Middlewich SUC Branch Breach March 2018.
Drone shot by John Bancroft. Reproduced with permission
by Dave Roberts
There is, of course, no shortage of photographs of this most spectacular of canal breaches, and here are some of the best yet, produced by drone photographer John Bancroft, who lives in Northants but took the opportunity to photograph the scene while on a visit to relatives in nearby Moulton.
The high resolution shot (above) looks almost like an impressionist painting and covers virtually the whole of the affected area - the only exception being the stretch between the stricken Wheelock aqueduct and Stanthorne Lock, which is out of shot at bottom right.
By the time John took this photograph the temporary dam (top left, close to the Nantwich Road aqueduct) was in place and water had been pumped from the Trent & Mersey to enable stranded boats to leave the canal via Wardle Lock.
You can see from this shot, and the one below which is also by John, how the mud, silt, soil and vegetation from the canal bank above had the effect of damming the River Wheelock just in front of the aqueduct and causing the water from the canal to be channelled into the river (against the normal direction of current) through the aqueduct into the fields on either side of the river which were flooded, as was the garden of the house on the riverbank, which can be seen between the aqueduct and Nantwich Road. This house belongs to Dominic Devaney and is the household mentioned by the Canal & River Trust in early reports on the incident as being affected.
This photo, which was due to be published in the Middlewich Guardian in its 29th March edition, shows further detail of the breach.
As Jim Moores of The Canals & Rivers of Middlewich points out, not only did the aqueduct stand firm, but one of its sweeping buttresses 'seems to have helped channel the water from the canal into the river'.
What makes this breach so extraordinary is that it occurred on a high embankment, testimony to the comparative youth of the canal, when compared to, say, the Trent & Mersey. By the time the Middlewich Branch was built, the old 'contour' method of building, where the channel largely follows the natural contours of the landscape, had partly given way to new methods involving the building of high embankments and cuttings.
Railway methods, in fact.
The branch opened in the 1820s at a time when railways were just coming into fashion and it's hardly surprising that the two modes of transport shared common methods of construction at that time.
Interestingly, it was nearly fifty years after the SUC Middlewich Branch was completed that the town's railway station on the LNWR's Sandbach-Middlewich-Northwich branch line opened in 1867.
So when the breach happened, it wasn't just the canal bank, the canal bed and all that water which fell into the river valley, it was a huge chunk of the embankment too. Which accounts for the huge amount of debris now in the river, and for the extraordinarily deep hole in the canal.
Which brings us to a point made by our old friend Andy Roscoe who lives in Moston, close to Middlewich and Sandbach, and is no stranger to the canals.
'People have been commenting about how shallow the sides look and wondered whether the canal needs dredging. The answer is 'no'. The canal was designed to that profile because it was late in terms of canals and they were trying to save money and water. Also it was a through route and therefore had few wharves along its length. There was no need for boats to moor, except at certain places.'
Other have made similar points.
The Middlewich Branch has always been an almost completely rural canal, designed to enable boats to (eventually) reach the Trent & Mersey and, thus, Liverpool, without having to go via Chester. There was never any industry to speak of along its banks. Unless, that is, you count the tannery which once stood next to Wardle Lock Cottage and later became Sutton Lane Engineering. The engineering company certainly never made any use of the canal, and it's doubtful whether the tannery before it did, either.
Thus there was never much need for moorings along the canal, except at locks. The working boats would, for the most part, stick to the centre of the channel.
Has the advent of 'pleasure boating' helped to weaken canal banks in places - not just along the SUC but throughout the network? Has over fifty years of relentless hammering in of mooring pegs to enable boaters to moor almost wherever they liked helped to weaken those canal banks and towpaths?
The Wheelock Valley in a long-ago early 1970s summer, pictured by Jack Stanier. The photo was taken from the canal bank above the aqueduct.
Which brings us to the subject of previous breaches along the Middlewich Branch.
Alan Hemmings asked us if there had been a breach in the area before, in answer to which we could only refer him to the problems at Croxton a few years ago (links below).
But Andy Roscoe remembered there being a breach at Stanthorne one August in the early 1990s. And, as he says, he should know because:
'we were caught on the wrong side of it on our first narrowboat, the Jenand(Andy's wife is called Jenny -Ed). We were picked up and given a lift back to our home in Salford by Stephen Dent. This was before Stephen lived in Middlewich'.
So this was a historic event in more ways than one. Stephen himself, ex Assistant Town Clerk, Ex-Chairman of the Folk & Boat Festival and currently Chairman of the Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign, among many other Middlewich-related activities, tells us that this rescue mission was 'the first time I'd ever been to Middlewich'.
Stephen was certainly living in Middlewich in February 1994, as witness this little bit from Facebook:
Dave Roberts I know the exact date on which I first met Stephen Dent. It was February 8th 1994 at the Boar's Head. I know this because I just found the script for the slide show I gave to the 41 Club on that date. What will surprise people most, I imagine, is not that I still have the script, but that there was a script in the first place. The projectionist was Will Moreton, by the way.
Here are a couple of photos of the 1990s breach, taken by Andy:
As is immediately evident, this particular breach was nowhere near on the same scale as the recent one, largely due to the fact that it didn't take place on a steep embankment. It was serious enough, though, to put the canal out of action for a while. Andy says, 'I think it was repaired within two to three weeks'
No need for even a temporary dam, either. The canal appears to have been closed off with the ordinary 'stop planks' found at locks and other strategic places along the canal. Andy remembers that the breach took place 'between Coal Pit Lane bridge and Stanthorne Lock'.
Emma Westmacott who, as we learned in an earlier diary entry, was first on the scene with her husband when the breach occurred on the 16th March, tells us of family stories of a breach nearer to home some time ago.
'My Grandma, Janet Sant, who lived next door to where we are on Nantwich Road, would talk about there having been a breach on the aqueduct over Nantwich Road many years ago.
If I remember rightly she said that the canal emptied then, too.
I've spoken to my Dad about it and he says that the incident happened in the late sixties.
What happened was that someone opened all the paddles at Stanthorne Lock and the canal flooded. At its lowest and weakest point, which happened to be the aqueduct over Nantwich Road, all the water poured out.
The same length of canal which has recently been drained was then emptied so that it could be repaired, and the section over the aqueduct was lined with polythene. The canal was dredged at the same time.
Dad was an engineer working for the Middlewich Urban District Council in those days, which is why he remembers those kinds of details! He also said that the person who caused the trouble was caught and punished.'
The Nantwich Road Aqueduct (pronounced 'th'ackerdock')
Emma's dad also remembers another earlier breach:
'Apparently there was a breach almost identical to the current one in Church Minshull around 1959 and the canal drained into the River Weaver. He roughly remembers the date because he went up there on his motorbike to have a look!'
So there we are: memories of three breaches in the area in: circa 1959, the late sixties and the early 1990s.
If you have memories, or better still photos, of these or other breaches in the Middlewich area, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
Text © Salt Town Productions 2018
Scroll down the page for a video featuring Clive Mitchell of CaRT giving an update on the situation. There's also plenty of other information concerning the breach on this Facebook Page.
Stanthorne Lock to Wardle Lock
You can help the Canal & River Trust in its repair work on the Middlewich Branch by contributing to this appeal. The appeal was set up by the Trust following requests from several Middlewich residents.
Rescuing the fish, 17th March 2018 Photo: Canal & River Trust
This Diary entry replaces a previous version, due to formatting problems