Hereford & Gloucester Canal

Hereford & Gloucester Canal History

The people of Hereford could only import and export goods by water during the wettest months of the year. This they did via the River Wye in small sailing barges. The river had no locks, no towing path and was virtually dry (or at best very shallow) during summer.

Local gentry appointed Josiah Clowes (engineer on the Shrewsbury Canal) to survey a line between Hereford and Gloucester.

Coal was discovered in Newent which built up enthusiasm for a canal which resulted in an Act of Parliament was sought and gained. Subsequently £50,000 was raised and some preparations were made but the committee dithered over starting the canal. Eventually their indecision led to them re-surveying the whole route.

Building finally began and a canal was opened from Gloucester heading north westwards to Newent and then on to Oxenhall Tunnel, a distance of around 8 miles. The tunnel was over 2,000 yards long. A mechanical digger, built by John Carne and possibly the first such machine in Britain, was used on the workings of the canal.

Around another 8 miles were completed, taking the canal to the town of Ledbury. The finished sections were opened and boats could travel for 16 miles (which included 13 exceptionally deep narrow locks, a short arm at Oxenhall and the long Oxenhall Tunnel). The work so far had cost £100,000 (twice the amount raised for the whole route) though the canal was still not even half finished - there were another 18 miles to go!

To make matters worse, the shortage of money was not nearly as bad as the shortage of water. The supply was so bad that the canal had to be closed for long periods of the year. With receipts reaching only one tenth of the expected £100,000 per year the committee soon lost interest.

For the next 29 years the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal (still 18 miles away from Hereford) continued to soldier on thanks to the hard work of a superintendent, his assistant and one lock keeper named Thomas Hatchett who received no pay for 13 years - though he was eventually given £20! Stephen Ballard became Clerk and he brought back some of the original enthusiasm, started a new committee, revised the tolls and began to raise money to get the canal on its way towards Hereford.

Money was incredibly slow to come in but 13 years after taking over as Clerk Ballard was able to begin to complete the canal.He appointed himself as engineer, revised the original line to Hereford and employed 500 men to work on the first 7 mile stretch from Ledbury to Canon Frome. At the end of this stretch the line met a feeder which at last supplied the canal with adequate water. Just before Canon Frome was the Ashperton Tunnel which originally had been planned to be over 1,000 yards long. Techniques had moved forward so much in 42 years that the tunnel ended up being just 400 yards long with deep cuttings on either side.

The canal moved further west by another 4 miles to Withington.

The final stretch was completed and included Aylstone Hill Tunnel and a basin in Hereford. The final canal was 34 miles long with 22 locks, 3 tunnels and an enormous debt! It was the last canal ever to be completed in Britain (apart from the Manchester Ship Canal).

It is thought that Clerk built the new sections of the canal with future railway purchase in mind. As soon as the canal was finished the West Midland Railway company wanted to buy it and the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal committee was quite happy to let them do so - however, the government was not! Subsequently the Act of Parliament put forward by the railway was refused and once again the canal company just had to soldier on and try to improve the route's profitability.

The canal reached the dizzy heights of 43,000 tons carried during one year. Just over the Welsh border the declining Monmouthshire Canal carried 800,000 tons in the same year!

The company's best year came when they (rather ironically) were carrying for the Worcester & Hereford Railway.However, most news was bad news, there were several breaches on the canal and an arm of the River Severn near the entrance toGloucester was closed. This meant boats from the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal could only enter Gloucester docks at high tide.

The company always encouraged railway interest and eventually leased the whole length to the Great Western Railway for £5,000 a year even though they did not have the Parliamentary Act allowing them do this.

GWR received their official act from Parliament on the promise that they did not build a railway on the canal and that the waterway would be maintained and kept open for boats.

Eleven years after gaining their Act GWR did exactly what they had promised not to do; they closed the original portion of the canal from Gloucester to Ledbury, drained it and built a railway on it using all the route apart from the sharp bends. Despite the new sections of the canal being built with railway purchase in mind, GWR did not convert it into a railway. Instead they sold portions of it off and let the rest run into disuse.

The Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal had taken 54 years to build but lasted for just 37 years as a full working canal.However - and somewhat bizarrely - for the next 66 years GWR continued to pay £5,000 to the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal company for use of the former canal bed. Who the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal company were at this point is not clear. The lease payments ended when the government nationalised all canals and railways in 1948.

110 years after the closure of the canal a restoration society was formed. Despite a century of disuse much of the route had survived. The aim of the society (of course) was to reopen the route for boats.

After a lot of work in gaining money and support the first section of the canal to be reopened saw its first narrow boat since 1881. Not only that but it was the first ever motorised boat to use the canal. The boat belonged to Robert Barnes, the President of the Canal Society. He had more reasons to be pleased about what had been achieved than others as he is the great great great nephew of Peter Ballard who had took over the running of the canal in 1827 and, after years of hard work, opened (and engineered) the route from Ledbury to Hereford. The reopened stretch was at Munched near the A4103 to the south of Newtown. Later in the year an open day was held and trips were run along the newly opened stretch.

Also during this year it was reported that money had been donated to restore the portals of Oxenhall Tunnel. Grants of over £2,600 had also been received from local councils.

It was reported in the canal press that British Waterways had done a study on the canal on behalf of the canal society. It was said that the reopening of the route would generate around £4.3 for the local economy and create over 160 jobs.

However, not everything was plain sailing. Just like all restoration schemes there is always a "old vs. new" battle to be had somewhere along the line.In Hereford a company had wanted permission to build industrial buildings on the line of the canal. The society put forward such a good objection (no doubt quoting figures similar to those mentioned above) that planning permission was denied. The company involved appealed against the decision though this was also turned down at a hearing in 1997.

Since then work has continued in raising money and support and restoration of the whole route should take place in the coming years.

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Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal Route

The Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal has completely disappeared at its western end in Hereford. The terminal basin was near the railway station but the site of the basin is said to be on waste ground and not accessible. However, in these changing times of the 1990's this might not now be the case. The canal society certainly expect to restore the route right into the town.

The railway line of today travels on much the same course as the canal did as it left Hereford. First it headed north west but curved clockwise around Aylstone Hill until it headed north. Aylstone Tunnel was on this section but it's site is said to be on private land.

Out of town much of the line can still be followed. It ran north out of Hereford crossing under the A4103 just west of the A465 roundabout. It then ran close to the minor road which runs north through Shelwick Green, at some point the minor road crossed the canal. A few hundred yards north of the crossroads in the Shelwick Green the canal turned east to cross the River Lugg, the piers of the demolished aqueduct can be seen when the river is low. The embankment leading to the aqueduct has been flattened. After crossing the river the canal headed north east with the minor road from the A465 to Sutton St. Nicholas crossing it after about a mile. Another ½ a mile to the north east is Withington Marsh where one of just a few original bridges is still standing. Also still here are a wharfinger's house, a weighing house and a canal cottage. The minor road to Sutton Marsh and the A465 cross the route here. At this point the canal's general path can be seen on a map by following the stream to the east of Withington Marsh.

On the minor road half a mile north of the church at Withington is a bridge and the remains of a lock though both are now in a private garden. The afore mentioned stream takes a right fork half way between Withington and Kymin and this south easterly course was also the direction that the canal travelled. At the small village of Kymin there is a wharf house and the line of the canal is easy to spot. The canal society HQ is situated in a building on the A4103 right beside the canal bridge. The road crosses the canal about just south west of Newtown. It is this stretch which was the first to be reopened in 1995.About 600 yards south east of the main road the canal reaches Monkhide which even in the early 1970's still resembled a good looking canal.The route is crossed by a fine, sharply angled, skew bridge in Monkhide.

The canal, unnavigable once again,continues south east and where it comes alongside the A417 there is a warehouse with the word "salt" marked on it.The canal line is marked on my road map at Lower Town where the A417 crosses the route. Soon after this the canal travels across a field on a low embankment and then under the minor road close to Canon Frome school (though Canon Frome itself is about a mile to the east).

The route can be followed on foot for another mile as it travels south east to Walsopthorne where it enters Ashperton Tunnel, Ashperton being just to the south on the main road. The stone work at the north west portal has gone but the south east end is in good condition. Canon Frome cricket pitch is on top of the tunnel and the south east portal emerges into a deep cutting with a cottage close by. I believe this to be close to the minor road from Ashperton to Cold Green. Past here the canal turned north east to Swinmore Common and then east to Staplow. At Staplow (on the B4214) there is a typical Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal cottage and 400 yards further on, behind Prior's Court, is the remains of a lock. In the early 1970's the wood on the top gate was rotting but the iron work on the lock was still in good condition, most of the masonry had vanished and the whole area was surrounded by nettles - head high! Whether anything can be found today I do not know. In the next half mile there are two single arched aqueducts, the first crosses the river Leadon and the second crosses a stream. The canal now turns south and there was once a wharf at the road junction where Wellington Heath bridge is still standing. This is on the minor road to Wellington Heath about ¾ of a mile east of the B4214.About ¾ of a mile south of the wharf another minor road crosses, this time much closer to the B-road.

In fact the canal came very close to the main road and ran parallel for ¾ of a mile before passing under it. Now on the west side of the B4214 the canal went under a double arched railway bridge followed by the A438 and then entered the centre of Ledbury. The town swimming pool is now on the canal bed and this gives a good clue to where it ran through the town. Basically it continued south from the A438 for ¾ of a mile and then turned south west to run parallel to the B4210 (formerly the A449). The rail track which was built on some the canal route from Ledbury to Gloucester has long since gone but its course can be followed in Ledbury. It crosses the B4210 beside an engineering works which is clearly an old canal warehouse.Close by is the wharf house which stood at the original terminus of the canal before it was extended to Hereford. The roundabout where the B4210 meets the new A449 is close to (if not on top of) the canal route. At this point the canal turned south with the B4216 on the east side and the River Leadon on the west.

After about a mile the railway's course (also that of the canal) crossed the River Leadon and headed south west to Tiller Green. On route it was crossed by the minor road from the B4216 to Greenway. At Tiller Green the canal was crossed by the B4215. It then turned sharply south east and ran parallel to the road. As it entered Dymock the canal was crossed by the minor road to Kempley.

South of Dymock the railway dodged around the higher ground and went into a deep cutting while the canal takes its own course and disappears into Oxenhall Tunnel for 2,000 yards. There is water in the canal at the northern approach to the tunnel which is now in the grounds of Boyce Court, south of Dymock off the B4215 (close to the M50). Spoil heaps from the tunnel's construction can still be seen on the south side of the motorway.The south portal can be reached through Holder's Farm or by walking north along the canal from a minor road (to Shaw Common) which crosses the cut near Hilter's Farm. A "cave" can still be seen which was built into the side of the canal cutting at the south end of the tunnel. This was probably used for stabling. The insides of the tunnel are said to be in good condition. Half a mile south, beside the minor road on the east of Oxenhall, is the junction with the short Oxenhall Branch. The arm curls around a hill with a church on the top and now ends just past here though it is thought that the arm may have once continued a little further into the centre of Oxenhall. Today there is no sign of a basin. A little further along on the main line is Oxenhall Pool lock cottage with its name plaque restored above the door. The remains of 4 locks are here with the top one mostly intact. In wetter weather the canal can hold water here though it runs out through a hole in the aqueduct which crosses Ell Brook just to the south. Having crossed the aqueduct the canal turns east to run parallel to the brook into Newent. A minor road runs parallel to the south and the B4221 comes close on the south side in the centre of Newent. The B4215 crosses the canal just north of the B4221 junction.

Canal enthusiast Mark Annand has this to say about the stretch from Oxenhall to Newent.....

"The walk up to the tunnel from nearby Newent is much recommended, especially now that the threat of a major road through the district has receded - at one point levelling pegs had appeared along the route. In the century or so since the conversion of much of the route into a railway this section has survived as an island of canal construction in a sea of later change. Now, with the canal under active restoration the entire southern approach to this major tunnel is reappearing with the future of Oxenhall lock cottage and an original bridge far more secure. The northern portal of the tunnel is a place of fright and cataclysm though the area is enchanting in early spring with the flowering of the small local daffodil which grows in occasional great profusion".

Near the site of Newent Station the railway takes over the canal route once again and apart from short portions where the railway cuts out sharp bends it sticks to the canal bed until the outskirts of Gloucester. It is never far from the B4215 which crosses the route twice, first about a mile south east of Malswick and then again at Tibberton. (According to my road map from the 1950's this village used to be known as Barber's Bridge Station). One mile south of Tibberton the canal, the B4215 and the River Leadon are side by side within yards of each other, the canal being sandwiched between the other two. Immediately after this squeeze the river and canal leave the road and turn north east curving clockwise around the north of Lassington. After turning south and then south east near Over the canal met the River Severn. It originally crossed the meadows of "Ansley Island" to join the eastern arm which runs into Gloucester docks. However, this link was closed during the canal's working days and Maisemore Lock, which took the canal out of the River Severn's Maisemore Channel, has been disused since this time.

Visit the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal Trust website

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