AWA Towpath Site visits – Loughborough and the Erewash Canal.
On Wednesday 25 October, we had a very long day. It started at 6am, included travel by train and car, as well as walking almost 20,000 steps (9 miles), and ended, back home at around 8pm.
For our first towpath site visit, we went to Loughborough to meet with various members of Canal and River (CRT) senior staff, plus a member of Cycling UK. This was to visit the newly resurfaced towpath. This may sound a little unexciting, but it was actually very worthwhile! We walked a significant length of the new path with people who had been involved in various ways in the works, including the engineering sitework, and the liaison with local authorities to implement the improvements.
This stretch of towpath is so newly refurbished that it still has its temporary dressing of loose gravel on it, which is soon to be removed (part of the engineering process). We started at the Boat Inn and headed west first to the beginning of the new towpath and the newly installed mooring bollards. As we walked and talked along the way, we identified several learning points for future reference:
- The new mooring bollards are appreciated and nicely installed, but it was identified that, generally around the network, bollards are regarded as temporary mooring points for access to services, locks etc, whereas rings are more usually thought of as an indication of an overnight (or longer) stay. (Of course, we acknowledge that there are some local exceptions to this, such as in London and Birmingham). This point has been noted for future similar works.
- Another point made and noted for future reference was that at least one of the moorings should have been created and designated as ‘accessible’ and set out accordingly. This is something that will become more widely considered ongoing wherever it is appropriate.
- There was much discussion about the potential conflict between anglers and boaters where ‘pegs’ are marked by angling clubs for fishing competitions. It is apparent that having marked ‘pegs’ within a line of designated moorings can be problematic in some circumstances. CRT will be having further discussions with angling clubs about this topic.
- Lack of signage was a much-discussed topic along the way. We identified a great need for clear and obvious information signs, particularly at entrance points onto the towpath. This would be to set the precedent for pedestrian priority and the need for all towpath users to be considerate of boaters, especially when mooring up. We have suggested that ‘share the space’ is somewhat vague and open to individual interpretation. We are trying to push for clear pictorial signs backed up by indisputable wording; “Pedestrian priority” instead. We are also pushing for stencilled signs on the ground at the entry points and periodically along the way to help to reinforce this message.
- As we headed back to the Boat Inn and then further east toward the other end of the new towpath stretch, we observed and discussed the varying width of the towpath and the grass verge between it and the water’s edge. We learned that the mooring bollards were installed as part of the local developers’ remit and were intended more for aesthetics than function. We identified that, in places at least, they actually represent a significant trip hazard as they are well within the width of the towpath, rather than a marked ‘verge’ area. We concluded that, where this had been done, it would be better and safer to have some form of de-marked difference in the surface to reduce/highlight the trip hazard.
- There are stretches where new piling and Armco has been installed to protect the washwall. It was noted here that the addition of mooring bollards or rings is superfluous as boaters can moor using chains or mooring hooks through the Armco.
- Also on this end of our walk, we noted a couple of bridges with very low arches on the towpath side. We requested that these, and others like them, be marked with white paint. This would help not only pedestrians but cyclists too who are at significant risk of head injury and/or toppling from misjudging the hazard. Additionally, we have requested signs at bridges to ask cyclists to dismount and walk their bicycle through the often narrow and ‘blind’ bridge-holes. This would be safer for everyone!
- The general consensus of opinion among the whole group was that the paler coloured surface made from compressed gravel tends to be better for towpaths because it gives at least an implied concept of a more leisurely pace than does black tarmac, which is indicative of road or race-track facility. Of course, each and every stretch has its own needs according to the environment and this will be brought into full consideration on a case by case basis.
Not part of our towpath site visit, but it is worth pointing out that in central Birmingham, CRT is making good use of stencilled signs. However, we believe that the “Share the Space” message should be backed up by the clearer message “Pedestrian Priority”. Adding a QR code pointing to the CRT Towpath Code on their website would also be an important addition.
Once this section of the day was completed, we all hopped into cars (thanks to Richard for our ride) and went on to reconvene at the Gallows Inn, beside the Erewash Canal, for our second towpath site visit. The purpose of this was for us all to meet with a couple of local cyclists who had contacted CRT after an incident beside one of the barriers that had been installed some years ago at various points along the route, to deter motorcyclists.
This, again, was a very constructive exercise, with much walking to check out several of these barriers and a great deal of discussion. We were also glad to be able to chat with several locals who were out walking and cycling the route at the time. The conclusion was that these barriers are no longer appropriate or helpful.
The implication from the locals was very much that motorbikes are no longer being ridden along the towpath and that, in fact, the barriers had never really deterred them anyway. They were, as a general rule, overcome by the riders simply lifting up the handlebars and pushing their bike through on the back wheel, then riding off again.
The barriers do, however, form an impassable barrier to people who are using wheelchairs, mobility scooters, prams and pushchairs. So we can happily now pass on the great news that CRT are now seriously looking into the logistics and feasibility of removing these barriers.
The first stage of this is likely to be the removal of the stainless steel panels which create the narrowest part of the barriers, which will improve accessibility. Of course, this will take time as the works will have to be scheduled and budgeted for, but they most definitely will be high-prioritized.
This barrier-removal is going to be trialled on the Erewash Canal first and the results will be monitored. Similar removals can then be rolled out to other stretches of towpath across the network as and where appropriate.
Canal and River Trust have stated that ideally they do not want any barriers on towpaths to prevent access for anyone. They will strive to remove any such barriers wherever it is possible, feasible, safe and appropriate to do so. Antisocial behaviour manifesting in inappropriate use of towpaths will likely be an ongoing problem in some areas, and ways to deal with the issue will always have to be sought.
There are, of course, a few locations where restrictive barriers and safety measures are simply essential for reasons specific to that place. These situations will always be considered on a case-by-case basis, and we (AWA) will continue to push for input into any and all discussions on the subject.
All in all, we feel this was a very worthwhile, if exhausting, day and we will be seeking to be involved in more such consultations.
Please also take a look at our own Towpath Code.
(Header photograph: The towpath site visit team, including two local cyclists, on the Erewash Canal. Photo © CRT.)