Canal restoration project breathes new life into relic of industrial age

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The Independent Online

As a monument to Britain's engineering heritage it has few rivals. And yesterday the Leeds-Manchester canal, which linked the twin powerhouses of the Victorian North via the spine of the Pennines was officially reopened.

As a monument to Britain's engineering heritage it has few rivals. And yesterday the Leeds-Manchester canal, which linked the twin powerhouses of the Victorian North via the spine of the Pennines was officially reopened.

Conceived in the Union Flag Inn in Rochdale – the mill town that gave the 33-mile waterway its name – the canal was opened in Manchester in 1804.

Plans for its creation had provoked the ire of the Duke of Bridgewater, who refused to allow it to connect with his Bridgewater Canal in Manchester. He eventually changed his mind when faced with the possibility that his canal would be bypassed by trans-Pennine traffic from Yorkshire, with a massive loss in revenue, and the Rochdale Canal Bill was passed in 1794.

Despite years of profitability and surviving the challenge of George Stephenson's trans-Pennine rail link, the canal went into terminal decline between the First and Second World Wars. The final boat passed through its locks and tunnels in 1937.

It is the first important canal to be reopened in Britain for half a century, after a massive rebuilding project that even involved shifting a junction of the M62 2.5 metres to enable a new tunnel to be installed underneath the road.

To mark the occasion yesterday the Environment minister Michael Meacher planted rare floating water plantain, showing it would be a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and not a big freight route.

The restoration took 18 months and cost £25m to create a 32-mile navigation. A total of 15.5 miles of canal has been returned to navigability linking Manchester to Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire through 24 new locks and 12 new road bridges.

The old canal was finally closed in 1952, except for a short section between Castlefield and the Ashton junction in Piccadilly. Manchester. This was eventually abandoned in 1962 and by 1965 the nine locks through the Manchester city centre were unusable. Plantain flourished after the canal was abandoned, leading to much of its length being designated an SSSI. For British Waterways, which now operates the canal, the return to navigation was a long and arduous process. Enthusiasts began restoration work in 1974. Small stretches were reopened during the Eighties and Nineties and the summit was achievable from Sowerby Bridge in 1996. In 2000 the canal was transferred from the Rochdale Canal Company to the Waterways Trust. More funding followed, provided by the Millennium Commission and the English Partnerships.

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