Concerns for Finow Canal

We are unequivocally supporting the efforts by the association Unser Finowkanal to secure the future of this important heritage waterway, bypassed by the modern Havel-Oder Waterway.

The Federal Government has declared its intention to close the canal for navigation, convert the locks into weirs and maintain the channel exclusively for drainage.

The only way to avoid this scenario is to secure funding for the considerable investment of €75 million, to cover all costs, particularly to restore the locks. To date, all the locks have been operated each season, using unemployed from the local job centre (and two voluntary lock-keepers), but some repairs have become too urgent, and there is at present no authority nor any funding in place to implement them.

A boat rally celebrates the opening of the Finow Canal for the 2015 season. The association Unser Finowkanal continues its campaign for maintenance and regular operation of the canal, which the Federal waterway authority wishes to hand over to the region.

A boat rally celebrates the opening of the Finow Canal for the 2015 season. The association Unser Finowkanal continues its campaign for maintenance and regular operation of the canal, which the Federal waterway authority wishes to hand over to the region.

If one of the 12 historic locks fails, the canal will no longer be available as a through route, and the direct and indirect economic benefits of waterway tourism will be lost to the Eberswalde/Niederfinow region.

The municipalities of the Finowkanal region are under pressure to make a decision by January 2016, for or against their share in the necessary investment, and the issue is being firecely debated. On December 17, the Eberswalde council – with the biggest share in the project – will cast its vote. Only if all the local councils vote in favour of the canal investment will it become feasible to set up a public body to take over operation of the canal.

Investors need to be certain that the future of the canal is guaranteed, Under Federal government ownership, there are no opportunities for commercial activities at the locks or along the banks, volunteer lock-keepers are refused, and the risk of failure of the locks continues to hamper any development.

But regional decision-makers are procrastinating, and most of the officials in the Finow Canal regional working group are keeping a low profile, for fear of being held responsible for the failure to take over the canal.

Some councils are leaning towards rejection of the takeover because of the lack of evidence of the benefits that tourism could bring to the region, justifying their entrenched resistance to change.

Unser Finowkanal president Hartmut Ginnow-Merkert has made a plea for support: if you feel it is important to maintain continuous navigability of the Finow canal, comment here!

Sonia Rolt OBE – 1919-2014


Sonia Rolt on the narrowboat Nutfield in the opening parade of boats at the 2006 Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally

Sonia Rolt – known to many on the canals simply and affectionately as ‘Sonia’ – died peacefully in hospital on 22 October, after a short illness at the age of 95. Her death has meant the passing of the last of the Idle Women who was still actively involved with the canals. In her 96th year, Sonia attended the Hay Literary Festival in May, where the 70th anniversary of her late husband Tom Rolt’s great work, Narrow Boat was celebrated in style. The Chairman of the CRT Tony Hales was amongst the many in attendance. Hales then made a videoed interview, which is a fitting testament to her. Then as late as August, Sonia gave an interview to Canal Boat magazine for its back page ‘Twenty Questions’ which appeared in its November issue. For those who knew her, her energy and passion for life never ceased to amaze, and remained with her almost to her end.

Her first husband, the boatman George Smith, with whom she was married from 1945 until 1951 also died recently, in 2012, aged 97. His death ironically also removed another link to the canal past. Born in 1915, he was then probably the last boatman with active memories of post-WWI horse-boating with his father on the BCN, and the General Strike of 1926. He was also one of the few boatmen who still had memories of working the boats as an adult in WWII. Like Sonia, his mind remained clear, almost to his end, and even in his 96th year he attended the opening of the Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally, insisting on joining the opening parade on President and then telling the captain how to steer the boat!

Sonia is principally remembered for her two years or so working as an Idle Woman – the female middle class volunteers who worked as boatmen during WWII. In her case it was with two fellow acting friends – with whom she lived in a flat in Knightsbridge and all of them then working in the converted Hoover factory making parts for aircraft. They saw an advertisement for female volunteers to work as canal boat-women, and saw it as a means of escape. As they had passed the brief training period, which the boatmen had taken a lifetime to learn, they were put in charge of a pair of GUCCC boats, the Moon and the Phobos – which were to become at once their home and workplace for the next two years. Sonia commented, ‘I found the work exhausting but liberating. Perhaps because I was an orphan with a nomadic upbringing, I thought the boatmen had something I hungered after. I soon made friends with the boaters and the people along the bank.’

One of the reasons Sonia & Co did survive was the great help and kindness they received from the working boatmen, and in particular George Smith and his brothers. In her hand-written message read for her at George’s funeral, she said, ‘He always welcomed the new and gained enjoyment and amusement from it. The trainee boat women of the time could vouch for his kindness and helpfulness.’

However Sonia was reticent in speaking more than generally about those days, and never specifically about how she met and later married George Smith on 1st September, 1945, and for six years became a full time boatwoman, nor about how things fell apart. Despite her considerable literary skills, she never wrote about those days.

Sonia is also remembered for involvement with and later her marriage to the author Tom Rolt. Just when they met is questionable. Tom had co-founded the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and was keen amongst other things to help save canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen – something Sonia was already committed to, having campaigned for this in the 1945 July ‘khaki’ General Election.

Sonia in about June 1945 drawing political slogans on the cabin of her GUCCC motor Phobos. It was her political activism that attracted her to the newly founded IWA as being able to give articulate representation for saving canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen. It was through her time on the IWA committee that her relationship developed with the canal author and co-IWA founder Tom Rolt.

Sonia in about June 1945 drawing political slogans on the cabin of her GUCCC motor Phobos. It was her political activism that attracted her to the newly founded IWA as being able to give articulate representation for saving canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen. It was through her time on the IWA committee that her relationship developed with the canal author and co-IWA founder Tom Rolt.

He invited her to join the IWA committee which met in the winter months at co-founder Robert Aickman’s flat in Gower Street, London, where a deep friendship developed, a world away from her life on the canals with the working boatmen.

In 1951 Sonia left George and the canals for her new life with Tom. Their combined energy was extraordinary, and the first major project was saving the Talyllyn Railway, when they lived in a caravan for the first re-opened season, with Tom driving the trains and Sonia manning the ticket office. And there were many other incredible achievements. Though Tom had almost left the English canals, and there is only one record of a later visit which was to the Pontycysyllte Aqueduct, he did continue to write extensively about them, including his Landscape with Canals, published in 1977, which covered his canals years up to 1951, but in which Sonia surprisingly did not receive a single mention. He also wrote books on several other subjects, writing 41 books in all. He lived almost solely off his writings, in which he had the full and attentive support of Sonia.

Tom died in 1974, after he and Sonia had been together for a mere 23 years, and she was only 53. She dedicated her remaining forty years of life working for the causes they had been involved in together.

A change was to happen to Sonia’s life in 1993, when David Stevenson, who was Chairman on the IWA from 1989 to 1994 (the president of IWI from 1997 to 2000) persuaded the Council of the IWA to reinstate as honorary members a number of former members who had been thrown out by the at times Putinesque co-founder Robert Aickman. One was Sonia, and she responded with conciliatory glee, and she was soon made a Vice-President, and was very much in demand.

Sonia was to reward his foresight and friendship when in the Spring of 2011, she invited him to join her and her two sons when she went to Windsor Castle to receive her OBE from the Queen – ‘for services to industrial archaeology and heritage’. Sonia was by then too frail to walk any distance, and attended the investiture in a wheelchair. She afterwards quipped about her condition: ‘I blame it on my seven years on the boats. I was never brought up to do that.’

In December 2012, she also asked David Stevenson to represent her at George’s funeral, and read a neatly hand-written message from her: ‘I am sad to think George Smith has gone […] He was an amazing man, handsome, strong and well set up […] The trainee boat women of the time could vouch for his kindness and helpfulness. I am sure these traits sustained him and persisted throughout his very long life. It will make him long remembered and spoken of. God Bless him!’

Sonia made many friends on the canals, not only in Europe, but also North America and Australia. Amongst her tributes was one from her good friend Tom Grasso, President of the Canal Society of New York State: ‘She was the First Lady of the English canals’.

© Tim Coghlan 3/11/2014
(obituary originally written for the Historic Narrowboat Owners Club)

Water conveyors and waterways in Lombardy

A sense of urgency permeates the air in Lombardy as well as in neighbouring Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto regions, regarding Italy’s network of navigable canals and rivers. What reality will be revealed to the world of inland waterway specialists and advocates, meeting in Milan on September 1st for the 27th World Canals Conference? It is a reality of water conveyors and waterways, in places going their separate ways, but often combined within the same bed. Waterway cross-roads, intakes, siphons, spillways, aqueducts are the nodes of an intricate network spun across the Lombardy plain, and nothing is simple. Even Italy’s second biggest Alpine lake, Lago Maggiore, is used as a reservoir and drawn down by as much as 1.50m to secure irrigation water supplies during a dry summer.

Article in La Stampa

The ambitious project to restore navigation between Lago Maggiore (Locarno) and the river Po is regularly covered by the regional and national Press. This article focuses on work to start soon on a new lock at Porto della Torre, on the Piedmont bank of the Ticino

It is nearly 20 years since IWI’s founders attended a conference in Milan on the ‘civilisation of water and waterways’ and the heritage left by Leonardo da Vinci and other great Italian engineers. At that time a grouping of Rotary clubs in the Adda valley was actively promoting restoration of the locks on the Adda as well as the Naviglio di Paderno (followed by the Martesana towards Milan). The campaign sadly lost momentum after the president Mario Roveda died of a heart attack in 1997, but IWI, represented in Italy by industrial archeology expert Edo Bricchetti, has constantly been supporting the regional initiatives in favour of a navigable system serving ‘slow’ tourism and appreciation of the extraordinary heritage and environment of the canal corridors.

Navigli Lombardi was founded to drive these efforts, but does not manage the canals themselves; that is the prerogative of the Consorzio Villoresi, which has the concession from the Region to manage the water resource and supply the many needs of agriculture, industry and the population. This means that the ‘water conveyor’ function has priority here, in the same way as it has priority on another famous southern European canal, the Canal de Castilla in Spain.

Despite this priority, politicians in Milan and across the plain, including the neighbouring regions, are massively in favour of restoring and adapting the 1000-year legacy of canals and controlled rivers, to make navigation once again a regular form of mobility in both urban and rural areas.

Turbigo spillway

This spillway in Turbigo is only one part of a complex junction between the ‘industrial canal’ and the Naviglio Grande

Achieving this goal means compromises and concessions. As climate change increases the pressure on water resources, it is likely to become increasingly difficult to obtain management of water channels that is compatible with navigability, even by professional helmsmen. Another difficulty faced by all players in Lombardy is a certain degree of confusion in the minds of Milanese citizens, possibly even some planners and architects, between water conveyors and waterways. This is only the briefest of introductions to a fascinating story that will be told here in the coming days and weeks… background notes for the discussions during the World Canals Conference and the pre- and post-conference tours. (to be continued)
David Edwards-May

What future for Canal du Midi?

VNF’s summary report on its activities in 2012 devotes one of its 10 chapters to the tree-replanting programme and corporate patronage approach to funding the €200 million restoration of the Canal du Midi’s characteristic landscape.

VNF's new logo

VNF has a logo which keeps the old, enriching it with evocative graphics by Philippe Apeloig

VNF reports (in its New Year press release) that it felled 1668 plane-trees condemned by canker stain in 2012, and replanted 68: the uninformed reader immediately sees a ‘deficit’ of 1600 trees. This sad statistic, however inevitable in view of the experimental nature of the first replanting operations, is like a wake-up call. The tree-felling and replanting debate – and the questions surrounding the should not become an excuse for inaction in other areas.
This is one of many concerns expressed by the Toulouse Waterway Information Network, a grouping of waterway interests in SW France. The network (Réseau Fluvial Toulousain) is challenging local and regional politicians to come up with a robust and workable plan to develop the waterway economy. It is convinced that France in general – and in this case SW France – possesses unique skills, resources and capability to make the canal economy more vibrant, and create more jobs, generate more income.
They say this is what the World Canals Conference* should be all about, and call for a debate to be held in the context of this international conference, a debate which should leave no stone unturned in the search for viable management models and economic development for our canals and rivers.
A properly-planned future for the Canal des Deux Mers should be an issue in the 2014 municipal elections, and the réseau hopes that candidates will state their positions in their manifestos.
* Salons Vanel, Toulouse, 16-19 septembre 2013 – see the WCC web site

Move for restoration of Locarno-Milan waterway

Claudio Repossi of Navigli Lombardi reports on a series of events to raise awareness of the historic, cultural and recreational values of the Locarno (Switzerland) to Milan waterway via the river Ticino.

As part of the joint Italian-Swiss project Intrecci sull’acqua – or Dialogue on the Water – a series of initiatives have been launched, including guided tours of the area and pleasure boating on Lago Maggiore (Verbano), along what is known as the ancient ‘Marble Route’.
(supplying marble for the construction of Milan’s cathedral).

Events planned for the weekends of July, August and September were organised thanks to an agreement between the municipalities involved, the Lombardy Region, the Province of Novara and Navigli Lombardi, the last of which has been active for years with its passenger boat service on the Ticino running between Sesto Calende and the Miorina Barrage (and former lock).

Miorina Lock and Dam

Miorina Lock and Dam on the Ticino River in Lombardy, on the 'Marble Route' (photo © Vito Antongiovanni)

The project includes navigation on the Ticino and on the Lake, partially covering the route taken of old by the barges that carried the precious construction material along the lake-river-canal waterway to Milan.

Today the former waterway is no longer navigable throughout, but great efforts are being made, at a time of crisis in public finances, to reopen it. Miorina lock on the Ticino has recently been restored to working order, and the Panperduto dam, machine hall and adjacent lock are also being rehabilitated. Begun in 2011, the works are financed by Lombardy Region, Consorzio Villoresi, Navigli Lombardi and the electricity utility ENEL, and are to be completed in 2013. Piedmont Region for its part is gathering the funds necessary for the restoration of the Porto della Torre barrage.

Once the works to restore the hydraulic structures on the Ticino are finished, it will be possible to navigate from Lago Maggiore to the start of the Industrial Canal, with four locks to restore as the last obstacle before the final link-up with the Naviglio Grande and Milan.  The Naviglio Grande is already navigable from Turbigo to Cuggiono, albeit with some size limits.

With Expo 2015 in view, an accord for an integrated plan for maintenance of the infrastructure of Milan’s canals and for the valorization of the Navigli and Lombardy waterways as an asset to tourism, the environment and culture, was promoted in May this year by the Lombardy Region, Consorzio Villoresi and Navigli Lombardi. Also involved are the Park management bodies for the Adda Nord Park, the Ticino Park, and the South Milan Agricultural Park. The programme, requiring an investment of around €20million for works to be carried out by June 2015, proposes substantial repairs to the banks of the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Martesana. It has among its primary objectives the promotion of a Leonardo da Vinci cultural tourism trail along the Lombardy waterways where he experimented successfully with some of the most brilliant hydraulic inventions: the lock flight, the Da Vinci lock and its characteristic stepped upper sill. It also aims to promote the ‘Feed the Planet’ programme, principal theme of the 2015 Milan Expo.

Kindly translated by Maggie Armstrong, ‘Spigolizzi’

Panperduto dam

Panperduto dam and Villoresi hydropower plant on the Ticino, with one of the lock-gate winding capstans in the foreground (photo © Zilvana)

Canal & River Trust launched

The British Government placed 2000 miles of canals and rivers in trust for the nation, as the new charity, the Canal & River Trust, was launched on July 12. The trust takes over responsibility for the canals of England and Wales from British Waterways, 50 years after the British Waterways Board was founded in 1962.

C&RT and BW logos

Canal & River Trust logo compared to the British Waterways logo used since 1981

The change in governance had been planned for several years, as reported in IWI’s publications. The logo neatly adapts the traditional BW humped-back bridge, which had been the public corporation’s logo since 1981. The swan represents the environmental quality and values of the waterways more dynamically and actively than the reeds.

The focus in launching the charity is on the 10 million ‘users and lovers of the canals’ who will have an opportunity to play a greater role in securing their future, through the Trust. The Trust’s first patron is HRH The Prince of Wales, who recorded a welcome speech on June 12. Poet Ian McMillan also wrote an evocative poem for the occasion, ‘Canal Life‘, suggesting that canals hang in that place between memories and water.

Half the population of the UK lives within five miles of a Canal & River Trust waterway. The system has 1569 locks.

The sober statement on the British Waterways web page says that the corporation ceased to exist in England and Wales on July 2. In Scotland British Waterways continues to exist as a legal entity caring for the canals under the trading name ‘Scottish Canals‘.

The Trust has also taken over BW’s information portal

We wish the Canal & River Trust every success!

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage site, at a son et lumière celebration on July 12. The event celebrated creation of the CRT and the 3rd anniversary of listing of the site (shared by Rachel Allen)


Lot restoration progress in 2012


In the earlier post on the river Lot we mentioned the elimination of Escambous lock in the navigable length centred on Puy-l’Évêque. This means dredging and rock-blasting to eliminate the weir beside this lock, to provide a navigable channel. The département Lot is now carrying out these works under a four-month contract, at a cost of €750 000. Dredging is also needed in the Floiras and Castelfranc reaches. In all, 5000 m3 of rock and sediment will be cleared to make the channel. Another €1.8m contract for restoration of the 17th century Floiras Lock is nearing completion. The lock-gates are being installed and the lock will be operational this autumn. These works will add about 10km to this navigable secion of the Lot, to make a total of 40 km. Complementary dredging in the Orgueil reach will be undertaken in 2013 to ensure navigability through to Fumel dam.

€200m to replant the Midi

A report commissioned by former prime minister François Fillon has delivered its verdict on the scale of works required to restore the Canal du Midi‘s priceless tree canopy. The 42,000 plane trees (82% of the trees lining the banks) are being decimated by canker stain. Despite a range of preventive measures and careful felling of the affected trees, the whole population of plane trees east of Carcassonne is practically condemned. VNF, managing this UNESCO world heritage site, developed a plan for regeneration in close collaboration with the Government’s High Commission on Sites and Landscapes (CSSP), but the report suggests intensifying the campaign to fell the diseased trees and replant resistant species throughout the length of the canal over a much shorter time-frame than initially envisaged: 10 years.

Chatillon Report Cover Photo

The immemorial landscape of the Canal du Midi lined by plane-trees features on the cover of the Chatillon report

The cost to covered over the 10 years is estimated at €200 million, and breaks down as follows:
• €79 M (just under 40%) for the tree felling (this concerns not only the trees lining the canal but also the bordering woodland areas; in all, 4000 trees to be cut down per year, with a dedicated staff of 64 tree surgeons),
• €44 M (22%) for replanting trees lining the canal, including 2 years of maintenance,
• €72M (36%) for bank protection works,
• €4M (2%) for preventive measures: research and development and protection of roots in the non-contaminated areas.
This evaluation does not include the costs of prospection, monitoring and trimming the trees as required over a period of 15 to 20 years to form the characteristic canopy.

New plane trees at Trebes

Newly planted plane trees at Trèbes, at intervals of 7m

The new report was commissioned from Haute-Garonne Senator Alain Chatillon, who is also the mayor of Revel, in the heart of the canal’s feeder system at the foot of the Montagne Noire.

The Government wanted a broader strategic view of the issues raised by the environmental disaster which sent a huge shock through all involved in managing the waterway.

The first conclusion is that both the tree felling and the replanting should be moved forward more rapidly. VNF is currently dealing with 300 trees per year.

But the Chatillon report seeks above all to justify the investment, to better define the canal’s values, to identify means of funding the works and to prepare for long-term governance of the waterway.

The socio-economic benefits of the canal through recreational use and tourism on the water and on the banks have been documented for many years, and are undisputed. But the rapporteur implies that there is inadequate ‘bundling’ of the canal into broader-based tourism products through the corridor, which should be considered like a ‘valley’.
He fears that transformation of the canal’s landscape will have a negative impact on the canal’s image and use in the coming years, and suggests that planning should start without delay, to adapt to the probable changes in visitor’s use patterns. He also feels that the canal’s parallel functions of irrigation and water supply should receive more strategic attention.

Funding the works – Chatillon suggests that one third of the cost should be covered by the State, one third by the regions (including EU funding and interregional cooperation projects supported by INTERREG), and the last third by corporate patronage. The State part could be achieved through an increase in the boat licences paid for the canal (an extra €200 000 per year) through VNF, and application of a visitor’s tax per night, as applied for hotel nights. More value should be extracted from properties within the canal’s estate, he suggests.

Corporate patronage incentives – Alain Chatillon sees considerable potential for attracting funds from the private sector. The UNESCO listing will give contributors worldwide visibility, and the population is genuinely attached to the canal through its history and as a tourism asset. Corporate patronage could be boosted by the tax reduction of 60% to be claimed on contributions. The tax rebate is even higher for individual contributions (66%).

Scenarios for developing patronage – The idea is eventually to create a trust, which could be part of a national heritage foundation. In the meantime, a public subscription offer could be set up to attract funds from the general public, while a club of canal patrons could be the first stage in promoting the principle of patronage, eventually leading to a strong patronage offer associated with the tasks of preserving and restoring the canal’s environmental and cultural heritage.

Canal marketing – Chatillon is convinced that the canal’s tourism-based economy can only survive if it is associated with a clearly identifiable mark, supported by a seal of approval (‘label’ in French). This is the only weak link in an otherwise well-structured and well-argumented report, because no orientation is suggested. Marketing initiatives taken by VNF and the three regions have to date produced limited results, especially at the international level. The information portal Rivières et Canaux du Midi does not even have an English version! This is European and regional funds poorly spent.

Three scenarios for future governance

Plane trees being felled

Plane trees being felled on the canal east of Carcassonne (photo P. Saliba, © Midi Libre)

The report examines three possible scenarios. The plane-tree replanting programme has highlighted the difficulty in taking measures with such a complex and multi-layered network of stakeholders, and a common structure is now increasingly urgent, not just on the Canal du Midi but throughout the ‘Deux Mers’ route and its connecting waterways.

Scenario 1 – VNF continues to manage the waterway. The partners sign a co-funding agreement for 15 years; in return, they are fully associated in the decision-making process, and have clearly defined tasks to perform. Complete transparency is essential for this approach to work, to ensure that the regions and the other stakeholders feel a genuine sense of ownership of the canal. This scenario has the advantage of avoiding any interruption in management, and being quick to implement.
Scenario 2 – A new structure is set up, such as a mixed economy corporation (‘Société d’Économie Mixte’) or a Public Interest Grouping (GIP), which would collect the public funding for the canal’s environmental functions: the tree-planting and water resources. This organisation, as project authority or ‘owner’ for the projects thus funded, possibly with VNF as contracting agency, would at last embody the effective cooperation among the three regions Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon.
Scenario 3 – The most ambitious scenario involves setting up an independent interregional body for development of the Canal des Deux Mers. This would have the strongest identity, and would be focused on local development, animation and enhancement of the canal. It would cover the three essential missions of a waterway authority:
- environmental (tree-planting and water resources),
- managing the waterway property and economic development,
- tourism development based on the ‘valley concept’ (on and around the water).
The funders would bring together all players wishing to be involved in these three fields of action, and would delegate their authority to a management body. The transfer of these responsibilities to an interregional agency has proved to be successful at a smaller scale. Our member the Entente Vallée du Lot is an example. This new entity would effectively coordinate the three missions, each performed by specific operators. This could be the new ‘founding act’ of the canal, just as the White Paper laid valid foundations, albeit with inadequate results, in 1996.

Senator-Mayor Alain Chatillon

Alain Chatillon, senator of Haute-Garonne, mayor of Revel, author of the report

Watch out for further information and updates on this issue of heritage canal governance which is critical for French waterways in general!



Our thanks to the Réseau Fluvial Toulousain for drawing our attention to the press conference.

Lille’s canal revival on hold

What does Lille, the historic capital of Flanders, have in common with Milan and Tokyo? Or even with The Hague, featured in this blog a few days ago?

It is a city that is determined to revive its historic intimacy with water, or what our Lombardy friends elegantly describe as la civiltà delle acque, or civilisation centred on water. This means reversing the trend which started in the years after World War II – covering or infilling small canals, or piping underground small streams – justified at the time by two benefits: public hygiene, and more roads for vehicle traffic.

Porte d'eau, Lille

The Porte d'eau or 'water gate' on the old river Deûle in Lille

In recent years, Lille’s Mayoress Martine Aubry has seen many reports pointing to the role revitalised canals could play in the city’s development, but the current ambitious plans date roughly from the time the Canal de Roubaix restoration was being completed, in 2009. The EU Blue Links project is a separate story, but it is clear that the remarkable success of that restoration and the Blue Days festivities in September 2009 gave new impetus to the plans being designed by the city of Lille and the Metropolitan District Lille-Métropole.

As long ago as 1994, working with Mark Lloyd of EuroWaterways Ltd, I wrote of the benefits of opening up Lille’s old canal arms, and architect Roger Beckett showed in some simple drawings how the canal basin in Lomme could become a vibrant boat harbour and urban centre. Since then, how many boats have given Lille a wide berth, skirting round the Citadelle on the high-capacity waterway, without realising what they were missing, or simply regretting that nothing had been done to welcome them in the city?

Map from Inland Waterways of France (2010) showing the old and modern routes of the river Deûle through the city

Determined to implement the proposals of the successive studies, Mayoress Aubry and her council opted for the most ambitious and costly of the three canal arms, the Vieille Deûle, penetrating into the historic city centre. As shown on the map, this involves a new cut to link with the Deûle, part of a local regeneration project called ‘Cœur de Deûle’, and re-excavation of the cut south from the historic Porte d’eau (now a major cross-roads) towards the church of Notre Dame de la Treille. Three design-and-build consortia were selected from six projects, and invited to prepare detailed designs and costings.

Winning design by the Sogea consortium

The winning design for the Vieille Deûle restoration has this straight length of canal past the former Comtesse hospital

In the meantime, I was in another consultancy group advising Lille on an overall master plan for water in the city. I observed that it was unfortunate to spend €40 million on this branch, however spectacular for the city centre, while not treating the other arms, where it seemed more value could be derived from smaller investments.

In essence, the counter-proposal was to restore the link between the Moyenne Deûle south of the Citadelle and the modern waterway downstream of the Grand Carré Lock, also developing a boat harbour with all services in the canal basin at Lomme. But the issue of priorities was not the only reservation to be expressed. Councillors faced unexpected opposition to the project at public meetings. Local inhabitants were concerned about car parking, the risk of flooding their cellars (unrelated to the project, but it is hard to overcome prejudices and perceptions); there was also scepticism about the usefulness of the canal arm. Finally, Lille politics clouded the issue. Outlying communes in the metropolitan district felt that the investment was going to benefit the central commune of Lille, and should be balanced by other investments to boost waterway tourism throughout the network. This is the purpose of the Plan Bleu for Lille Métropole, in which I have also been involved, with landscape architect Alfred Peter.

To cut a long story short, the Vieille Deûle project through to the Avenue du Peuple Belge has been put on hold, while the overall strategy of the Plan Bleu is defined and eventually approved by elected representatives throughout the metropolitan area, from the Belgian border and the pastoral landscapes of the Lys valley in the north to the former coal mining belt in the south.

Lille and the Deûle/Marque river basin

The projects in the city of Lille (green rectangle) will now be part of a wider overall plan for the waterways throughout the metropolitan area

This means that boaters will also have to wait for a few more years, while these plans mature and are implemented, hopefully with less political wrangling and a clearer understanding of how all these canal projects are in the common interest of the population and tourists throughout the region.

Once this understanding has been reached, and the Plan Bleu approved, the Vieille Deûle project will be back on the agenda, and should hopefully be completed in the medium term. In the meantime, the old route round the Citadelle, via La Barre lock, should be back on the map! This will complement another major tourism and heritage project in the open space between Vauban’s fort and the city centre.

The Hague’s canal ring revived

‘Small is beautiful’ could be a motto for canals, especially in cities. And this simple precept is now being followed in the Netherlands with spectacular results. This was the main lesson learned during the EU Waterways Forward partnership meeting in The Hague on May 30th-June 1st.

During the first day of proceedings, May 31st, delegates discovered the ambitious canal restoration plans of South Holland and the association of local authorities RegioWater. The above extract from their planning map shows the remarkable density of ‘water routes’ which could potentially be opened up to navigation in boats of the appropriate dimensions. The green lines are all routes not normally available to recreational boats, while the crosses mark specific obstacles to be lifted, usually very low fixed bridges. The one furthest to the west, the Moerbrug, is said to be too low even for swans to pass under!

Ooievaart boat trip in The Hague

The Ooievaart boat trip starts from the Hooikade

A vivid demonstration of the issues – and the potential – was provided in the afternoon, as the 25-strong delegation (with members from the UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Norway and Serbia, as well as the host country) embarked on two open trip-boats run by the association Ooievaart, to discover the ring of canals (green on the map, beside the name Den Haag).

Despite rain of similar intensity to that experienced by the million visitors at the Thames Pageant for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee three days later, the 90-minute trip was both entertaining and instructive, as the history of the capital was explained street by street, bridge after bridge. Entertainment came from the numerous covered sections of the canals, where we all had to bend over completely to squeeze under beams, pipes and other protruding parts. It was like being in a surgeon’s probe, exploring the entrails of The Hague.

The Hague canal tunnel

Atmosphere in one of the tunnelled sections of the canal ring

And lo and behold! Structures were already in place to start implementing the RegioWater plan by removing the canal’s cover, to expose it and restore it to its rightful place in the urban environment. As in Lille and in Leipzig, the argument for covering the canals (or infilling them completely) was salubrity, in the absence of proper sewerage systems. With proper sewerage, water quality is now very good.

Covered section in the new centre of The Hague

Entering the covered section in the new centre of The Hague

The idea, as the IWI tour discovered in Leipzig in April 2011, is to use the opportunity of maintenance or replacement works to raise the bridges and increase the available headroom.

This means that navigability in larger craft can only be a long-term objective, but the process is to be hailed, as well as the opportunities for exploring such canals in small craft.

Forty years after I was blocked in a hireboat on the canal route south from Groningen to Coevorden, which had just been closed, the phase of economic development which led to the abandonment of so many small canals has clearly come to an end. ‘Small canals’ are now being revived on a significant scale, in both town and country.