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This Britain

Lancaster Canal to make comeback 30 years after the M6 destroyed it

The most northerly man-made waterway in England is to make a spectacular comeback, more than 30 years after the pursuit of faster travel subjected it to an act of vandalism.

The picturesque northern section of the Lancaster Canal, renowned as a fast route of its day with 10mph express passenger services, was all but obliterated in 1968 when it proved an inconvenient obstacle for the new M6. Parts of the canal between Lancaster and Kendal were cemented in and the motorway was driven across it in three places.

But Britain's canals are undergoing a renaissance - they are being restored as fast as they were being built in 1800, at a rate of 200 miles per year.

In this climate of renewal,British Waterways has completed a feasibility study which recommends the Lancaster Canal's complete restoration, with the northern reaches probably being re-established by means of a tunnel beneath the motorway. Engineers, who are unlikely to begin work before 2004, will also have four trunk roads to cross but the study envisages the creation of around 2,000 jobs and one million visitors a year, generating £14m to fund the restoration.

The canal's almost parallel course to the M6, which it criss-crosses north of Burton-in-Kendal, is a problem. Two of the crossings offer embankments through which engineers can burrow but at a third, canal and road are at the same level.

Unpicking old vandalism has familiarised British Waterways with the neccesary technology to complete the work. In Scotland, the £78m reconnection of the Forth & Clyde and Union canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh has circumvented both the A80 and the M8 - the motorway that closed the Union Canal.

The restoration of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is re-establishing a route beneath the bridges of the trans-Pennine A62 which were built so low that canal boats could no longer pass beneath them.

The canal, affectionatelyknown as "The Lanky", could be re-routed but a tunnel beneath the M6 appears to be the best option, with the possibility of using one of the canal's eight lock gates to lift boats back up again. A relatively simple boring technique would be used to drive out a tunnel. The Lancaster Canal Trust also hopes to build a canal across the "Ribble Link", which would connect the canal to the rest of Britain's inland waterway network.

Four of the 15 miles of canal which made up the northern reaches are now empty of water and some sections are hidden beneath agricultural land, creating the bizarre spectacle of an old canal bridge, bereft of any apparent canal, spanning a field near the village of Sedgwick.

British Waterways is treading more carefully than those who built the M6. "There'll be a biodiversity plan," said Rob Williams, the project manager. "We don't want to cause distress to bat roosts if we're restoring tunnels and though the hard shoulder may close we don't anticipate any major traffic interruptions."