Nigel Crowe, a member of our Heritage Advisory Panel and Canal & River Trust’s former head of heritage, explains the challenges waterways custodians face preserving historic infrastructure, and reflects on his favourite heritage places.
What do we mean by waterways 'heritage'?
It incorporates a broad range of things; firstly the infrastructure you see on and around the canals, whether that be great aqueducts or humble mileposts. Secondly the engineering fabric – the cuttings and towpaths and reservoirs. And then there’s the cultural heritage – the historic boats, archives and portable artefacts we see in waterways museums, and the stories that have been passed down from people who lived and worked on the canals. None of these should be overlooked. On top of that there are also wartime remains, which are equally a part of waterways history. Not just pillboxes, but things like the demolition chambers within the arch of a bridge on the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal, for example, which tell us something about the history of that waterway.
Why is it so important they get preserved?
They’re not just part of the history of our waterways, but are often delightful things in their own right. People like to see them, ponder them. To have them removed would diminish the value and experience of our canals.
What sort of legal protections can you draw on to help preserve our heritage?
Some things fall under the usual suspects like listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments. However, less conspicuous items are more vulnerable, including to theft. I remember one incident on the Kennet & Avon where a boundary marker was taken and later found on eBay by one of our heritage advisers! You can get Conservation Area status, which offers some blanket protection and will at least flag up the character of an area, and the broad features making up its history, and that can work quite well. But there aren’t many other things that will ensure lasting protection, apart from good management.
Is there much support from heritage organisations that aren't directly linked to the waterways?
Historic England (formerly English Heritage) is a great help and has given a lot of support to Canal & River Trust’s bid to obtain a Listed Building Consent Order. It’s a new piece of legislation that, when finalised, will grant consent for certain specified works of alteration or extension to listed buildings owned, controlled or managed by the Trust (largely locks and bridges). The intention is to reduce the unnecessary burden on the Trust of having to make separate applications for this type of work. It will be groundbreaking as no one else in the country has one of these at a national level. Unfortunately, it’s being held up at the moment by all the other things going on in Parliament.
It's fair to say our canals are being used more today than at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and in ways that their original engineers could never have envisaged. What challenges does this pose?
Certain canals are definitely experiencing more boat traffic and visitors now than in their industrial heyday, and that raises a lot of issues, particularly to do with health and safety. Obviously we want everyone to be as safe as possible, so there are cases where heritage has to be adapted to make allowances for this. A recent example is putting rails on Marple Aqueduct. That’s a scheduled monument, Grade I-listed, so the railings had to be specially designed and approved before being installed so as not to harm the history of the aqueduct. I think they made a really good job of it.
Another contemporary challenge is development. There's an argument that mediocre modern surroundings can harm heritage structures almost as much as neglect. How important is it that waterways organisations intervene to ensure adjacent land use and development don't conflict with the historic environment of the waterways?
I think waterways groups like IWA and CRT have to be as vigilant as possible. Some of the development in the past has been awful. It’s improved a lot in recent years, and of course the Trust has statutory consultee status so does get a chance to look at proposals and comment in the planning stage. Some of it is obviously very subjective, so the discussions can be quite fraught! In the last decade or so, though, there have been some really good waterside developments, including Aldcliffe Yard on the Lancaster Canal. It sits within a conservation area and was a former British Waterways office and yard, with two Grade II-listed buildings. The development has seen the sympathetic refurbishment of these buildings, plus the construction of 14 family homes in-between. The houses face the canal and this works very well. What you don’t want are residential developments that turn their backs on the water, so all you see is the perimeter fence.
Are you encouraged by the way heritage is being managed by navigation authorities?
Yes. I joined BWB in May 1988 as an architectural heritage officer, before becoming head of heritage in 2004/5. I continued in that role until last year. During that time there’s been steady improvement across the whole heritage field. In terms of the human resources, especially. To begin with there was just me covering the entire network! It was pretty bonkers, but I certainly got to see a lot of canals! Gradually we’ve built up a good team of heritage advisers at CRT. The proof of what we’ve achieved was the ministers of state agreeing for the Trust to have the Listed Building Consent Order. That’s a real seal of approval when it comes along and would have been impossible 20 years ago.
Playing devil's advocate, do heritage concerns ever get in the way of maintaining our waterways? For example, would it slow down emergency repairs after a breach or suchlike?
We may have been levelled with that criticism in the past, but I think that was largely because there was less awareness of the value of waterways heritage than there is today. People seem to have got the message and now realise that we’re dealing with a historic environment. As a result, they make allowances for the extra time, assessments and compliance issues that might be involved. When we get the Consent Order through, that will also speed things up considerably.
What can boaters do to take better care of our heritage when they're out and about on the canals?
I have a lot of time for boaters, and most are incredibly respectful, but occasionally you do see damage when people ram lock gates at speed, for example, or knock stonework on bridge arches. Sometimes it can’t be helped, admittedly. And actually most damage these days is caused by motor vehicles, not boats. Canal bridges were designed for horse and cart, not 30-tonne articulated lorries going over them. It’s a nightmare. A lot of the time it’s difficult to track down the perpetrators of a crash, so it’s impossible to make an insurance claim.
Finally, do you have a favourite heritage structure on the waterways?
Oh yes, lots! But my absolute favourite is probably Dundas Aqueduct on the Kennet & Avon. We repaired that around the turn of the last century and it was a wonderful job. It's a triumphal arch – the entrance to the classical city of Bath. After the restoration and removal of unsightly gritwork for lovely Bath stone it looks superb. And for the sheer majesty of engineering I would add the Shropshire Union Canal. Those enormous cuttings are remarkable, the bridges...
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