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The National Waterways Festival

PUBLISHED: 11:26 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

The Steamboat Inn by Trent Lock

The Steamboat Inn by Trent Lock

The National Inland Waterways Festival comes to the county's southern border this month.

Hundreds of boats from canals and rivers all over the country will be converging on the River Soar near Kegworth, just over the county's border with Nottingham, for the August Bank Holiday weekend. They're heading for The Inland Waterways Association's National Waterways Festival, an annual event which takes place at a different location each year - and this year it's the turn of Redhill Marina to host the country's biggest inland waterways event.

It's a good place for boats to converge on, as it's just half a mile from Trent Lock, a great waterways crossroads where routes from the north, south, east and west all meet. And they're four very different and contrasting waterways.

Boats coming from the north west and midlands will arrive from the west via the Trent & Mersey Canal. Opened in 1777, this was one of the first main long distance canals, and was conceived by the famous canal engineer James Brindley as part of his plan to create a 'Grand Cross'' of waterways linking the Trent, Severn, Mersey and Thames. With 76 locks and the 13/4-mile Harecastle Tunnel it was an engineering marvel of its day. Today it's hard to comprehend that the winding, largely rural route with its pretty bridges and narrow locks was once the waterway equivalent of the A50, but in its day it supplied the industries of the Potteries with coal, china clay and lime, and took the finished products away. On its way to Trent Lock it also passes through Britain's beer capital Burton on Trent, crosses the River Dove on an aqueduct and forms the centrepiece of the canal village of Shardlow before joining the River Trent for the last couple of miles to the festival site.

Visitors cruising to the festival from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire will approach via a very different waterway - the River Trent. Canal narrowboats and river cruisers will mingle with seagoing craft on what is one of the great rivers of England. Until relatively recently they would also have been sharing the river with cargo-carrying barges, but nowadays commercial freight traffic is largely limited to the lower tidal reaches of the river below Newark. The problem is the size of the locks and bridges: even at 300 tons, the maximum size of barge that can reach Nottingham would struggle to compete economically with modern lorries and freight trains. However, there is a proposal to rebuild the river to double this size in an attempt to encourage freight back off the roads.

At Nottingham, boats leave the river to pass through the city on a loop of canals: a surviving fragment of the former Nottingham Canal which once ran through to Langley Mill but now ends at Lenton, and the Beeston Cut which links Lenton to the River Trent at Beeston. A final few miles of the river lead to Trent Lock and Redhill.

A third route to Redhill comes in from the south. Now usually referred to as the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal, this route was built in four stages - two canals, and two lengths of the River Soar - and leaves the Grand Union Main Line at Norton Junction in Northamptonshire. Boats coming up from London and the South will use this route to get to the Festival, climbing the flight of locks at Watford and crossing the remote countryside of the Leicester Summit. They will descend the staircase locks at Foxton, where an inclined plane boat lift once speeded working narrowboats on their way, and work their way down the many locks to Leicester. There they will join the River Soar, a very different river from the Trent. The Soar meanders its way northwards, the sweeping curves of the natural river alternating with canal sections as it passes through Sileby, Loughborough and Kegworth to reach Redhill.

The final route to Redhill is the Erewash Canal. Opened in 1779, this served the industries of the Erewash Valley from Langley Mill down to Trent Lock. Unlike the largely rural Trent & Mersey, the Erewash follows a route that still shows many signs of industry today, passing the site of the huge Stanton ironworks and the tall mill chimneys of Sandiacre on its route southwards. Now that working boats have been replaced by pleasure craft it's the quietest of the four routes to Trent Lock, for various reasons. Firstly, to be blunt, an industrial valley in the East Midlands isn't everyone's idea of a holiday destination - although our industrial waterways do have their aficionados - including the author. And secondly unlike the other three routes it's a dead end, so the boaters approaching the festival from this direction will mainly be those whose home mooring is at Langley Mill. Again, cul-de-sac canals have their supporters among canal enthusiasts, but not everyone wants to cruise a 12-mile dead end. It would have been even shorter had it not been for the efforts of the Erewash Canal Preservation and Development Association, whose efforts 40 years ago saved the canal from closure and rescued the upper reaches from dereliction.

And that's the clue, not only to a brighter future for the canal, but also to one of the main aims of the IWA festival. The Erewash was once the heart of a local network of canals reaching into Derby and up to Cromford in the Peak District - and it will be once again, if plans by the Derby & Sandiacre Canal Society and the Friends of the Cromford Canal come to fruition. They are just two of the many groups around the country working to save canals that were closed down when their working lives ended, and revive them as leisure routes for everyone to enjoy. Already over 500 miles of derelict canals have been reopened, from the Kennet & Avon Canal in the south to the Forth & Clyde in Scotland, and there are plans to open another 500 miles. Several of these are in the East Midlands: besides the Cromford and Derby canals there is the Grantham, which once linked the town of that name to the Trent in Nottingham. Although it closed in the 1930s, volunteers have rebuilt derelict locks restored several miles, and opened up the towpath for walkers - but there still remains the difficult job of connecting it back to the Trent where the original route disappeared under 1970s' road improvements. The Melton & Oakham Waterways Society aims to open up the old river and canal route from the Soar into Rutland, while the Ashby Canal Association has begun reopening the disused northern reaches of their canal, and Foxton Inclined Plane Trust hopes to rebuild the former boat lift.

The Inland Waterways Association has been campaigning to support the waterways for over 60 years. One of the aims of its National Festival is to give these restoration schemes a boost by providing them with national and local publicity, raising funds, and giving the canal restoration groups the opportunity to display their plans at the Festival and gain support from the many local visitors to the event.

So the Festival is a get-together for boaters from all over the waterways network, and it's a campaign event to support the canals - but it's much more too. It's a boat show with the latest narrowboats for sale on display, it's a spectacle - you don't often see that many canal boats in one place - and it's a family day out with craft stalls, children's activities, events and entertainments going on all weekend. And it doesn't come to the East Midlands very often - so catch it while you can.


See www.waterways.org.uk for more information

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