Nestled at the end of a sleepy arm of the Grand Union Canal, Welford Wharf is a picture of rural tranquillity. Now a popular destination for tourists and leisure boaters, at the height of the Industrial Revolution the wharf would have been bustling with trade. Unfortunately, in recent years, the wharf’s iconic Grade II Listed building has fallen into disrepair. To save this historic structure, we embarked on the largest volunteer-led project to date on one of our historic canal buildings.
Opened to traffic in 1814, in its heyday, Welford Wharf was a hive of industry, full of barges laden with limestone for the nearby lime kilns. As the golden age of canals drew to a close, traffic on the wharf began to dwindle. After over a hundred years of use, Welford's famous lime kilns ceased production in the 1930s, and soon after, the Welford arm was abandoned.
The site would lay derelict until the early 1960s, when a group spearheaded by the Old Union Canals Society and British Waterways began an ambitious restoration project. In 1969, thanks in large part to the tireless work of local volunteers, Welford Wharf and its one-and-three-quarter mile navigation arm was reopened.
By the dawn of the millennium, the wharf was once more abuzz with activity, a favourite spot for walkers, cyclists and boaters. Incredibly, today there are more boats on the canal than at any time during its industrial pomp. Despite this renaissance, the wharf has begun to show its age. Now more than 200 years old, the Grade II Listed Welford Wharf building started to deteriorate, with cracked brickwork, peeling paint and rotting timbers.
To save the ailing structure, we teamed up with local community group, Friends of Welford Wharf, to plan a raft of repairs. After months of preparation, work finally got underway in April 2022.
A year on, things are progressing nicely. All repointing works to the building's exterior have been completed, doors and windows have been restored and minor repairs have been carried out on the roof and guttering. Work has now moved inside, with plans to replace the timber floor and limewash the interior walls.
As with the initial restoration in the 1960s, the bulk of the work has been carried out by our wonderful volunteers, happy to give up their time and energy to restore this incredible old building to its former glory.
This huge collaborative effort, drawing on the knowledge, hard work and expertise of local volunteers, is the biggest of its kind in the Trust's history, and the project goes far beyond bricks and mortar.
Under the guidance of local craftsmen, we've been able to employ traditional building techniques such as lime repointing, an important heritage skill and vanishing art which we've been able to share with our teams across the Trust.
The project has also provided local volunteers with a unique opportunity to learn new skills, gain valuable experience, and play a pivotal role in restoring a precious piece of our canal heritage.
The building itself, currently being used for volunteer meetings and training, will eventually serve as a community hub, a flexible space for the local council, volunteers and partnership groups.
Repairing the Welford Wharf building has been an immensely rewarding experience for everyone involved, but it's just the beginning. Once we're done, we intend to move on to phase two of our project, restoring the nearby lime kilns that were once the biggest kiln site on the Grand Union Canal.
With the continued support of local partners and volunteers, and of course, the requisite funding, we hope to preserve this historic wharf for generations to come.