The Chesterfield Canal Society and the canal’s restoration from 1976 – 1997

Following a vigourous campaign by the volunteers of the Retford and Worksop Boat Club in the early 1960’s, the future of the 26 miles of canal from West Stockwith to Worksop was assured by its designation as a cruiseway in the 1968 Transport Act. Since then British Waterways have maintained and improved the cruiseway to an increasingly high standard.

Ambitions then were focussed upon the possibility of retrieving the abandoned 20 miles of canal between Worksop and Chesterfield, and on 30 September 1976 a packed meeting in Worksop Library witnessed the foundation of the Chesterfield Canal Society, and the formation of its first committee. The aims of the society were
‘to further the preservation, conservation and restoration of the Chesterfield Canal, and to stimulate public interest in, and the fullest appropriate use by the public of, the whole canal and its environs’. This aim always guided the Society’s work.

1977 provided an early opportunity to publicise the canal and the Canal Society’s work with the bicentenary of the canal’s opening in 1777. A successful rally at Worksop drew large crowds to the canal, and the Duke of Devonshire unveiled a commemorative stone at Town Lock Worksop. The bicentenary Rally’s purpose was to campaign for the restoration of the canal from Worksop to the Norwood Tunnel. The Canal Society had an added bonus of providing the winning float in the Carnival Parade with a working model of a narrow boat rising through a lock and entering a tunnel!

There was some optimism that the joint BritishWaterways/Local Authority Working Party report in 1978 would stimulate improvements on the six mile section from Worksop to the Norwood Tunnel, which contained thirty derelict locks and three road blockages. The report made recommendations that no further works shoud be permitted that would hinder eventual restoration and that all feasible opportunities should be taken to remove existing obstructions. It went on to suggest how greater public use could be made of the canal by making additional footpaths, nature trails, picnic sites and car parks, and there were proposals for a filed study centre and canoe base. Nothing however came of this report, except that no further obstacles to navigation were added subsequent to its publication, including the Worksop bypass, which gave generous headroom for future navigation at its crossing place of the canal.

Establishing a public presence on the canal was a priority, and in 1981, with British Waterway’s approval, the Canal Society inaugurated a public trip boat, the Norwood Packet, on the summit pound at Kiveton Park. This tradition of providing access to the water for the public through boat trips has continued to this day, and over the years thousands of the general public have had their first introduction to the delights of the inland waterwyas through a journey on one of the Society’s trip boats.

The next year, in an attempt to encourage restoration of the canal above Worksop, the Society published its ‘Route to Rhodesia’, a preliminary study of the feasibility and desirability of restoration of the Chesterfield Canal from Morse Lock to Rhodesia. This 3/4 mile section contained three derelict locks whose restoration would enable boats to reach the first road blockage at the hamlet of Rhodesia. Despite active campaigning with British Waterways and the local authorities, nothing came of this initiative.

In the early years most interest was focussed on the section between Worksop and the Norwood Tunnel, but years of frustration during which British Waterways steadfastly refused to allow volunteers to work on this section under their jurisdiction in Nottinghamshire and Rotherham dictated a change of emphasis. On the far side of the Norwood Tunnel in Derbyshire, the canal had been sold off by British Waterways to a variety of different owners. These included many private landowners, although small sections in Killamarsh were owned by North East Derbyshire District Council and Chesterfield Borough Council acquired a section near Staveley. More significanlty however, the four mile section between Chesterfield and Staveley, after years of negotiations, passed into the hands of Derbyshire County Council in 1987.

This section, unlike most of the section between Staveley and the Norwood Tunnel which was derelict at the best and filled in or built over at the worst, was still in water owing to the statutory duty of the canal’s owners to supply water via the canal to Staveley Works. The County Council’s motive in purchasing it in 1987 was more connected to preventing the canal interfering with the proposed Staveley-Brimington bypass than with any motive related to canal restoration. The bypass proposals intended to block the canal in five places by repeated crossings of the canal, supported by a Council decision in 1983 which stated that “the additional costs of restoring the Chesterfield Canal to a navigable waterway cannot be justified, and is, therefore, not promoted”. The Canal Society’s document ‘A Future for the Chesterfield Canal’, published in 1985, concurred with this with its vision of the canal as a truncated series of linear ponds.

After testing the strength of public feeling, the Society soon changed track, and began a long campaign to ensure that the bypass, if built, would accommodate navigation on a restored Chesterfield Canal. The first Seminar on the Future of the Chesterfield Canal, organised by the Canal Society in March 1988 at Worksop Town Hall, provided for the first time an occasion when representatives of all the local authorities, statutory and non-statutory bodies, voluntary groups and all concerend with the canal could begin to imagine the prospect of a restored canal, and see how the various pieces might fit together. It was a significant date in the history of the Chesterfield Canal, and over one hundred invited delegates left the seminar at the end of the day with a new vision of what opportunities a restored Chesterfield Canal offered.

Massive public support harnessed by the Canal Society to restore the canal to full navigation resulted in a 14000 signature petition which was presented to the County Council opposing the blocking of the canal by the Staveley-Brimington bypass, and gradually official opinions changed. The County Council allowed the Canal Society to begin work on the restoration of Tapton Lock in Chesterfield. This was a carefully chosen project, as the lock is in a clearly visible position from passing traffic on the busry A61, and was accessible to the public – a good ‘shop window’ for local people to see the enthusiasm of our volunteer workforce, and the transformation of this lock from dereliction to living heritage. The chamber, a grade 2 listed building was emptied of decades of silt and debris, the structure repaired and gated, and in the Society’s greatest moment of triumph to date, the lock was formally opened on April 29th 1990. This achievement was recognised when in 1991 the Chesterfield Canal Society was the worthy recipient of Derbyshire County Council’s major Greenwatch Award of £1000, together with the Christopher Power prize from the Inland Waterways Association. This was followed in 1992 by the Society jointly winning the Kenneth Goodwin Award from the Inland Waterways Association for the restoration achieved.

The Society was now established as one of the region’s most successful environmental organisations, and the publicity encouraged both the general public and the policy makers to think more positively of the Chesterfield Canal. On May 3rd 1992 the John Varley, a purpose built passenger trip boat was formally launched at Tapton Lock by the Mayor of Chesterfield, and the canal around Tapton Lock, now rescued from dereliction, became the venue for a popular trip boat which has done much to publicise the Chesterfield Canal. With the reopening of Hollingwood Lock in 1993, again achieved by the Canal Society’s volunteers, and a second successful Seminar on the Future of the Chesterfield canal at Worksop, the impetus was irreversible: Derbyshire County Council that year acknowledged the manifest benefits to the local community of a fully restored Chesterfield Canal, and declared that it was likely that the final highway design of the Staveley-Brimington bypass would not prejudice the future restoration of the canal to fiull navigational status. The canal was saved.

To the east of the Norwood Tunnel the campaign continued. A massive National Campaign Rally at Worksop in June 1988, jointly organised by the Canal Society and the Inland Waterways Association, once again reminder local residents and councillors of the value of the resource that was on their doorsteps, and restated the case for restoration. The Society’s first trip boat was replaced by a second and its base was moved from Kiveton to Clayworth in 1989. Continued campaigning increased public awareness and encouraged the local authorities to look favourably on investment in restoration.Heightened interest resulted in the first meeting in January 1992, of a consortium of local authorities, British Waterways, the Groundwork Creswell and the Canal Society, chaired by the North Notts Environmental Partnership, to progress restoration of the six mile section between Worksop and the Norwood Tunnel.

Regular meetings, massive commitment and much behind the scenes negotiating and campaigning over a period of three years resulted in 1995 of the award of Derelict Land Grants to Nottinghamshire County Council and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council for the complete restoration to the Norwood Tunnel. The works, managed by British Waterways, were the realisation of much hard work undertaken by the members of the growing partnership who now shared the Canal Society’s aim of complete restoration. By June 1996, boats were able to pass from Worksop through a restored Morse Lock. Two years later, the canal will be opened as far as Shireoaks, where a new marina is built in the former colliery site. This phase of works will be completed by the year 2000, when boats will reach the eastern portal of Norwood Tunnel.

In Derbyshire the County Council was successful in its application for a similar Derelict Land Grant which culminated in the restoration of the first section of the canal from its junction with the River Rother in Chesterfield to Tapton Lock, completed in 1994. In the same year the County Council pulished its Recreational Strategy for the canal in its ownership, and the four councils to the west of the tunnel became signatories to the Strategy for the Protection and Restoration of the Chesterfield Canal.
Succeeding years brought a string of successes for the Canal Society in Derbyshire. 1995 saw the opening of a completely new Dixon Lock, designed by the Society to replace the original that was lost in opencasting, and financed largely by British Coal Opencast. The same year saw the completion of the engineering study, financed largely by English Partnerships and undertaken by Sir William Halcrow and Partners, which identified the cost of restoration between Chesterfield and the Norwood Tunnel at about £20m. The study also suggested engineering solutions of the main problem in Derbyshire, the passage of Killamarsh, where 22 houses had been built on the original line. This year the Christopher Powell Prize once again was awarded to the canal Society for its restoration work, and there was final confirmation from the County Council that the Staveley-Brimington bypass, if built, would not block the canal. The Society’s volunteers achieved the opening of Bluebank Lock the next year, leaving only detailed work on Wheeldon Mill Lock to complete before all of Derbyshire’s locks were restored – a magnificent achievement for a totally volunteer workforce. The contribution of the voolunteers of theWaterway Recovery Group in assisting on these works must be gratefully acknowledged. A Phase 2 grant to Derbyshire County Council permitted restoration of the canal from Tapton Lock in Chesterfield to Staveley and was completed in 1997, leaving only three road blockages awaiting removal before through navigation on this four mile section could commence.

Exciting though the achievements of these hectic years have been, substantial problems still remain to secure the finance for the restoration of the remaining ten miles of derelict canal in Derbyshire. While most of the restoration remaining is relatively straightforward there are significant problems – the collapsed Norwood Tunnel, the thirteen derelict locks of the Norwood Flight, the need to circumvent by substantial lock flights the blockages at Killamarsh, the lowered railway track at Staveley, substantial mining subsidence that has played havoc with the canal levels in Derbyshire, and negotiations with the many private owners of this section of canal. These are the problems that have been addressed by the Partnership Working Party since 1995, and which it is anticipated will culminate in a Heritage Lottery bid not only to complete the massive restoration task through to Chesterfield, but also to finance the imaginative link, proposed by the Chesterfield Canal Society, to make the River Rother navigable from Killamarsh to Rotherham. By providing a link from this new river navigation into the Chesterfield Canal at Killamarsh, a cruising ring of about 100 miles would be opened up using Yorkshire’s waterway system.

Any brief history is necessary selective, but it would be unfair not to outline the other, perhaps less spectacular but none the less vital work achieved by the Canal Society during these years. The Canal Society endorses the Inland Waterways Association’s ‘Waterways for All’ policy, and has campaigned for the intact 46 mile towing path of the canal to become the a long-distance path called the ‘Cuckoo Way’, after the nickname given to the unique horse drawn boats that plied the canal in commercial carrying days. Additionally, the Canal Society has been instrumental in publishing and leading short circular walks using the canal towing path along the whole length of the canal, and these walks have introduced countless walkers to the delights of the countryside and the navigation.

As another method of both introducing members of the public to the canal, creating publicity and fund raising, the Canal Society has organised over the years a series of Canal Days at sites in Chesterfield, Hollingwood, Staveley, Killamarsh and Worksop, as well as running passenger trip boats in Derbyshire, Rotherham and Bassetlaw. Throughout its history the Society has published a members’ magazine and a series of publications that have grown in sophistication and appeal in order to present its work and publicise the canal and the restoration campaign. The sales and exhibition stands have travelled throughout the region on a similar campaign.
Vitally important too has been the constant campaigning and lobbying of local politicians and officers that has led to the canal being included as a valuable asset to be protected in all of the local plans along the canal corridor.

From a solitary body of enthusiasts in 1976 has grown the determined partnership of local authorities, statutory and non-statutory bodies and enthusiasts from the voluntary and private sector who now stand united in desiring the restoration of the Chesterfield Canal throughout to full navigational standards. It can now be only a matter of time until this aim, first set out by the Canal Society in 1976, will be achieved.