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Bugsworth Canal Basin

Bugsworth Canal Basin
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Brian Spencer takes a trip to Bugsworth canal basin, once the largest inland port in England’s canal network.

Drive along the A6 Chapel-en-le-Frith bypass and the odds are you will be unaware that below the road there was once a busy inland port handling stone and lime brought down from the hills in horse-drawn wagons running on rails.  

In the latter years of the 18th Century, the high demand for building stone and lime created by the Industrial Revolution meant that a system to ease movement of these raw materials had to be created. As this was before the advent of steam railways, the most efficient method of transporting heavy goods was by canal; so by 1794 a proposal was made to link the limestone quarries around Dove Holes near Buxton to the country-wide canal network.  This would be carried out by laying a 14½ mile (23km) cut to link with the Macclesfield to Ashton canal at Marple. 

Driving a canal into the upper reaches of the Goyt Valley from Marple was comparatively easy, but once it reached Whaley Bridge progressively hilly country made it impractical to cover the ground by canal.  Furthermore, all this was to take place in a predominately limestone region where water for the system of locks needed to lift the canal hundreds of feet up to Dove Holes was almost none-existent.  Therefore a unique proposal was made in order to bring stone from the quarries to the canal along horse-drawn tramways and load it into waiting barges.

It was originally planned to build a canal/rail interchange basin at Chapel Milton, a village between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Chinley.  Unfortunately this meant the construction of a flight of locks and a reservoir to feed them, so the idea was scrapped in favour of Bugsworth a mere two miles or so to the west.  The site chosen was reasonably wide and flat and with the nearby Black Brook a tributary of the River Goyt offering a plentiful water supply, 

Benjamin Outram and Thomas Brown the leading canal engineers of the day began the construction of both the canal and its tramway network.  In the remarkably short time of six years, the canal from Marple, plus a complex of lime-kilns, wharves at Bugsworth and linking railways were built.  Very soon the quiet valley was alive to the sound of clattering wagons and together with smoke from the limekilns, it brought the otherwise rural idyll to an end.

The A6 from Dove Holes crosses one of the quarry tramway routes immediately south of the junction of the A623 Chesterfield road with the A6 Buxton road at Barmoor Clough.  Along this the stone sleepers which can still be seen up and down the track, carried a tramway downhill to the interchange at Bugsworth Basin.  Here wagons were emptied by tipplers worked by an ingenious system operated by men turning a 14ft diameter wheel to lift each wagon, discharging its load on to the wharf-deck below.  It would then be hand-loaded into waiting barges.  

Sidings took other loads to the tops of limekilns where it was slowly burnt to create lime powder. The loaded barges then made their sedate way, drawn by patiently plodding  horses, to the far end of the basin, where in a narrow section of the canal, each boat would be ‘gauged’ by a method similar to the Plimsoll Line, in order to assess the weight of its load.  This then determined the amount of stone on board and from it the cost of tolls to move sedately towards England’s industrial heartland.

The complex of wharfs and kilns was divided into three basins, upper, middle and lower.  There was also a turning place known as The Wide where barges were made ready for their outward journeys.  Support industries followed the building of the canal, ranging from a blacksmith, to stone crushing workers, and warehousemen who made sure that the lime made by the men feeding the kilns was kept dry.

An overseer known as the Wharfinger lived beside the gauging narrows and  had a horse provided to help him ride up and down the canal when necessary; one of the earliest recorded jobs with a perk. Pubs opened to slake the thirsts created by the heavy work and at one time as many as four inns offered refreshment; but of them only the aptly named Navigation remains on the site it has occupied since 1795.  Not only was ready-crushed stone, or lime from the kilns below Gnat Hole loaded into the barges at Bugsworth, but other materials such as raw cotton from Liverpool brought in to feed the as yet infant textile industry.  All this took place at a busy canal’s inland port.  

Whole families lived and worked aboard their one-horse-powered barges.  As they came up to Bugsworth they would call out to friends who lived in the row of canal-side cottages known as ‘Teapot Row’, so-called from the inhabitants’ practice of emptying teapots into the canal.  Next they would pass through the Gauging Stop by the Wharfinger’s House in order to determine their unladen weight, before moving on into one of the upper basins to collect their load.  Here ingenious bridges allowed the horse to transfer from one side of the canal without being unhitched.  Of the two which once spanned the canal only one, a reconstruction remains in situ.

Life while appearing idyllic was not always so, for in 1898 John Hannah murdered his wife in the cabin of their boat while it was moored in the Upper Basin.  Why he did it is unclear, but reports of the time suggest it was during a drink inflamed jealous rage brought on by his wife talking to another man.  After his trial at Derby Crown Court he had the doubtful honour of being the last man to be publicly hanged in Derby on the 21st December 1898.

With the growth of the rail transport network, the use of canals slowly died and by the early part of the twentieth century all water-borne traffic ceased and the canal basin slowly fell into disuse, its buildings collapsing or being demolished; the final insult to the work of Outram and Brown came about with the gradual silting of the waterways.

Fortunately there were a number of people around in more recent times with sufficient public spirit to begin the work of restoring this unique link with a lost form of transport.  Determined that it would not simply turn into yet another marina, the basin is steadily undergoing restoration as a working harbour where canal-based pleasure boats are welcome to visit.

During Easter weekend 2005, the 151-year-old horse-drawn narrow boat, Maria, made an historic return to her Bugsworth home, celebrating the re-opening of the canal basin. She carried a ceremonial load of 16 tons of limestone to the former Ashton Moss Loading Stage on the Ashton Canal, just as she would have done a century ago.

Today and with the help of canal-side plaques, Bugsworth Basin makes a fascinating place to visit and repopulate with the shades of navvies, quarrymen and bargees and their hard working families.

The best way to reach the basin is to follow New Road (B6062), out of Chinley which in turn is reached from the A6 near Chapel-en-le-Frith.  To finish off a trip back in time, the Navigation Inn offers food as well as good ale.  Made by linking three cottages, it is one of those completely unspoilt pubs that manage to offer up-to-date catering with old-fashioned traditions.

And finally, Bugsworth or Buxworth?  While the original spelling appears to be Bugsworth, pressure a few years back from people of sensitive outlook, persuaded the local authority to change the spelling to Buxworth.

This lasted for a time, but following a poll of the villagers the name reverted to the earthier version by 233 to 139.  However, most of them either for or against Bugsworth call it ‘Buggy’.  Either way the name originated from the Old English Burgga’s Worth, Bucga’s Enclosure.

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