By Ben Norris
With the designation of £8.9 million in funding to the Cotswold Canals Connected project, Stroud and Stonehouse are set to become canal towns once again.
The money comes from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and means that the five miles of canal restored so far will be connected to Saul Junction and the national inland waterway network.
A further 4.5 miles of canal will be opened up by the project, which also aims to create 21 hectares of biodiverse land through the planting of 30,000 trees and shrubs.
Stroud District Council has estimated that the completed project will generate additional spending of £5.5 million a year in the local economy; a partnership led by the council and the Cotswold Canals Trust has already restored 5 miles of canal between Stonehouse and Thrupp, but connecting to Gloucester and Sharpness Canal at Saul means boats can reach Stonehouse and Stroud from the whole of the national inland waterway network.
Cllr Doina Cornell, Leader of Stroud District Council, said: “This is fantastic news. I remember when I moved to the district twenty years ago people talking with enthusiasm about this canal project, and I’m so proud now of the council and all our partners who have made this dream a reality.
“The canal very much shaped the district in the past and thanks to this National Lottery funding will now do so in the future.”
Cllr Cornell added that the project would benefit ‘so many people in so many ways’, particularly given the importance of outdoor pursuits in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would like to pay tribute to Stroud District Council councillors from all sides who committed to take the project on in 2008 and have kept the support going for all these years, as well as to the great team of dedicated council staff.”
The canal, formally known as the Stroudwater Navigation, was abandoned by an act of Parliament in1954, although even at the time of its closure there was an interest in retaining it for its amenity value.
Jim White, Chair of Trustees for the Cotswold Canals Trust, said: ”This is amazing news. Volunteers have been working for this moment since the Trust was founded in 1972.
“Thanks to National Lottery players our dream of reconnecting to the national inland waterways network is now a reality. As the project progresses we need many more volunteers to help us and we continue to fundraise.”
Work is already underway on the construction of two new bridges at the Whitminster roundabout on the A38 and the new railway bridge at Stonehouse Ocean near St Cyr’s Church, while the stretch of canal between Stonehouse and Saul is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.
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As someone who has grown up watching the redevelopment of the canal, it’s hugely exciting to hear that the waterway will finally be reconnected to Saul Junction and restored to some of its former glory.
The first stage of the restoration project began in 2006, when an initial grant of £11.9 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund was confirmed.
In the 14 years since the stretch from Stonehouse to Stroud has become one of the area’s most endearing features, as well as a haven for local wildfowl.
If propositions for the Bristol Road station at Stonehouse (discussed in a recent article) were approved then these two projects in tandem could represent a significant boost to the area’s draw as a canal town and lead to a rise in tourist visits to the area.
There are other considerations that will have to be made during and after the completion of the last stretch of this project; a fully restored canal will likely be prime real estate, and care should be taken to ensure that scenic stretches don’t fall prey to redevelopment and gentrification from hungry developers.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the restoration may not be finished by 2023, as projects of this scale are often prone to unforeseen setbacks.
Once the waterway is reconnected to Saul Junction, it’s likely that the Cotswold Canals Trust will start to look the other way towards Thrupp and Chalford, where restoration work has been ongoing.