“You’ll realise soon that there’s a reason for that,” I joked. My light hearted implication being, of course, that we’re not safe let out of the office. But the reality is that, actually, when you’re responsible for answering our calls, emails and social media enquiries, the office is exactly where you should expect to find us… Not on the towpath at Woodseaves Cutting on the glorious Shroppie.
I’ve said it before but you simply cannot put a price on the value of these experiences. We talk about towpaths, cuttings and embankments, about the Shropshire Union Canal, Tyrley Locks and its service block but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to being there and seeing them. And so we try to do this as often as we can.
At the site office we donned our hard hats and hi-vis vests, listened to the obligatory site safety induction and got a low down on what we were about to see, from our knowledgeable, welcoming and enthusiastic guides for the day, before making our way over to the depths of the cutting.
Embraced within the channel of the cutting the air felt thick, laden with secrets of the past, so thick that it filled your senses. If you could breathe history this would be it, I’m certain. Ignoring the canal and letting your eyes wonder up the exposed rock face of the cutting to the stark vegetation inhabiting the canopy it felt almost prehistoric to the extent that had I seen a Diplodocus up in there it surely wouldn’t have startled me.
The colours were all muted; greens, browns and reds. Only very subtle distinctions between them and the day was cold. Cold and damp. My toes may argue otherwise but, in hindsight, it was probably the most perfect weather to really appreciate the work taking place.
Walking the towpath to the works we saw just how necessary they were. At times we were traversing only the coping stones, no wider than a foot in places and narrow enough to make you wonder if you were trespassing, such was the encroachment of the embankment. And at other times we were navigating our way between puddles, mud, ice and stones, those of us in wellies had made the wisest decision.
We were told about the history. Telford was so pleased with his initial progress, cutting through the rock that he had begun to prematurely congratulate himself. Then he hit the fault line and soft crumbly sandstone, collapsing the embankment and halting his tracks. It’s also a SSSI; as the best example of the Keele Formation in the area, helping to interpret the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian geological history of Britain (if you like that sort of thing!).
We also learnt that the work to clear a full 2.5 metres width of towpath, hold the embankment in abeyance with a Ramwall (much like a gabion wall, but different) and resurface the towpath was to cost around £250k. This expense could be largely attributed to its location, the difficultly accessing the site, the tricky on site working conditions, transporting materials to it using floating plant and the inherent additional time all of this takes.
While we were there a Tug brought another load of stones to site. You could close your eyes and be transported back to the 1830s, so little had changed. The restrictions the site imposes on us also makes it unlikely that much would change in the next 200 years. We were, I thought, witnessing future history in the making. It made me feel significant for the briefest moment before humbling me all over again.
After all that we walked back to the site office for a hot drink having had the most wonderful day, seeing, learning and experiencing something new, still buzzing with the excitement which all of that brings.
Returning to the office I read through the brief for these works. It listed the main objectives of the project as; “to construct a retaining wall using the Ramwall proprietary system, backfilled with reclaimed railway ballast at the rear of the towpath between Cheswardine Road Bridge (Br 56) and High Bridge (Br 57); to resurface a section of towpath near Cheswardine Bridge.”
But these are just the blunt technicalities necessary for our engineers. If you asked me now I would say that the main objective of this project was to temporarily cease nature’s unrelenting attempts to reclaim the cutting back from us, thereby safeguarding it for the pleasure of future generations. But, I'm no engineer so that's probably why.
I also urge you to go and see it...after the works are complete, of course.
Sarina joined us in 2008 as our customer services co-ordinator. Among other things, she manages our national customer service team, complaints procedure and requests for information made to the Trust. She says that the most important thing to her is to be able to go home and feel as though she’s achieved something, however small that might be. Her job is hugely satisfying, widely varied, full of deadlines, immensely interesting, sometimes challenging and no day is ever the same, although some are surprisingly familiar!See more blogs from Sarina Young