Hovel actually

Hovels provided warmth and shelter for workmen of the waterways and after years of disrepair the Canal & River Trust is working to give these tiny buildings a new lease of life for bats and people alike, by Abigail Whyte

Hear the word ‘hovel’ and a squalid, rat-infested dwelling springs to mind. Back in the 18th and 19th century, though, these little huts built along the canal network were very welcome shelter for canal lengthsmen and lock keepers looking to escape the rain, pop on a brew and warm their hands before the fireplace.

Decades have passed and while these hovels may have lost much of their cosiness, they certainly haven't lost any of their charm, beguiling passerbys on the towpath who wonder what they are and what they were used for.

Black huts

Because hovels are generally not listed, less than 50 of them remain on the network. Many are unused and neglected, but the Canal & River Trust is taking steps to restore them to new use. Excellent examples can be found at Swineford and Saltford locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal, believed to date back to the 1720s when the original Avon navigation opened. The Canal & River Trust is converting the Swineford lock hovel into a hide for bats.

Also worth seeing are the 'black huts' on the Bridgewater & Taunton Canal; hovels of charred timber built when the canal was owned by the Great Western Railway, and which look very much like railway linesman's huts. Unfortunately one of them was burnt down by vandals a few years ago so there are only two left at Foxhole Swing Bridge and King’s Lock. 

Lime mortar love

Another recent hovel restoration is a mysterious hut at Bathampton on the Kennet & Avon Canal. Heritage Adviser David Viner led the restoration: "Despite much enquiry, the function of this tiny building hasn't been identified, although there has been some suggestion that it was a toll office for passengers catching the fly boat from Bath to Devizes”.

Volunteers for the Trust have given the hovel a bit of TLC restoring the masonry walls, which were previously patched up with ugly cement, and repointing them with a more sympathetic lime mortar. The hovel will now be used for storage by the local Parish Council.

So, after decades buried and crumbling under ivy, unseen by passers-by, many of these charming huts are finding new life as storage huts, bat hidey-holes or simply as shelter for walkers along the towpath – the perfect place to get out of the rain and unpack a sarnie. Perhaps there's one on your branch of the waterways, waiting to be discovered.

Last date edited: 22 January 2015

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