by Roger Baker
Canal building in Cumbria has in general been limited by the difficult terrain which determined that both construction and maintenance would be uneconomic. Nevertheless, around the fringes, opportunities were taken to enjoy the reduced transport costs that canals brought with them and stimulate commercial activity in the local area. Just three canals were constructed:-
The Ulverston Canal, which opened in 1796, is only one and a half miles long from the entrance lock on the Leven Estuary to the commercial area of Canal Head beneath the town itself. It could take vessels of up to 400 tons, loading cargoes of iron ore, slate, stone and gunpowder from the town’s hinterland, in what was essentially an elongated harbour.
The Lancaster Canal, which opened in 1819, is sixty-seven and a quarter miles long from Kendal south to Wigan. From there coal could be brought north and other bulk cargoes such as lime and slate transported south. The canal stimulated industrial and commercial activity at places along its route, such as coke ovens at Crooklands and warehouses at Canal Head in Kendal. Packet boats for passengers ran between Kendal and Preston.
The Carlisle Canal was built to improve facilities for coastal craft from Liverpool, Ireland and Scottish ports already trading with the city via the Solway Firth and the River Eden. Various proposals were made, but the canal that opened in 1823 was eleven and a quarter miles long. From a wooden jetty at Fisher’s Cross, renamed port Carlisle, through the entrance lock and one other, the canal ran level for nearly six miles. Then followed six locks in one and a quarter miles, with a level stretch to Carlisle Basin. Packet boats and steamers ran to Liverpool from 1826. Despite plans for improvements to navigation along the estuary, and to the docks at the canal entrance, the canal succumbed to competition from the railways and suffered the ultimate fate of being drained, filled in and converted to railway use!
But now for something completely different …
There is one other ‘canal’ in Cumbria – the first three and a half miles of the Nent Force Level,which runs underground from Alston for five miles south-east to Nenthead.
The Level was intended to achieve two main aims – to drain both existing and any future mine workings in that area, and to intersect potentially profitable mineral veins (chiefly lead) beneath those currently exploited.
Construction was begun by the Greenwich Hospital, the land owners, in 1776 to dimensions of 3ft 6ins wide by 7ft high in order to accommodate a horse and wagon. By 1778, however, they had been persuaded to increase the size of the cut to 8ft by 8ft, although it was not until 1805 (after 29 years’ work) that the level was flooded to a depth of 4ft and boats used to remove spoil.
The Level continued to be driven forward, but with costs escalating and little return in terms of finding new sources of mineral wealth, the decision was taken to scale down the work. The canal eventually reached Nentsberry in 1824, and there it stopped – the direct extension to Nenthead (a further one and a half miles) was never built, although a link was made at a higher level and with reduced dimensions.
The canals of North West England : Charles Hadfield & Gordon Biddle, David & Charles, 1970
Kendal’s canal : John Satchell, Kendal Civic Society, 2000
The Carlisle Ship Canal, 1821-1853 : David Ramshaw, P3 Publications, 2013
The Nent Force Level and Brewery Shaft : Peter Wilkinson, North Pennines Heritage Trust, 2001
200 years of the Lancaster Canal – an illustrated history : Gordon Biddle, Pen & Sword Transport, 2018
(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 07/11/22)