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The Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal (sometimes known as the Hereford and Gloucester Canal) is a canal in the west of England, which ran from Hereford, the county town of Herefordshire to Gloucester the county town of Gloucestershire, where it linked to the River Severn.
It was opened in two phases in 1798 and 1845, and closed in 1881, when the southern section was used for the course of the Ledbury and Gloucester Railway. It is currently the subject of an active restoration scheme.
The first plans for a canal between Hereford and Gloucester were made by Robert Whitworth, one of James Brindley's pupils, in 1777. The route was part of a grander plan to link Stourport on Severn and Leominster as well. Twelve years later, Richard Hall submitted plans for a canal via Ledbury. The route was revised to pass to the west of Ledbury, rather than to the east, and with Josiah Clowes as engineer, parliamentary approval was sought. An Act of Parliament was obtained in April 1791.
Hugh Henshall, who was the brother-in-law of James Brindley, was asked to re-survey the route in 1792, and recommended a diversion to Newent, where there were minor coalfields.
This route required a tunnel at Oxenhall, and another act of parliament was obtained in 1793 to sanction the new route. Josiah Clowes died in 1795, and was succeeded as engineer by Robert Whitworth.
By late 1795, the initial section was open to Newent, but the tunnel was causing major problems. In order to build the tunnel, twenty shafts were sunk along its route, so that there could be multiple working faces. However, there were considerable difficulties caused by the volume of water entering the shafts. Horse-powered pumps proved inadequate, and eventually steam-powered pumps were employed, but this added to the cost, and the tunnel was a large factor in the failure to complete the canal.
The canal was opened to within one mile of Ledbury in 1798, but stopped there as the cost had far exceeded the estimates.
The Coal Branch to the mines at Newent was never a success, as the coal was of very poor quality, and the branch fell into disuse very quickly. The price of coal in the region dropped from 24 shillings (£1.20) per ton to 13/6 (68p) but the coal was a good quality product which travelled up the canal from the River Severn. Ledbury remained the terminus for another forty years, although a short extension to enable coal to be delivered to the Ledbury gas works was completed in 1832.
In 1827, Stephen Ballard became the new clerk of the company, and produced a report on how to complete the canal in 1829. In 1838, he proposed a new route for the final section, but the engineer James Walker advised against it, and so in May 1839, a new Act of Parliament was obtained, allowing the company to raise the money to complete the canal. Work started on 17 November. A feeder from the River Frome to the summit level was completed in August 1842, and the canal opened in stages as it was completed, with extensions to Canon Frome wharf in January 1843, Whithington wharf in February 1844, and finally to Hereford basin on 22 May 1845.
As with the first phase, it was the tunnel construction which caused the most problems, and Ashperton tunnel, although only 400 yards (370 m) long, was affected by water flooding the work faces and by unstable rock, resulting in the need to construct a brick and stone lining. Again, costs escalated well beyond the original estimates.
The canal had cost far more to build than was originally planned. The whole canal had been estimated at £69,997 by Josiah Clowes in 1790, but the section to Ledbury had cost in excess of £104,000. Stephen Ballard had estimated the cost of the second phase at £53,000, but the final cost had been £141,436. With little increase in trade from the longer canal, the company tried to sell it to a railway company almost immediately, but were unsuccessful, and so tried to boost trade.
Traffic started to increase, to the extent that a timetable for the transit of the Oxenhall tunnel had to be introduced in 1849. This was not always successful, as the Hereford Times carried articles in May 1851 about an incident in which boats travelling in opposite directions had met in the middle, and neither would give way. There was deadlock for a period of 58 hours.
In 1858, the canal carried 47,560 tons of goods, and generated an income of £7,061 in 1860, but some of this was derived from the carriage of materials to build railways in the area. On 17 January 1862, less than 17 years after the opening to Hereford, the canal was leased to the Great Western and West Midland Railways, with a view to converting it to a railway. This did not take place immediately, but on 30 June 1881, half of the canal was closed, and sections of it were used for the course of the Ledbury and Gloucester Railway. The Hereford to Ledbury section remained open, but gradually became disused. The Canal Company continued to receive rent from the Great Western Railway, which it distributed to its shareholders as dividends, and was not formally wound up until the railways were nationalised in 1948.
The canal ran for 34 miles (55 km) from Hereford basin through Ledbury, Dymock and Newent to Over, on the West Channel of the River Severn west of Gloucester, with a short branch at Newent to the coal fields. The first 6 miles (9.7 km) from Hereford to Withington, which includes the Aylestone tunnel, was level, after which the canal rose by 30 feet (9.1 m) through four locks over the three miles to Monkhide. This section includes the skew bridge at Monkhide, built by Ballard at an angle of 60° to the canal. There is then another level section of more than eight miles to the outskirts of Ledbury, which includes the Ashperton tunnel. Water is fed into this section from the River Frome. The final 18 miles (29 km) to Over falls by 195 feet (59 m), and includes the 2,192 yards (2,004 m) Oxenhall tunnel, which was not destroyed by the construction of the railway, as the railway company took the sensible decision to avoid the likely problems of enlarging it, and built a diversion to the south-west. The coal branch left the canal below the tunnel, and dropped 10 feet (3.0 m) through one lock. The canal had 23 locks, 22 on the main line and one on the branch, and three tunnels. Like many English canals it was built to carry valuable cargoes by narrowboats.
The canal is now undergoing restoration by the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal Trust (H&G Canal Trust). Since 1983 the Trust has pursued its aim to fully restore the 34 miles (55 km) of canal and locks which will once again link Hereford with Ledbury, Dymock, Newent and the rest of the inland waterway system at Gloucester.
Since 1991 the local council authorities in Herefordshire have set aside land for development as a canal route. The planning department has approved projects with the canal in mind, and has taken action against those trying to build on the proposed route of the canal. Similar support has been given by the local council authorities in Gloucestershire.
In 2000, the Over Canal Basin (adjacent to the River Severn at Over on the outskirts of Gloucester, where the Canal links with the inland waterways network) was reconstructed entirely by volunteers from the Canal Trust and the national volunteer body the Waterway Recovery Group. Some £500,000 of work was undertaken, against a 10 month deadline, with a budget of just £60,000.
Major re-development in Hereford town centre has resulted in the construction of a new canal bed which will eventually link to a new basin, to form the centrepiece of the Edgar Street Grid development. Further development of the Aylestone Park section is also taking place, following the removal of silt containing heavy metals.
The canal connects to an un-navigable part of the River Severn, separated from the main channel by weirs at Maisemore and Llanthony, both of which have derelict locks associated with them. Maisemore was sold by British Waterways some years ago, and they decided to dispose of Llanthony in 2007. The Canal Trust used a legacy to purchase the site, which includes two cottages, some land, and a small section of the River Severn as well as Llanthony lock. The lock is bigger than that at Maisemore, and access to the entrance lock at Over is easier because boats are travelling against the flow of the river as they approach it.
The Wharf House (01452 332 900) is the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal Trust's new visitor centre, tea rooms by day and restaurant by night, situated at Over (close to the A417/A40 roundabout 1 mile (1.6 km) west of Gloucester) - all profits are donated to the H&G Canal Trust Charity.