Saving our history for the future

Ruth Garratt is a heritage advisor at the Canal & River Trust. Having started out with us as a volunteer, she became a permanent heritage advisor in 2014 and has recently taken up a role in the North East. Here she tells us about her role in repairing the damage cause by the Boxing Day Floods

Rochdale Canal Rochdale Canal

Visiting the Calder & Hebble for the first time after the floods was a baptism of fire but nothing compared to what people in the canal-side communities must have felt on that day. The extent of the damage is jaw-dropping, even now, weeks after the event, and our teams have been on site and attending to the massive clean-up operation since they saw the flood waters beginning to rise.

I’ve been assessing the damage by surveying the sites, the repair needs and emergency mitigation measures. We carried out some planned repair jobs to the canal just before Christmas and the work was completed only to be undone by the flood waters. Fortunately some of the work, such as Park Nook Lock, the new gates held firm and remained undamaged despite raging flood waters and an 80ft narrow boat cascading over them.

Other sites were not so fortunate, some of our best examples of historic bridges, Elland and Cooper Bridge, have been severely damaged beyond repair and new engineering solutions will have to be found. This poses some interesting philosophical questions in conservation terms – what to replace them with? Replica or new design?

Further east, Figure of Three Lock was caught in a vortex created by the River Calder and most of the embankment scoured out into the canal, backing up in the lock chamber and pound. The force of the water was unimaginably powerful to cause such damage. We’ve got repairs scheduled for this month but we need emergency dredging works just to be able to reopen the navigation, which means the repair work may not be carried out this year. Needless to say, our bank staff are up against it and, as heritage adviser I’ve got to come up with quick solutions that don’t delay works further than necessary – being a listed structure though, we’ve got to keep in mind not to damage or alter the lock.

Inevitably there will be some lasting damage. The historic landscape has been permanently changed by this event in some places. Historic bridges that have provided a link between communities for hundreds of years have been so severely damaged that they are beyond repair. Future-proofing of the sites will inevitably mean that modern engineering solutions will be necessary to keep the canals operational and protect local communities from possible further flood events.

The challenge will be to keep the character of our canal heritage and retain the historic fabric while justifying the necessary change. After all, the canal is an operational network, originally intended to be a functional transport system. There was some thought given to the appearance of the canals and the use of local materials during their conception but these choices were for the most part, incidental. The main drivers where cost, logistics and time - factors we still work to today.

I’ve been speaking to plenty of people along the canal. It’s clear that people who choose to make their home alongside the canal made that choice because they value the opportunities the canal brings – recreational space, often picturesque, and peaceful. The canal provides a shared space for nature, heritage and communities to exist alongside each other. Despite the wreckage of the Boxing Day floods, people are rallying to the cause, gathering resources to rebuild and help re-establish themselves.

I met a group of waterway volunteers engaged in a tidy up of the area around Salterhebble, which even such a short time after the flooding, looked immaculate and well cared for – it was astonishing to see how such a devastating event had not discouraged these stalwarts to begin the gargantuan clean-up, strapped into life vest and waders, litter picking one piece at a time! I spoke with some homeowners whose hot tub had ended up in one of the locks down from Elland Bridge; another was looking for signs of their newly installed 12ft greenhouse and cast iron garden furniture.

The canal network in my region has been changed irrevocably since the Boxing Day flood. But change has been happening since the canals became defunct for commercial purposes in the 1950s and 60s. Over the last 50 years they have been reinvented and reimagined into a valuable community resource, and their heritage value appreciated as an asset which we should strive to conserve.

Change is inevitable – sometimes it’s slow and barely noticeable and occasionally it’s cataclysmic as we’ve seen with the recent flood events in the North since 2009. Working with local communities and our specialist teams at the Trust, our goal is managing the change in balance against finite resources, such as our heritage assets, which once gone, are lost forever.

Last date edited: 4 March 2016