The Lancaster Canal, which is due to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2019, is currently un-navigable past Tewitfield, just north of Carnforth, due to the M6 and other road crossings constructed across its route.
Much of the canal north of Stainton is not in water and some of the canal bed has since been in-filled but most of the route is still clearly identifiable. The plan is to create a new all-weather, disabled access-friendly towpath trail for walkers and cyclists.
A grant of £140,000 from South Lakeland District Council (SLDC) has unlocked a funding package which includes donations from Cumbria County Council, Kendal Town Council, Lancaster Canal Trust and the Inland Waterways Association (IWA).
Work could start on the 2.5 mile project as early as autumn 2017. Once complete, the plan is then to extend the towpath trail to Lancaster and then a second phase down to Preston, the start of the Lancaster Canal.
The new trail will add further weight to a long term aspiration to restore the canal to navigation as far as Kendal by promoting the waterway route as a visitor destination.
The charities and local authorities making up the Lancaster Canal Partnership include the Canal & River Trust, Cumbria County Council, IWA, Kendal Town Council, Lancashire County Council, Lancaster Canal Trust, Lancaster City Council and South Lakeland District Council.
The major driving force energising the partnership is the potential of the proposed canal towpath trail to create new opportunities for leisure, tourism and economic development in South Cumbria and Lancashire.
Partnership chair Audrey Smith said: "We are very grateful to South Lakeland Council for their substantial donation which turns this project into a reality. We are delighted that visitors and local residents are going to be able to enjoy the wonderful countryside around the former canal route for walking and cycling.
"Although much of the canal through South Cumbria is no longer in water, the spirit of the waterway is still very much in evidence. It provides the perfect location for a long distance pathway connecting communities along its route from Kendal to Lancaster.
"This first phase of work is the start of a much bigger project which will really help to put the Lancaster Canal and this forgotten ‘northern reaches' section on the map. We intend to link into other nearby tourist attractions like Levens Hall and Sizergh Castle, the Morecambe Bay trails and ultimately create a new visitor centre at the beautiful Lune Aqueduct in Lancaster.
"New interpretation boards will be installed and events, such as sports challenges and family activities, organised to attract the public to the trail."
Overwhelming public support
A recent survey seeking views about the proposed towpath trail gave overwhelming public support for the project. More than 83% said they ‘agreed' or ‘strongly agreed' with the plan to improve the signage and visibility of the canal to make it easier to access and navigate. And over 80% supported the construction of a visitor centre and café at the Lune Aqueduct.
It was clear many people valued the rural surroundings but called strongly for the towpath surface to be improved. One respondent wrote: “The best thing about the Lancaster Canal is the ability to walk in peaceful surroundings without all the noise and chaos of modern day life.”
With the wider ability of the towpath trail to bring economic regeneration to the area, the canal partnership has commissioned an access strategy from Coles Baxter Associates who are specialists in heritage-led regeneration and cultural tourism. This will then guide the implementation and future promotion of the trail.