route, so the canal had to close; though not, one suspects, before transporting many of the construction materials for its replacement. The official end came on 15th January 1849.
Some sections were filled in and built over; others were retained as drainage channels or simply abandoned. The only section to escape closure was the first lock and basin at Froghall, which stayed in use until the 1930s.

Uttoxeter Basin - The Restoration Begins

Uttoxeter Basin at Froghall Restored
By 2003, the only boat in the basin at Froghall was a sunken wreck, possibly of the Boltons copper works' boat 'Beatrice'. However, three organisations: the Caldon & Uttoxeter Canals Trust, the Waterway Recovery Group and the Inland Waterways Association had decided between them that it was time for a reversal of fortune. Under the project name 'Destination Froghall', work began in February to clear the basin and dig out the lock. Over the next two years, the basin was reconstructed in concrete, capped with the local pink gritstone, and the lock, which was in good condition, was repaired and refitted. By 21st July 2005, they were ready to receive their first boat, a charity boat also called 'Beatrice'. My pictorial record of the day is on the Destination Froghall Complete page.
Thus, a first section of the canal was reopened to traffic. During the restoration, the cap-stones of Lock 2, at the bottom end of the basin, were exposed, in preparation for taking the canal back down into the valley towards Oakamoor. All that's needed is for someone to come up with the money.

Overgrown Basin

Basin Dug Out

Concrete Lining

Lock 1 Dug Out

Lock 1 Under Repair

Lock 2 Cap Stones

Memorial Plaque

Alton and Crumpwood - Preservation and Repair

Carringtons or Weir Lock after tree clearance

Seventy Bridge Restored

Seventy Bridge New Steps
In the absence of big piles of money for restoration, the first priority is to preserve what remains, preferably with volunteer labour. To this end, the Churnet Valley Living Landscape Project, with the Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust, the Inland Waterways Association and the Waterways Recovery Group, is targeting the canal between Alton and Crumpwood.
East of Alton, the trees have been cleared from a loop of canal that ran to the north of the replacement railway. The towpath is now more-or-less clear and can be accessed from the side of the bridge, where the tail race from Alton Mill passes under the railway or from the footpath onto Park Banks. There is no access from the Alton end, because the tail race is in the way. At Park Banks, traces of Charlesworth's Lock have been found, along with a substantial stone wharf which probably served Alton Towers.
At Crumpwood, the old railway crossed the Churnet on a bridge, leaving an intact loop of canal around Crumpwood Weir, with the remains of two locks and the now-restored Seventy Bridge. The towpath between the former railway and Seventy Bridge was resurfaced in 2014 as part of a program of works in the area, including tree clearance and the removal of vast amounts of Himalayan Balsam. The bridge, itself, had to be the subject of a compulsory purchase order before it could be worked on, because no-one knew who owned it. It was subsequently repaired with new coping stones, a new deck and re-pointing. Clearance around the weir has removed potentially damaging tree growth from it and the flood lock and exposed the remains of Carrington's or Weir Lock, a shallow lock which lowered the canal to the level of the river, so that boats could pass across the top of the weir.

Towpath and Mill Race

Cleared Canal, Park Banks

Towpath at Seventy Bridge

Canal from Seventy Bridge

Weir Lock Paddle Slot

Weir Lock Tail

Canal and Weir

Crumpwood Weir Cleared

Churnet Flood Lock

Eastwall - Future Projects

California Lock
Further up the valley, between Froghall and Oakamoor, another loop of canal at Key Wood, cut off by the railway, has the remains of two locks, a wharf, another bridge and an in-situ original milepost. So far, the Waterways Recovery Group, in cooperation with the Churnet Valley Railway, has cleared the site of Jackson's Wood Lock, as well as clearing up Jackson's Wood railway cutting and over-bridge. The railway has obliterated the upper pound here, cutting through it at a lower level so that the top of the lock now emerges from the side of the cutting. If it's to be restored, the canal will need to take a different route, probably through a tunnel with a new Jackson's Wood Lock somewere nearby. That leaves California Lock and Morris's Bridge awaiting attention. The bridge, in particular, is in poor shape and has deteriorated visibly since I first visited in 2004.
Access to this site is currently not very easy and the Churnet Valley Railway has lifted its track between Froghall and Oakamoor. The redevelopment of Moneystone Quarry, which is now going ahead, may open up new routes. At the very least, it would be nice to open the old towing path from Oakamoor, which could also connect with the Open Access part of Jackson Wood, currently marooned in the middle of private land and seldom visited.

Paddle Slot, California Lock

Outflow at California Lock

Morris's Bridge in 2006

Morris's Bridge in 2015

Original Milepost, Key Wood

Jackson Wood Embankment

Canal Bed, Jackson Wood

Visiting The Canal Today

Uttoxeter Basin at Froghall In Use

New Milepost at Lord's Bridge
The only section of canal currently accessible by boat is the first lock and basin at Froghall, so most of it must be visited on foot, by bike or, possibly, on horseback. That's because most of it still buried or cut off into isolated sections by the later railway. Some sections are easy to visit, because the former track bed between Oakamoor to Denstone is now a permissive greenway. Some other sections, however, are on private land and not routinely accessible. The Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust would like to change this by opening up the old towing path as a footpath. This would showcase the canal and demonstrate to visitors what might be achieved with restoration. The Canals Trust, in conjunction with the Churnet Valley Living Landscape Partnership, has already created replica canal mileposts which now stand in the approximate positions of the originals but re-sited where they can be seen from current footpaths.

Loop at Tank Wood

Loop at Ross Bridge

New Milepost, Oakamoor

Bluebells near Oakamoor

Canal by the Greenway

Canal cut by the Greenway

New Milepost, Alton Mill

New Milepost, Seventy Bridge

Crumpwood Cottage

New Milepost, Denstone

Canal Bed Near Denstone

New Milepost, JCB Lakes