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Millions will be needed to restore historic Grand Western Canal

By Mid Devon Gazette  |  Posted: November 27, 2012

By Richard Wevill

  • The moment the bank of the Grand Western Canal collapsed

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

  • Grand Western Canal bank collapse

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THE bill to repair a stretch of the Grand Western Canal which was drained after the dramatic collapse of an embankment could be as much as £5million.

The water levels on the canal are said to have risen by an unprecedented nine inches (24cm) overnight last Tuesday.

Click here to view more photos of the canal bank collapse.

The breach occurred where the canal's embankment rises nearly 60 feet near Halberton. Water overtopping the canal is thought to have eroded the embankment as it cascaded down, weakening its sides and leading to the breach.

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Witnesses described seeing torrents of water flowing like a "waterfall" and emitting a "deep thundering roar" before the bank gave way.

A two-mile section of the canal drained through the hole left in the bank, with water forming a lagoon in an adjoining field.

Engineers have monitored water levels and deliberated the best course of action to deal with the water lying in the field.

At first it was thought it would drain naturally but on Friday, when the lagoon showed little sign of dissipating, fire crews began pumping water to a stretch of canal one-and-a-half miles away which had been secured behind temporary dams.

Stop boards and dams were positioned either side of the canal walls and reinforcement work continued over the weekend as the region prepared for more bad weather.

On the Tuesday night some nearby residents were moved due to safety fears, but it was concluded there was no risk of flooding to properties.

The breach is thought to have caused considerable damage to fish stocks and other wildlife.

Thoughts are now turning to the rebuilding of the embankment, with the tourism and catering businesses which rely on the attraction for trade hopeful it can be done sooner rather than later.

But some think a considerable section of the banked canal will have to be removed and rebuilt to modern standards.

Councillor Des Hannon represents Tiverton East on Devon County Council and he called in emergency services when fears about the stability of the bank grew. He said: "The embankment was 198 years old. Though it worked well for a long time it is not a structure we'd build today.

"If you were rebuilding it, you would build a broader embankment, better able to cope with this level of water. The important thing I feel is to get back the integrity of the canal as a single waterway, but getting the canal back into working order will potentially require a large capital sum – I have heard one engineer say it could cost as much as £5million."

Cllr Hannon said there might also be a case for introducing electrically-powered sluice gates which could respond automatically to changes in water levels.

Cllr Ken Browse, chairman of Halberton parish council and a farmer, said there were "lots of questions to be answered" about the damage, but initially his time had been taken up with responding to the unfolding crisis.

He said: "We have not stopped since it started on Wednesday morning, when farmland nearby started flooding and we called for more help. We saw the wall collapse and we helped with the dams being put in right up until 3am the next morning."

Mr Browse said there had been a sense of inevitability about the embankment's collapse given the amount of erosion he witnessed. He said: "We knew it was going to happen sooner or later. We were doing everything we could to stop it happening but it was really just a damage limitation process."

He said it was too soon to say how long it would take to restore the canal or how it would be carried out, but the damage had left Halberton more cut off than ever. He said: "There is only a tiny bit of footpath left and the footpath will have to remain closed for some considerable time."

On Friday morning, the nearby road was closed again to allow for the movement of cattle so that they could be TB tested yesterday.

Nigel Cuthbert, who runs a business along the canal, Abbotshood Cycle Hire in Halberton, took the dramatic front page photograph of the moment the bank collapsed.

He said: "I walked up to the canal at about 7.50am on Wednesday and I saw then that parts were starting to leak and rangers were putting in stop boards. I did as much as I could to help but in the afternoon I could see things were deteriorating and took lots of pictures, including one which captured the first time the bank began to collapse about 200 yards from where I had first seen the rangers working to stop the leaks.

"It is very sad, there is a huge amount of damage. Lots of heavy machinery came in overnight and everyone was working to try and stop more water from flowing through the barriers."

He said he had watched further work taking place from his home, with tractors bringing more sandbags to the scene.

A Devon County Council spokesman said they had reacted as quickly as possible to the situation.

"The sluice gate near Halberton was open from Tuesday, but the volume of water entering the canal was unprecedented," he said.

"Rangers dammed the canal either side of the immediate problem area as soon as possible, to lessen the impact of the breach, and temporary dams stemming the escape of water from the canal have been successful."

Cllr Hannon praised everyone involved with the emergency response effort in the hours after the embankment collapsed. He said: "It was extremely fortunate that no-one was killed or badly injured."

The area around the breach has been cordoned off and people are advised to keep away.

The spokesperson said it was too soon to speculate what the cost of the damage is. "Work is still on-going. The priority is to deal with the situation and we will then assess the extent of the repairs needed and have a clearer idea then what the costs and timescales will be."

Grand Western Canal: HISTORY:

WORK on the Grand Western Canal began in 1810 as part of a scheme to link the Bristol and the English Channels.

At this time, ships had a hard time navigating the Cornish peninsula and an inland waterway was seen as a way of avoiding the perilous journey and to safely transport goods between the two channels.

The route was surveyed by engineer John Rennie who was renowned for his work on canals, aqueducts, bridges and dockyards.

Rennie also kept a watchful eye over the construction of the canal until 1814 when the section from Lowdwells to Tiverton was completed at a cost of £244,500.

Steep embankments were built and deep cuttings constructed to ensure the canal was level and Rennie’s design gave the waterway an uninterrupted stretch of more than 11 miles. It was later extended to join the Bridgwater and Taunton canal, which was opened in June, 1838, but plans to link the Grand Western Canal and the Exeter canal were eventually abandoned.

The canal was initially well-used, moving limestone and coal, but in 1865, the stretch between Lowdwells and Taunton was sold to the Bristol & Exeter Railway and the waterway was abandoned.

For a period, it was used for growing water lillies which were taken by train to London’s Covent Garden flower market.

Canal Disaster: TOURISM:

TIVERTON Canal Company owner Phil Brind said he was “hopping mad” the breach of the canal which provided his livelihood had occurred.

He said: “The canal is not like a river. It’s water levels can and are managed and have been extremely well managed for 200 years through a series of man made culverts and sluices.

“This tragedy at Halberton happened because the water levels were allowed to get to the level they did and I have never seen it at such a level in all my time at the canal. I don’t understand how it got to the level it did and I believe some very serious questions need to be raised and answered.”

Mr Brind pointed out that Mid Devon District Council had last month reduced its annual grant to the canal.

The canal is managed by Devon County Council, but the district council also supplies a small proportion of funding towards the waterway.

Last month, councillors at Phoenix House agreed a 10 per cent cut from £50,000 to £45,000 to its grant for the 2013-14 financial year.

Mr Brind said: “I have put in five years of my life since taking on the business and I care about the canal so it makes me so annoyed that Mid Devon District Council’s reaction is to cut funding to the canal, which is already managed on a shoestring.”

Mr Brind said he was concerned about the potential impact on tourism in Tiverton.

He said: “The canal brings a lot of visitors to the town, the good news as far as we are concerned is that our boats are floating and the horse drawn barge will be business as usual next year.

“You can go up as far as Tiverton road bridge and thankfully the boards were put in to prevent the breach from affecting us at this end of the canal.”

Mr Brind said he was calling for an emergency meeting of the joint advisory committee of the Grand Western Canal, a body which consists of various representatives of canal interests to discuss what had happened and what lessons could be learned.

Grand Western Canal collapse: EVACUATION:

HALBERTON residents who sought refuge in the village hall were entertained by a presentation on Iceland as the Grand Western Canal drained into nearby fields.

A meeting of the Women’s Institute remained uninterrupted on Wednesday evening while emergency services prepared the venue as a possible evacuation centre over fears of a second breach of the 200-year-old waterway.

Residents were concerned the south bank of the canal would also give way after a 100ft section on the north side collapsed under the weight of water from two days of torrential rain.

PCSO Adrian Legg, based in Cullompton, said: “We opened an incident room at the village hall and with thanks to the parish council, we prepared an evacuation centre – this allowed us to prepare for circumstances worse than those prevailing at the time.

“We only needed to accommodate four people and they had to share the hall with the WI which already had a booking.

“Those who were ‘evacuated’ had the chance to see a very detailed presentation on Iceland, so they watched that with members.

“And yes, they do still sing Jerusalem,” added PCSO Legg, who was in charge of the incident room.

Police worked alongside Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service, the Environment Agency, Devon County Council and Halberton Parish Council to reassure residents and make safe the canal which lost a two-mile stretch of water into nearby fields.

Engineers took to the skies with police to assess the risk potential from the air.

Engineers worked in pitch black conditions to stabilise the canal after a months’ worth of rain reportedly fell in 48 hours. They removed tonnes of earth at the site leaving a hole with the estimated height of a three-storey building.

Temporary dams were constructed to restrict the flow of escaping water, which at one stage was feared might cascade down into the village.

PCSO Aurea White, from Tiverton, attended the village in the first instance last Wednesday and decided residents and their properties were in potential danger.

Police are obliged to initiate such emergency centres and control them for an initial two hours before handing them over to the social services directorate of county councils, which looks after them for the long-term.

Fortunately, residents returned home after four hours of reassurance, warmth and refreshments.

PCSO Legg added: “Our remit was to reassure people and there was no panic, everybody was calm and rational and the people who came to the centre quite rightly wanted to be kept informed and were given regular updates on the scale of the incident.

“We really appreciate the cooperation of Halberton Parish Council and the Women’s Institute.”

Stephen Browse was among the eye witnesses and captured the breach on his mobile phone.

“It was quite frightening actually just seeing all of the earth erode away and it was like a big river flowing down,” he said.

John Lane also saw the disaster unfold and at the time raised concerns whether Devon County Council will ever be able to repair the damage caused.

He said: “The ground shook under my feet and I have never seen anything like it and I never will again. They will never be able to repair it. The soil just eroded and the canal was dropping. There were fish flying everywhere.”

Grand Western Canal collapse: WILDLIFE IMPACT:

THE Environment Agency is attempting to rescue fish from a lagoon which was created when the Grand Western Canal burst its banks.

Fields on the north side of the waterway’s towpath have been submerged by the breach and standing water is 17-feet deep in parts.

A number of fish including tench, roach, perch and pike were killed but thousands would have survived the disaster.

Agency spokesman Mike Dunning said: “This might take a few days, but we will attempt a fish rescue.

“The water that has come out of the canal and onto the field is 17-feet deep in places, so the fish have plenty of water for the time-being.

“The fire brigade, when it is safe to do so, will pump water from the lagoon either back into the canal or a river, which is not far away, and a small pond will be left so the fish can be safely removed.

“But the priority at the moment is people and their properties.”

There is a complication as the native fish will need to be separated from the sun bleak, an invasive species.

Ian Nadin, head bailiff for the Tiverton Angling Club, said members are working with the agency towards a solution but say it is too early to assess the environmental impact of the canal breach.

He said the club met last Friday and a number of anglers have volunteered to assist the agency in the fish rescue when conditions allow.

Mr Nadin, who runs Cullompton Carp and Coarse, High Street, described the canal as a “prolific fishery.”

He added: “At the moment, until we can assess what has been washed through, we have no idea of the environmental impact.

“But the plans are to try and recover fish from that lake, because not all of the fish that went through that gap are dead.

“Obviously, anything that feeds on fish are going to be affected and it will go right up through the food chain, but we don’t know how much has been lost.

“The canal does not have a flow normally and all of a sudden there was one, so it has disturbed sediment that possibly has not been moved for a long time.

“It was a tremendous event but we have a list of anglers who have volunteered their services but we just can’t get access at the moment, the lake is too deep and too big.”

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  • Bangtastic  |  November 28 2012, 8:34PM

    How about leaving it as it is, it wasnt really used that much anyway. Besides the 'wildlife' will adapt to it soon enough. Much better to use the £5 million where it could be put to good use, i.e. Hospitals, nurses etc.

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