The restoration potential for the Lapal canal was formally identified in 1990 when the Lapal Canal Trust (LCT) was formed. Their initiating and persistent vision was that the use of modern engineering methods and materials makes it entirely feasible to reclaim the missing link between Hawne Basin and Selly Oak, via the long-disused but hugely-intriguing Lapal Tunnel.
Restoration brings a wealth of benefits to the local community: along with much needed employment opportunities, the canal would be a recreational amenity for walkers, joggers, cyclists and anglers and a haven for rural wildlife in an urban setting. There would be additional boating opportunities for canal tourism and water sports, potential for new cafes and canal-side restaurants and the rejuvenation of two local heritage sites, St Mary’s Abbey in Halesowen (founded in 1215) and Weoley Castle (founded in 1260).
In 1997, in-keeping with the Trust’s vision, Dudley Council restored a section of the canal running through Leasowes Park and in 2007 the Lapal Canal Trust commissioned Engineering and Design Consultants, Atkins, to produce a feasibility study. However, Atkins found that the cost of restoring the Lapal Tunnel were prohibitive and recommended an alternative route going ‘over the top’ through Woodgate Valley. Dreams of restoring the tunnel had to be put aside and the new plan was embraced – a new marina was suggested and the total cost of the project was given at approximately £70 million.
Restoration Strategy – To Make Ends Meet
The 5.4 miles long Lapal Canal Project was originally divided into 3 components – The Halesowen or Western Approach, the Lapal Tunnel and the Selly Oak Extension or Eastern Approach. Although plans to restore the tunnel have now been shelved, the restoration strategy is still explained using the headings of the Eastern and Western Approaches. And within these two approaches there is a further component breakdown (note. This table currently includes the now defunct tunnel plan):
Restoration of the first two flanks at either end, provides immediate benefit to the communities in each district by enhancing the parkland with a water-feature. The presence of additional wildlife and the occasional boat on these short ‘cul-de-sac’ restorations, sets the scene for the remaining Lapal Canal and its accompanying Greenway. Then the backland-meanders establish the full Greenway corridor by substantially extending the two ‘cul-de-sacs’ towards the tunnel. In both cases, there are additional requirements for intermediate bridges to be constructed across these sections to maintain footpaths which have become established since closure. Finally, the two heritage-flanks are each accompanied by imaginative plans in which partnerships may deliver an integrated restoration and conservation, both for the canal itself and for the heritage site nearby. In both cases, there is uncommitted land which could be drawn in to elaborate schemes which combine old heritage with new amenity.
St Mary’a across the A456: An Aquaduct
With the construction of the M5 motorway near Halesowen, the transformation of the once narrow Manor Lane into the present A456 Manor Way dual-carriageway, imposed a major severance on the canal. Originally, it crossed alongside the Black Horse pub (in, now, its lower car-park) and then meandered South towards the fish-ponds of St Mary’s Abbey before turning East to the tunnel portal in Lapal. Unfortunately, the required water-level for the restored canal is now in direct conflict with the A456 gradient if it was to be reinstated at its former crossing by the pub. However, on the South side, a rectangle of open rural land can be identified between the pub, an open-cast mine to the west, St Mary’s Abbey to the south and the fish ponds. If the canal was to cross the A456 in the vicinity of the mine (some 150 yards west of the pub) the A456 gradient makes it sufficiently lower at this point, for the canal to traverse in an aqueduct. This could be one of an impressive, ultra-modern design and amongst its several benefits, its towpath-walkway would provide a much-needed, safe pedestrian crossing over the A456. Thus, as the parcel of rural land becomes reconnected, so a series of other improvements can be considered. For example, the Black Horse could be reconstructed and elevated to the status of a full hotel, accompanied by extensive moorings (in the old canal channel) as a focus for recreational activities in this pleasant rural setting.
The Weoley Castle Flank: A Boat Moat?
In the district of Weoley Castle where the canal passes close by the ruins of the 13th Century manor house of that name, there is a triangular parcel of land which also offers huge potential. Its apex lies to the east, where the Stonehouse Brook crosses the canal in a former culvert, and its base is to the west, embracing the California common land (with the former tunnel portal buried beneath). In principle, this triangle affords a realistic opportunity for the expansive creation of a range of amenities which may include some or all, of the following;
- a canal-connected moat for the Ruins, with swing-bridge to legitimise access
- a visitor centre; over-seeing the Ruins
- a pub and restaurant; over-looking the Ruins
- a community centre with sports, leisure and youth facilities
- a marina (in the vicinity of the former road stone premises)
- diversion of Stonehouse Brook water into the canal to add to the entire BCN
- the castle moat at Kirby Muxloe, Leicestershire
This is a second example where restoration of the Lapal Canal could trigger a range of additional and timely developments to benefit the local community over and above the mere return of (for them) a short stretch of water!
The Lapal Tunnel: A Subterranean Canal Museum?
Even in its operational period, the Lapal Tunnel was a narrow-bore tube just suitable for one-way working at a time, by the, then, familiar practice of legging. It was little more than a long and eerie drain-pipe which would not meet today’s Health & Safety considerations. Although plans to restore the tunnel have had to be abandoned, there may be other ways in which its historical importance could be remembered. The former central ventilation air-shaft.
The centre of the Lapal Tunnel and the site of its former ventilation shaft now lies near the rear of the Woodgate Valley Visitor Centre. At that point the Tunnel’s water level is approximately 60ft below ground. The suggestion is to form a link down to the new tunnel and create a “huge” underground cylindrical cavern with a glass dome roof and internal floors beneath of ultra-modern construction (e.g. metal-glass). The rooms on the uppermost, ground-level floor would serve as the replacement Visitor Centre while the lower, subterranean floors would house the Canal Museum which many commentators believe Birmingham should have.
Finally, the water-level base of this construction would be a circular marina for boating visitors to have direct access to the Museum from beneath. With an imaginative design, the entire construction (the “Rotunda-Under”?) would have several aspects in common with the Cornish Eden Project, but in a prominent site in the West Midlands with the potential to be a unique and prestigious day-out tourist attraction for decades to come.
Considered all together, the two heritage sites if fully developed and then linked by a tunnel with a ‘hidden’ museum chamber, could elevate the Lapal Greenway into becoming a highly significant and fascinating recreational corridor with something-for-everyone appeal?
The Towpath: A Queensway To Health
Meanwhile, in full contrast to these three grand yet highly-speculative projects, canal restoration also brings a series of almost-certain opportunities for smaller-scale enhancements. For full authenticity, modern restoration must include the sympathetic recovery of the towpath together with the reinstatement of former bridges, as the all-important provisions for the non-boating communities to enjoy the greenway corridor. For the Lapal restoration, it is proposed that the towpath will be re-instated to run predominantly along the southern (or western) flank. In addition, all surfaces will be wide and level or of a gentle gradient, so they remain friendly to the cyclist, wheelchair user and baby-carriage pusher, as well as the walker, jogger and runner. Particularly for this canal, its special proximity to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital complex also makes its eastern end a uniquely strategic corridor for rehabilitation excursions (via the W&B canal) during convalescence after medical treatment and appropriate provisions are also being proposed in this special context (e.g. benches at regular intervals).
Home Improvements: Roses For Castles
(This would appear to be a particularly strong possibility along the Lodge Hill meander where a restoration detail of dual vertical sides (and towpath switch) requires less channel width than the former sloping-offside profile.)
Restoration Activies: Tin Shakes and Working Parties
Modern restoration methods invariably require the use of professional contractors so that a given project is undertaken properly and completely with a minimum of disruption to the adjoining community. In such cases, the role of the Lapal Canal Trust and its members is that of project liaison and fund-raising. However, all such projects are accompanied by preparatory work beforehand and then post-restoration conservation and maintenance activities which are delivered through working parties.
Typically, these utilize local and sometimes national volunteers and expertise – and are always great fun for the enthusiastic participant! Likewise, attendance at waterway meetings and festivals, and local events and fetes ensures that the aims of the project are made known to as wide a compass of interested parties as possible. These gatherings are great fun, too!
Wide Participation:individual and Corporate Membership
Since the days of its formation, the Lapal Canal Trust has established a solid membership of private individuals who have pledged themselves to the restoration and conservation of the Dudley No.2 Canal. From such people are drawn the Trust’s Officers on a rotational and voluntary basis. Likewise, we have the interest and commitment of a variety of local industrial and commercial companies who also provide funds or facilities to help us during the pre-restoration activities and campaigns. If you, or the organisation you work for or have commitments to, are prepared to help us, we would be very pleased to hear from you.
To find out more of the day-to-day progress of the Lapal project,
please visit our Web Site at www.lapal.org, or make contact with us at:
The Lapal Canal Trust, 3 Walkers Croft, Lichfield, Staffordshire, WS13 6TR
0121 204 3448