The Big Dig and Welshpool Town Lock (1969-1974)

The early months of 1969 were occupied by maintenance work in various locations such as Tyrley cutting which BW did not have the funds to do. The Society was also active at Trevor, where a boat rally was planned, clearing saplings and undergrowth around the basin. However, restoration work on the Montgomery was about to start.

This came about as a result of a proposal for the route of an A483 bypass for Welshpool. A series of options included one to build the new road along the line of the then derelict canal. This would have both destroyed the canal and split the town in half. Locally, the plans spawned the Welshpool By-Pass Action Committee who requested the help of SUCS. The initial phase was a ’hearts and minds’ campaign aimed at public opinion in Welshpool including members of the Town Council. SUCS members attended council meetings, mounted displays in the town and organised a visit to Market Drayton for Welshpool Town Council to see another section of the Shropshire Union where restoration was proceeding.

In August, the Society wrote to Brian Haskins, the BW Area Engineer at Northwich. The letter pointed out that the residents of Welshpool were unhappy with the overgrown state of the canal in the town and stated that the Society would like to visit to ‘tidy up’ the canal. Permission was sought for a work party in October and, if this was possible, questioned whether the water level could be lowered to assist the proposed work. There is no reply from Mr Haskins in the Society’s archive. However, he was clearly enthusiastic because this ‘tidy up’ became one of the canal restoration movement’s most notable events – the ‘Big Dig’.

The idea of a major mechanised clearance from which there would be major local and national publicity had been successfully implemented on the Ashton Canal the year before. Many of the lessons learned on ‘Operation Ashton’ were applied at Welshpool and included in the detailed planning of the physical work. The key players included the Peak Forest Canal Society (the organisers of Operation Ashton), the London and Home Counties Working Party Group of the Inland Waterways Association (which within a year had become the Waterway Recovery Group) as well as SUCS. The IWA publication ‘Navvies Notebook’, which co-ordinated volunteer activity on the canals across Britain, was used to publicise the event.

The actual work took place on October 18 and 19, 1969. Much of the cost of the operation was borne by the Society and this amounted to £500. A lot of fundraising had to be done to pay, what was then, a large amount of money. Volunteers (most, thankfully, equipped with their own hand tools) came from all over the country and cleared from Welshpool Town Lock northwards to Mill Lane in one weekend. Via the By-Pass Action Committee, local organisations helped with accommodation and many other ways. Welshpool Town Council refused the use of their tip for material removed from the canal but a local farmer, a Mr W Davies, offered the use of his land. Buttington Contractors offered items of mechanised equipment. In total, three pumps, a mobile crane, three diggers, a loading shovel, ten dumpers, four tipper trucks and a long reach excavator were assembled.

Some 100 volunteers were expected but actual numbers attending exceeded 200. The archives give no clue as to how many of those were SUCS members. Pumping began on Friday evening. The local angling group supervised by the Severn River Board removed over 700 fish on Saturday morning. Despite opposition to restoration within BW at national level, local staff greatly assisted the work. The feed to the southern section was shut off lowering the water level. The BW plan was that that water could be pumped out of the section through Welshpool rather than discharged into the Lledan Brook, which ran under the canal, via a flood paddle. In the event the pumps could not cope and the paddle into Lledan Brook had to be opened on the Saturday morning to allow work to continue. When Brian Haskins visited the site he overlooked the use of the flood paddle!

Inspection of the images gives an idea of the nature of the work. Even with the number of items of plant on site much of the work was done by hand. Further, a shortage of tools meant that these were either shared or dispensed with altogether. In some areas where the water level could not be lowered sufficiently, small boats were used in the channel. As was common at the time, there was a complete absence of personal protective equipment except, apparently, the use of hard hats in the lock chamber.

Big Dig at Welshpool Wharf (Photo H Arnold)

There was considerable interest from the townspeople who could not believe that so many had travelled many miles to get themselves filthy. A number were spurred on to join in and eventually the crowd of onlookers became a bit of a hazard. The cleared canal was refilled on the Sunday and the Mayor and Mayoress rode along the section on a cruiser that had been trailed from Market Drayton. The results of the Big Dig weekend showed Welshpool what the canal could look like, contributed to the eventual defeat of the bypass proposals and marked the start of the Montgomery restoration.

Following on from the Big Dig, work parties were held at the request of BW at several places south of Welshpool. These cleared out silt banks which had built up over the years and which were a restriction to the flow of water which was needed in Welshpool for sale to the cattle market. This work occupied all of 1970 and the first half of 1971. The Big Dig had greatly depleted the Society’s funds such that there was little available for the purchase of equipment. Consequently, the members making up these work parties brought their own tools and worked either from a punt or got into the canal in waders to remove the reeds and silt.

In 1971, BW gave permission for ‘agricultural work’, mainly felling trees and clearing the towpath on the section from Frankton Junction down to Aston Locks. This included the dry section at Rednal where trees had grown prolifically. Work parties were regularly carried out on this section and at the same time work was being carried out by volunteers in Welshpool in preparation for the proposed restoration of the Town Lock. Other towpath clearance work took place south of Welshpool, often assisted by visiting groups. Society volunteers in turn visited over restorations, notably the Ashton Canal for the ‘Ashtack’ large scale work party in October 1972.

Also in 1971, the Society was represented by Queens Council at the public inquiry into the Welshpool Bypass at a cost of nearly £600. The canal route for the bypass was subsequently rejected by a public enquiry.

Meanwhile, Welshpool based members of the Society had purchased a trip boat, renamed Powys Princess. It was craned into the canal at Welshpool and used to carry passengers on the cleared section between Town Lock and Gallowstree Bank bridge to publicise the canal. The Powys Princess was an old iron working boat, powered by a bus engine with a water jet propulsion unit and fitted appropriately with a superstructure made from a bus roof. The archives make not mention of its use in service or its ultimate fate. Annual ‘Dinghy Rallies’ were also organised by the Society on this section – the antecedent of the present Montgomery Triathlon.

In March 1972, the representatives of the Society held a meeting with BW to discuss the restoration of Welshpool Town Lock. This agreed details of work on the chamber and grouting of the by-wash, and the specification of dams, construction of forebay, sills and paddle gear. All the cost was borne by the Society except for the top gate which was donated by BW. The original iron top gate had been removed in the mid-1960s, causing a lot of damage to the forebay, and taken to the BW Museum at Stoke Bruerne.

Welshpool Town Lock before restoration (Photo P Wilson)

The Society had gradually purchased second-hand equipment such as pumps, a barrow hoist and a dumper, plus hand tools and these were put to good use over the next two years on work on the lock. The lock chamber was isolated by stop-planks and clay dams and the forebay reconstructed in reinforced concrete. New sills and quoin stones were installed. Surprisingly, permission was given by BW to replace the original Buck paddle gear with a single top gate paddle. There is no explanation of this decision in the archive. Waterways Recovery Group made a major contribution to the work doing, variously, brickwork pointing, grouting of the by-wash, and recovering the bottom gates from Dolfor Lock for use at Welshpool.

Work on chamber walls (Photo P Wilson)
Rebuilding the forebay (Photo P Wilson)
Forebay finished (PhotoP Wilson)

The lock was reopened by HRH Prince Charles on May 23, 1974 just as work got underway on the next section of the restoration. The lock was Grade 2 listed by CADW in 1981.

Official reopening of Welshpool Town Lock. Prince Charles with Harry Machin and Pat Wilson of the SUCS and Graham Palmer, founder of the Waterways Recovery Group (Photo H Arnold)

Although the immediate area around the lock has been changed by the building of a supermarket, the canal remains an attractive feature of central Welshpool. There are presently few boat movements on the isolated section and as a result weed and channel silting are evident.

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