Saturday, 15 September 2012

It was nearly a world full of canals ....

In my village we recently held a display of local history materials on the topic of railways. But what caught my eye was the early section which pointed out how many canal projects were planned then cancelled when the railways became The Big Thing around 1830.
So to further my knowledge I bought "Shelford and The Railways" by our local historian, Helen Harwood and found that Great Shelford nearly got its very own canal but the planned route was eventually taken by the railway.
The original plan was to join up Kings Lynn, with its Fenland food crops, with London, via Cambridge, thus avoiding a coastal route with its dangerous seas.  The Great Ouse already joins Kings Lynn to the Cam and Cambridge and it was hoped that a new stretch of canal would join the Cam to the river Lea at Bishop's Stortford (now the end of the Lee and Stort navigation which, in the other direction goes right into London).
Surveys of 1779-80 and 1811 both included canalising Shelford en route from Stortford to Cambridge but neither could raise enough funds and the next attempts  were focused on railways - in 1822 (a direct replacement of the 1812/14 canal scheme), 1834 and eventually the railway reached Shelford in 1845.
The railway brought a different life to the mainly agricultural village. Not only did passengers pass through but the inhabitants of Cambridge realised they could live three miles further out, in the country, yet reach Cambridge conveniently within minutes by train instead of horse and cart.
As a result house building took off in Shelford and arguably never stopped. My house was built in 1902 and is just two minutes from the station on the Liverpool Street line.
And what would have happened if there had been a canal through, or round, the village? Would there have been a short term surge of trade which petered out in competition with the railway? Would Shelford ultimately have been a little place with no purpose on the route of a silted up canal? Or would I have Patience moored up just down the road, with ready access to London?

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