This project is a joint one with teams in Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. At a recent meeting in Girona, Spain, we walked some of the route of a local canal and presented our heritage trail progress to each other.

Our Spanish colleagues explained it was hard to sustain the upkeep of the canals, which become overgrown with reeds. When our Italian researchers asked local people in one part of the Venice region what they’d like for their canal heritage, they were told some water would be nice!

Seeing and hearing about the neglect of some of the canal heritage in Spain and Italy made me think about the many campaigns in the UK to restore abandoned transport canals and develop them for leisure. It’s really not that long ago that the Rochdale and Ashton canals were silting up, their banks eroding, the bridges crumbling and lock gates broken and washed away.

Rough grassland and derelict canal
‘Wasting Away’ 1988, by Peter Whatley CC BY SA

There is a very good record of this age when the canals were obsolete and abandoned. There are photographs on the Geograph website, for example, taken during the 80s and 90s, like this one above, where the now impressive Rochdale Canal looked like a small ditch in a field.

 ‘A half-mile of shame’: dirty and unloved

The water was highly polluted at times. I have a photocopy of a clipping from the Middleton Guardian, 7 Feb 1975, headlined ‘Thousands of fish killed by pollution’. It reads:

CONCENTRATIONS of ammonia found in the Rochdale Canal at Slattocks is the probable cause of thousands of fish dying this week in that stretch of water… “This is the first such occurrence for some years,” says a canal company spokesman. “But it is nowhere near as serious as other instances we have had where hundreds of thousands of fish have been killed”

For much of those wilderness years, canals are associated in newspaper reports with pollution, rubbish and a safety risk for local children. One newspaper article is headlined ‘A half-mile of shame’ and describes the Rochdale Canal as ‘a nightmare landscape of derelict mills and squalor that will make you shiver in your boots’. The reporter goes on to call it ‘a stinking, festering breeding ground for rats and disease.’ Another describes it as a ‘deathtrap’ and reports the suggestions by local residents that rubble left from demolishing the mills could be used to fill it in.

A 1971 article calls it ‘Europe’s largest paddling pool’, because a spell of warm weather led local people to bath and paddle in the water. But the article is preoccupied with such issues as ‘bacteriological and chemical content’ of the water and the risk of drowning.

The author reviews recent suggestions for restoration of the canal for leisure purposes but concludes it is impractical because of its proximity to housing estates and consequent ‘danger to children’. This solution ‘was therefore dismissed’.

Dreaming a dream: the canal campaigners

The canals had their dreamers and they wouldn’t let their vision of a network of leisure canals go. The Rochdale Observer, 23 Oct 1974 reports on the formation of a new Rochdale Canal Society, whose aim was to promote the reopening of the canal and its linking with other waterways. They organised walks, talks and slideshows ‘to familiarise members with the canal… Places of interest were pointed out as they went along’.

During a public inquiry into the extension of the M66 motorway, which would involve culverting or blocking the canal, a Sports Council spokesman tried to convince the Transport Department that this would scupper their hopes of reopening the whole canal for sport and leisure. A government spokesman replied it sounded like ‘a good thing – but financially, it was not achievable’.

But they persisted and when in the 1990s Lottery funding became available, along with a push for heritage-led regeneration and the development of greener transport infrastructure, the work began to open the Rochdale Canal. It was a massive project, involving 12 new bridges, roundabouts and culverts, 24 locks, and over 50,000 cubic metres of mud and silt was dredged.

It’s easy to see how fanciful such a massive project must have seemed in the preceding decades. If one or two things had been different, today we might still regard canals as ‘death traps’ and rubbish tips. And in fact, some of that suspicion lingers. One reason why were have been asked to develop heritage trails, to encourage people to enjoy the canalscape on their doorsteps, which took so many years and so much passion to restore.