The Cheshire Ring was the first circular cruising route to be called a "ring". This term came into use when the Rochdale, Ashton and Peak Forest canals were under threat of closure thus destroying the cruising ring that they (together with the Macclesfield, Trent & Mersey and Bridgewater canals) provided.
Whilst the works to restore the Ashton and Peak Forest canals saw those canals reopened in 1974, there were still issues on the Rochdale 9. The Cheshire Ring itself was finally fully navigable from 1976.
In April 1974, the restored Ashton and lower Peak Forest canals were reopened to complete the Cheshire ring. This thirtieth anniversary seems an appropriate time to provide a brief account of the part played by the Peak Forest Canal Society (PFCS) in the events leading to this happy and successful conclusion. The Society arose from local concern over the neglected and unusable state of the magnificent sixteen-lock Marple flight, following the two-year repair closure of Marple Aqueduct over the river Goyt valley.
The January 1964 British Waterways Board interim report on the future of their waterways also directly threatened the future of both the lower Peak Forest and Ashton canals on the alleged grounds of poor current condition and lack of useful future prospects. Existing North West region canal campaign organisations were not ideally placed to respond to this situation, and either lacked sufficient local presence in the Marple area or, as with IWA North West Branch, already had their hands full grappling with the existing problems of the Rochdale Canal in Manchester.
After hearing of the current unsatisfactory situation, a well attended public meeting on Friday 19 June 1964 in Marple agreed to form a campaigning body and so The Peak Forest Canal Society (PFCS) was born. The committee proposed and elected at this meeting was predominantly local and also included representatives of other interested bodies. My involvement came purely from a chance comment over insurance for volunteer working parties, overheard by David Owen, the indefatigable IWA Manchester section chairman, who immediately proposed my election. Initially I was Hon. Assistant Secretary but soon became publicity officer and subsequently Hon. Secretary until early 1970.
The immediate need was to make a positive impact on the local community. At this time, the general perception of both the lower Peak Forest - beyond the immediate Marple area - and the Ashton Canal varied between indifference and hostility. Both were therefore very vulnerable. In September 1964, the society arranged an urgent meeting with BW in London to negotiate approval for limited improvement work on Marple Locks; but the delegation had a very negative reception and permission was categorically refused. Subsequent consent to a Society plan for a mile of towpath clearance and visual improvement at Romiley, was only reluctantly forthcoming. Work began in January 1965 and was completed by January 1966, generating much favourable publicity and many new members. During this time, a substantial breach on the lower Peak Forest canal near Hyde in December 1964 was repaired by BW - after urgent representations from local authority and many voluntary bodies, including the society. This outcome was the first restoation campaign success, as securing remedial action was by no means a foregone conclusion.
In the first few months the society faced several further problems. The most serious was the attempt in 1965 by the Rochdale Canal Company, through a private House of Lords Bill, to close the central Manchester section of the Rochdale Canal. This news caused consternation. Navigation through Manchester was absolutely vital to the society's campaign, as without this link, restoration of the Ashton and lower Peak Forest canals was pointless. IWA, supported by four other interested bodies, including the society, entered a parliamentary petition against the de-navigation Clause 3 of the Bill and in addition much public opposition was mobilised. In May 1965, a compromise was reached in which the canal owners agreed to pursue closure only if or when the Ashton Canal was legally abandoned. Meanwhile, "reasonable access" to the Manchester section without time limitation would be provided. The compromise was a significant victory, although actually achieving reasonable access took much tedious further negotiation.
Restoration objectives and strategy were of only limited value, unless successfully communicated to both supporters and opposition. From the outset, the PFCS objective was to correct every inaccurate or disparaging media reference to the Rochdale, Ashton and lower Peak Forest canals. The "killer canal" was a particular journalistic favourite but after a prolonged exchange of local press correspondence over the Rochdale Canal, inaccurate media attacks on canal restoration virtually ceased. The main medium for regularly informing supporters within and outside the PFCS was the Newsletter. Early editions comprised a duplicated double-sided foolscap sheet but thereafter a member Gordon Mills produced an eight-page printed booklet five times a year including many excellent photographs. The society also initiated a series of public meetings in towns along the line of the lower Peak Forest and Ashton at which the arguments for and against restoration could be aired and debated.
The PFCS did not intend to be just a reactive body. By mid-1965 the society took a major role in four initiatives, which later proved crucial to the success of the campaign. A particularly urgent need was a coherent restoration strategy. Fortunately, BW had unintentionally provided almost the perfect ammunition in their Interim Report. The outcome was the PFCS booklet The Cheshire Canal Ring. The objective was to present an argument, which would convincingly demonstrate that restoration of all the regional waterways was the only practical way to develop their full potential. Previous campaign arguments, including our own, had mainly centred on the merits of individual and usually local stretches. Although recent events had graphically underlined the mutual dependence of the lower Peak Forest, Ashton and Rochdale Canal in Manchester, no detailed appraisal of their equally important and integral relationship with other linking waterways had ever been produced.
The influence of the Cheshire Canal Ring on the campaign was very significant. Restoration now had focus and objectives and perhaps more crucially, what would now be termed a "brand name". The Cheshire Ring proved to have high media appeal. The concept was soon taken up by the waterway movement generally and is still in everyday use. Widespread dissemination to North West local authorities and MPs produced a noticeable reduction in adverse reaction to restoration ideas. Several Councils moved from their previous position of indifference to passive approval and later to active support. PFCS membership rose from around 200 to almost 1,000 during 1965/66.
Increased support from the IWA North West Branch led directly to approval by the IWA National Council of a National Rally at Marple in 1966, which proved the second crucial initiative of the campaign. The programme was specifically designed to highlight restoration objectives. A one-day subsidiary rally on the Rochdale Canal in Manchester emphasised the continued absence of through navigation to Marple. Some twenty small craft were portaged from the main rally site to a slipway below Marple Locks and then cruised over Marple Aqueduct down to Romiley Wharf for an official reception by the local district council chairman. Another flotilla of larger craft cruised from Marple to the Peak Forest Canal terminus at Whaley Bridge for another civic reception. The rally was a huge success, with a record entry of 250 boats. Substantial media coverage was secured and interest and support for the Cheshire Ring restoration significantly increased. A Marple Rally now became an annual event until 1970, by which time the tide of the campaign had largely turned in favour of restoration.
A vital element in any restoration strategy is constant and visible activity level on disused stretches. After the first Romiley clearance project, extending this toehold was the next objective.
BW had summarily rejected a PFCS offer to meet the cost of restoring all the Marple locks for amenity use, using volunteer labour but with the 1966 Rally looming, an improvement in the generally dilapidated and overgrown appearance of the flight was imperative, whether or not approved by BW. Believing correctly that BW would not risk unfavourable publicity by taking preventative action the society began discreet clearance work around the lower locks, which was soon extended to actual lock chamber and minor gate improvements.
These activities culminated in the 1968 planning and execution of Operation Ashton - the brainchild of Graham Palmer the founder of Waterway Recovery Group - and the third crucial event of the Cheshire Ring campaign. The objective was to clear the worst section of the Ashton Canal of rubbish accumulated since 1961, employing as much mechanical equipment as the organisers could muster. Originally around 300 volunteers were expected but over 600 ultimately came from all over the country. The weekend was as wet as only Manchester could provide but the volunteers worked on entirely unperturbed. Over 2,000 tons of rubbish was carted away to local tips from some one and a quarter miles of canal, where the whole appearance was totally altered.
The importance and effect of Operation Ashton on the Cheshire Ring and indeed the entire waterway restoration campaign is impossible to overestimate. The sheer scale of the project conclusively demonstrated that volunteers could match the BW professionals in organisation and achievement. From this time onwards, a subtle but unmistakable shift in the general attitude of local authorities towards restoration emerged especially in Manchester Corporation, the key authority in the region, who had previously been little more than sceptically indifferent to the campaign. The final crucial initiative was legal. The Society had always thought that proceedings might be necessary if BW continued to ignore their Transport Act obligation to maintain the Ashton and lower Peak Forest canals at the 1961 reference level. A consortium was formed to investigate this and in 1966 Counsel advised that an application to the Attorney General for a fiat to bring High Court proceedings against BW was likely to succeed. As Hon Secretary, I was very heavily involved in supplying the material on which these proceedings were to be based but the considerable organisational and preparatory work was very time consuming.
By the time the fiat was secured, the 1967 Transport Bill had been published, which if passed would effectively abolish the grounds on which the case against BW was based. Attention now focussed on marshalling parliamentary opposition. Despite a highly misleading intervention by the Lord Chancellor, restoration supporters in the House of Lords carried amendments which exempted the Ashton and lower Peak Forest canals from the provisions of the Bill, pending a court hearing of the outstanding legal action. However, back in the Commons, the Government applied a three-line whip to these amendments, despite which their majority fell to the lowest recorded for the entire Bill, after members from all sides had spoken in favour of the amendments.
This outcome was a disappointing but by no means fatal setback. During progress of the Bill, the Government had undertaken to give these canals a three-year moratorium before taking any decision about their future. The newly created Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council was also mandated to conduct a review and submit recommendations. The campaign accordingly focussed on ensuring that IWAAC were fully briefed on the Cheshire Ring concept, which in April 1970 resulted in a unanimous report in favour of restoring navigation on the two derelict waterways.
After the IWAAC decision BW - for reasons best known to themselves - elected to 'freeze out' restoration campaigners from all discussions with the riparian local authorities. As inside information indicated that it was hardly pursuing the recommended option with enthusiasm, the only course was for the society to redouble their efforts to maintain and indeed raise the level of public support for restoration. The success of this strategy was soon shown by BW senior management complaints over pressure, although campaigners suspected that it was BW themselves, rather than the local authorities who were becoming uncomfortable! The next few months were spent in some suspense but with increasing indications that restoration would carry the day.
Finally, in December 1971 the decision to restore came - with Droylsden Council, as ever, the sole dissenting voice. By March 1972 volunteers were pushing the momentum of the restoration, working with the permission of BW, on the successor of Operation Ashton - the even bigger ASHTAC. A huge weekend 'big dig' to completely clear a length of the Ashton from the Dukinfield Junction - again led by Graham Palmer. By April 1974, the work was completed and the two canals reopened.
Since then the Cheshire Ring has flourished, more than justifying the arguments used by restoration campaigners in the North West: Further confirmed by the recent reopening of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and the entire length of the Rochdale Canal - neither of which would have been possible without the campaign for the reopening of the Ashton Canal. Spectacularly confirming Robert Aickman's far-sighted view that survival of the Ashton Canal was absolutely crucial to the future of any industrial urban waterway. That this act of destruction never happened was due in no small measure to the PFCS contribution to the restoration campaign.