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Canal Connections

Bringing the story of the Rochdale Canal to life

The Funders View

The Canal Connections project tells a remarkable story of a community's desire to see something it feels passionately about come to fruition. It has not been an easy journey. The group steering the project suffered a major funding set back mid way through the project, but despite this, they have continued, building an even stronger partnership to reach their goals. For the LEADER programme, this project has encapsulated community spirit and partnership working and it has delivered significant improvement to a heritage and tourism asset on the doorstep of a considerable number of towns and villages from east to west across the South Pennines. As such it has been a project which represents the true spirit of LEADER.  

Where is the Project?

The project has involved the Rochdale Canal as it climbs over the South Pennines from Littleborough in the west to Sowerby Bridge in the east. It has brought together the communities of Littleborough, Warland, Summit, Walsden. Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Luddendenfoot and Sowerby Bridge. 

The Project’s Story

For the last four years things have been happening on the Rochdale Canal within the South Pennines: a project called “Canal Connections” now forms part of the Canal’s amazing history in its own right. Four years ago a group of people felt that the story of the canal was little told, the towpath was often more watery than the actual canal, the verges were strewn with that stuff no one likes to tread in and getting onto and off the canal was often quite difficult. They set out to cure some of this – not all, as that would take an awful lot of money - but they tried very hard to use the money they had to sort out problems in some of the most heavily used sections.

So who are “they” in this story?

The biggest key player is the community. Local historians, boaters, canal users, visitors and community volunteers (OWLs as they are known) have all helped enormously in setting out the vision for the canal, inputting with facts, figures and photos and giving up enormous amounts of time to make the project a success. Other key players are Pennine Prospects who has brought in LEADER funding from Europe, Calderdale Council and Rochdale Council who have delivered the towpath improvement works and the Canal & River Trust who looks after the Canal on a day to day basis.

Why did they do this project?

Lots of people feel very passionately about their local stretch of canal and this whole project came about because people in local groups such as the Linear Park Group and the Town Teams for Sowerby Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, were asking for improvements to the Rochdale Canal. The wider community had also been asked many times, at events such as village fetes and festivals, or through specific consultation events in halls and libraries, what their priorities were for improving the canal. From these consultations the project’s steering group learnt that the most important things to focus on were;

i) Making conditions physically better for people visiting the canal – putting down new towpath surfacing and making some of the main town centre access points better in terms of steps and slopes.

ii) Trying to bring the whole canal story to life using different forms of interpretation to tell the story at different locations along the length of the canal

iii) Trying to use the canal in new ways, encouraging everyone to enjoy the canal and also to look after it themselves. 

Bringing the canal story to life

The canal story is fascinating. The Rochdale Canal was conceived in 1776 when a group of 48 eminent men from Rochdale raised £237 and commissioned James Brindley to conduct a survey of possible routes between Sowerby Bridge and Manchester. The Canal eventually opened in 1804 after ten years of construction to create the first navigable waterway across the Pennines between Yorkshire and Lancashire. Known as the "Everest" of canals, its dramatic construction over a watershed at 600ft using 92 locks was the catalyst for the industrial revolution in the South Pennines. The Canal became a living artery enabling the movement of power, wealth and influence throughout the Upper Calder Valley.

All along its length today there are still reminders of this amazing history from things as large as canalside mills, down to tiny grooves within lock-side stone caused by horse-rope movement. The challenge for the project was to expose and tell the immense story of the canal in a way that was interesting to all ages as well as reflecting and actually contributing to the history of the canal. Thus a series of artworks, poetry and information “totems” have been installed using cast iron and stone, materials closely connected to the area via its foundries and quarries, each revealing a different part of the story in a unique way. 

The results 

The steering group have documents the story of the project here. canal_connections_story_small.pdf 

The Project’s Vital Statistics

Project Outcomes and Outputs

This project focuses on the Rochdale Canal as a strategic tourism asset. When approached by the community with suggested projects on either side of the watershed in Greater Manchester and Yorkshire, the LAG worked strategically on a commissioned project.  Following research and visitor surveys the main priorities for visitors were improvements to access and conditions on the towpath in addition to more information on the history of the canal.  

The Canal is;

  • A national heritage asset: historically unique in a stunning setting
  • Well used despite the poor condition of the towpaths and associated facilities: 3.5 – 4 million people per year use the Canal
  • The focus of considerable community attention, with demands for investment and change.
  • On the doorstep of 6 large centres of population in the South Pennines
  • An underexploited tourism asset: £4.1M estimated net additional spend in the local economy attributed to the Canal, supporting 160 jobs & 313 tourism & leisure businesses

The Canal links the population centres on either side of the Pennines providing a heritage resource on peoples’ doorsteps that can be used as a greenway recreational route and learning resource. With over 7 million people within an hour’s drive of the South Pennines, the Canal has huge potential as an economic and tourism resource. The Canal will be one of the main accessible routes for cyclists and walkers at the Grand Depart of the Tour de France 2014.

The project has therefore focused on 4 key areas of activity;

  • The project has upgraded large stretches of the towpath from Littleborough through to Summit, continuing the Connect II work within the Rochdale townships. It also has delivered improvements through the town centres of Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and from Luddendenfoot through to Sowerby Bridge. The infrastructure works have involved improvements to access points and to the surface conditions of the towpath as well as improved seating areas and parking areas.
  • The project has developed a trail of distinctive interpretation sculptures along its length, creating new community spaces with improved access onto the canal and bringing the canal story to life.
  • Annual Canal Festivals have been held in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 primarily to raise awareness of the Canal and the activities provided by local businesses that are available on it. Over 9,700 people have attended these festivals and taken part in activity, heritage, learning and volunteering events.
  • Volunteer work parties have been established with dedicated volunteers (OWLs) adopting lengths of the canal for reporting of maintenance issues – a programme for training of unemployed young people is currently being developed.

As the project has only just been completed and has yet to be fully promoted during next year’s tourism season (during TDF), it is difficult to evaluate the true scale of its economic impact so the figures below assume only a modest 5% uplift. The Leader funding has been used to provide the core infrastructure investment that will allow increased economic activity to now take place.

Summary of Outputs

Project infrastructure investment from the Leader programme:                  £683,298 (5 years)
Businesses directly supported through involvement in the project:             36
Jobs indirectly supported:                                                                     168
Businesses indirectly supported:                                                           330
Additional net local spend indirectly supported:                                      £4.3M
Villages supported  :                                                                              9 

Through focused activity and a shared agenda, this has become perhaps one of the strongest partnership working projects of the programme, led by community vision and activism, technically delivered by supporting agencies resulting in a strong community-based legacy which will lead to improved management and maintenance of the tourism asset into the future.

Other sources of funding :

Main sources;

South Pennines Leader  – Leader funding is part of the Rural Development Programme for England which is jointly funded by Defra and the European Union and managed by Pennine Prospects. This was used for all parts of the project along the length of the canal because one of its categories for funding applications was “conservation and upgrading of the rural heritage”.

Sustrans Connect 2 – Connect 2 was a national lottery funded project delivering 79 sustainable transport schemes throughout the UK. This funding was used to fund towpath/cycleway improvements in Rochdale Borough Council area.

Local Transport Plan – The government provides funding to local transport authorities in England to help them develop their local transport services and improve and maintain their infrastructure. Both Rochdale Borough Council and Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council used some of their LTP funding allocations for canal towpath/cycleway improvements.

Canal & River Trust – In 2013, the government agreed a core grant to the Canal & River Trust for 15 years for maintenance and capital improvements to the waterways network. The Local Authorities (Calderdale, Rochdale, Oldham and Manchester) also contribute to the financial upkeep of the Rochdale Canal. The Canal & River Trust funding was used for washwall repairs and some towpath resurfacing.

Other sources;

A range of other small pots were used such as Awards for All, grants from the Environment Agency, funding from the Rochdale Canal Society. These were used to deliver activities, particularly parts of the annual Rochdale Canal Festival – now the year-long South Pennines Ring events programme. 

Volunteer labour has and will continue to form an important part of the funding jigsaw. There is simply not enough funds available to upgrade the entire length of the Rochdale Canal towpath in the South Pennines and so the work of the dedicated volunteers is vital to secure ongoing improvements in many locations.

Sustainability :  Different parts of the project have been managed and delivered by different organisations at different times, and this way of working will continue into the future. Canal Connections is a long-term vision for improving the Rochdale Canal – the partnership remains committed to continuing to try and find funding to improve the Canal as a heritage asset for the communities that live, work and travel along its length.