Friday, 22 May 2015

A long way to post a letter

The delightful St Cyr's church on the Stroudwater Canal
Yesterday we walked thirteen miles to post a letter. It was only meant to be three but when we got to Frampton upon Severn's post office and store we found it wasn't there. If you see what I mean.
So we set off on a ten mile hike to find another.
There was possibly one closer – though I'm not sure; shops are thin on the ground around here – but we  had already planned to walk part of the route of the Stroudwater Canal to Stonehouse, and that certainly had a P.O. so the letter joined our packed lunches.
A derelict lock but the gates were new in 1996
The Cotswold Canals restoration project was launched back in 2001 as a breathtaking scheme to resurrect the two canals that run from the head of navigation on the Thames at Lechlade to the Severn. Just 36 miles of canal and the lengthy Sapperton Tunnel. Since then it's been a flagship of the restoration movement attracting £25m in funding from the Heritage Lottery and others. With the aid of this – and huge volunteer help – a tough six mile stretch through Stonehouse and Stroud is now open. Now attention has turned to the section we were due to walk which will link this to the G&S at Saul. It's due to be done in 2020.
So what have they got to do? Beyond the short arm at Saul was the first obstacle; a low road bridge. But, judging by what's been achieved so far, that's just a small issue. After that the canal continued in water for a few hundred yards then petered out at a derelict lock, overgrown by brambles.  Oddly though the lock gates were dated 1996.
How to get under the M5 is the restorer's next challenge
Beyond this the canal simply disappeared –  just a steep bank between the River Frome and a farmer's field which is where the old canal is now buried. Soon after that a section is back in water but we wrong-slotted and couldn't find it. Instead we walked along the river bank to the A38 and M5, the two major obstacles in the canal's path. The canal will have to be re-routed under each. (On the way back we found our missing section by walking up the A38 to a roundabout and there it was – the second exit.)
Isolated sections are in water – this even has a surviving bridge
It's river bank all the way from the A38 to the edge of Eastington then north up a road and suddenly here's the canal again. Not just a reedy, sleepy section but a real canal with huge Severn barge size locks, all there , full of water and ready to go. Well nearly ready. We walked past "the world's first advanced composite lift bridge" as it says on the plaque to the last challenge – a main railway line that crosses the canal on an embankment. Tunneling a culvert through will not be hard, just esxpensive in costs for disrupting the railway.
Another minor problem – driving the canal under this railway line
Nutshell Bridge, Stonehouse and its surviving bridge house
Beyond the railway is the jewel in the crown of this stretch, a quintessentially English scene: views across open meadows to distant hills off to one side while on the other, a handsome Elizabethean house, Stonehouse Court, now a hotel and the delightful St Cyr's church.
The canal here is already in use by a canal society trip boat and as it enters Stonehouse, even looks like a workaday canal scene, back gardens of bungalows look onto the towpath; modern 'executive homes' stand opposite.
Now we were in the town all we had to do was post our letter, buy an ice cream ... and head home again.
It was a delightful walk on a sunny day and an eye-opening look at what can be achieved with determination and ambition. Can't wait for 2020 and a chance to do it again – by boat.
Today we left Saul and headed down to the end of the line at Sharpness for a weekend of more exploring. And Sunday lunch at the Dockers' Club.

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