Montgomeryshire Canal

Montgomeryshire Canal History

Following a proposal by the newly formed Ellesmere Canal Company to build a branch line to Llanymynech on the Welsh border, a group of businessmen just over the border got together to build a waterway which would connect mid-Wales to the newly proposed branch.This would link Wales (via the Ellesmere Canal) to the River Dee at Chester, the River Mersey at Netherpool and the River Severn at Shrewsbury - bypassing the incredibly difficult upper reaches of the river between Shrewsbury and Welshpool. Their route would be known as the Montgomeryshire Canal and would run from Llanymynech, through Welshpool to Newtown. The main cargo would be limestone carried to numerous lime kilns along the route as well as coal and agricultural produce.

An Act of Parliament was gained and work began with the Dadfords employed as engineers.

A 16¼ mile stretch of the Montgomeryshire Canal from Llanymynech to Garthmyl was completed but work stopped 7 miles short of Newtown. The "Carreghofa Branch" of the Ellesmere Canal had opened to Llanymynech the previous year though there was no link to Chester or to Shrewsbury at this point.

The proposed link (via the Ellesmere Canal) to Shrewsbury was abandoned when the Ellesmere company ran into financial problems. In fact, at one point it looked as though the link to Chester would also be abandoned, leaving both the Ellesmere and the Montgomeryshire canals stranded.

Later a link to Chester was made via the Chester Canal. Despite the lack of a link to the main waterways network, the Montgomeryshire Canal was already doing well in its own self contained world.

The Montgomeryshire Canal company were doing so well that they wanted to complete their waterway to Newtown as originally planned.

However, the shareholders were afraid of losing their dividends so it was agreed that a brand new company would be set up to run the new section until it became successful. Work began with John Williams as engineer.

The new section was opened and named the Western Branch, from this time on the original part of the Montgomeryshire Canal became known as the Eastern Branch.

Because the railway age was very late arriving in mid-Wales the canal, especially the Eastern Branch, continued to profit when most other canals were beginning to suffer.

The Eastern Branch owners agreed to a handsome sum of money and the waterway joined the Ellesmere & Chester Canal as part of the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal network which was formed with a view to converting the waterways into railways. For 3 years the Western Branch stayed independent though it too joined the Shropshire Union network in 1850. From this time on, the whole line from Welsh Frankton to Newtown was known as the Montgomeryshire Canal. The Shropshire Union Canal network was soon taken over by London & North Western Railway though the new owners were unable to build tracks on the canal due to legal wrangles in parliament.

Because the new railway owners were not allowed to build a railway along the canal, they set up a passenger "Fly Boat" service instead. The service (which became very successful) ran from Newtown to Rednal (near Oswestry) where an interchange station was created. From Rednal boat passengers could catch trains to Liverpool, Birkenhead, Chester and Shrewsbury. The boat journey from Newtown to Rednal took 5 hours, averaging nearly 6½ mph to cover 32 miles and pass through 22 locks.

The railways finally reached Welshpool and Newtown and from this time on the canal began to decline although it still made a profit for many more years.

An attempt was made to close down The Montgomeryshire Canal. Although the route survived it was now seeing fewer and fewer boats every year.

London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) took over the whole Shropshire Union network, by now trade on the Montgomeryshire was very low. LMS were infamous for their dislike of canals and thus they did very little to maintain the waterways under their control, the condition of the Montgomeryshire Canal declined very rapidly.

A breach in the bank near Frankton Junction (on the Carreghofa Branch of the route) caused closure and LMS refused to pay for repairs. Emphasising how little the canal was being used by now, only 3 boats ("Endeavour", "Perseverance" and the Fly Boat "Berriew") were left stranded in the land locked canal. They were left in place and stood rotting away for many decades.

After 148 years the Montgomeryshire Canal was officially abandoned by its owners (LMS) along with another 150 miles of canals under their "control". By this time the abandoned Montgomeryshire Canal was already decaying and becoming derelict. Over the next two decades it was left to its own devises.

The first part of the Montgomeryshire Canal to be restored was in Welshpool in the middle part of the route. Although this might seem strange, it was done because there was a big threat of a bypass road being built which had the possibility of using the canal's course from Welshpool to Abermule, thus it was vital to open up the canal and use it. Welshpool town lock and an adjacent warehouse were restored and a short stretch of the canal in the town was opened for boats. A trip boat was put into operation despite there only being a very short length of canal open.

Early in the decade the A483 bypass was built as feared though it did not use the derelict canal course. However, it came close enough to make future restoration very difficult indeed. The Montgomeryshire Canal Preservation Society (which later became the restoration society) had their first major battle when the new bypass reached Abermule (south of Welshpool). The new road was to be built to the north of the village and would cross the canal several times on route. The road builders intended to build the road flat across the canal with tiny culverts being created. The society successfully campaigned for a fully navigable bridge at Abermule. However, they were less successful with the 3 other canal crossings on the new road and this left the waterway completely blocked. Although the preservation society had not managed to stop the canal from being blocked they had prevented it from being filled in and lost forever. Later in the decade work began on restoration of the section just north of Welshpool. By the end of the decade the work was complete and the canal was ready to open. Although the local authorities did much to help the restoration of this section, the society did not get all the help they needed. Gallows Tree Bank Bridge on the (then A483) main road into Welshpool was to remain flat, preventing boats on the already restored section in Welshpool from reaching the newly restored stretch.

The Prince of Wales officially opened the newly restored 7 mile stretch to the north of Welshpool. Subsequently this stretch became known as the "Prince of Wales Length". There was still no connection to the Welshpool stretch.

Carreghofa Locks at Llanymynech were restored and opened although at this point the canal around them was still to be restored.Since then this section has had much work done to it though it is still (1998) not open to boats.

The 4 locks at Frankton Junction (on the original Ellesmere Canal) were restored allowing a navigable stretch of about ¼ of a mile. However, at this stage there was nothing at the bottom of the locks - not even a turning point. Work now began on the stretch south of the locks.

It took 12 years for Gallows Tree Bank Bridge in Welshpool to be renewed, finally unblocking the canal and allowing navigation of a 9 mile stretch in the centre of the route. Now work began on restoring the sections just to the south of Welshpool.

During Spring, Whitehouse Bridge on the A490 (formerly the A483) just south of Welshpool was renewed. This allowed boats to travel south out of Welshpool for the first time in 59 years. However, the new bridge was not formerly announced to the public or the press and it was some time before people realised it was open. It wasn't until early in 1996 that it was officially opened. The bridge was actually a completely new one which had long approach slopes on the road to avoid making a "hump". The canal had to be re-routed along a brand new 300 yard cut, this left the original stretch unused though it was to be kept as a mini nature reserve to preserve the wildlife which had established since the canal's closure. By this time Welshpool had become something of a boating area with Anglo Welsh running a hire base in the town and trip boats frequently used the restored sections. South of Whitehouse Bridge, a 4 mile section was the next to be restored. In May, Belan Locks had gates fitted and boats could now unofficially pass through these to reach the village of Berriew. On Saturday June 3rd, the biggest restoration news of all was reported.The first 1½ miles from Frankton Junction (on the original Ellesmere Canal) was now open. This restoration had included the 4 old locks reopened in 1987 and the building of a brand new one further south. I visited this stretch shortly after it opened and found it looking spick and span though a magazine article criticised a lot of the work. It complained that mistakes had been made at the new lock and said the channel above it was too narrow. The silliest mistake of all was in the positioning of the foot-holds which are traditionally built in the ground below the arc of a balance beam. The foot-holds on the new lock were built on the wrong side of the beam, arcing away from the lock gate! Despite these quibbles the new length opened up the Montgomeryshire Canal to visiting pleasure craft from the "outside world" for the first time. The next major blockage (or gap) was the demolished Perry Aqueduct at the southern end of the newly opened stretch. Work had started here early in the year and within weeks the section beyond the missing aqueduct was transformed from a flat field into a ditch resembling a dry canal. The breach which caused the original closure of the canal in 1936 was situated close to the aqueduct though restorers found absolutely no trace of it. A little further south west blocked bridges were being restored, Corbetts (accommodation) Bridge was being reconstructed and the former A5 road bridge at Queen's Head was being completely rebuilt. The new A5 (thankfully) passed by well above navigable requirements. West of the A5 the Aston Flight of 3 locks were also under restoration but this stretch brought a different set of problems. Over the years of disuse the lock flight had become a wildlife haven and was protected as such. After a lot of negotiation it was agreed that restoration could only continue if the restorers carefully removed the plant life, in particular a type of floating water plantain called Luronium Natans, and replanted it safely a few feet away from the locks. This they did though the agreement was only made in order to allow restoration and not, at this stage, to allow boats and people through the locks!

The section from Whitehouse Bridge to Berriew which had unofficially opened the previous year was officially opened on May 11th. Horse drawn boats travelled the full length of the new 5 mile stretch in a celebration styled on the original opening of the canal, this included passengers dressed in 1790's clothing. The new stretch created a 13 mile navigation in Powys stretching from Refail in the south, through Welshpool town centre and on to Burgedin Locks (which were also then under restoration). The section north of Burgedin Locks (which includes Carreghofa Locks, restored in 1986) was expected to open in the not too distant future. The section south of Refail, through Garthmyl, was also under restoration though this would take much longer as it included the road blockages created in the early 1970's. By Autumn the isolated Trwsllewlyn Aqueduct over Llifior Brook just west of Garthmyl had been fully restored following a part collapse during its derelict years.

Just 18 months after beginning work, the brand new Perry Aqueduct section was complete and on September 21st the aqueduct and the section to the south were officially opened. This provided nearly 4 miles of navigable water from Frankton Junction to Queen's Head. The short section containing the 3 unfinished Aston Locks blocked the canal from Queen's Head to Maesbury Marsh though at Maesbury there was another 1½ mile navigable section with a wharf, day boats and trip boats. The 3 locks were due to be opened in 1997 and this would allow almost 6 miles of navigable water from Frankton Junction. Between the 3 locks and Maesbury Marsh are 2 accommodation bridges, Red Bridge and Park Mill Bridge. In the summer of 1996 a dozen engineers from Rover Cars - all of whom were canal enthusiasts - took time off work to restore the bridges, the work took just 2 days!

In October the opening of the completed Aston Lock flight was postponed. This was partly due to the unsolved problem of the safety of plant life near the canal. Conservationists had agreed to the Waterway Recovery Group replanting the wild life in specially created water meadows alongside the locks, but now they prevented navigation by saying the whole lock flight was still a SSSI area. On top of this British Waterways also objected to the reopening of the flight. Their claim was that it would jeopardise bids for funding for restoration of the whole canal. They argued that the locks should not be opened until the whole canal was restored or - at least - until funding was secured.Applications for £40 million were to be made to various funds including the National Lottery.

With Aston Locks restored (though sadly not yet open) it now leaves just 3 sections of the Montgomery Canal unnavigable; The stretch from Maesbury Marsh to Llanymynech which (1997) is still just a dry bed but - considering the speed at which work has progressed so far - it probably will not cause too much trouble to restore; The section from Refail to Aberbechan has always held water and is - in the main - navigable though the A483 bypass bridges still block the way through; The southern most stretch into Newtown will take a lot longer to restore as it is completely dry and has been filled in along some sections. The expected date for Newtown's reconnection to the waterways network is 2010 but restoration to Aberbechan should happen well before this date.

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Montgomeryshire Canal Route

Beginning at Frankton Junction in Shropshire, where it leaves the old Ellesmere Canal (now the Llangollen Canal), the Carreghofa Branch of the Montgomeryshire Canal travels south and immediately encounters 4 locks - the first 2 are a staircase. About a mile south of Frankton Junction there used to be second junction where an arm belonging to the named the Weston Branch headed off south eastward. This branch, which was owned by the Ellesmere Canal company, was originally planned as the main line of the Ellesmere Canal, intended to reach the River Severn in Shrewsbury. However, it fell well short of its planned destination andhas lay dry and unused since a breach in 1917. (For more information on the history of the Weston Branch see the file on the Ellesmere Canal). The Montgomeryshire Canal continues south from Lockgate Bridge Junction, a brand new lock is situated about ¼ of a mile past the junction and the brand new aqueduct over the River Perry follows less than a mile further on. Near Rednal, where the railway crosses the canal, there used to be a canal and railway interchange where passengers could arrive from Newtown by boat and head for Shrewsbury or Liverpool by train. The Fly Boat station has survived and is situated near the roving bridge (No.74). It is a two storey building, almost overhanging the canal. Next, the newly reopened canal travels alongside a minor road and then passes under Telford's A5 London to Holyhead road at a place called Queen's Head. Today there are two road bridges here, the first one is on Telford's road and this is immediately followed by a much higher one on the new A5. It is here that the section of canal opened in 1996 comes to an end. On the next section are the 3 Aston Locks, situated just west of Queen's Head bridges. Although not yet navigable, the locks are in water and navigation returns below the bottom lock for just over a mile through the village of Maesbury Marsh. At the village there is a wharf, the Navigation Inn and a boat crane beside the canal. In fact the wharf here is already home to Maesbury Wharf Cruisers who are ideally placed for the future but currently have only 1½ miles of navigable waterway.With the opening of the 3 Aston Locks this will be extended to.....well.... to London, Manchester, Bristol... you name it! Past Maesbury Marsh the canal now disappears into dry land for over 3 miles and has no water where the B4396 crosses it at Redwith or at the small settlement of Crickheath Wharf. On this stretch there used to be the Mill Arm on which the last frequent trade on the canal was based.

The dry main line reappears in water about a mile south west of Crickheath at the village of Pant. There were worries here for restorers in the early 1990's when a Pant (A483) bypass was announced though the plan was later shelved. Such bypasses much further south have caused major restoration problems over the past 3 decades. Just south of Pant is Llanymynech Wharf. When I visited the canal here in 1997 it was in water but not very pretty. Nearby is a "Heritage area" where lime kilns are situated. The wharf will also fall under the heritage area when restored. Just past the wharf the A483 crosses over for the first time. Past the road bridge is Wern Aqueduct which has 3 arches and crosses a former railway. The 2 locks which make up the Carreghofa flight follow within a mile.This is where the original Ellesmere Canal ended and the Montgomeryshire Canal began, it is also where the canal moves out of England and into Wales. The two locks, which were restored in 1986, are probably the prettiest flight anywhere in Britain. Just to the south, near the junction of the B4398 and B4393, are two aqueducts. One is a 3-arched structure crossing a flood plain while the other one crosses the River Vyrnwy on 5 arches. Soon after construction one of these arches collapsed and had to be rebuilt. Some years later it had to be repaired again and it still leaks today! The canal in this area looks fully navigable but a flattened bridge between the Carreghofa flight and the 2 aqueducts puts pay to any hope of a boat getting through.

Three miles further south is a junction with the 2¼ miles long Guilsfield Branch which ran south west alongside the B4392 and is now an overgrown nature reserve. At the junction are the 2 Burgedin locks which are also near the B4392. Past here the canal loops east and soon comes near the A483 once again. Within a mile is Bank Lock which is the first navigable lock on the stretch which once again takes boats through Welshpool. The lock comes as something of a surprise, having been following the canal downstream since the start, we now begin to go back up. The Montgomeryshire Canal is one of very few to have a "sump" level. The main road follows the canal very closely for a mile past Cabin Lock and Crowther Hall Lock to Pool Quay Lock. Here, a small river (heading in the opposite direction to us) comes alongside the main road to the east. This river twirls about on a spiral course but is destined for bigger moments as this is the infant River Severn. Pool Quay was an important inland port long before the canal was built although today there is no evidence of this. The main road continues to stick close to the canal for another 3½ miles, along the "Prince of Wales Length", into Welshpool. In the centre of Welshpool there is a small aqueduct and an old girder bridge which is now a footpath but once carried the narrow gauge Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway. Near Severn Street there is a lock in good working order. Nearby there is a wharf and a warehouse which is now a museum and canal centre. However, early in 1998 there is a threat to the canal's heritage in this area because planning permission is being sought for the building of a new Supermarket. All those concerned with the full restoration of the canal are currently putting together their objections.

Just south of the town the navigation came to an end until 1995 when Whitehouse Bridge (A490) was reopened allowing an extra 4 miles of navigable waterway. The building of the new bridge also meant a new length of canal had to be built through the grounds of Powys Castle. I travelled this section on a narrow boat in 1997 and found the new section is hardly distinguishable from the old. A job well done.

Away from the canal, where the A490 meets the A483 there is a small road, Lime kilns Lane, which leads west to Belan locks. There is a pretty white lock cottage by the northern lock and my 1971 reference book reported a massive lock key lying in the grass by the southern lock - though this has now been removed. Between the two locks is a small road bridge carrying Limekilns Lane. It was at these locks that the remains of two of the marooned boats ("Perseverance" and the Fly Boat "Berriew") lay for 40 years after the breach in 1936. They were removed during restoration clearance work in recent years.

The canal continues south west, still navigable, with the A483 to the east. A number of lanes and a minor roads lead from the main road to the canal. There are 2 locks on this stretch; Brithdir Lock is reached after about 2 miles and Berriew Lock is ¾ of a mile further, on the north edge of Berriew village. Berriew is a short walk along from the tunnel-like road bridge just past the lock. It is a lovely village with lots of white houses and pretty gardens. The River Rhiw splashes noisily and rapidly past the village. On the far side of Berriew the canal crosses a minor road, a track and the River Rhiw on what has been described as a "ponderous-looking" 3 arched aqueduct - though I quite liked it! It was rebuilt in 1889 in brick, replacing the former stone structure. Until recently the canal disappeared into a pipe here though this is not now the case as the waterway is navigable - but not for much further. Navigation currently ends just a few hundred yards further on at Refail, beside Efail Fach Bridge which blocks the route. Beyond here the route is in water but awaits restoration.

One mile further on the canal swings south west, at Garthmyl, where the Montgomeryshire Canal originally ended for a number of years until the Western Branch was created. At the former terminus the old A483 comes alongside and crosses the canal on a humped bridge. It is easy to see why the new A483 was needed as the old road resembles a narrow country lane. However, while the new road is great news for car users, it is very bad news for boat users. It crosses the canal right beside the old bridge but at a lower level which has completely obliterated the waterway. The old road used to squeeze round a 90 degree bend in front of the Nag's Head pub, the canal passed the pub close to the road.Today, the new road gently swings around the pub on a wide bend using up both the old road and the canal bed. To the east of the new road are a group of buildings which once formed part of the original terminus basin. Beyond, a B-road also blocks the route though the canal reappears past this road and is semi-navigable (used by canoes). The route soon crosses Trwsllewlyn Aqueduct, passing over Llifior Brook.The aqueduct has recently been fully restored following a part collapse during its derelict years. Within 2 more miles the new road and the canal come to the tiny village of Fron where the river Severn (now even smaller) also re-enters the scene on the east of the main road. At Fron the A483 crosses over twice but both of the bridges were described as "culverted" in 1971. In 1995 they were still blocked but they are marked merely as being "low" on a recent canal map. However, they are so low that I failed to spot them when I drove past in 1997!! These are the road crossings built in the early 1970's, while they are a major problem for restoration they are better than the alternative which was to use the canal itself for the route of the new road.

Just before the road to Abermule there is a former wharf and Brynderwen Lock. Canal bridge 146 is close by along with a white lock cottage, a red brick building and a corrugated iron shed with the words "Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company General Carriers" still written on it. This short stretch has been restored and is well kept.The canal is sandwiched here with the River Severn running parallel at the back of the lock cottage and the busy main road running parallel at the front. A few yards south the road to Abermule crosses both the canal and the river in one go on a bridge which has decorative iron parapets painted white. At Ffridd the new A483 crosses the canal for the last time. This was the Abermule bypass bridge which won the canal preservationists their first victory in the early 1970's. Just past the road bridge are Byles Lock and Newhouse Lock. The new A483 also crosses the River Severn, leaving canal and river to follow the same path slightly away to the west of the main road (but never far away). The scenery on this stretch has been described as "dramatic" with steep towering hills to the west and lighter slopes to the east. Within 2 miles, at Aberbechan, the canal passes the site of an old wharf where there used to be lime kilns.The bridge near the former wharf is called Lime Kiln Bridge though the canal is now lined with new bungalows on both sides of the bridge.Within yards the canal crosses a River Severn tributary on a small but "pretty" aqueduct and just after the aqueduct is a bridge carrying the B4389. Just to the east, the same road crosses the rather wide and fast flowing River Severn on a substantial stone arched bridge. Another 600 yards south, at Freestone Lock, the unnavigable canal runs dry and the becomes no more than a grassy ditch - full of sheep. There are two derelict cottages nearby but they are hard to spot through the trees and overgrown bushes. At this point the canal ceases to be under the control of British Waterways and passes into the hands of the Severn Trent Water Authority. A feeder from the River Severn runs into Freestone Lock and a path can be followed along the feeder. After a few hundred yards the path crosses an over spill between the feeder and the River Severn and then arrives at an enormous weir spanning right across the fast flowing River Severn. Close to the footpath is a stepped "fish ladder" and at the junction of the feeder with the river (just above the huge weir) is a large reservoir with bird watching towers close by.

The dry bed of the Montgomeryshire Canal can be easily followed beyond Freestone Lock. It sticks fairly near to the River Severn as both water courses round a hill. On this stretch, on the west side of the canal, is a rather isolated former workshop building followed by the equally isolated Dolfor Lock. A lock lobby and bridge stand alongside the lock but the lock keepers cottage is (rather strangely) about 75 yards away on the hillside. A service road for the local sewage works has been built on the canal just beyond the lock but after a few yards the dry bed reappears and the towpath here is a designated walk complete with notice boards.Dolfor Bridge crosses the canal and a ground floor cottage stands nearby, right on the canal side. In fact, steps lead directly from the cottage into the canal! A little further on is Port House on the west bank (opposite the towpath). It looks like an old Tudor cottage and is close to the site of Port House swing bridge which was only removed around 1970. Soon after the missing swing bridge is the site of the final lock on the canal, Rock Lock. This brought the canal up by about 8 feet but it is now completely filled in. In 1994 it could be detected by a slight incline in the towpath - a lock lobby lurked in the undergrowth on the far side. Again, the lock keeper's cottage is on the hillside. Rock Lock bridge has long since gone and Rock Bridge, a few yards further on, is said to be in a sorry state. Apparently this bridge featured in scenic picture postcards - not any more - but maybe it will again one day in the not too distant future. On my visit to this area in 1997 I found Rock Farm which is accessed by crossing a canal bridge - this bridge could well be Rock Bridge though I had no way of recognising it.I found it to be small but in a fair condition, the canal below it is completely filled in but is used as part of a long distance walk. On the northern outskirts of Newtown, on the east side of the canal, is the site of a pump house and chimney (built in 1860) which once drew water up from the River Severn. This was necessary because the terminus of the canal was the highest point on the whole route. Water was last pumped into the canal in 1948, 12 years after the last boat was seen on this stretch. All that remains is a private residence, named Old Pump House, which has the River Severn on the far side of it and a footbridge alongside it. This is the limit to which powers have been granted for restoration though the owners of the house are not keen on the idea of a restored canal or even on permitting a through-route for the designated walk along its bed. The canal runs right along the side of the house, a small footbridge crosses the bed. When the canal is restored this will be the only access for the occupants - unless they buy a boat.

Just south of here is the approach to the site of Newtown Basin, the former terminus of the canal. Before reaching the basin the canal bed is now blocked by a River Severn flood defence embankment. As well as completely blocking the route of the canal, the flood bank has also buried nearly 2 dozen historic lime kilns. Beside the bank is a building built sideways-on. On the canal side it has 3 floors but on the road side it only has 2 because Canal Road is one floor higher than the canal! Similarly, the row of terraced houses which back onto the canal have 4 storeys when viewed from the canal but look like normal 2 storey houses from the road.

Newtown basin has long since been filled in and built on though this didn't begin to happen until the 1960's. Industrial units came first, the current houses came later. On Dolafon Road is the canal's last surviving bridge, known as Waggon Bridge. At the end of Dolafon Road is a white pub named the "Wagon and Horses" which was owned by the canal company. The site of the basin is to the south of Dolafon Road, there is said to be the remains of a warehouse and Foundry Bridge which once stood near the basin as well as a number of other canal company structures all around though all I spotted were relatively new houses. The basin was more than just one small town wharf, it was a large dock with many small wharves, each in their own short arms. Although this area is now part of Newtown, in the days of the working canal this was still just the northern outskirts and thus the canal never actually reached Newtown at all. All the same, the basin was the most westerly port on the inland waterways network.

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