Introduction and historical background
This project has its roots dating from over 200 years ago when the prosperity of Lancaster was threatened by the increasing difficulty of navigating the dangerous estuary of the River Lune in the larger ships which were coming into use.
A group of Lancaster business men saw the growth in importance of Liverpool to the south and in an attempt to maintain their trade employed the renowned engineer John Rennie to survey a route for a canal from Wigan in the south to Kendal in the north, via the towns of Preston and Lancaster.
The route he chose struck out northwards across the West Lancashire Plain from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Parbold at a point still marked by a right angled bend. Approaching Preston the canal was to descend by a series of locks to enter the River Ribble. On the north side of the river another series of locks would lift the canal out of the river valley into the town and then on northwards through Lancaster to Kendal.
After many years of debate, during which an alternative idea of building a new port at Glasson near the mouth of the Lune found favour, John Rennie was asked to re-survey the canal in the 1770s.
It was decided at a meeting in Lancaster Town Hall on the 7th of February 1792 to accept the route put forward by John Rennie, following his second survey, to build the canal from Westhoughton, near Wigan, to Kendal. Thus the Lancaster Canal Company was formed with the intention of building such a canal to transport coal from the Wigan area to the north and return with limestone and agricultural products to the south. The Lancaster Canal Act was obtained later in the same year.
Rennie now proposed the canal would consist of three long, lock free, sections linked by two flights of locks capable of taking broad beam craft up to seventy two feet in length. The southern section was to start at the coal fields around Westhoughton and run, on one level for fifteen and a half miles, northwestwards past Wigan then north through Chorley to Clayton Green. It would then lock down 222 feet using 32 locks to an embankment across the valley at Walton and cross the River Ribble into Preston via an aqueduct over three arches each of 116 feet span. The towpath was to have been 57 feet above the low water mark.
From here the route would continue on one level for a distance of forty two and a half miles through part of the Fylde and on to Garstang and Lancaster where it would cross the River Lune via a second large aqueduct before continuing to Tewitfield which is just north of Carnforth. At Tewitfield it was proposed that eight locks would raise the level by 76 feet and the canal would then run via the Hincaster tunnel for the remaining fourteen and a half miles into Kendal.
By 1796 a short length of four and a half miles was opened on the southern section from Adlington to Bark Hill, then on the 22nd of November 1797 the main length from Preston to Tewitfield, including the aqueduct over the Lune, was formally opened. Finally by 1799 most of the southern part was completed, but due to insufficient funds - the Lune viaduct had cost £48,321, slow work on the southern section because of difficulties with the Whittle Hills tunnel and Rennie's estimate of £95,000 for the Ribble crossing - the proposed aqueduct over the Ribble was shelved and a temporary horse drawn tramway costing an estimated £60,000 was proposed. This tramway was completed by the end of 1803 and linked Walton Summit, which was at that time the most northerly point of the southern section, with Preston. Three stationary steam engines were used to pull the wagons along steeper sections of the line. Goods sidings were built where the line crossed the main road in Bamber Bridge and exchange facilities on the wharves at Walton Summit. The first boat, loaded with coal, passed through the Whittle Hills tunnel to discharge its cargo at the Summit on 1st June 1803.
By this time the traders of Kendal were becoming impatient as no work had started on their section of the canal, in fact due to further problems this section between Tewitfield and Kendal did not open until the 18th of June 1819. The section north of Lancaster was so close to the sea that trans-shipment used to take place at Hest Bank but, because this was rather inconvenient, a branch with six locks was built to the Glasson basin on the River Lune. This was the final part of the canal to be opened in June of 1826 and it remains the only waterway from the Lancaster Canal the sea and around the coast to the River Ribble and the rest of the inland waterway system.
Because of the increase in the estimated costs of the aqueduct over the Ribble (thought to be in the region of £95,000), and the arrival of the railways, it was never built and the the temporary tramway became permanent. From 1837 to 1859 the tramway was owned by railway companies. The northern section between Preston and Bamber Bridge was closed in the 1840s, the iron plates being taken up and the Avenham engine house demolished in 1868, but the southern part was used for the supply of coal from the canal terminus at Walton Summit to mills in Bamber Bridge until 1879.
A well preserved section of track which was found by the south side of the McKenzie Inn on Station Road in Bamber Bridge was taken up and relaid in Worden Park in Leyland. Plates and stone sleepers can be seen in Leyland Museum and the Harris Museum in Preston. (Although when I last saw it the plate in the Harris was displayed upside down!) The Harris also has a model of a tram as well as a wheel and axle of a tram recovered from the river bed where it had been since an accident caused by the failure of the endless chain on the Avenham incline.
Several ideas to link the Lancaster Canal to other waterways were discussed during the years that followed but all came to nothing. With trade increasingly being lost to the railway companies the southern section of the canal was sold off to become the final section of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal leaving the northern section of the Lancaster totally isolated as it remains to this day.
The canals continued to decline as the railways prospered and in 1941-2 the half-mile north of Kendal gas works was closed because of leakage. Commercial use of the Lancaster Canal ended in 1947 when the whole length was passed over for the use of pleasure craft. After nationalisation the British transport Commission were authorized by an Act of 1955 to close the canal, in fact it was drained from the Stainton feeder up to Kendal, the last two miles into Kendal being filled in. The three quarter mile length from the centre of Preston to Ashton Basin was lost when the aqueduct just south of the basin was demolished. Preston basin had fallen into dereliction by 1960 and was demolished and built over two years later.
When the M6 motorway was built in 1963, six culverts rather than bridges were built, effectively closing the northern section above Tewitfield and leaving the Lancaster Canal as an isolated forty two mile section running from Ashton basin at Preston to Tewitfield.
In the last thirty years the growth of pleasure boating has resulted in a dramatic revival in the use and appreciation of the canal system in general and the Lancaster canal in particular which now has 900 boats - more per mile than any other canal outside London.
The Walton Summit Arm
The southern end of the canal between Johnson's Hillock and Wigan Top Lock remains as an integral part of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal but the line of the branch to Walton Summit, last used in 1932, has been cut by new housing estates and the construction of the M61. However, most of it including a short overgrown arm at the bottom of Johnson's Hillock Locks and the two, now derelict, tunnels through the Whittle Hills can still be seen. These began as a 259 yard tunnel, opened on 1st June 1803, which had a collapse and finished its life as two short tunnels with a 150 yard long cutting between them.
Once you know where to look from the M61, just north of junction 8, you can see to the east the black and white painted footbridge over the junction of the branch with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at the bottom of Johnson's Hillock Locks. To the west you can make out the now filled-in line which looks like a narrow field, the wetness below giving rise to a prolific growth of reeds, curving away between two rows of trees as it makes its way from the junction at the bottom of Johnson's Hillock Locks to Tunnel End - the eastern end of the tunnels.
In Whittle-le-Woods a short length of about fifty yards from Moss bridge, which carries the village street over the canal, eastwards towards the tunnels has been cleared and re-watered as a water feature.
Another part of the line can be seen as a curving double row of trees to the east of the M61, just south of junction 9, where it turned to the west on its approach to the tramway terminus at Walton Summit which was to the west of the present motorway.
The Lancaster Canal Trust who fought hard to retain the upper section are now maintaining a constructive and watchful eye on the rest of the canal, particularly those of its structures scheduled as ancient monuments. In 1980 they were instrumental in arranging for the 48th Field Squadron of the Royal Engineers to restore both portals of the Hincaster tunnel. In 1979 John Whittaker, a member of the Lancaster Canal Boat Club raised the idea once again of connecting the Lancaster Canal with the rest of the country's canal system and in 1981 a survey was carried out to look at the feasibility of a link utilising the Savick Brook. Today the Lancaster Canal Trust are actively campaigning for the reinstatement of the northern reaches beyond Tewitfield which would give an additional fifteen miles of cruising through beautiful countryside.
The 'missing link' between the Lancaster Canal and the rest of the system is being put in place.
Send questions and comments to RLT@aaug.net
Last Revised: Mon 22nd October 2001
Copyright © 1997-2001 by John Clegg, Cliff Fazackerley and the Ribble Link Trust Ltd.