AFTER countless hours of muddy toil by volunteers, fuelled only by their enthusiasm for canals and many flasks of hot coffee, a major project known as the First Furlong is about to reach fruition on the Lancaster Canal.
Three or four years ago, frustrated by lack of movement on restoring the historic waterway into Kendal, volunteers from the Lancaster Canal Trust decided to do what they could with limited funds.
So, they embarked on digging out the First Furlong – a 255-metre stretch of canal from Stainton Crossing bridge to Sellet Hall bridge, near Stainton.
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Helped by locals and contractors with heavy machinery, they have shifted thousands of tons of earth, landscaped the canal and lined it with leak-proof sheeting, ready to be topped with 15 inches of soil.
Volunteers have taken great care not to disturb the canal’s rich wildlife, including swans and moorhens, and the First Furlong will soon be ready to refill with water, linking it up to the three-mile stretch of canal where the trust already runs pleasure trips on its narrowboat Water-witch, from Crooklands.
“An awful amount of work has gone on over the last three years, with not a lot to show,” said Frank Sanderson, public relations officer for the Lancaster Canal Trust. “Now that is coming to fruition.”
Retired Windermere hotelier Mr Sanderson, an engineer by profession, described the volunteers as ‘fantastic’ people who travelled from across Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire to work for free, ‘sometimes in absolutely dreadful weather’.
“There are people who just want to come up and do a bit of digging,” he said. “The majority of them are semi-retired or retired professional people who want to put back what has been allowed to decay. We have some very good engineers - some of them used to work on the canal - that know how to do it. They say this should never have happened.”
Mr Sanderson believes that when the First Furlong is back in water, it will send out a strong message that the complete restoration of the Northern Reaches – the 14 miles of canal between Kendal and Tewitfield – is achievable, in turn helping to unlock the millions of pounds of grant funding required.
“We’ve got to keep at it,” he told the Gazette. “The more we get done, the more people become aware there’s a distinct possibility. Once we’ve got this next section in water, which is almost ready, people will start to wake up and say, they really mean business, these people. The money will start to flow a little bit easier.”
The Lancaster Canal Trust has been championing the restoration of the Northern Reaches since the 1960s, when they were effectively cut off by the construction of the new M6 near Tewitfield locks.
Hopes have been cherished for decades that the 14 miles of waterway to Kendal could be made navigable again, so connecting the Lancaster Canal with the whole of the national network via the Ribble Link, south of Preston – attracting a major boost for tourism and the economy of Kendal and villages along the canal.
However, a 2002 study put the cost of restoring the Northern Reaches at between £54 and £62m, and a major grant has so far eluded campaigners.
Undeterred, the canal trust is now deciding which neglected stretch of canal to tackle next. A likely contender is the overgrown, two-mile length from Sellet Hall bridge to the historic Hincaster Tunnel. Mr Sanderson said permission had yet to be sought from the landowner and the estimated cost of the work was at least £600,000.
“The aim is to get to Hincaster Tunnel and slightly through the tunnel, then perhaps leave it there for a while, and then try to head south and go through the motorway to connect up with the rest of the canal, but I’m talking in several years’ time,” said Mr Sanderson.
“When they built the motorway, they went through the canal in four different places and that’s where the money’s got to be spent.”
He said the ‘ultimate goal’ was to get the canal back to Kendal – but he believed that Natland would be far enough.
“I personally would be quite happy with that. Whether I’ll see it or not, I don’t know, but the benefits would be tremendous.”
In the meantime, the volunteers of the canal trust are proud of the waterway’s beauty and heritage, and they continue to preserve, share and promote its pleasures to walkers, cyclists and wildlife watchers, as well as the many people who enjoy their Waterwitch cruises.
Mr Sanderson’s response to anybody who dismisses the restoration of the Northern Reaches as a pipedream is: “Just wait and see. We’ve had scoffers of course, there’s no doubt about that, but next year perhaps, we should have that section we’ve been spending an awful lot of time and money on in water, and then people will see the possibilities.”