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The Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal is a 22 mile (35 km) long canal in England which travels between Bedworth in Warwickshire and the Leicestershire village of Snarestone.
The canal used to travel 8 miles (13 km) further north to Moira, just outside the town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
The canal starts at a junction with the Coventry Canal just outside Bedworth and travels north-east for about 7 miles (11 km) through the town of Hinckley. It then continues to run north through largely rural and remote countryside for another 15 miles (24 km) until reaching its terminus at Snarestone. Near Sutton Cheney Wharf it passes the foot of Ambion Hill, the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field.
In the last half of the eighteenth century there had been an increasing need for transport to exploit the coal reserves at Ashby Wolds and lime from the quarries north of Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
It was not, however, until 1794 that William Jessop and Robert Whitworth proposed a canal from the Coventry Canal near Nuneaton.
Its course, though meandering, would be substantially level until the last four miles, where it would climb 139 feet to a summit at Ashby Wolds.
This summit level would be supplied by a steam-engine pump from a nearby reservoir. It would continue for four and a half miles to a junction on the far side of Asby-de-la-Zouch. One branch would run to Coleorton and thence to Cloud Hill, near Breedon-on-the-Hill. The other would run to Ticknall.
The Act having been passed in that year, Jessop withdrew, and Whitworth carried on with the assistance of his son. By 1797, however, it was clear that the costs had been seriously underestimated. Moreover many shareholders had not honoured their pledges, and the country was in the grip of one of its periodic financial crises.
All work was stopped, except on the lower part, and consideration was given to using railways (or wagonways as they are now known). Fortunately the necessary wording had been included in the Act. However, Whitworth's proposals, somewhat incompehensibly, were for lines independent of the canal. One would run from Ticknall to the River Trent; the other, following a plan which had peviously been suggested by Jessop for the Earl of Stamford would run to the Trent from the Cloud Hill quarries.
In 1798, Thomas Newton had taken over from Whitworth and was asked to investigate the possible lines for railways which would serve the canal at Ashby Wolds, then in September, Benjamin Outram was asked to advise.
The lines finally built ran from the Willersley Basin through Ashby to a junction at Old Parks, thus eliminating the long canal loop through Ashby Wolds and Blackfordby. One branch ran through Lount to Cloud Hill, replacing the proposed canal and its diversion through Coleorton. The other branch led from Old Parks to Ticknall, with a branches to the quarries between Calke Abbey and Staunton Harold. As built the lines measured twelve and a half miles.
Outram's engineer for the line was John Hodgkinson who was experienced in the work, but problems arose because the commiittee insisted that it should proceed on all sections of the line simultaneously, which made supervision difficult. Moreover, perennialy short of money, they were dilatory in making decisions and providing funds, which caused Outram problems at his Butterley Works as he was having to refuse contracts, so that he could be ready to provide the canal with material, as and when it was authorised. During this period of delay, the labour costs and the price of iron also rose.
Originally intended to be the three foot six gauge usual at that time, Outram recommended in 1799 that it should be four foot two, forecasting that, within a few years, railways would be the principal mode of transport throughout the country. Even though Outram's experience of his treatment by the canal proprietors must have spoilt his satisfaction on the completion of the lines, they were arguably a major achievement and a model for railways in the future. The proprietors also must have been somewhat scarred, inexperienced as they were in the financing of major capital worldwide.
The canal, opened in 1804 and it took several years for the venture to become successful, with a dividend not being paid until 1828.
In 1846 it was taken over by the Midland Railway company for just £110,000, a considerable loss for the owners, who had paid £184,000 in construction.
In 1864 the Midland replaced the section from Ashby to Worthington, enlarging the Old Parks tunnel, running it on through Melbourne to Derby. The remainder of the lines were kept for local use, the branch to Ticknall closing in 1915.
Its railway owners did not invest sufficient money in the canal to maintain it properly, preferring to see traffic being carried on the railway, and so its condition gradually deteriorated. In 1918 a major breach caused by mining subsidence caused the last few miles of the canal near Ashby to be abandoned. The canal was nearly closed completely: only the strategic importance of the coal supplies during the First World War allowed it to survive. In 1944 the L.M.S. railway, which by then owned the canal, closed down several more miles of its northern end. Further closures followed in 1966, largely owing to mining subsidence.
The restored section of the Ashby de la Zouch Canal alongsde Moira Furnace, now a museum.Now the mining industry in the area has gone, there are plans to re-open the canal to the National Forest visitor centre at Moira, about one mile (2 Km) short of its original terminus at Spring Cottage.
A stretch of the canal near Moira has been restored and re-filled with water, passing the historic Moira Furnace. However, the A42 main road has been built across the canal's formation making a complete re-opening unlikely in the near future.
At the end of 2005 it was announced that a further section of 2.5 miles (4 km) from Snarestone to Measham will shortly be restored. It now seems a matter of time until complete restoration will be accomplished.
Traces of the old railway can still be seen, particularly towards Ticknall. A low embankment, still with some stone sleeper blocks crosses a field and a tunnel under the drive to Calke Abbey. There is also an arch bridge in Ticknall village where the line ran into the quarries.