Many of our canals and rivers flow through areas that are off the beaten track, which contributes to their rural charm. However, in the age of modern transport it is easy to forget how isolated some of these places would have been when the canals were first built over 200 years ago.
Just like today all our canals were constantly monitored by local teams of lengthsmen, who would check for any problems with water levels, locks and any canal related apparatus. Depending on the ‘length’ they walked this must have at times been lonely, cold and uncomfortable work.
The local inns would be a popular resting place, but next time you’re out on the network look out for small huts on the side of the canal. These small and extremely modest shelters would be somewhere for the local canal workers to store some kit and materials, get out of the weather, get a fire going and perhaps cook some breakfast.
One such example is the lengthsman’s hut on the Caldon Canal at Hazelhurst middle lock dating from the mid-1800s. Unfortunately the hut was poorly repaired in the 1950s or 60s with a cement render being coated onto the elevation facing the canal. This cement render was causing damage to the brickwork and had started to flake off leaving the building extremely unsightly.
To protect this important heritage asset, Terrance Lee, a heritage brickwork specialist, came to give some practical on the job training to a group of volunteers who spent a week in September restoring the building to its former glory.
The original plan was to remove the cement render with mallets and chisels and then to reapply a lime based render that would allow the building to breathe. However, due to the hard and careful work of the volunteers, the brickwork was in a much better condition once the cement had been removed than we expected.
An on-site decision was made to not re-render the building and instead consolidate the brickwork which would restore the building to its original appearance (as it would not have been rendered originally). So the team spent the remainder of the week removing damaged bricks and turning them round or replacing them with matching reclaimed bricks. There were also ‘plastic’ repairs to slightly damaged brickwork using natural ochres and a lime mix, traditional hemp caulking around the door frame and also the important skill of pointing using lime mortar.
The finished work has transformed what had become a somewhat unsightly feature into an attractive heritage asset beside the grade II listed middle lock and stands as a reminder of the lonely and difficult work of the canal workers of the past 200 years.
So next time you pass a small shelter on the side of the canal in the middle of no-where spare a thought for the canal workers to whom it would be have been the closest someone got to comfort after a day in the pouring rain, caring for our canals.
The work carried out by the heritage team is extremely varied, covering all sorts of structures and a wide variety of projects. Not one week is the same and we keep learning all the time, meeting some fascinating people and visiting stunning places along the way. We are hoping that through our blogs we can share some of our passion for the amazing industrial heritage of the inland waterways.See more blogs from this author