Exploring places within a reasonable driving distance of home has become the norm in the year of Covid, so a few weeks ago we decided to take a walk along part of the Chesterfield Canal. It delivered exactly what we were looking for: a gentle, peaceful stroll in the countryside, with minimal risk of encountering someone bent on sharing their viral load with us
There was almost nobody else out of the towpath that morning and it was difficult to imagine that this waterway was once a bustling hive of activity, a superhighway of barges and narrowboats hauled by long-suffering workhorses.
Designed by the so-called “father of English canals” James Brindley, the canal was built in the 1770s between Chesterfield and the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, a distance of around 74 km (46 miles). The aim was to link the Derbyshire town and its hinterland with a growing network of canals and navigable rivers that criss-crossed a country in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.
The Chesterfield Canal was an ambitious project. It had 65 locks, including some of the earliest staircase locks ever built, and two tunnels. The canal was a lifeline for the coal and steel industry in North Derbyshire, but also carried ale, pottery, lime and timber.
However the most impressive cargo carried on the the Chesterfield Canal was stone for the construction of the new Houses of Parliament. Between 1841-44 an average of 4,877 tonnes (4,800 tons) or 5,663 cubic metres (200,000 cubic feet) per annum made the journey.
Quarried at North Anston in Yorkshire, the stone was dragged overland two miles to Dog Kennels wharf, where it was loaded onto narrowboats for a journey along the canal to the River Trent. From here it was taken downriver to the sea, then south along the English coast before being moved up the River Thames. The average time from the stone leaving the quarry in Yorkshire to reaching the London building site was two weeks.
Coincidentally, we ended our walk along the canal at Dog Kennels, so named because the grand old Duke of Leeds once kept his hunting hounds there. Today, it’s difficult to imagine the connection between this unremarkable part of Nottinghamshire and the Houses of Parliament, one of the UK’s most iconic and instantly recognisable buildings.
In fact, at the time of the Houses of Parliament project the UK’s Canal Age was already drawing to a close. By the 1850s the country was in the grip of a railway fever. Canal transport was inevitably slow, constrained by the speed at which horses could haul their loads. Moreover canals were prone to freeze in winter and dry out in summer. Railways did not suffer these problems, and canal transport declined steadily in the face of their upstart competitor.
By the early 1900s the Chesterfield Canal had lost most trade in manufactured goods and sundries, and the cargoes which remained were low-value and high-bulk; coal, coke, stone, bricks, aggregates, timber and grain. In 1908 the Norwood tunnel collapsed, preventing traffic between Chesterfield and Shireoaks. After World War 1 other stretches became increasingly overgrown and neglected, and all traffic on the canal finally ceased in 1955.
This might have been the end of the Chesterfield Canal, but times were changing. Post-war Britain could see the attraction of a revitalised canal network that offered opportunities for leisure and acted as a haven for beleaguered wildlife. Reflecting this new attitude, in 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society was formed to promote the use of the canal and its eventual restoration.
After several decades of fund raising and countless thousand hours of back-breaking work, many miles of the canal have been reinstated. Today there are less than nine miles left to restore. The Chesterfield Canal Trust (successor to the Chesterfield Canal Society) has set itself a target 2027 for the completion of the restoration, as this would be a fitting way to mark the 250th Anniversary of the opening of the canal.
Meanwhile, all 46 miles of the towpath are accessible to walkers on what is known as the Cuckoo Way. Although that’s good news for the fit and healthy it sounds a bit too much like hard work to me, so it’s encouraging to know that recreational cruises can be taken on several sections of the canal. Maybe, when things have settled down after Covid, we’ll give it a try!