A Vision for Chester’s Waterways
For centuries, people have gravitated to water for their survival and more recently their recreation. Many local authorities have undertaken waterside and waterway regeneration schemes in recent years. These schemes increase visitors, maximise marketing and economic potential and create vibrant ‘must go – must see’ areas for recreation and tourism.
Chester has a unique linked system of waterways – canal, tidal and non-tidal river – but, compared with other cities, Chester has been left behind in realising their regeneration potential.
* The canal is under-used
* The Dee Branch is becoming derelict and unkempt
* The tidal Dee is all but deserted
* The upper Dee is inaccessible to visiting craft.
* The riverside walks are blighted by rampant and neglected vegetation.
Above all, Chester’s waterways are not exploited as an interlinked system. Yet, with a little imagination, the water space and its surroundings could be the focus for major regeneration around water-based activities as has been done elsewhere in the UK and Europe.
The One City Plan offers Chester a golden opportunity to maximise the regeneration potential of its waterspace. The prime need is to connect the upper reaches of the Dee with the tidal Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal so that Chester becomes a worthwhile boating destination. The first imperative is an improved and safe passage between the canal and the upstream Dee. This could be achieved by:
i) building a lock adjacent to the weir on the Handbridge side of the river
ii) improving facilities around the Dee lock itself
iii) making the Dee Branch navigable again.
These improvements will promote wider multi-use of the waterways (both boating and pedestrian), which in turn will be the catalyst for stronger regeneration of Chester’s neglected waterside areas.
This paper has been developed following discussions between the Inland Waterways Association, Chester Canal Heritage Trust and the Canal & River Trust (CRT). As part of the wider remit of the Trust to enable greater access for all to the waterway network, CRT is in broad agreement with the proposals as outlined in the paper.
The time is now right to ‘make a difference’ by exploiting the regeneration opportunities offered by Chester’s unique and historic system of waterways. The first step could be to determine the navigation opportunities for visiting boaters. This could then be followed by a financial and technical feasibility study of the options, possibilities and challenges involved in bringing these ideas to fruition and making the best of the waterways of Chester and West Cheshire.
A Canal Boat on the River Dee
Since 2012 there has been an unusual but welcome sight on the River Dee. A canal narrow boat has been on the river. The sad thing is that the boat had to be brought to the river by road!
A canal boat on the Dee – brought by road this simple fact underlines how Chester is failing to make the most of its fascinating waterway system. The Romans founded Chester here because of its strategic location on the Dee, and the city’s history has been bound up with the fortunes of its waterways. In Norman times the causeway was built to tap the river’s power for the Dee Mills, but it divided the river into the upstream non-tidal and downstream tidal sections. Only during the highest spring tides is it possible to bring a boat over the weir. In the 1770s the Chester Canal was built with the aim of reviving the port and the city. In 1776 it linked into the Dee, but the scheme failed because the canal did not connect with any other canals. There was no trade on it. Only when the Ellesmere Canal was built in the 1790s to what became Ellesmere Port did Chester find itself on a successful waterway. It ultimately linked with North Wales, the Midlands and the rest of the canal system.
Chester’s waterways today bear ample witness to their complicated history. The system has four parts – the upper and lower Dee, the Dee lock and branch canal to Tower Wharf and the main canal through the city. In theory they all interconnect, but in practice they don’t. The potential for Chester’s waterways to be developed as a unified system has not been realised.
The Chester One City Plan has a commitment to produce a Waterways Strategy and Chester Canal Heritage Trust, the Inland waterways Association and the Canal and River Trust are in partnership with Chester Renaissance to help bring this about. The waterways organisations believe there needs to be a long term waterway aspiration for the City with improvements to encourage a greater number of boats to visit Chester’s canals and river. Above all, an improved and safe passage between the canal and the upstream Dee is the key to delivering this vision. It would offer huge benefits in terms of increasing visitor numbers, supporting waterside regeneration, creating interesting visitor destinations for boaters and other users whilst also providing additional business opportunities.
Two things are needed to make this vision a reality. The first is a lock in Chester weir so that a link between the tidal and non-tidal Dee could be safely used at wider states of the tide. This would allow both canal boats and suitable sea-going yachts to come up to Chester’s Riverside and cruise the upper Dee as far as Farndon. Chester would become an attractive waterway destination in the same way that Stratford has benefited from the reopening of the River Avon and the Stratford Canal. There is a potential site for the lock on the surviving mill race for the old snuff mills.
The potential Lock Site
The second thing is the restoration of the Dee Branch canal down to the River Lock. At present it is almost impassable due to silting, and there are difficulties with the River Lock itself. These problems could be solved, but it would only be worthwhile to do so if boats could easily reach the Riverside and the upper Dee. The two developments are, therefore, a package.
These ideas are not new. Proposals for a lock in the weir and the restoration of the Dee Branch canal were made in the past. Then they were premature – people couldn’t see the economic and social benefits of such expenditure. The time is now right. The 1990s and 2000s have seen ambitious waterway restoration and improvement schemes that have reinvigorated their surroundings. Examples are the Falkirk Wheel, the Anderton Lift, the reopening of the Rochdale, Huddersfield and Droitwich Canals and canal-based urban renewal in Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere.
The River Lock today
Chester’s waterways and their surroundings are a massive asset to the City, but not enough people see or use them. The time is now right to ‘make a difference’ by exploiting the regeneration opportunities offered by Chester’s unique and historic system of waterways. The first step could be to determine the navigation opportunities for visiting boaters. This could then be followed by a financial and technical feasibility study of the options, possibilities and challenges involved in bringing these ideas to fruition and making the best of the waterways of Chester and West Cheshire.
Chairman, Chester Canal Heritage trust
Some views of the river Dee -click on any picture on this page to see an enlargement.