Wednesday, 21 March 2018

A SERIOUS BREACH PART ONE...MARCH 16th 2018


THE STORY OF THE MIDDLEWICH CANAL BREACH 2018


by Dave Roberts

In fact, a very serious breach indeed, of the bank of the Shropshire Union's Middlewich Branch in the early hours of Friday 16th March 2018. 

The breach occurred where the canal crosses the River Wheelock, close to Nantwich Road. Early reports described the breach as 'a huge sinkhole' in the bed of the canal, suggesting that  the aqueduct had collapsed and the  water from a three-quarter mile stretch of the canal from Wardle Lock in Middlewich to Stanthorne Lock* had poured through it into the river beneath, causing it to burst its banks and flood the surrounding fields. Local farmers were at one point forced to move their livestock to safety. Some of this flooding can just be made out to the left of the photo.

What really seems to have happened is that the almost 200 year old aqueduct  remained intact and the canal bank collapsed, causing the water to flow around the side of the aqueduct into the river below. A tribute to the design and construction skills of the canal builders of the early 19th century, towards the end of the canal building era.

Eoin Anderson's drone shot of the breach dramatically shows the extent of the damage to the canal. This photo spread like wildfire throughout the internet on the Friday after the incident. It's reproduced here with Eoin's permission. 

Towards the top of the photo, away in the distance, can be seen the accommodation bridge which marks the position of Stanthorne Lock.* Beyond the lock the canal is intact.
There were 'up to twenty' boats in the affected section of canal but, fortunately, no one was injured. Those boats, though, will remain stranded for the foreseeable future.

* sometimes known locally as 'Sherrif's Lock'

Paul and Emma Westmacott who live on Nantwich Road, close to the canal, were first on the scene.

Paul writes:

'We were lying in bed and heard strange noises outside, so went to investigate.
Believe me, you have never seen or heard anything like the sight and sound of that canal water going through that hole in full flow.
We called 999 and were told by the police that they would pass a message on to the Canal & River Trust.

While we were waiting for the police patrol car to arrive, it became apparent that the situation was even more serious than at first thought. We could see the stranded boat on the other side of the breach and tried to make contact with the boat owner, but we couldn't make him hear because of the noise. 
So we called the police again. They arrived shortly afterwards, followed by quite a few more. Lights were shone on the scene and the full scale of what had happened became clear. It's a night we will never forget.'

Note: Emma is the grand daughter of the late Frank Smith of Ravenscroft, who would, no doubt, have had a lot to say about this incident, and would also have some great ideas on how the damage should be repaired. -Ed.


Photo: Vision Aerial Photography
The massive size of the breach can be seen even more clearly in this photo from Vision Aerial Photography, as can the proximity to the houses in Nantwich Road, which can be seen coming in from the right (the white building is Manor Lodge). The town of Middlewich is at the top of the photo and the canal can be seen veering to the right to join the Wardle Canal and, ultimately, the Trent & Mersey in the distance at Booth Lane.

Vision Aerial Photography
Here the damage caused to the River Wheelock and the garden of the house on the bank above Nantwich Road can be seen. That's Nantwich Road on the upper right as it passes Manor Lodge before running under the canal via the road aqueduct which is the twin of the one where the breach occurred.


Photo: Vision Aerial Photography
The aqueduct itself, showing how the breach in the canal caused massive amounts of water to pour down into the river valley, overwhelming it and causing massive flooding in the fields on either side. At the top of the photo Nantwich Road can be seen coming down from Stanthorne and running past the trees (top middle). The river at this point is very often flooded after heavy rain, but not usually to this extent.  Brynlow Drive which runs from Nantwich Road up into the 'Manor Estate' is top left.


Many thanks to Vision Aerial Photography for permission to use these photographs.


 Patrick Hough walked up the canal early on the morning of Friday 16th March and took some photos of the breach from ground level. 

Many people have commented that photographs can't do justice to the enormity of the crater which this breach caused in the canal.

Seemingly the drone shots from Eoin Anderson and Vision Aerial Photography (above) come closest to showing just how catastrophic this incident was.

Looking back towards Middlewich from the site of the incident, the canal looks curiously unlike a waterway, with only a small trickle of water evident.

The enormous amount of silt found in all canals these days can be seen, making the canal  much more shallow than it ought to be, particularly at the sides.

This silt, together with the rubbish which people still, for some reason, feel justified in throwing into the water, can sometimes make boating difficult and even hazardous.

This carp was one casualty of the collapse. It was later rescued from the  confines of the very much reduced canal water.




The flooded River Wheelock. 

This is the 'Nantwich' side of the aqueduct where, passing under Nantwich Road, the river flows down from the village to which it gives  its name and heads towards its meeting with the River Dane near Croxton. The village was named after the river, and our main street was named after the village. The name 'Wheelock' comes from ancient Welsh and simply and appropriately means 'winding river'.

The meadowland in the river valley was extensively flooded by canal water. Mud, silt and other material falling into the river from the canal above made matters worse by effectively 'damming' the river and causing the water to spread widely over the fields on either side.

Note the trees actually growing in the bed of the river. 

The profusion of trees in the area is a legacy of William Boosey the nurseryman who planted thousands of them along the Wheelock before the Great War.

The start of hostilities meant that the trees were abandoned to their fate and have run riot ever since.

Work to repair the canal may mean that at least some of these trees are cleared, giving us a better view of this early 19th century structure.



Geoff Edwards' photo shows us what really happened to the canal during the early hours of Friday morning.

The bank above the aqueduct burst, spilling the canal's water into the river. 

Superficially at least the only damage to the aqueduct itself seems to be the loss of a few coping stones. But we can't, of course, second-guess the Canal and River Trust's engineers who will be making a thorough investigation into the structure and its surroundings prior to repairing the canal.

What would have happened if the breach had occurred in a place where there was no river to take the excess water?

What if it had happened, for example, at the nearby aqueduct over Nantwich Road, which causes much anxiety each time it's hit by a truck following  a faulty  satnav?

(Note: Since this Diary entry was first published we have heard intriguing suggestions that there was indeed a breach of the canal at the Nantwich Road aqueduct many years ago. Given that the Middlewich Branch is getting on for two hundred years old - which doesn't stop older Middlewich residents referring to it as 'The New Canal' - this would appear to be well within the realms of possibility. If you have any information on this, we'd love to see it - Ed)

This incident caused an almost unprecedented amount of interest in the canal from local people, and a great deal of speculation as to what was going to happen to it.

Foremost in many people's minds were the problems likely to hit the boating community, the  FAB Festival and the local economy.

Probably understandably, many local people assumed that repairing the breach would be the responsibility of Cheshire East council and feared the worst.

Given that council's perceived  appalling record when it comes to 'doing anything for Middlewich' people were assuming that there would be the usual delays, prevarication, switching of funds to other purposes etc. 

Thankfully, though, the repairs to the canal are not the responsibility of the council, but of the Canal & River Trust, successor to British Waterways, who will have to fund the project. 

Good news for Middlewich, but terrible news for the boating community. The Trust has only so much money to spend on repairs to the system and other projects may have to be postponed or abandoned altogether to pay for the repair of this important part of the network.

Others reasoned that the majority of boats visiting Middlewich did so via the Trent & Mersey canal, which is unaffected by this incident; that there are alternative routes (albeit much longer ones) into the town from the Shropshire Union; that the success of the FAB Festival is not entirely dependent on people visiting by boat and that canal breaches 'come with the territory' when you live in a canal town. 

Bob Shoosmith, who moved to Middlewich from Surrey nine years ago,  took to the town and its canals like - if you'll pardon the expression - a duck to water.

Bob was called to the scene of the incident on Friday

He says,

 'My connection with the Canal & River Trust (CaRT) is as a volunteer lock keeper on our three locks.* Out of season we do other tasks such as cutting back vegetation on the non-towpath side, crewing work boats, painting and maintaining locks etc. on our area of the system.

That is why I was called in on Friday to help block off the towpath along the drained section of the canal, and to put up warning signs. Other staff members of the CaRT were also in attendance, and it was from them that I gleaned a little information as to what would be likely to happen going forward.

As I'm sure you can understand at that time the full scale of the undertaking was still being assessed, so the information I could pass on to the public was limited.

The incident created a lot of interest in Middlewich and I was impressed by the concern expressed by a lot of the people I spoke to, and their obvious desire to help.

People were very interested in the possible time-scale for repairs, and all I could tell them was what I had been told by the CaRT, citing the land-slip above Croxton Flashes taking seven months to repair, and that I imagined it would take a similar length of time to repair this breach.

Many people were voicing their concerns about the effect on this year's FAB Festival, and the other detrimental effects this will have on Middlewich.'

* These are the three locks on the Trent & Mersey just off Brooks Lane, where the canal makes an abrupt left turn to drop down into Middlewich town centre. They're sometimes known locally as 'The Big Three', but their official name is, simply, 'Middlewich Locks' -Ed

Many thanks to Bob for getting in touch, and allowing us to use this account of his involvement in the incident on Friday.

He's promised to keep in touch with the CaRT offices at Red Bull Wharf and to forward any additional information to us.

So this is a particularly bad example of a canal breach which has caused additional concern to local people because of its close proximity to Nantwich Road.

 But it's by no means the first such calamity in the area,

As Bob Shoosmith says, there was, for example, one  at Croxton on the Trent & Mersey in 2012




To add a little perspective to our 21st century 'disaster' we should point out that, as mentioned in our earlier Diary entries (links above) the original Croxton Aqueduct, built by James Brindley in 1777, had to be replaced at the end of the nineteenth century due to that familiar Mid-Cheshire problem, brine subsidence.

In 1935 the replacement viaduct collapsed into the River Dane after flooding in the area caused by excessive rainfall and was then replaced by the current narrow structure, putting paid to any idea of wide boats ever reaching Middlewich. 

When the bridges on the Middlewich Branch were constructed in 1827, just at the beginning of the railway age, construction techniques had improved so much that, as we have seen, these later structures can withstand a lot of rough treatment.

So, here as elsewhere on the network, this canal breach is far from unprecedented.

We will be adding to this Middlewich Diary entry in the coming weeks.

See also:






Stanthorne Lock to Wardle Lock
UPDATE 19th March 2018

MIDDLEWICH BRANCH BREACH UPDATES



You can help the Canal & River Trust in its repair work on the  Middlewich Branch  by contributing to this appeal. The appeal was set up by the Trust following requests from several Middlewich residents.

Rescuing the fish, 17th March 2018                                    Photo: Canal & River Trust
A SERIOUS BREACH - PART TWO



Acknowledgments:

Eoin Anderson

Patrick Hough
Dominic Devaney
Geoff Edwards
Bob Shoosmith
Paul and Emma Westmacott
Vision Aerial Photography
Josh Pennington (Middlewich Guardian)
BBC News (North-West)

Canal & River Trust


Text © Salt Town Productions 2018

First published 17th March 2018
Updated, expanded and re-published 18th March 2018, 19th March, 21st March

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