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Two canals meet near to Droitwich Spa town centre. The Barge Canal was “built” by James Brindley in 1771 to connect the town to the River Severn at Hawford Mill. This canal was used to export salt, and import coal (mainly to be used in the salt production) using river barges known as Severn Trows which were 4.4m wide and 20m long. The Junction Canal was built in 1854 to link the Barge Canal to the nearby Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Hanbury Wharf, but this canal was built to the more commonly used narrow beam standard (2.1m wide).
From the mid 1800’s onwards it became increasingly difficult for canal transport to compete with the railways, and from the early 20th century to complete with road-haulage. By 1906, the costs of maintenance on both canals exceeded their income, and they gradually fell into disuse. The last boat to use the Barge Canal had done so in 1916, and for the Junction Canal the last use had been in the late 1920’s. Thus by the outbreak of the 2nd World War the canals were abandoned.
Further, the Barge Canal was filled-in under the A449 near to Hawford Mill so as to strengthen the road. The M5 motorway was built over the Junction Canal, and a section of the Junction Canal to the east of Droitwich Spa was filled-in and used for housing and other development. Thus, regardless of commercial abandonment of the canals, the section from the A449 in the east, to near Hanbury Wharf in the west was either inaccessible or non-existant.
From the 1970’s onwards increasing numbers of closed canals were restored by enthusiast volunteers, and a similar reconstruction has taken place to both the Barge and the Junction Canals. There are several reasons for the interest in reopening these canals :
- The Barge Canal was amongst the earliest canals to be opened, and was associated with the canal pioneer James Brindley.
- The Junction Canal was amongst the very last canals to be opened before the impact of haulage by rail.
- Because of subsequent development, the link between the two canals would need to involve a short canalised section of the River Salwarpe.
- When reopened, the two canals would form part of a circular route, to be known as the Worcester – Droitwich Ring, which it was thought would be popular with leisure boat owners.
In 1973 the Droitwich Canals Trust was formed, with the objective of restoring the canals. The complete scheme was eventually to cost about £12.5 million with the major contributions coming from British Waterways and the Heritage Lottery Fund. However the scheme also involved support and financing from Wychavon District Council, the Manpower Services Commission, Advantage West Midlands and other local councils. Eventually, British Waterways took over the lease of the canals from the Droitwich Canal Trust.
Restoration of the canals has involved :
- The Netherwich Basin in Droitwich Spa has been dredged and reopened along with section of the Barge Canal that runs into the town and the surrounding Vines Park.
- The existing Barge Canal from Droitwich to the River Severn has been restored, including all the locks and in particular the lock linking the canal to the River Severn at Hawford Mill. A new bridge has been built at the crossing with the A449 and the resulting restored Barge Canal is navigable by boats up to 3.81m wide and 18.59m in length as far as the crossing with the railway just short of Netherwich Basin. The last remaining section before the town is subject to a width restriction of 2.13m.
- A short section of the River Salwarpe to the east of Netherwich Basin and the town has been dredged and made navigable.
- The existing section of the Junction Canal and locks to the west of Hanbury Wharf has been restored.
- A new length of canal and associated locks has been constructed eastwards from the junction with the River Salwarpe to the M5, under the M5 (fortunately a sufficiently large culvert was created for Body Brook at the time the M5 was constructed, and this culvert has been canalised), and east of the M5 around the housing development to link up with the restored section of the existing Junction Canal.
- The resulting new length of navigable river and Junction Canal is narrow beam (with a width restriction of 2.1m, and with further restrictions on length, headroom and draft due to the culvert under the M5). In addition the canalised section of the River Salwarpe is occasionally subject to flooding problems.
- A new Droitwich Spa Marina, with 238 moorings has opened at the junction between the old and new sections of the Junction Canal, between the M5 and Hanbury Wharf.
The restoration is now complete, the Barge Canal was officially opened in September 2010, while the Junction Canal opened in July 2011 when an official completion ceremony for the whole project took place. For more information about the canal restoration project and the new canal system see the web sites for the Droitwich Canals Trust and the Wikipedia entry for the Droitwich Canals. Unfortunately British Waterways ceased to exist in July 2012.