Wey and Arun Canal restoration is labour of love

Wey and Arun Canal workers
Image caption Volunteers and paid contractors celebrate the installation of new gates at Southland Lock, near Loxwood in West Sussex

An early autumn afternoon near the Surrey/Sussex border sees 20 construction workers up to their ankles in mud as final adjustments are made to a set of new lock gates.

The fitting of the five-tonne gates marks the final stage of a two-year programme to rebuild the Southland lock on the Wey and Arun Canal.

The £44,000 gates took four days to install - but only three of the workforce, from the West Yorkshire manufacturers, were being paid for their labour.

Image caption Eric Walker estimates that he spends "95%" of his time working for the canal trust

The other 17 were volunteers from among hundreds of enthusiasts who have put in more than 5,000 hours of labour on the lock.

Project manager Eric Walker has been working with the Wey and Arun Canal Trust to restore the disused waterway since 1990.

The retired engineer travels the 47 miles from his home in Hayling Island, Hampshire at least twice a week.

But what drives him to devote, by his own estimation, 95% of his time to the canal?

"I don't know," he said. "People say they can't get me not to think about it.

"It just grabs hold of you - it's the sheer enthusiasm of all the people who do this."

Link to sea

The trust, formed in 1973, hopes soon to recruit its 3,000th member, and has the long-term aim to restore the entire 23-mile canal between Shalford, near Guildford and Pallingham, near Pulborough.

Image caption The gates at Southland Lock were installed over four days

The waterway, mainly built between 1813 and 1816, was the link between the River Wey in Surrey and the Arun in Sussex which made it possible to transport goods by water from London to the South Coast.

After falling into disuse with the coming of the railways, it closed in the early 1870s.

No-one in the trust will hazard a guess as to when "London's lost route to the sea" might be fully reopened but three engineering and environmental studies have concluded it is viable.

The canal's navigable sections are currently isolated from each other but boat trips are run on a three-mile section at Loxwood and, from last month, on a mile-long section at Alford, in Surrey.

The canal at Loxwood had to be lowered by 6ft (1.8m) and a new lock and road bridge built. The four-year project, finished in 2009, cost £1.9m.

Now work on Southland lock is nearly completed, the next step will be to clear and restore the section of canal linking it to Loxwood.

'Dedicated band'

The next job is to restore Gennets Bridge lock, for which the trust has planning permission but has yet to find the £350,000 cost.

It receives little public money but has an income of about £400,000 a year from donations, fundraising and legacies.

Image caption A new horse bridge was built over the canal as part of the four-year restoration programme at Loxwood

Tourism organisation Visit Sussex said there was no research to quantify the economic impact of the trust's work.

"But it is fantastic that this dedicated band of people are doing so much to go through the hoops such as planning permissions and raising money to improve the amenity," said spokeswoman Jackie Ellis.

"We applaud and support them.

"It is a positive for Sussex to have people coming here - it fills restaurants and hotels."

As well as their physical labour, volunteers spend many hours negotiating with the owners of land through which the canal passes and local authorities.

Image caption Pleasure trips are run by the canal trust from Loxwood at weekends and on bank holiday

Residents sometimes dislike aspects of the work.

When the new road bridge was built at Loxwood, 700 people signed a petition to express their disapproval of the concrete and galvanised steel construction.

Eventually it was rebuilt in concrete and brick, at a total cost of nearly £60,000.

"It was resolved by working together as best we could," said Len Milsom, spokesman for the Loxwood Society.

Mr Milsom said the feeling in the village was largely favourable to the canal restoration.

"Some people get involved and think it is wonderful," he said. "Others think it is good because it provides a linear park for the area.

"I would say the few people who are against it are in the minority."

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