One of my first site visits at Stroud DC was with the council’s Cotswold Canals Connected project manager. We walked the five-mile restored length of the Stroudwater Navigation, currently a long inland pond, but once a canal forming part of the link between the Thames and the Severn. I met many of the council’s dedicated partners and 400 enthusiastic volunteers along the route.
Since then I’ve regularly walked, run and cycled along the towpath, drawn by the restorative qualities of being beside water and fascinated by the way the canal cuts through the urban and rural landscape. I’ve enjoyed pootling along in the aptly-named Perseverance and Endeavour, the Cotswold Canal Trust’s barges, dodging the canoes, paddleboards and swans. Stopping for a cheeky pint at Stroud Brewery is a highlight.
Two years later, in the middle of a global pandemic, the National Lottery Heritage Fund has granted the project a further £8.9m to help realise the vision of reconnecting the restored section to the national inland waterway network to the West. This will be no mean feat, as this stretch will need to be recreated underneath the M5 and the Gloucester to Bristol railway line, already timetabled. A section under a roundabout on the A38 has been excavated this year with £4m of Highways England funding.
It is uplifting to reflect that a feature which shaped the district in the past will do so again in the future, forming a significant part of our plans to recover from the pandemic. This ambitious project is about much more than a navigable stretch of water. At its heart is the health and wellbeing of our communities, offering them new opportunities to access outdoor pursuits and events, and engage in volunteering and training opportunities. There is immense scope to regenerate sites alongside the canal and stimulate the local economy. The project will preserve local heritage and leave a lasting environmental legacy through the creation of a biodiversity corridor planted with 30,000 trees and shrubs. Thinking creatively about our post-COVID future feels important at this point in time. Similar local opportunities to recover and transform will exist everywhere.
Kathy O’Leary is chief executive of Stroud DC