Monday, 1 February 2010

Hatherton Branch Canal

Hatherton Branch Canal
February 2010

Index of posts in this series:
1. Hatherton Junction - this post
2. Calf Heath
3. Saredon Mill
4. Meadow Lock
5. Cherry Tree Bridge
6. Wedges Bridge to Churchbridge
7. Churchbridge to Rumer Hill Junction

It's hard to believe that I have never taken a proper look at the Hatherton Branch Canal. I mean, of all the lost canals it is literally on the doorstep of our mooring at Calf Heath. What is more, Wand'ring Bark has passed through the sole surviving first lock on a number of occasions to reach Phil Jones' boatyard. In fact, she has even been into the second lock, but only to lift her into the dry dock carved out of the side.

Hatherton Junction Jan 2010

I have been meaning to take a look at the remains of this canal for nearly five years, but there was always something else to do.

Well, a wintry Saturday in January 2010 found me paying WB a routine visit to check and see if all was well amid the snow and ice. With the boat locked into a solid marina and everything on the boat frozen up, I found myself with a few hours to spare. An ideal opportunity to take a look at the Hatherton Branch Canal.

It is difficuly to pidgeon hole the Hatherton Canal. Is it a 'lost canal', is it an 'abandoned canal', or is it a 'canal under restoration'?. Whilst I am a member of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust, I have to admit that, at the present time, this waterway falls into the second category. Sure, the Trust are busy preserving what remains of the line, and do have plans to establish a through connection to the Wyrley and Essington Canal near Bloxwich. But realising of these plans is a long way off and their efforts are rightly concentrated on the eastern half of the project between Ogley Junction in Brownhills and Huddlesford Junction on the Trent and Mersey.

In the meantime, the Hatherton Canal's primary purpose in life is to serve as a feeder for the Staffs and Worcester summit pound. It fulfils this purpose admirably, carrying a strong flow of water which has kept is frost free even in temperatures of minus 8C.

 Hatherton Bottom Lock January 2010
I will be taking a look at this canal over the next few days, but before I do I thought I would commit a few key facts to virtual paper.

The Hatherton Branch Canal was completed in 1841 as a branch of the Staffs and Worcester Canal, stretching for 3.5 miles and rising through eight locks to reach a terminus at Chruchbridge. This terminus is now the site of the multiple roundabouts near the Orbital Business Park, overlooked by Cannock's iconic Ramada Hotel, which dominates the horizon.

The canal transported coal from the local mines and proved to be highly successful. The canal's owners were on good terms with the BCN and both parties could see merit in establishing a further connection with the Wolverhampton Level, either via a tramway to the nearby Great Wyrley Branch Canal, or by a canal link.  In the event the Cannock Extension Canal was built to Hednesford, and a short link was constructed to join with the Hatherton Branch Canal at Churchbridge in 1860, a link which included thirteen locks in a dead straight line. This was the last canal of any significance to be built, and it was said that the locks were among the most efficient ever constructed.

The Hartherton Canal therefore ceased to be a branch and ended up as four mile through route, complete with 21 locks.

Trade died away as the coal mines were played out, and the subsequent settlement of the land beneath the Churchbridge flight and the adjacent Cannock Extension Canal played havoc with the waterway. It is reported that in the 1940's the ground level subsided 21 feet in a single week and only heroic actions by the canal owners maintained the integrity of the waterway, now perched atop a high embankment. In the end all commercial trade ceased in 1949 and the canal was formally abandoned in 1955.

At this point most canals would be left to gently moulder away, but not the Hatherton Canal. Whilst the mines were played out, some coal remained and the area north Churchbridge became a huge open cast mine, with spoil towering hundreds of feet onto the air and the canal, complete with the Churchbridge flight, wiped from the face of the earth.

Against this backdrop, it is pleasing to find a very pleasant couple of miles of the lower end of the Hatherton Canal still in water, and bordered by a well maintained footpath. This section stretches all the way from the M6 to the rear of the Roman Way Hotel. But beyond the A460, all traces are lost, including the northern section of the Cannock Extension Canal and there is nothing to be seen on the ground till Norton Canes, where a stub of the Cannock Extension Canal rubs its nose against the verge of the A5.

It would be unfair to say the story ends there. There are plans afoot to utilise the remains of the Hatherton Canal, deviating from the old line as it winds round the back of modern industrial sites, under the Churchbridge Roundabouts and M6 Toll (culverts exist for this) and then finally veering off to the south to connect with the remains of the Lord Hay's Arm which borders Bloxwich Golf Course. Curiously, this alternative route is very close to that planned for the old tramway.

The exploration of this route will be broken down into the following sections:

Calf Heath
Saredon Mill
Meadow Lock
Cherry Tree Bridge
Wedges Mill to Churchbridge
Churchbridge Locks

As is often the case, these posts will be a mix of what exists today, what has been lost and what is yet to come.


Starcross said...

I remember stopping at Calf Heath in about 1970 to take a look at the Hatherton Branch. It was private property by then of course and eventually we were spotted by the boatyard owner and almost literally frogmarched off then premesis without being given a chance to explain our interest! I suppose we were three "scruffy students" at the time!
(Fellow member L&HCT!!)

Captain Ahab said...

Its still a bit like Fort Knox!