Canal History from Above

We have now got used to readily accessing aerial images from above since the advent of Google Maps and Earth, but in the early and mid twentieth century they were rare. The Aerofilms Company produced a lot of high quality aerial photographs of Britain from the air over the period 1919-1953. The whole collection is now readily available on the Britain from Above web site and it makes fascinating viewing for history buffs.

For the canal enthusiast there are 1209 images with the tag "canal", including many from Scotland, and there are also many river views notably of the Thames. As canal example I have downloaded and linked to a view of the Grand Union in Lemington Spa. It shows the Sydney Flavel, Eagle Foundry and the Gas Works in 1937 alongside the Grand Union Canal.

The Sidney Flavel and Co Eagle Foundry, Royal Leamington Spa, 1937

The details of this image can be found here.

As a comparison here is a contemporary view from Google. The gas works are long gone but the foundry remains as a factory for AGA Rangemaster - the historic stove/range connection remains.

Leamington Spa from above 2014

The site has a Canal History Group and this allows easy access to some good canal images. Many have been annotated. I found the image below from one of their links.

The Grand Union Canal, Batchworth, from the west, 1921

Walkers Boatyard alongside the Grand Union Canal, in Rickmansworth

 The details of this image can be found here.

You may imagine that some of the historically important canal locations must feature in the images. Some do, but many do not, since the emphasis was on photographs that would sell. Images of factories and industrial locations feature a lot along with stately homes, large hotels and important public buildings. It is a matter of pot luck if your particular location features but if it does you should be fascinated.

A lost tunnel or is it a bridge?

The dictionary definition of a tunnel is:

"an artificial underground passage, especially one built through a hill or under a building, road, or river"

The definition of a bridge is:

"a structure carrying a road, path, railway, etc. across a river, road, or other obstacle"

When the Grand Junction Company built the Old Stratford and Buckingham Arms around 1801 the London to Holyhead Road (Roman Watling Street) was an important highway. There was therefore a commercial need to link with the trunk road but there was also need to cross it without causing too many difficulties. Thus, the canal passed under Watling Street at Old Stratford on its way towards Buckingham by means of a bridge, or at least that was what the company named it - Bridge 2.

Old Stratford Tunnel under repairs in 1926 
from Britain's Lost Waterways Vol 1, 1979 by Michael E Ware
The scene is looking east, the building to the right still exits and Watling Street is directly above the tunnel. There is a bridge number (2) on the portal.

It was however from the navigators perspective an usual bridge and it looked more like a tunnel. If it looked like a tunnel they would call it a tunnel, so to working boatmen it became the "Old Stratford Tunnel". I must admit that looking at the photograph it is clearly an underground passage and is therefore is more like a tunnel than a bridge. From our definitions above I suppose that viewed from the road it could be called a bridge and from the canal perspective it could be called a tunnel.There was no towpath through the tunnel so horses must have been led over the road to rejoin the towpath.

I was prompted to post about this minor lost feature of the waterways when I read Halfie's recent post. He was wondering where the tunnel was. As a local, we live only a couple of miles further north, I thought I would point out its location; more correctly its former location.

Watling Street Old Stratford

Nowadays what remains of the tunnel lies under the road adjacent to the traffic lights in the centre of Old Stratford. The line of the canal along this section is obscured but you can detect it. A particular giveaway to its general location is Wharf Close which is just north of the road junction. The line of the tunnel is under the road just where traffic waits for the lights going south. To the east are two substantial stone buildings. The smaller was located alongside the canal and features in the photo above. 
Former canalside buildings 
- the car is sitting on top of the eastern portal of the tunnel

The canal ran along the back of this garage beyond the fence 
- the eastern portal can just be seen to the right of the bush

The eastern portal of the bridge, built in stone remains. The road was re-profiled long ago so little of the tunnel itself can exist under the road. There is a brick portal on the west side of the road now covered in ivy and probably not original. Further west a house now sits along the line of the canal. 

The line of the arm is recorded on the excellent Buckingham Canal Society web site using Google Maps. The difficulties the society faces restoring the arm in Deanshanger and Old Stratford, and the crossing of the now dual-carriage way A5 trunk road can be clearly seen.

Google Maps view of the Canal Route through Old Stratford

I recommend reading Steve Miles short history of the arm and walking the Cosgrove to Old Stratford section.

Mirror Image

Whilst re-organising my office recently I came across a Waterways World issue from back in 2006 with a bit of a story so I thought I should re-tell it. 

Although this was an April issue, and WW has been known to run some great April fools, it was the cover of this edition that raised eyebrows not the "fool" story of magnetic moorings for boats contained in the Towpath Telegraph news section. 

The cover (above) features a working boat making its lonely way across the Fens. The name of the ex-FMC boat cannot easily be identified which is just as well because that would instantly give the game away - the photograph had been reproduced in mirror. How can you tell? - working boat cabin chimneys are always on the left (port) of the cabin not on the right. The next month they issued an apology.

My collection of Waterways World, which extends back to the late 1990's, has grown so much it has to be consigned to deep storage - otherwise known as the garage.