Stroud Civic Society Navigates Canals!

An account of our meeting on Thursday 31st March, written by Sue Houseago.

Stroud Civic Society’s meeting on the 31st March in the Old Town Hall began with the AGM, which marks the end of its winter talks. Most auspiciously the last was to be about ‘Canals in the Landscape’ and was given by Tony Conder who set up the National Waterways Museum in Gloucestershire in 1988. As Stroudwater Navigation’s restoration project is in full swing, Tony’s talk of canals, their construction, and the resulting changes to the landscape, seemed particularly relevant. 

Juliet Shipman welcomed us all to the AGM, creating delighted laughter, when she announced that because of her house move she had very simply lost all her papers for the meeting! She did, however, say farewell to Guy Williams, praising him warmly for his work as Membership Secretary, and for being a willing, hard-working committee member. Amid clapping Juliet presented him with a box of wine.

She passed us on then to Tim Mars who, it turned out had produced an on-line pictorial ‘fly by’ of a year in the lives of Civic Society Members. His choice of colourful photographs evoked memories of splendid trips.- a Christmas ‘do’ at Tyntesfield; Swindon to see the building designed by Norman Foster for Renault in 1982; a trip to view St. Mary’s Church, Brownshill, to have a lecture on its splendid stained glass.

ThomasTelford, one of the great canal engineers, pictured with his innovate Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the background

After enjoying our glasses of wine Tony Conder began his talk on ‘Canals in the Landscape’, explaining the physical challenges that canals presented to their engineers, and how these industrial constructions changed our countryside. Canals, as Tony showed us on a map, meander over all kinds of diverse landscapes and can get round most obstructions. The heart of the system is in the Black Country, and it was fascinating to see how canal engineers worked to adapt to the geography and geology of each area.

The Bridgewater Canal – named after its owner – the third Duke of Bridgewater – opened in 1761, and revolutionised transport by cheapening the cost of coal as factories appeared alongside it. We saw the moveable aqueduct which carries the Bridgewater Canal along to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, which has itself a staircase of locks. Norton Priory’s canal had to run through a lake in a Capability Brown landscape. We saw slides of castellations, spiral staircases – bridges above ground and tunnels below ground. Other large industrial industries followed the canals; Stourbridge, for example, had potteries and 20 famous glassworks, thus shops, houses and people began to settle around canals, and in the 1970’s canal towpaths began to be used for leisure activities. 

Barton Swing Aqueduct, carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal. This picture shows it in the open position.

Tony ended his fascinating talk dramatically, saying very simply that canals, having altered the landscape in so many ways, were rendered useless by the arrival of the railways in the 1870s.

Questions, and warm thanks followed, and I think every member of the audience felt a renewed respect for Stroudwater Navigation’s history and an added pleasure in watching its restoration.

P.S. Sadly the Cotswold Canals Trust’s recent Heritage Lottery bid for funding has not been successful. However a new and revised application will be submitted – for more information on this news click here.

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