Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Droitwich Canals have reopened! But what's next, now the shovels have been hung up?

Max Sinclair, a local canal enthusiast, launched the campaign to restore this canal over 40 years ago.
I was at the ceremony, 1st July 2011, when the Droitwich Canals were officially reopened... 40 years since restoration began.

"2,500 volunteering days to get here, £12million to make it happen, 21 miles of extra boating... Allow me to declare this restored canal open." Caroline Spelman (Secretary of State for the Department of Environment) unveiled the Droitwich Canals. The hurrahs that followed could never be more than an understatement of the achievements behind this moment.

Amongst the crowd there were work-worn faces glowing with "We did it!" and there were curious new faces that had sauntered across the road from town to see what the fuss was about.

Some of the big names in the waterways world could be spotted brushing through the bunting, and VIPs included Peter Luff MP and British Waterways' chairman Tony Hales. A marvelous day of suits and ice creams.

But the real red carpet treatment had to be meant for the 'volunteer'. This opening ceremony was a gathering of ordinary folk who had achieved extraordinary things over decades of enthusiasm and hard work for the restoration of the Droitwich Canals. Max Sinclair, the local canal enthusiast who launched the campaign to restore this canal over 40 years ago was there... his presence was the heart of the ceremony. The day drew old friends and gave tumultuous thanks to everyone who had clubbed together to make the reopening of the Droitwich Canals possible... and, for the cherry on the icing, the press got a stonking story to tell.

Martine and I gate-crashed the marquee to hear the opening speeches. Tony Hales spoke with his official hat on, and a personal smile for the achievement of a canal he knows well. "Vision, determination, skill, partnership" his words chorused the positive mood of the Droitwich canals, "obstacles can be overcome for a common cause working together".

Each VIP speaker struggled to thank every individual who'd helped the restoration project - yet the single word that hailed loudest from every corner was 'partnership'. The success of the Droitwich Canals Trust and the strong partnership behind it, was the tip-of-the-day for the future of all of Britain's canals. Where would our canals be without fundraisers and fund-givers, without people who care and people who 'do', without skills and shared knowedge, without local support and central consent?

But none of this is ground-breaking stuff, is it? The case for the benefits of 'partnership' is as old as the canals themselves. After all, a working partnership steered the Droitwich Barge Canal when it was first built by James Brindley, and opened in 1771... Entrepreneurs, engineers, navvies, land owners, local people and politicians.

So everyone seems to agree that partnerships are important. But partnerships without purpose are like ducks without water. Substancial commercial funding only comes to build a canal when it can rely on its future use, its raison d'etre. The mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution were the original business of the canal networks, and now the big industry is tourism. Heritage, wildlife, boating, walking, cycling, sightseeing and waterside attractions are brinking on an exciting new era for canal tourism (especially as the New Waterways Charity launches its PR campaign and public interest is set to boom).

The local area supported the Droitwich Canals because tourism is the 3rd largest industry for the County Council. It is estimated that the canal will bring 320,000 visits over 5 years and £2.75million per annum to the local economy with new jobs.

The pride of a nation is grateful to those behind the success of the Droitwich Canals... Now it's the language of tourism that must help guard the future of this canal, and every other canal in Britain.

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