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The Droitwich Canal is a synthesis of two canals in Worcestershire, England; the Droitwich Barge Canal and the Droitwich Junction Canal. The barge canal is a broad canal which opened in 1771 linking Droitwich Spa to the River Severn at Hawford Mill, Claines. The Droitwich Junction Canal is a narrow canal, opened in 1854, which linked Droitwich to the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Both were built to carry salt, and were abandoned in 1939. They are now the subject of a restoration plan.
Droitwich has been an important centre for the production of salt, obtained from natural brine springs, since before Roman times. In order to get the product to market, an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1662 to authorise improvements to the River Salwarpe, but the work was not completed, being abandoned in 1675.
Plans to make the river navigable were again proposed in the 18th Century, but Acts of Parliament in 1703 and 1747 to allow this were not successful. With salt production increasing, Droitwich Council asked James Brindley the canal engineer responsible for the Bridgewater Canal to survey a route from the town to the River Severn. This he did in 1767, and the following year an Act of Parliament was obtained to authorise the construction.
The canal was constructed as a broad canal, capable of taking Severn Trows which were 14.5 feet (4.4 m) wide and 64 feet (20 m) long. Like most of Brindley's canals, it was a contour canal, following the contours as much as possible, to reduce the number of embankments and cuttings required. The resident engineer during construction was John Priddey. The canal was 5.7 miles (9.2 km) long, and included eight locks, with a total fall of 56.5 feet (17.2 m). The cost of construction was £23,500 which was met through two issues of shares and a loan of £3,500.
The canal was opened on 12 March 1771, and was a commercial success. The first dividend was paid in 1775 and by 1777 the £100 shares were trading at £160. A proposal in 1784 to link to the Stourbridge Canal was rejected by shareholders.
The fortunes of the canal started to decline in 1828, when a source of brine was discovered at Stoke Prior, a village to the north east of Droitwich. The coming of the railways took further trade away. However, in 1854 the Droitwich Junction Canal was constructed to link the Barge Canal to the Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Hanbury. Built as a narrow canal, suitable for boats which were 7 feet (2.1 m) wide, it was one of the last canals to be built in the Canal Mania era. It was 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and included another six locks. The new canal was connected to the Barge Canal by a stretch of the River Salwarpe, and the Barge Lock was constructed where the Barge Canal joined the river. This lock allowed for fluctuations in the river level. The main cargo on both canals was always salt. At the same time the locks on the barge canal section were increased in length to allow boats up to 71.5 feet (21.8 m).
As with so many canals the coming of the railways spelt their economic doom and an Act of Abandonment was passed in July 1939. The last boat to use the barge canal went through in 1916.
The last boat to use the junction canal went through a few years later in 1928.
In 1973 The Droitwich Canals Trust was formed and began to work towards the restoration of the canal. Progress has been steady with a recent boost from the involvement of British Waterways.
In 2004, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded around £4,600,000 for a restoration project. A Planning Application for the restoration of the Droitwich Canals was submitted by British Waterways on behalf of the Droitwich Canals Restoration Partnership in May 2007, by which time a total of £10.5 million had been promised, but some of it was dependent on match funding, and the Restoration Partnership needed to raise £1 million in order to release the other funding. The project was planned to take two years, with both of the Droitwich Canals completely restored and re-opened in 2009.
Although the majority of the 7-mile length of the canals was still in existence, a 500-metre stretch between the M5 motorway and Hanbury Locks had to be completely rebuilt. The existing culvert for the Body Brook has been used to allow the canal to pass under the motorway.
The Barge Canal and the Junction Canal will be connected together by canalising a 600-yard (550 m) stretch of the River Salwarpe through the centre of Droitwich. The course of the river will be made wider and deeper, and a weir will be constructed adjacent to the proposed lock 7, to maintain the water levels. In order to minimise the mixing of canal water with river water, a pipeline will be built under the towpath, running from just above the new lock 7 to just below the Barge Lock.
The river improvements were to be partially funded by a Section 106 agreement, as part of a housing development along the river bank, but the withdrawal of the developer from the scheme has resulted in delays, which will put back the full opening of the canal until at least 2011.
The Droitwich Barge Canal opened officially on 11th September 2010.