Oxenhall lies between Ledbury and Newent, not far south of the M50 motorway. This section of the Hereford and Gloucester Canal is of particular interest, featuring a tunnel, a length of branch canal, a series of locks, an original and unaltered lock keepers cottage and an aqueduct, all within a short distance. The H&G CT have had teams of volunteers working along this length since the early 1990s and continue to maintain the areas that they own and plan to extend towards Newent.
Oxenhall Cottage, Lock and Ell Aqueduct
The lock was originally constructed in 1795, but as a result of the Canal Company’s finances, the cottage alongside was not constructed until 1838. This section of canal was not destroyed by the construction of the railway in 1881, as the railway diverged from the line of canal just below in order to avoid the need for a tunnel on the route to Ledbury.
Following closure in 1881, the lock gradually filled with silt and debris, and trees grew alongside, their roots causing considerable damage to the lock walls and the overspill channel than ran beneath the cottage and past the lock.
In 1996, the owner of both the cottage and the lock gifted the entire section of canal including the cottage, lock and aqueduct, to the Trust. In 1998, the lock cottage alongside House Lock was sold by the Trust, and then sympathetically restored to its original appearance by the new owner.
Removing the Bailey Bridge - December 2014
Restoration of the Spill Weir by Lock House - September 2014
Restoration of Ell Brook Aqueduct
Restoration of Oxenhall House Lock
Regular maintenance at Oxenhall
Early restoration work Towards Oxenhall Tunnel
The Coal Branch
Removing the Bailey Bridge
The Bailey Bridge has been a useful and safe way to cross Ell Brook Aqueduct whilst the initial work on the aqueduct was completed.
The removal was undertaken by the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers, who saw the activity as a useful training exercise. The task was to lift off the deck of the Bailey bridge, preparing the crane platform and then lifting the bridge to a new level platform in our compound.
Their first task was to secure delivery of three lorry loads of hardcore to provide firm access and parking for the large crane which came a couple of days later. Before that the soldiers had to remove all the decking plates from the bridge to make it as light as possible, and each one was a six-man lift – certainly not a job for the senior citizen volunteers of the Canal Trust. Each plate was carried about 100 yards, to be close to the final resting place of the bridge, and there were 35 altogether although some were only a four-man lift!
The bridge lift went roughly to plan with a hired crane from Sparrows passing easily through the new gate recently installed. The crane driver had been told to expect to lift a weight of about 5 tons with all the decking removed but it turned out to be nearer 7 tons which meant the crane had to move twice more, moving the bridge a little each time, in order to drop the bridge safely in its final resting place without the whole lot toppling over. The decking plates were finally stacked on the bridge in a tidy pile.
Digging down to the Aqueduct
The space now revealed under the Bailey Bridge contained several tons of soil which had to be removed before we could get at the aqueduct underneath to complete the repairs. So the following Tuesday saw the arrival of an excavator with diver who spent the day moving this soil to one side revealing the top of the stonework comprising the arch of the aqueduct. With his skilful use of the excavator controls he skimmed off all but the final inch of soil which the volunteers spent the following two Tuesdays removing with buckets and trowels. This final scrape revealed the reason why we were doing this work. The old stonework, which is over 200 years old, had been patched up over the years but in a couple of places our trowels found small holes where stones had fallen out and great care had to be taken not to make the damage any worse and collapse part of the arch. A temporary plug of concrete was inserted supported by emergency shuttering underneath and with fingers crossed the cleaning was done. Finally a bit of shuttering to contain the concrete and we were ready for the final phase.
Pouring the concrete
Initial calculations indicated that about 14 cubic metres of concrete weighing about 20 tons would be required to give a substantial protective membrane over the old aqueduct arch. The largest lorry only carries about 8 cubic metres so a morning delivery was made and there was plenty of time to spread the load evenly and lay reinforcing wire on top ready for the second delivery in the afternoon.
This too was achieved, the arch was still standing, and the total volume of concrete came to 13.5 cubic metres. Rakes and shovels were used to spread the wet concrete evenly over the whole arch and a final smoothing off with the back of a shovel prepared the top for a coat of waterproofing compound when the concrete is dry next week. A long day but four very tired volunteers went home quite satisfied at the end of it all.
Restoration of the Spill Weir by Lock House
The reconstruction of the spill weir by Lock House proved to be quite a challenge and plans were changed as obstacles arose. Before any work could start on the sump in front of the weir it was imperative that the flow of water through the culvert under the towpath was blocked enabling the work to be carried out in the dry.
After a number of attempts the volunteers eventually found the solution and were able to pump out the remaining water without the hole filling up again so the removal of the silt and a few old bricks began. Looking back at the old photos of the original restoration in 1995 clearly shows the state of the structure before we started then and also how many old bottles were retrieved that had presumably been dumped there by the residents of the cottage over the years.
With the hole cleaned out down to the base it has become clear that the whole structure was built with no foundations whatsoever for the surrounding walls and no solid base, not even some puddle clay, to keep the water in! It is not surprising that water was seeping through under the weir itself and therefore causing the brickwork to collapse so the work took considerably longer than was originally anticipated.
The work began in 2013 and months later the rebuilding of the spill weir was complete, thanks to a small team of dedicated volunteers. The water is once again running over it and down through the culvert under the cottage.
Restoration of Ell Brook Aqueduct
Following completion of the restoration work on House Lock during the summer in 2003, the Trust’s Oxenhall team was able to turn their attention to restoration of the Ell Brook Aqueduct.
Although it was known that both faces of the aqueduct were in poor condition, the fully severity of this was not established until loose stonework had been made safe and the vegetation covering the structure had been removed. The Trust was assisted with this early work by the Waterways Recovery Group, who regularly assist the Trust’s own volunteers at Oxenhall and elsewhere along the canal.
Following removal of the vegetation a full structural inspection was undertaken, and the Trust were able to erect a Bailey Bridge across the top of the aqueduct to enable vehicles to cross the stream without overloading the weakened structure. The components forming the bridge structure was kindly donated to the Trust by the army, and were sufficient to enable a further, smaller bridge to be erected over the river lock at Over.
During 2004, work concentrated on taking down the defective masonry, and on recovering fallen material from the watercourse beneath and downstream from the structure.
In 2005, specially designed and fabricated steel centring was erected onto temporary foundations in the bed of the stream below the upstream face of the aqueduct, and a series of timber packs placed to enable the precise profile of the original arch to be reconstructed. This work was undertaken with further assistance from the WRG.
With the centring in place, the arch barrel was rebuilt to its original extent in red engineering brickwork, and then work to reinstate the spandrel wall above was able to progress. Initially, stone recovered on site was used, but it quickly became apparent that much of this had been lost, so suitable stone from a demolished railway bridge was imported to site (with assistance from Herefordshire County Council).
This stone was cut to size before being laid in place, and then strengthened with mass concrete backfill. The steel centring was removed at the end of 2005 and placed into store for for re-use on the downstream face of the aqueduct.
Whilst work progressed on re-building the spandrel wall, the Trust volunteer’s designed and fabricated more temporary works to enable a hole in the centre of the aqueduct arch barrel to be repaired. The hole, believed to have developed around a former outlet provided to enable the canal pound to be drained, was sealed initially with timber centering winched into place and then bolted in position, and then filled permanently with stone laid from above over the centering (early 2006).
During this period, the unstable downstream face of the aqueduct continued to deteriorate, and further collapses of loose masonry had to be dealt with by the Oxenhall team, but it wasn’t until September 2006 that work on the upstream face was sufficiently advanced to enable restoration work to commence on the downstream face.
In 2014 a concrete membrane was laid over the top of the restored aqueduct and the temporary Bailey Bridge was removed.
Restoration of Oxenhall House Lock
In 2000, a small team of Trust Volunteers commenced work on restoring the lock chamber itself. Much of the original wall masonry had fallen into the chamber, and had to be replaced. With its listed building status, work had to be undertaken using “heritage” materials and techniques. The towpath wall of the lock was completed in July 2002, and the offside wall in December 2003.
Other work including replacement of the top gate cill timber, and reconstruction of wing walls at the tail of the lock were also undertaken.
Although fitting of new gates is not currently planned, stop planks have been inserted to maintain water in the pound above the lock at normal canal level. A timber bridge over the tail of the lock has been rebuilt, and further work undertaken to raise the walls along the edge of the canal below the lock.
On 22 June 2004, a ceremony was held to mark the completion of the main restoration work, and the support for the project offered by Forest of Dean Council.
In 2008 the wing walls either side the lower entrance to the lock were heightened and extended. This gives a firm structure to the edges of the pound below the lock.
Regular Maintenance at Wildlife at Oxenhall
To keep the site welcoming to visitors regular work including tree maintenance, grass trimming etc. is kept up by a regular team of H&G Canal Trust volunteers. They also pay special regard and encourage an abundance of fauna and flora that can be found along the Canal route.
One of the Oxenhall volunteers writes a regular article in our quarterly magazine, The Wharfinger, about the range of plant life at Oxenhall. Duck islands and nesting boxes are also provided and swans often choose Oxenhall to bring up their young.
Early restoration work
Towards Oxenhall Tunnel
The tunnel, completed in 1798, extends northwards 2192 yards from here towards Dymock. Most of the original structure of the tunnel is still in standing but will need extensive restoration. The north end passes under the M50 motorway, which was constructed between 1958 and 1960. Here the tunnel at the end of a deep cutting near Boyce Court collapsed the portal is not visible. At the request of the H&GCT a high pressure gas transmission pipeline was built over the tunnel in 2008 on a concrete slab, to enable restoration work to be carried out at a later date.
In 1991 the Trust commenced restoration of the Canal at the south portal of Oxenhall Tunnel. With Waterway Recovery Group assistance, efforts were made to lower the water level and rebuild the towpath. Later, in 1994, the south portal of Oxenhall tunnel was cleared of vegetation and a start made on rebuilding the damaged portal structure. Work on the portal continued until it was completed in 1998.
Immediately south of the tunnel is the “Legger’s Rest”, a unique, arched recess built into the bank alongside the tunnel portal, where, history has it, the gang of men retained to assist passage of narrow boats through the tunnel, would await their next job. This structure was also fully restored in the 1990s.
Please note the tunnel is privately owned. Visitors are requested not to enter it as it could be hazardous.
In 1996, the canal channel was dredged along a 290m length between Coldharbour Lane and end of the tunnel. All dredgings were spread on adjacent land giving the owner an extra acre of usable land. Unfortunately this stretch is not in the H&GCT ownership and is now overgrown from the tunnel to Coldharbour Bridge.
A short way from the tunnel is Coldharbour Bridge. As part of some of the first restoration work undertaken by Trust volunteers on the canal, the walls of the Canal beneath the bridge were strengthened with concrete and then re-faced with masonry.
The Coal Branch
The Coal Branch followed a contour below of the Oxenhall Church. It meets the main Hereford and Gloucester Canal between Oxenhall Lock and Winters Lane.
It was originally dug to carry coal from Newent colliery. But the Coal Branch was never a success as the coal was of very poor quality and it quickly fell into disrepair.
In recent years a local landowner has traced out the line through his field below the church.