Chesterfield Canal History
For centuries the traders of Chesterfield, east Derbyshire and south Yorkshire had carried their goods (coal, lead and stone) by road to Bawtry so it could be transferred onto the River Idle where boats could continue the journey to Hull and elsewhere.
The cross-country journey was always difficult and the River Idle was often unnavigable due to either drought or flood.
In the late 1760’s the success of the Bridgewater Canal in Manchester and the beginnings of the Trent and Mersey Canal gave the men on the eastern side of the Peak District the inspiration to attempt a similar venture of their own. They promoted a waterway which was expected to carry coal, lead, earthenware, timber, millstones, limestone, roof tiles and gravel for new roads.
The route would also serve the ironworks at Staveley near Chesterfield. In return the canal would bring in goods which were often quite rare in the area, these included wool, rice, oils, wines, sugar, tobacco and fresh groceries.
James Brindley, the only canal surveyor in the country at the time, was asked to draw up a route for a canal from Chesterfield to Bawtry on the River Idle. However, Mr. Brindley was a very busy man, the first wave of “canal mania” was gathering pace and he was already hard at work on the Trent & Mersey Canal and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (among others). Hence, he sent his assistant, John Varley, to make the initial survey. After seeing Varley’s report Brindley estimated a cost of £100,000.
Once the idea of a canal was made public, the traders in the neighbouring towns of Worksop and Retford were keen to see the waterway pass close to them. A new line was surveyed from Chesterfield to Gainsborough on the River Trent. The new line would miss out Bawtry and the River Idle but would include Worksop and Retford. It was to have broad locks and wide tunnels capable of taking Trent barges.There would have to be two long tunnels, one at Castle Hill between Gainsborough and Retford and one on the summit level near Norwood.Brindley estimated the cost at £105,000.
A few months later Brindley came back to the committee with a new plan which would save both time and money. For just £95,000 he could build a narrow canal with a different route from the River Trent to Retford.
The new route would begin on the River Trent at West Stockwith (a few miles downstream of Gainsborough), it would use far less locks and would bypass Castle Hill tunnel. Brindley, of course, is famous for his meandering waterways which followed the contours of the land and avoided locks, aqueducts and dreaded tunnels at all cost. This was not totally Brindley’s fault, he was the first man to attempt to build completely artificial waterways. Tunnels and aqueducts were still regarded as almost magical and techniques in building these structures were very primitive. His revised route was to be 46 miles long with 65 narrow locks, many of them in staircase flights. Although the tunnel at Castle Hill had been avoided, the revised route still needed a short tunnel between Retford and West Stockwith and Norwood Tunnel on the summit level was still necessary.
The canal’s Bill went to Parliament and despite strong opposition from John Lister who owned the rights to the River Idle, the Act was passed on March 29th. James Brindley was appointed Chief Engineer on a salary of £300 per year though, because he was even more overworked by this time, the new company also took on John Varley as Resident Engineer on a salary of £100 a year.
Work began in early autumn with 300 men at either end of what was to become Norwood Tunnel – by far the biggest engineering work on the route. Work also began on a reservoir nearby at Pebley. Brindley planned to build the canal section by section so that it could be opened up periodically while work continued. As well as allowing revenue to be earned before the canal was fully complete, this also allowed materials to be easily carried to and from the construction sites.
The Chesterfield Canal had never been part of Brindley’s original idea of a “Grand Cross” of waterways linking the countries 4 main rivers but now that he was involved with the Chesterfield Canal he saw it as the first part of a cross country network linking the lower River Trent to his own Trent & Mersey Canal (or “Grand Trunk” as he called it). He planned to build a second canal from Chesterfield to Swarkestone, south of Derby, where it would join the Trent & Mersey Canal.
In September, James Brindley fell ill and died while surveying a route for the Caldon Canal. Many of his schemes – including the Chesterfield Canal – were still in mid-construction and his further plans – such as the Chesterfield to Swarkestone canal – never saw the light of day. At first John Varley continued in charge of work though the committee soon appointed another of Brindley’s assistants (also his brother-in-law), Hugh Henshall, as Chief Engineer.
Because Henshall was less well known than Brindley (though not necessarily less qualified) he received £50 less per year and was made to agree to spend no less than 56 days per year on-site.On one of these days Henshall inspected the work at Norwood Tunnel and was horrified to find the work was well below standard. This was made worse because the contractors of the work were John Varley’s father and brothers. More inspections uncovered further bad workmanship and malpractice by the Varley family. It would appear that John Varley was not held responsible for any of the faults and Henshall was soon able to put them right.
When the canal had first been surveyed, the traders of Retford had expected the route to be broad, allowing their town to be served by Trent barges. They had been frustrated when the company decided to save money and create a narrow waterway. Retford Corporation, along with a number of the canal shareholders in Retford, volunteered to fund the building of a broad canal from West Stockwith to their town. The canal company agreed to this and work began in May.Meanwhile, during the same month, the 2 mile long Norwood Tunnel was completed and opened after just 4 years.
In April the route was open from the new basin at West Stockwith to Killamarsh on the west side of Norwood Tunnel, 6 months later it was extended to Norbriggs further along the Rother Valley.However, at West Stockwith the company were facing a problem and the canal was not yet connected to the River Trent. Work had been delayed because of difficulties in acquiring the land on which the junction into the river, including a tidal lock, would be situated.
The junction and tidal lock were the last part of the canal to be completed and on July 4th the whole route was officially opened. As usual, celebrations were “joyous” and went on for some time. However, the joy soon subsided once the canal was up and running. The company found trade was actually lower now than it had been while construction was still going on. This was mainly due to a nation-wide recession caused by the American War of Independence.
Worse still, just 3 months after the canal had opened, the first of many problems was encountered at Norwood Tunnel. Coal was being dug out of the ground above the tunnel and this made the pressure on the tunnel’s walls much lighter than it had been – a big shift in pressure will cause a tunnel’s walls to sag or collapse. Digging up the ground also let water into the earth. Below the level of the tunnel more coal was being dug and mining subsidence soon began to cause big problems – problems which were never solved.
With construction work complete, Varley and Henshall moved on and the company appointed Richard Dixon as the new resident engineer. Whether he had any previous experience is not reported though he was known to the company as he was already their bookkeeper!His first job was to build an arm from the main line at Worksop to a stone quarry belonging to a Mr. Gainsforth, this became known as the Lady Lee Branch. He also had to sort out an inadequate water supply on the Norwood Tunnel summit level. Two new reservoirs were to be built but in the mean time the company imposed penalties on boats running light or empty through the long lock flights. Not surprisingly, this was a very unpopular move.
For first 10 years the company struggled to find cash. Paying off its loans had been very difficult and the company had found it near impossible to raise money from calls on shareholders.Eventually trade grew enough to pay out the first dividend, this was just 1% though it grew slowly over the following years.
The boats which used the Chesterfield Canal became known as “Cuckoos” and they were quite different from the narrow boats found elsewhere on the waterways network. They were never gaily painted – no roses and castles – and they were always horse-drawn even after steam and combustion engines were widely used everywhere else.
Woodhall and Killamarsh reservoirs were completed and the company were able to drop the penalties on lightly laden boats which had been enforced for nearly 12 years.
Tramways had been built which linked the canal to numerous works and mines. These did a lot to increase over all trade and by now the dividend had risen to 6%. In the following decades income continued to grow and the prosperity of the towns along the route grew with it.
The Chesterfield Canal, although doing fairly well, never quite reached the level of success that other similar canals did. One possible reason for this was thought to be because the canal was not a through-route, having just one junction into the “outside world”.
This led the company into thoughts of extending the line to Sheffield. In fact, the Chesterfield Canal was included in a scheme promoted as the Grand Commercial Canal which was to link with such waterways as the Cromford, Peak Forest and Sheffield canals. Sadly, the scheme never got off the ground and the Chesterfield Canal remained a “single destination” route. Other schemes were mooted which could have extended the canal to Barlow and Calver though these also never saw the light of day.
Railway competition arrived when the Sheffield & Lincoln Junction Railway Company announced the construction of a line from Sheffield to Gainsborough. To counter this the canal company formed the ambitiously sounding “Manchester & Lincoln Union Railway Company”, presumably with the intention of converting the canal into a railway but with little chance of it ever reaching either Manchester or Lincoln.
In August the M&LUR company gained authorisation to construct a railway from Staveley Ironworks to Worksop along the route of the canal. The Act also allowed the new railway company to amalgamate (take over) the Chesterfield Canal. The company became known as the Manchester & Lincoln Union Railway & Chesterfield & Gainsborough Canal Company… or M&LUR&C&GCC (for short)!!!
Later the company were authorised to amalgamate with the Sheffield & Lincoln Junction Railway which had by this time changed its name to the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway. However, the Act was only authorised on condition that the canal was kept properly maintained and open for business. This must have come as a shock to the new company as they had been neglecting the canal for quite some time, probably expecting to close it down as soon as all negotiations had been settled. Maintenance had been none existent for months and navigation had become very difficult.
The new owners now had the task of not only keeping the canal open but restoring it to a good navigable condition. However, the company made such a good job of the task that trade began to exceed the pre-take-over period. In fact, the canal was running so well that in some cases the company preferred to use it rather than its own railway to carry local goods. This eventually led to the railway company running a canal carrying business!
Such was the success of the Chesterfield Canal under its railway ownership that yet another scheme was promoted to link it to another waterway. This scheme went under the name of the Sheffield & Chesterfield Junction Canal but, again, nothing was actually started.Later the company built a railway line instead.
During the following decades the company often toyed with the idea of closing the upper reaches of the canal and turning it into a railway but eventually a railway from Sheffield to Gainsborough was built alongside the waterway. Portions of the canal had to be altered during the building of the railway, some books claim this included Norwood Tunnel which is often said to have been extended by 250 yards. I am told by a very reliable source that this is not the case and that the tunnel entrance seen today is the original. The Chesterfield Canal Trust say the length of the tunnel is 2,893 yards though many differing lengths have been stated over the years. Whatever its length, it is one of the oldest and longest canal tunnels in Britain.
During this period £21,000 was spent on Norwood Tunnel because of subsidence and threats of a collapse. However, this cost was well out of proportion compared to the amount of use the canal was experiencing. Trade was declining every year and the new railway increased this decline even more rapidly.
The railway company (and thus the canal) had become part of Great Central Railway and this brought an end to the railway’s canal carrying business. By this time all trade on the canal was greatly diminished, especially at the western end of the route where subsidence and problems with Norwood Tunnel continued to make navigation very difficult.
The state of Norwood Tunnel was so bad that headroom had become as low as 4’10”. By this time very few boat crews made the journey and those who did must have been rather brave.
Norwood Tunnel had to be closed after a collapse directly under the road from Harthill to Kiveton Park. This cut the canal off from the town which gave it its name though it had already been many years since boats had regularly travelled to the heart of Chesterfield. The whole canal west of the colliery basin at Shireoaks was unofficially abandoned as there was no point in taking a boat up through 30 locks only to arrive at a dead end.
Central Railway were taken over by the London & North Eastern Railway who, surprisingly, kept the remaining part of the canal in good order. They even enlarged the entrance lock at West Stockwith and made repairs to the junction.
WW2 caused the downfall of many commercial waterways but the Chesterfield Canal was one of a handful that actually benefited during this period. The route was used to carry munitions and the declining coal trade was revived for a while. However, as soon as the war ended this trade also ended and income became less than the pre-war period. After the war the canal was nationalised along with virtually all the other waterways in Britain.
Regular trade came to a complete halt when the last load of bricks was carried from the brick works at Walkeringham near the eastern end of the canal. Further upstream, colliery boats had continued to work between Shireoaks basin and the colliery’s loading wharf in Worksop though this had also stopped by now. This meant that the lock flights west of Worksop were no longer used and the head of navigation was shortened to Worksop town centre.
The River Trent was beginning to be used by quite a lot of pleasure craft and some of these vessels were making the journey up the Chesterfield Canal to Retford and Worksop. A number of rallies were held on the canal by the Inland Waterways Protection Society in the hope of bringing good publicity to the waterway.
In May a public meeting was held in Chesterfield to discuss the future of the waterway. It was agreed that the eastern section from West Stockwith to Worksop should be retained for pleasure boat use. The sections from Worksop to Kiveton and Spinkhill to Chesterfield should also be retained for water supply purposes but, much to the preservation societies dismay, it was agreed that the central stretch from Kiveton to Spinkhill should be filled in and sold off.
Following the government’s infamous Bowes Committee Report of the late 1950’s the Chesterfield Canal was classified in group 3 (fit only for closing down). An application was immediately put forward by the preservation society to keep the eastern end open for pleasure craft but this was flatly refused.
The very last commercial use of the canal was a load of warp, a type of silt used for polishing metal in the cutlery trade. It was dredged from the mouth of the River Idle and delivered to Walkeringham. This load, like all other commercial traffic on the canal before it, was horse-drawn.
In the following years the canal remained open and pleasure boating increased considerably. The Retford & Worksop Boat Club opened along the eastern section of the route and because it was constantly in use, the canal remained navigable.
The Transport Act which doomed many waterways in Britain was actually very kind to the Chesterfield Canal. The efforts of the boat club and the Inland Waterways Association convinced the government that the eastern end should be kept open and it was officially classified as a “Cruiseway” – suitable for pleasure craft. The line to the west of Worksop was not given a life line however and it was left to decline. Some portions were later filled in and built on though much of the route was left untouched because it provided water for industry and for the navigable stretches of the canal.
The newly formed Chesterfield Canal Society began a long hard battle to gain permission to start restoration on the western section. This campaign was not an easy one though eventually – after many years – all the local councils backed the society and permission was granted to begin restoration work.
Although the society had gained permission to begin restoration, this did not mean the canal was safe from being filled in. Many sections of the canal were on private or commercial land and in some cases the owners were intending to wipe it out if possible. Even government controlled bodies were threatening the existence of the route, the Transport Ministry were planning a bypass road from Staveley to Brimington which would block the canal and British Coal were planning an open cast mining site on the former canal bed at Brimington.
Negotiations with the road builders would go on for many years but the mining threat was taken away rather easier than may have been expected. The canal society wrote to the Coal Board objecting to the open cast scheme and, amazingly, the Coal Board changed their plans. They said they would complete the open cast scheme around the canal and then redevelop the waterway as part of a leisure facility. However, this plan did not include rebuilding the former Dixon’s Lock (No.4) which was sited on the section to be redeveloped.
After hearing that the redevelopment of the canal through the Coal Board area at Brimington was to include a weir in place of Dixon’s Lock the canal society decided to step in and ask permission to build a new Dixon’s Lock themselves. Once again British Coal surprised the society by offering to fund the cost of all building materials needed for the lock.
The canal society released detailed plans for the new Dixon’s Lock (No.4) though they were still unable to gain access to the site as the Coal Board were still using the adjacent land for open cast mining.
Dixon’s Lock should have been the first to open on the abandoned section of the canal but the delays meant it would not even be started for another 2 to 3 years. In the meantime Derby County Council had fully restored lock No.1 (Tapton Lock) at Lockoford Lane. This was officially reopened in April along with the ½ mile stretch of canal above it into Chesterfield.
Open cast mining at Brimington was finally completed and the canal restorers were finally granted access to the site of Dixon’s Lock. The original structure was completely demolished with much of its masonry being salvaged for use in constructing the new lock. The new lock was to be built about 200 yards further downstream in an attempt to find a solid foundation away from the open cast site.
The Coal Board had restored the whole section of canal across the former mining site but this gave the lock builders the added problem of free flowing water constantly coming down the newly restored cut. The soft ground around the new lock site proved too difficult for the society volunteers to cope with so they decided to use the money granted to them by the Coal Board to pay for professional contractors.
However, it was reported in the canal press that the contractors had generously dropped most of their charges and at the same time it was reported that Chesterfield Borough Council had offered to apply for European Regional Development Funding on behalf of the society. John Lower, Editor of the Chesterfield Canal Trust Magazine “Cuckoo”, tells me ‘I don’t remember Chesterfield BC getting the funding. I was sure I did it but perhaps my memory is playing tricks’. I guess John should know as he was the man who designed the lock and supervised its construction!
After the heavy contracting work was completed at the new Dixon’s Lock, society members (along with the Waterways Recovery Group and other local volunteers) spent the whole year and much of the following year completing the lock.
Meanwhile nearby, the threat of the Staveley/Brimington bypass road had not gone away. The new road was planned to cross the derelict waterway at a very low level, blocking any hope of fully re-opening the whole route. Clearly this could not be allowed to happen as many thousands of pounds had already been spent on restoration work by local authorities and businesses as well as the canal society itself. Eventually the plans for the bypass were changed and restoration could continue. The road was still to use portions of the original canal bed but a new canal would be built alongside. (However, work on the road has still not started as I write this in 2002).
In the Autumn lock No.3 (Bluebank) at Brimington was completely restored by the canal trust
In March the canal press reported that the Chesterfield Canal Society had put a plan together which would link the waterway to the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigations. To do this the River Rother would have to be made navigable though this could coincide with the society’s plan to use the River Rother in order to bypass sections of the original route at Killamarsh which had been blocked by new housing estates. At the end of March the canal society held a seminar at which they announced a £4.5 million restoration plan for the 2 mile derelict section within Nottinghamshire, from the head of navigation at Morse Lock in Worksop to the county boundary near Shireoaks. The scheme would include the rebuilding of 3 culverted bridges and restoration of 8 locks – as well as restoration of the canal itself. A lot of the funding was to come from the British Coal Board in order to regenerate disused colliery land at Shireoaks. The former colliery basin area was to be redeveloped for housing and a park area while the basin itself would be enlarged to allow space for moorings.
The work was to be carried out by Nottinghamshire Council. It was also reported that plans were being looked at to restore the next 3½ miles from Shireoaks to the eastern portal of Norwood Tunnel. This section, which came under the jurisdiction of Rotherham Council, included 22 locks which were already listed as having special historic interest. In June, Rotherham Council gave the scheme their approval and work began. The restoration of this section was to be performed by British Waterways.It was made clear at the seminar that all 6 local councils (who’s districts the canal past through) supported the full restoration of the canal.
Later in the year a short section near Renishaw on the west side of Norwood Tunnel was re-watered for the first time though long stretches on either side were still completely derelict. A “Canal Day” was held in the village to increase awareness of the restoration work. By now the section in Chesterfield was well established and (theoretically) navigable for about one mile.
Two of the first three locks were already restored and on November 5th the long saga of Dixon’s Lock (No.4) came to an end, 10 years after the society originally asked for access to the site. If all the other locks on the canal took as long as this it would take nearly 500 years to restore the whole route!! Rather more quickly, the next lock (No.5 – Hollingwood), was restored and reopened thanks to Derby County Council and Chesterfield Borough Council. They also began to restore the footpaths and surrounding area along the canal at Staveley and Brimington.
Early in the year it was reported that the problem of weed in the navigable stretches of the Chesterfield Canal (which had dogged the canal since its original opening) had finally been solved. Since the early days of the canal’s existence it had suffered from an above average amount of weed, the original company spent a lot of money continually cutting the weed from the canal bed and it was probably one of the main reasons why motor boats were never used on the route during its commercial life.
In more recent times pleasure craft had often found it very difficult to get through the weed but BW’s new weed cutter now appeared to provide the answer. It was capable of removing 15 tonnes of weed a day but this brought the problem of what to do with the piles of weed. One solution was provided by a BW carpenter who found his chickens loved the stuff! Farmland also made use of the weed when it was discovered that it was a very good fertiliser.
Also at the beginning of the year it was reported that the society had decided to become a Company Limited. Chesterfield and Derbyshire councils donated over £1,600 to the canal society to help them pay for the legal fees needed to enable the transformation. On June 7th a ceremony was held in Worksop to celebrate the reopening of Morse Lock. For the first time since 1955 boats could now travel right through Worksop – though not very far because the next 2 locks, a few hundred yards upstream, were still being restored.
During summer it was reported that a solution to the cost of restoring Norwood Tunnel had been found. Grant money for the redevelopment of the now closed Kiveton Colliery could be used because the canal past through the colliery area. It was expected that the tunnel would be partly opened out and a new basin would be created along its line. The remainder, including the stretch under the M1, would then be restored.
1997 – 2001
The Chesterfield Canal is probably the fastest moving restoration project currently being tackled. Its estimated full reopening was set (some time ago) at 2010 but this will surely be brought forward by a number of years thanks to the amazing support from local councils and (in particular) the Coal Board. The society have managed to find funding for millions of pounds worth of work without making much of a fuss about it. Within the near future the flight of locks from Worksop to the redeveloped basin at Shireoaks will extend the route for pleasure craft with the added attraction of a “proper” destination at the top of the extension.
Chesterfield Canal Route
Being a Brindley canal, the route of the Chesterfield Canal meanders wildly along most of its course, especially at its eastern end. The canal from West Stockwith to Worksop is open to boats, the locks are wide beam as far as Retford. Beyond Worksop the canal is currently under restoration but is open to walkers almost uninterrupted all the way to Chesterfield.
It begins at West Stockwith on the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, about 3 miles north (downstream) of Gainsborough. At the entrance of the canal there is a large tidal lock with a basin just above it. There is a boat yard, boat club, pub and lots of moored pleasure craft at the basin.
The village of West Stockwith is quite attractive and the canal basin and lock are a major part of the scene. It is possible to walk right around the basin, across the lock and along the flood bank to the entrance of the River Idle which was once a very busy navigation but is now closed to boats and has a large flood gate at its entrance.
Just one mile west of West Stockwith is the pleasant village of Misterton. The railway line to Doncaster crosses the canal on the eastern edge of the village with the 2 Misterton locks coming immediately after the railway bridge. The locks on the Chesterfield Canal are numbered from the Chesterfield end with Misterton Low Lock being number 64. There is a pub beside the lock and the A161 crosses the canal between the two locks. Past Misterton the canal bends south, through farmland, towards Walkeringham where the last commercial loads were delivered in the 1960’s.
Gringley On The Hill
Further south, on the top of a high hill, is the village of Gringley On The Hill, not surprisingly the canal bends south west to avoid the incline but the village is well worth visiting. Just north of the village the canal does climb slightly, through Shaw Lock (No.62) and Gringley Top Lock (No.61). These can be reached via Ing Road and Carr Road respectively.
Past Gringley the canal runs along the bottom of a ridge of hills. This stretch has been described as “thoroughly delightful”. The waterway is overhung by trees and there is said to be a lot of wildlife about.
Drakeholes Tunnel (Everton)
Within 1¼ miles the canal comes to a sharp left turn taking it south eastwards under the A631. The canal is now in a fairly deep cutting but is said to have had its seclusion “ruined” by a new road bridge, I disagree! Immediately after the road the canal disappears into Drakeholes Tunnel which is just 154 yards long and emerges immediately before another sharp left turn. On the turn is a winding hole, some moorings, a slipway and some picnic tables – all provided by Retford & Worksop Boat Club who were, in effect, the original Chesterfield Canal society. There is also a “handsome” pub, the Griff Inn, near the tunnel. The tunnel has no towpath but it is easy to walk around it! The pub, the moorings and a small amount of roadside parking are at the junction of Eel Pool Road with Gainsborough Road (B6045), just south west of the junction onto the A631.
The canal is now heading east, firmly turning its back on its eventual destination. Still in a cutting it arrives at Old Man Bridge which has the features of a bearded man on its parapet. The bridge signals the arrival at Wiseton which is an estate village belonging to the local manor. In fact, the route was obviously forced to avoid the estate as it curves around the village on a long looping bend. Wiseton has been described as a “superbly elegant estate village”. It is set in a well landscaped park which was once the manor gardens. The manor itself still stands but is hidden away behind high walls. In the centre of the village is a huge stable block – well worth a photograph or two.
Clayworth is the next village on the canal, about 1½ miles south east of Wiseton. The canal manoeuvres around the south west of the village, eventually turning left and then a very sharp right under Clayworth Bridge (B1403) which has a former pub beside it, now home to the Retford & Worksop boat club. Houses and a post office back onto the canal here (on the offside) and a grassy gap between these buildings is now a picnic area. This is accessed from Wheatley Road which runs parallel to the canal on the east side.
After Clayworth the canal continues south easterly for about ¾ of a mile and then curves south towards Retford, as it does so it leaves behind the many cuttings and the wooded countryside through which it has travelled and now passes through open farmland. The B1403 passes over again in the village of Hayton where I enjoyed a lovely lunch at the Boat Inn alongside the main bridge. There are actually 5 bridges in quick succession as the canal travels through this pleasant farming village and into Clarborough.
After passing St. Peter’s Church the canal reaches Clarborough Top Bridge which carries Smeath Lane. The Gate Inn stands close to the canal and, in fact, its car park used to be Clarborough Wharf. South of the village the waterway swings south west to run right alongside the railway from Gainsborough to Retford. Nine miles have passed since leaving Gringley Top Lock but the canal now climbs up through the brilliantly named Whitsunday Pie Lock (No.60), the last broad lock on the route.
The lock is said to have got its name because a local woman baked a huge pie one Whit Sunday for the navvies who had just completed the lock. However, some recently discovered maps spoil this good old story by showing a Whitsunday Pie field. The maps were drawn centuries before the canal existed!
The railway swings away as quickly as it had arrived but the A620 (Welham Road) swings in to replace it. The road soon crosses the waterway on Hop Pole Bridge, marking the canal’s entry into Retford. The canal heads south westerly into the central area of this industrial town. However, the route (somewhat miraculously) manages to stay incredibly pleasant throughout its journey through the town. It has been said that this is due to luck rather than by design as it just happens to pass alongside grazing land, water meadows, the town common and a tree lined cemetery! However, all this makes for great scenery for boaters and walkers as they pass through the town centre.
In the centre of town is a basin on a stretch which caused an infamous incident in 1978 when a BW maintenance man discovered a loose chain on the canal bed which he then attempted to remove. After much effort the chain came loose and the maintenance man found that it was attached to a large circular disk. As he inspected the disk someone suddenly noticed that the canal was fast losing water – the maintenance man had found the canal’s plug hole! These were sometimes installed on canals to allow water to be drained away quickly in times of emergency but the emergency for this BW man was to put the plug back before the whole canal ran dry!
Near the basin is Town Lock (No.59), the first narrow lock on the Chesterfield Canal. A large canal warehouse stands alongside – now used as a snooker hall! Three small aqueducts are crossed along the next ½ mile, one of which crosses the infant River Idle. The canal along this stretch is very popular with locals and, together with the River Idle and a park, it makes a pretty scene. The main shopping areas (and an ASDA) are close to the north side of the canal.
After a right curve the route is crossed by an old iron footbridge and then West Retford Lock (No.58) is reached on a sharp left bend. The lock is in a very pretty location overhung by large trees with old houses alongside. I have to admit to being a little shocked by Retford. It must be one of Britain’s most unlikely beauty spots! The town itself is fairly “ordinary” but the canal is lovely. Pretty gardens run along the bank on the offside, there are loads of swans and ducks, the water is crystal clear and is absolutely teaming with huge fish. Fishermen sat on the bank in their usual trance-like state with their rods dangling in the water – not catching a thing. It made me wonder why they didn’t just stick a hand in the water – they couldn’t fail to make a catch! I highly recommend a visit to the canal in Retford.
The A620 (Babworth Road) passes over the canal shortly after West Stockwith Lock (the second narrow lock on the canal) and then the route passes right through the middle of the large West Retford cemetery. Having curved through the centre of Retford, the canal leaves the town heading north west. The main London to Edinburgh railway line crosses the canal on the far side of the cemetery as the waterway heads on into open farmland.
Within 2 miles, the first of the 4 Forest Locks (No.57) is reached. These locks are spread out over a 1½ mile stretch with the first 2 being fairly remote. The canal turns from north west to south west after the second lock and the third lock (Charlie’s, No.55) has dozens of chickens in its garden. A few yards after the third lock the canal turns sharply to the left just after passing under a very straight minor road. This was originally built by the Romans and, in fact, is no ordinary minor road. It is called Old London Road and was once the Great North Road from London to Scotland. In the mid 1700’s the people of Retford wanted the road diverted through their town to increase trade. Some 170 years later they were begging for the road to be diverted out of their town!! The A1 now runs to the south west of this area but its original route can easily be detected on a road map, heading south between Bawtry and Elkesley.
Barnby Wharf used to be close to the road bridge, its remaining buildings are now houses with pretty back gardens overlooking the canal. A few yards further on, around a sharp right bend, is the fourth and last Forest Lock (No.54). The “forest”, by the way, was Sherwood Forest though it no longer reaches this far north.
For the next mile the canal wanders generally south west until it meets the A1. The canal does not pass under the busy road here however, instead it turns sharply south and runs alongside the southbound carriageway for just over a mile. Near the end of this mile the canal reaches the pretty village of Ranby (just off the A620 close to the A1 junction). There is a lovely canalside pub called The Chequers. This has a beer garden on the banks of the canal but it situated on the off side so walkers must alight at bridge 51 (Old Blythe Road).
Within Ranby the canal twists round on a huge right-hand bend, turning almost 360 degrees and then it passes under the A1 to head south west towards Worksop.
The next few miles can best be described as “zigzag” as the route runs roughly parallel to the B6079. This stretch has also been described as the most attractive on the whole (navigable) canal. After 1½ miles the route climbs through Osberton Lock (No.53) with Osberton Hall and Park nearby. Just to the north is Scofton, the hall’s estate village. The canal passes right alongside the hall’s stable block and the whole area is said to be as well kept now as it was when the canal was first built.
Just over a mile further south west the canal is crossed by the low, brick arched Manton railway viaduct. The former Manton Colliery has now been landscaped giving a somewhat better view than it did in years gone by. Within another mile Kilton Lock (No.52) is reached and then the canal takes a sharp swing to the right to cross over the small River Ryton which has run parallel on the north side since Ranby. The aqueduct is not in the best of health (1996), it has no parapet other than a high wire fence to ensure people don’t fall over the side! On the land beyond the non-towpath side of the canal is some waste land on which a derelict pumping station stands. Shortly after the aqueduct, the canal turns abruptly left to continue its westerly course into Worksop.
The outskirts of town are marked by the busy B6041 which swings across the canal on a fairly new bridge. The original hump backed Brace Bridge still stands, now on a quiet side road, just a few yards further on. The old bridge crosses the tail of Bracebridge Lock (No.51) which is less than a mile from the centre of Worksop.
On its way into town the canal passes a large old mill and then, as it approaches the central area, it runs along the right-hand side of a terraced street. On the near side of the road there is just an iron railing between the street and the canal. On the other side of the canal (north) there is also no bank because the waterway is bordered by a high brick wall which is now the outer edge of a supermarket. As if all this wasn’t enough to make a boat crew feel closed in, the canal then passes underneath a building which forms a short tunnel across the waterway. This building was originally Pickfords Warehouse and, in fact, for many decades after Pickfords had gone it was still known as Pickfords Depository.
Pickfords are one of Britain’s oldest companies and they still carry goods (usually household furniture) all over the country. Long before lorries came along they ran fleets of canal boats. In more recent years BW used the old warehouse and the adjacent yard, named Cuckoo Wharf after the “Cuckoos” (narrow boats) which used the canal. Since the early 1990’s a number of different owners have taken the building on, each one seeming to be jinxed as they all soon close down again! When I was here in 1996 the warehouse had just been converted into a night-club and restaurant. The best view of the warehouse, as it straddles the canal, is gained from Worksop town bridge on Watson Street (B6040) situated just a few yards further on.
On the far side of Watson Street bridge (almost beneath it) is Town Lock (No.50), the last navigable lock (pre-restoration) on the Chesterfield Canal. However, there is no access to the canal from the main town bridge and there is no towpath under it. This is because the bridge has been blocked off (to walkers) – presumably to keep the Cuckoo Wharf party-goers away from the lock! Walkers are forced away from the canal at Cuckoo Wharf, to regain the towpath they must cross Watson Road and walk around the side of shops to a supermarket. The towpath can be rejoined at the far side of the car park and it is possible to walk east a few yards along the south bank to Town Lock and to the blocked off town bridge.
At this point the canal continues to be hemmed in for a very short while until the canal bends north west alongside the supermarket car park. There are moorings here and there is usually a narrowboat cafe right alongside the car park. Despite my descriptions of blocked bridges, being hemmed in, supermarkets and car parks, this is actually a nice area – full of life and by no means unattractive.
The supermarket now stands on the site of Worksop Town Wharf which used to be lined with large warehouses. Close by on the opposite bank (north) the Shireoaks Colliery also used to have a wharf. Also on the north side there are numerous large houses as the canal curves out of town. Within a few yards there is a pretty winding hole with a caravan site beside it. This is one of very few winding holes situated on the towpath side of a canal and I suspect it was not originally a winding hole. This was the final turning point for boats when I was last here in 1997. The head of navigation has since moved further west…
A few hundred yards further west the land is open on both sides – or at least it was in 1997 – though it looked like an awfully inviting place for would-be builders so it may not stay “open” for ever. On the north side is the site of a former quarry which has long since been flooded and turned into Sandhill Lake which is popular for fishing and water sports. Past here the canal reaches Morse Lock (No.49), the official head of navigation since about 1955. However, above the lock a whole new era is being born…
Just above Morse Lock the Chesterfield Canal passes the former entrance to the Lady Lee Branch. This led to quarries about ½ a mile to the south west but the only thing left of the branch today is a lonely accommodation bridge looking like it was put there by mistake. This stands in the previously mentioned “open” land to the south of the canal.
Immediately after the former branch the main line is crossed by the A60 (Sandy Lane) which is a good starting point for a walk along the canal in either direction. Stret Lock (No.48) is immediately beyond Sandy Lane and Deep Lock (No.47) is a further hundred yards or so to the west, these were being restored and were close to completion when I was here in 1997. The busy A57 runs parallel to the south of the canal here while a minor road (Shireoaks Road) runs even closer, parallel to the north bank for about ½ a mile until the village of Rhodesia is reached.
At Rhodesia is Haggonfield Lock (No.46) which is probably restored by now as work began in 1995! Adjustments to a low bridge over the tail of this lock were due to be carried out by the council during 1996, a second low bridge near by was to be removed. Above the lock the A57 crosses the route but thankfully this is well above the necessary navigable height.
A railway bridge which follows within a few hundred yards is also clear of the canal. Doefield Dun Lock (No.45) is on the stretch heading out of Rhodesia, Shireoaks Road continues to cling to the north bank while the small River Ryton is once again close by to the south. All of this section was completely overgrown before the restorers arrived on the seen in the mid-1990’s. The locks were all still in place though many had suffered damage from the vegetation growing around them.
Beneath the weeds there has always been water in the cut – though often reduced to just a trickle. The water was used by local industry and also to supply the navigable stretches further east. It is because of this ready-made water supply that the unnavigable stretches were never filled in. Most of the pounds around here require relatively little repair, dredging is all that is needed to open up the waterway once the locks are complete.
The next bridge takes Shireoaks Road across the canal. This is Shireoaks Low Bridge though its name is deceptive as there is plenty of headroom for navigation. Immediately after the bridge are the 3 Shireoaks Locks (numbers 42 to 44), work started on these in 1995 and was still going on when I visited in 1997. The bottom lock’s over-spill runs through the garden of the adjacent house. In fact, the whole garden has been landscaped with small waterfalls and a fountain, a surprising and very pretty sight. Directly above the short flight of locks, on the northern side, is the brand new Shireoaks Basin (now a marina) which was redeveloped with money from the Coal Board – in working days this was Shireoaks Colliery wharf. This (early 2002) is the effective head of navigation. Although boats can proceed further west to Cinderhill through Boundary Lock there is nowhere to turn a boat longer than about 26 feet.
A few hundred yards past the marina is Shireoaks Bridge at Shireoaks Common which had been flattened and culverted but has since had a new box culvert installed. The stretch beyond the bridge is also now restored as it runs alongside a lane and then a lorry park.
Moving out of Shireoaks, heading towards the hill to the west, the canal’s next feature is a brand new lock (No.41a) which has been added to the canal to counter years of subsidence. Close by is an aqueduct over the River Ryton. This crossing point forms the county border between Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. Immediately after the aqueduct is the start of one of the earliest and steepest lock flights ever to have been built. In fact, what follows is probably the oldest continuous “long” lock flight in Britain. There are 22 locks in about 3 miles and these are split into two flights, Turnerwood (7 locks) and Thorpe (15 locks), though in affect they are one long lock flight with one short pound between the two at Turnerwood.
NOTE: The towpath from the bottom of Turnerwood Locks to the top of Thorpe Locks is currently closed. Notices on the canal bank state this is to continue until November 2002 while these locks undergo full restoration.
The 7 Turnerwood Locks (numbered 35 to 41) provide a relatively gentle climb up to the pretty hamlet of Turnerwood. These locks have been under restoration for nearly 5 years and I witnessed the early stages of the work in 1997 – the bridge over the bottom lock had just been completed, the bottom lock in the flight is also now complete (2002). The length of time this is taking (and the closure of the towpath) is not due to any particular problems with the canal but mainly due to access problems for the construction teams. There is only one road on the 3 mile climb and even that is a cul-de-sac (I think “dead-end” would be a bad description for the pretty Turnerwood)!
At the top of the Turnerwood Flight is the hamlet of Turnerwood which, even in the darkest days of the canal’s dereliction, always kept its waterfront clean and pretty. As an example, in the book “Lost Canals” (published in 1971) Ronald Russell describes this stretch of the canal as mostly inaccessible and completely derelict except for the “oasis” of Turnerwood where the water was clear, the rows of terraced cottages had been restored and everything in the village was very well kept. All this is still true today though the continuous canal restoration work must be a bit hard to take for this peaceful little place.
In front of the cottages which line the canal on the towpath side is a wide basin which separates the Turnerwood Flight from the Thorpe Flight. The basin is the “oasis” mentioned by Ronald Russell, it is made to look more like a pretty village pond than a derelict canal. I spoke to one of the residents of Turnerwood and he told me he and his neighbours have no worries about their peace and quiet being spoilt by boats and tourists. He said the hamlet is already so popular that it is often jam packed with visitors every weekend. What they do not like however, are people who park the cars in the tiny village or on the tight bend in the lane approaching the village. Please park further down the lane. In fact, with all the restoration work taking place it may be best to stay away all together until the canal is re-opened. The only road into Turnerwood is called Little Lane, it is accessed from the south side of the canal at Netherthorpe. Little Lane ends at the canal.
The first locks above the Turnerwood are in a staircase of two and these were being restored when I was here in 1997. There was workmen, diggers and muck everywhere! These and the next lock up are now complete. There are 15 locks in the Thorpe Flight (numbered 20 to 34) and these come thick and fast as the canal continues westwards up towards its summit.
The flight consists of five single locks, two 2-rise staircases and two 3-rise staircases but of course at the moment restoration work is in progress and access is limited (if not completely off limits)!. All the chambers are propped and are of stone construction.Various massive stonework has been removed, presumably to permit chamber restoration. The water management problems must have been (and may well be again) quite considerable! There appear to have been complex run off weirs on the offside of the canal.
The further up the flight you go – the more remote the canal becomes as it passes through a wooded area surrounded by the English countryside. When it is fully restored and reopened to walkers and boats it will be one of the best situated lock flights in the country and Turnerwood will be a much photographed and popular place to visit. But not everyone is happy with this – one of the new locks in the Thorpe Flight has twice had its balance beams destroyed and this is thought to be the work of someone who does not want the canal to be restored.
Nearing the summit there is an accommodation bridge in good condition followed by the final 3 locks which are in a staircase. The top lock is 1½ miles away from Turnerwood and it marks the start of a 4½ mile summit level, nearly 2 miles of which are within Norwood Tunnel. Above the top lock the canal turns south but immediately curves back around to continue north westerly. The Sheffield to Worksop railway is now very close on the northern side but road access is non-existent until Kiveton Park is reached (about 2 miles above the top lock). Both the canal and the towpath are in good condition all the way to Norwood Tunnel.
At Kiveton Park the canal is crossed by Packman Lane. This is the nearest parking place to Norwood Tunnel and there is a railway station right alongside the canal. The towpath from here to the tunnel mouth (a distance of about 600 yards) had just been rebuilt when I was here in 1997. Stone walling was still being built and the canal itself had only just been “restored”. Of course there are no boats and no way for any boats to get here (yet).
As the waterway continues west it passes a water feeder which keeps the whole of the eastern side of the canal in water. Although the feeder enters the canal on the north bank it actually comes from Harthill Reservoir which is about 1½ miles to the south. The outfall of the feeder has been made into a cascading waterfall and a winding hole has been created at its point of entry. When all the locks to the east are restored, this will be the head of navigation until Norwood Tunnel is restored.
The eastern portal of the tunnel is soon reached though the cutting is a lot more open than some tunnel approaches on other canals. Initial investigations have shown the tunnel to be in good condition for the first few hundred yards but further inside, below the point where Hard Lane crosses the tunnel, is the site of a roof collapse (see my Roots section for details).
In 1997 I stood on the parapet above the tunnel while my wife took mug shots. The actual entrance to the tunnel was bricked up and the tunnel has been plugged with concrete to prevent people from venturing inside, unfortunately this currently includes the restorers! However, help may be at hand because the local Unitary Development Plan wants to dig out coal from just beneath the tunnel by means of open cast mining, this could greatly help the restorers as it would open out the tunnel. However, it could also greatly hinder them because they will have to wait for the coal to be removed before they can gain access. A similar situation further west took 10 years to resolve. If the plan goes ahead it will mean the current tunnel will be removed and replaced by a newly landscaped, open channel. At the present mid-point of the tunnel a marina could be built and then either another open section or part of the original tunnel will carry the route to Norwood Locks. However, none of this will happen if the mining scheme is cancelled. The restorers will then face the problem of restoring the whole tunnel. But there is clearly plenty of optimism because mooring bollards have already been placed along the canal beside the tunnel mouth.
It is interesting (?) to note that the Chesterfield Canal is the only British waterway to pass through Rhodesia and then tunnel under Wales! These, of course, are not countries but local villages. The new marina would be situated close to Wales. Whatever happens concerning the open cast mining, the canal society know that some of the tunnel will have to be restored as it provides a ready-made route under the M1 motorway.
Although it is possible to walk across the top of Norwood Tunnel it is not an easy (or pretty) walk at present. The rough path passes through a mining area which is often boggy and unclear. Having said this, it is a right of way and was, of course, the route that canal horses took while their boats passed through the tunnel. Unlike them, you will have to negotiate the M1 Motorway! Don’t worry, an underpass has been provided. As I haven’t tried this path, I am unsure where (or how easily) you will find the canal at the far end.
My description of the Chesterfield Canal continues to follow the canal westwards. However, if you are to visit the western end of Norwood Tunnel (and the Norwood Locks), you will probably do the following section in reverse order. See the end of this section for instructions on where to park and how to gain access to the canal.
The western portal of Norwood Tunnel is bricked up though it has an access grille set into it. The view through the grille reveals a pile of spoil on the other side which goes right up to the roof.
The steep climb down from the summit to the Rother Valley begins within a few yards of the western portal. There are 13 locks in the Norwood Flight, all of them crammed into a ½ mile stretch of waterway which heads south west between the M1 and the A618. The top 4 locks are in a staircase (numbered 16 to 19 from the Chesterfield end of the canal). These lead from the tunnel mouth to a basin where boats used to wait before passing through the tunnel. The locks were very overgrown when I was here in 1997 and there was no clear path alongside them. In fact, it was so overgrown – or I was so confused(!) – that I didn’t see the locks clearly or manage to reach the tunnel mouth! Today it is much easier; there is a gate close to the house alongside the basin. From here you can skirt around the north side of the basin, after about 100 yards the path bears left up past the flight of 4 locks. Just before you reach a stile, you can scramble down to the right to find the tunnel portal.
The basin below the 4-lock staircase was being used by a Fisheries company when I was here in 1997. On that sunny summer day the basin was being put to good use by a dozen or more fishermen. The Fisheries was based in old canal buildings alongside the basin and the area also contains a lock cottage beside the top lock of the next staircase of 3 (numbers 15 to 13). This cottage is now a private house, its front garden contains lock 15 (now converted into a small waterfall) and at the back is a huge side pond. Right next door (close to lock 13) is another house, this one was originally a mill. The whole scene was surprisingly picturesque though the biggest surprise of all came when I looked closely into the canal – it was full of gold fish. This is just about the only place on any derelict canal where I’ve thought restoration would actually spoil the scene! However, when I originally wrote this page in 1997 I said “if the canal is to be restored then the ponds and the gold fish will have to go. Serious negotiations have been going on with the private land owners for many years”. It appears that this problem may have been solved(?) because I am told that the Fisheries company has now gone and there are no longer any gold fish in the canal.
A lot of work is needed to restore this lock flight because some of the locks have been filled in to within a foot of their tops or altered in other ways. For instance, (as mentioned above) lock 15 is now a waterfall while lock 14 has been built over to provide access to the converted canalside houses. Between locks 13 and 12 is a large pond and the next 3 locks (12 to 10) (which are also in a staircase of 3) have been completely filled in. Spotting the site of these locks is not difficult as they are situated next to a tennis court. Only the coping stones of the top chamber are visible.
The final 3 locks on the Norwood Flight (numbers 9 to 7) are also in a staircase of 3. At the bottom of the flight is a lock cottage which was once whitewashed and described as “attractive”. I am told it is now stone-clad and could best be described as “not very attractive”! Once upon a time this very large house was a canalside inn but the current owners (1997) are somewhat hostile towards canal restoration. They’ve recently planted hedges (I’m told they are Leylandii) along the side of the bottom lock which runs right in front of their living room window. This would leave no room for people to work the lock if it was allowed to remain in this state – but you also have to sympathise with the people who live in the house. I expect the canal was dead (and as good as buried) when they moved in. How many of us would fancy a lock and canal suddenly being built right in front of our living room window…. well, actually – I would – but I’m sure you know what I mean!?
Below the bottom lock is a large winding hole which wasn’t looking too healthy when I saw it in 1997, though its stagnant water was a very pretty red colour! According to one guide book, an “elegant” accommodation bridge crosses the waterway nearby. Elegant is one description, “dilapidated” is another.
The A618 crosses the route of the canal about 200 yards west of this old accommodation bridge. When I was here in 1997 the walk along the towpath to the main road was not easy. In some parts the path had subsided and was sloping dangerously towards the bright green canal water. I’m told that the path is in much better condition now and my previous instructions to avoid it can be ignored.
As mentioned above, if you visit Norwood you are most likely to see it in reverse order compared to my description above. This is because the easiest access is from the A618 (Rotherham Road) which is at the bottom of the Norwood Flight. Close to the former canal bridge is The Angel pub which has a car park (“patrons only”) and just uphill from the pub on the right hand side is a bridleway sign, at the entrance to which there is off-road parking. If you start at this end of the lock flight you can access the canal either from the former Gannow Lane Bridge (on the main road) or use the lane (sign-posted as a bridleway) which begins just north of the pub, heading east through trees towards the canal. This is now said to be a tarmac road (although it was a rough track in 1997) and it leads past the first 3 staircases to the top of the lock flight. I read that this road was private, I am now informed it is a public right of way – obviously this is part of the ongoing arguments over the rights to restore the lock flight for navigation but either way you should not encounter any problems.
Gannow Lane Bridge (on the A618) has long since been flattened but as the canal crosses under the road it also passes from South Yorkshire into Derbyshire. To the west of the crossing the canal is in water with lots of reeds, and very close to the lowered bridge crossing is the remains of the Norwood Colliery wharf. This is massively stone built with evidence of possible tippler type mechanisms. Over the next ½ mile the canal takes on a severe loop and then disappears where it used to enter Killamarsh.
The section of canal through Killamarsh is the only part of the whole route to have been filled in and built on. New houses stand on the former canal bed and restoration along the original route is out of the question. A feasibility study has been made to find the best (cheapest) way of bypassing the village. One idea is to use a former railway line which runs to the west of the original route. The River Rother could also be made navigable to allow passage around the village. However, these plans would need considerable lengths of brand new canal, new locks would be needed to take the waterway down into the river and then more new locks would be needed to bring it back up to rejoin the original route. It would also be difficult to fund because the derelict land funding which applies to most other sections of the route could not apply here in the Rother Valley Country Park. However, if a brand new line was to be built, it would start the ball rolling for a whole new waterway linking the Chesterfield Canal to the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigations.
The missing route through Killamarsh used to begin at the north east side of the village. It passed under the B6058, Sheffield Road, a few hundred yards west of the A618 junction. In 1971 Ronald Russell wrote that Belk Lane Lock was clinging to life beneath the road bridge. This was the last lock on the climb down from Norwood. In 1971 it still had a bottom gate – albeit hanging off its hinges – but now there is no trace of the lock at all.
South of Sheffield Road the canal turned and twisted through Killamarsh, passing a church, crossing under Nethermoor Lane and what is now Kirkcroft Avenue parallel to the north side of Kirkcroft Lane. I found the canal’s former route in the centre of the Killamarsh at Bridge Street. It arrived from the north east but was no more than a rough grassy area (not even a path). However, I have seen an old photograph showing the view looking east from the former Bridge Street bridge, the canal was busy and lined with houses – now all gone.
The bridge on Bridge Street was called Mallinder’s Bridge but there is absoltely no trace of it today though to the west of Bridge Street there is a clear path where the canal used to run between Peacock Close and a cul-de-sac still called Canal Bridge. It wound its way between houses and passed under Walford Road. At Field Lane it turned sharply left and travelled directly south for about 2 miles towards Spinkhill. This stretch is not original but was built in 1890 to replace a section which was wiped out when a railway was built a little further to the west. Part of this dead-straight “new” cut has been restored and is used by a fishery company.
At the southern end of the straight cut the route becomes dry again and is filled in as it passes under Spinkhill Bridge. The dry route curves around on a clockwise horseshoe bend on which is the site of an old aqueduct which has also been filled in.
Beyond the horseshoe bend the canal straightens out as it reaches the very high bridge on Station Road (the A616 – listed on some maps as the A6135) at Renishaw. There is a great view down the valley and across to Chesterfield from this bridge though the view down onto the canal is not so good. This was once a very busy area, the former railway line runs very close (and parallel) to the canal and Renishaw station used to be right beside the waterway just south of the road bridge. Nothing whatsoever is left of the old station, a plaque on the side of the road bridge is the only reminder of its existence. Today, the canal reappears in water on the south side of this bridge, in fact, the length alongside the village of Renishaw has been fully restored since 1995. This short restored section can be accessed from the A616 bridge or from Hague Bridge to the south. Again I have seen pictures of this area in working days. There used to be a huge ironworks by the side of the canal but all traces have now gone.
South of Renishaw the canal only survives in fits and starts. It could well be completely wiped out if plans for open cast mining go ahead. Although this would mean the loss of the original line, the Coal Board have agreed (as they did further west) to landscape the area when they’re finished, this would include a brand new canal cut. Sadly, it would not include the reinstatement of Norbriggs Cutting, a short canal branch line which used to run south to the A619 near Mastin Moor.
This arm served a number of purposes including being a water feeder for the main line, bringing much needed supplies from the nearby River Doe Lea. Its main use however was in providing a link with the Worksop to Chesterfield Turnpike (the A619). A transhipment yard was built at the head of the branch and there was also a tramway which ran to a local colliery leased by the canal company. South of the A619 the line of the narrow feeder can be seen coming in from the River Doe Lea.
Just past the junction of Norbriggs Cutting the main line crosses the small River Doe Lea on a puddle bank and aqueduct, this may also be lost if open cast mining goes ahead. Open cast mining is not the only development being planned in this area, to the south of Renishaw.
The Staveley and Brimington bypass has been talked about for years, it will arrive on the canal scene about 1½ miles south of Renishaw having come straight from junction 30 of the M1. It will meet the canal at the point where the waterway turns south west towards Staveley.
This is no accident, it is coming this way because the plan is to build the road directly on top of the disused canal bed. It took a lot of negotiating by the canal society, backed by local councils, to get the government to agree to fund the construction of a new canal cut alongside the new road. The canal will revert to its original line from Staveley into Chesterfield though the new bypass will never be far away.
In Staveley the canal is currently dry and at Hall Lane bridge it is completely filled in. However, better news is just around the next corner (literally)… The whole line of the Chesterfield Canal from Mill Green (lane), on the west side of Staveley, into Chesterfield has now been restored, all the locks are usable and the towpaths have been reinstated by the local council. However, boats cannot yet reach Staveley from Chesterfield due to flattened bridges which block the waterway. (To my knowledge there is now (January 2002) just one remaining blockage – see below). Of course even when all blockages are removed, this section of canal will still be isolated from the rest of the canal network until everything to east has also been restored.
Heading west out of Staveley the canal soon moves into New Brimington close to the famous Staveley Ironworks. The original site of the works was right along the northern banks of the canal though it has now moved further away. About 200 yards before reaching Works Road the canal passes a derelict junction on the north bank. The canal which once began at this junction used to run into the grounds of the ironworks and before the works were built (c1890) this arm was actually the main line of the canal. The works were built on the original line and the main line we see today was built to replace it.
Very close to the old canal entrance into the ironworks, but on the southern bank, is one of Britain’s strangest canal oddities! It is easy to miss the small grille covering an opening in the hillside but believe it or not this was once an underground canal – known as Hollingwood Common Canal Tunnel. It lead to a number of coal seems and was used by special boats, 21 feet long and containing 7 “tubs” which carried coal from underground to the main line of the canal. The tubs could be hoisted by crane and emptied into more traditional canal craft. I have no information on how these tunnel boats were “powered”, were they “legged” through the tunnel, “flushed” or maybe pulled on ropes or chains? The tunnel was just 6 feet high and 5 feet 9 inches wide with a water depth of 2 feet. Apparently it was almost 2 miles long.
Beyond the forgotten tunnel is Works Road bridge followed immediately by the first lock on this restored section of canal. This is Hollingwood Lock (No.5) which begins the climb back up out of the Rother Valley. Just above the lock are the remains of a railway bridge while alongside the lock is a brick built lock cottage. Both the lock and the cottage were built in the late 19th century when the canal was re-routed due to the building of Staveley Ironworks. The works have now been moved and where they used to stand (on the north side of the lock) the land has been cleared of buildings but it is now overgrown and desolate. It is something of a grim area – made worse for me when I was here in 1997 by a freezing cold rainy day – but I found it very interesting none the less.
West of Lock 5 the canal passes through former colliery land on which Dixon’s Lock (No.4) used to stand. This lock was removed by restorers and a completely new one was built a few hundred yards further east. This is the lock which took 10 years to build because the restorers had to wait for the Coal Board to complete open cast mining. However, the new lock was funded by the Coal Board who also rebuilt the canal leading up to the lock. An unusual hump-backed tail bridge has been built at the lock – said to look rather small in construction.
Less than ½ a mile further west is Bilby Lane but the bridge on this lane awaits restoration and currently blocks the canal. Once Bilby Lane bridge is restored the canal will be open to boats from Staveley, all the way into Chesterfield.
The restored Bluebank Lock (No.3) is about ¾ of a mile west of Bilby Lane. The channel on both sides of the lock is both wide and deep. The remains of a wooden boat approximately 35-40 feet long can be seen at the lockside. Bluebank Lock appears to be remote from any road though the Rotherham to Chesterfield railway swings in from the north and stays close for the rest of the journey. The towpath here is now popular as it is part of a waymarked trail called the Bluebank Loop.
Note: It is now some 7 years since I first read about the proposed Chesterfield bypass – and it is said to have first been talked about in 1927 – it is felt that the road will probably never be built.
Immediately after Bluebank Lock the canal swings south on its final run into Chesterfield. Just north of the B6050 (Station Road, Brimington) is Wheedlon Mill Lock (No.2) which was the last to be restored on this section. Wheeldon Mill Bridge and Station Road Bridge still needed unblocking and/or altering to navigable dimensions when I was here in 1997 though both have now been rebuilt. Alongside Station Road Bridge is The Mill pub with gardens on the non-towpath side. The short stretch between Wheeldon Lock and the pub had been very recently cleaned up when I visited in 1997 and it is still a pleasant area today.
The section to the south of Station Road was the first part of the disused canal to be reopened. This includes Tapton Lock (No.1) which is situated at Lockoford Lane just before the new A619 crosses the route. It took a lot of pressure from the Canal Society to prevent this road from blocking the canal when it was built. Eventually the authorities agreed to create a box bridge (known locally as Tapton Tunnel) which allows boats to pass through the embankment beneath the busy road.
Beside Tapton Lock there is a canal visitor centre run by Derbyshire County Council. Drinks, snacks, tourist leaflets and books are available here and trips along the canal can be taken on the narrowboat ‘John Varley’.
Beyond Tapton Lock the route runs alongside the small River Rother in a fairly deep valley. The canal is quiet and pretty though up above are urban areas, industry and busy roads. Tapton Lock (No.1) is not actually the first lock on the canal. About ½ a mile south is Tapton Mill Bridge with a flood lock just beyond it. Tapton Mill Bridge is used to take the towpath from one side to the other. Presumably Tapton Mill once stood near to the bridge?
I was very disappointed when I visited Tapton Mill Lock in 1997. I’d read news items and seen photographs in guide books which show the canal restored with small boats on it. The towpath in these photographs was well kept and the water was clear. This section was reopened in 1993 but if something is not done soon it will need restoring again! By 2001 the towpath was becoming overgrown again, the water was green and it didn’t look like it had seen a boat since the reopening. However, John Lower, the editor of the Chesterfield Canal Trust Magazine “Cuckoo”, tells me ‘the canal now has a proper ranger service in action, the towpath and canal from Chesterfield to Staveley is being properly maintained and looks a picture’.
This area can be reached either by walking along the towpath or from Wharf Lane (off Sheffield Road) to the north of Chesterfield town centre (on the west side of the canal). I assume Wharf Lane once ran to the canal near Tapton Mill Lock but the new A61 (Chesterfield Relief Road) has blocked it. A footbridge now crosses the main road giving access to the canal from Wharf Lane.
Not surprisingly, once upon a time there was a wharf at Wharf Lane though its site is now a timber yard which can be seen from the footbridge that crosses the A61 (Chesterfield Relief Road). The original basin here was built in 1777 though there is very little trace of anything from that time. Around 1890 a railway was built running parallel to the west bank of the canal. This cut right through the site of the original basin necessitating the building of a new wharf further south (see below). (By the way, the bed of the railway is now the A61)!
From Tapton Mill Lock, through the trees to the south, you can just see Chesterfield’s famous crooked church spire in the distance. Continuing along the towpath towards the spire is becoming more difficult as time passes. Although it is a well used path, it is becoming increasingly more overgrown and sometimes very muddy. This was poor when I was here in 1997 and I’m told this was still the case in 2001.
Just a few yards to the south of Tapton Mill Lock is the point where the Chesterfield Canal comes to an end and runs into the River Rother. The canal was originally planned to cross the river on the level and continue south into Chesterfield. However, money was short and the company decided instead to use the Rother itself – although they never had official permission to do this. The navigation continued for a few hundred yards, past wharves and warehouses, to a point close to the town centre. I walked along this river stretch in 1997, I think it could best be described as “nearly pretty”. The river itself is not too bad but the footpath side is lined with ugly wire or metal fences and factories. The path was a little overgrown, nettles and bushes having to be avoided. If this area is to be reopened to navigation, a lot will have to be done to attract holiday makers to leave their boats and walk into the town.
The footpath crosses the river just before the end of the line. The path opens out into Holbeck Close where a number of businesses and lorry depots are now situated. This was once Chesterfield wharf, built here in 1890 to replace the earlier basins on Wharf Road (see above). At the end of Holbeck Close is Brimington Road (B6543) which leads to the town centre. The navigation officially ended at the Brimington Road bridge.
All in all the Chesterfield Canal is a very interesting waterway and somewhat surprising in places like Retford and Worksop. The currently unnavigable section up to Norwood is very pleasant but the western side leaves a lot to be desired. I wonder just how much boaters will really want to see Renishaw, Staveley, the Brimington bypass and Chesterfield? But things change fast, desolate areas are now being landscaped and by the time the canal reaches Chesterfield it could be surrounded by parks and brand new housing. Well – we can all dream, can’t we!
I must give a BIG thanks to Chris de Wet who seems to have spent most of 2001 on the derelict parts of the Chesterfield Canal. Without his updates and additional info this (huge) page would now be wildly out of date. Thank You.