There must be very few places on the waterways network that demonstrate so clearly the complete shift in use from industrial to leisure as Saul Junction. We swung by (a pun for ship canal enthusiasts there) on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July and were quite charmed – with cricket on the green and an ice cream walking along the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, it could hardly be more idyllically English. Yet – of course – this little Gloucestershire village has a lot more to it than meets the eye.
As villages go, it’s highly unremarkable save for its general attractiveness. It’s situated less than a mile from the River Severn in two directions, sitting at the locus of a large meander in the river that makes a peninsula out of the nearby Arlingham. The river here is mostly marked as “mud and sand” and was notorious amongst skippers for its sandbanks and general unpleasantness of passage – the Purton Hulks, not far downstream, bear testament to this. Nevertheless, it was a major trading route from Bristol to Gloucester, Worcester, Bewdley, Shrewsbury and even as far as Welshpool, so any villages on the shores of the river would have done their best to make the most of passing trade.
The problem with rivers is they don’t conveniently plonk themselves where you might want them. The Severn was the big trading route for the woollen and weaving towns of the Frome Valley, which emptied into the Severn at Framilode, half a mile from Saul. The early technological rumblings which preceded the industrial revolution saw suggestions for the Frome to be made navigable upstream to Stonehouse and Stroud; but because this would have taken water from the mills which relied on the fast flowing Frome, this was opposed. 60 years after the first suggestion, an Act of Parliament was obtained to build a new kind of river navigation on the model of the Sankey Brook Navigation in Lancashire, which would use the river to build a canal which ran separately from the main course and therefore didn’t disrupt flow, but which could be used to navigate Severn Trows upon. By 1779, the Stroudwater Navigation was open through to Wallbridge carrying coal shipped first from Staffordshire or Shropshire, but soon from the Forest of Dean too. This was for the new, bigger mills in the area which were producing more and more cloth and wool for the ever expanding population of the new, industrial Britain.
The new canal was supplemented by the Thames & Severn canal, opening 1789 and connecting the two major trading rivers in the South of England for the first time. By 1823, shareholders were being paid dividends of 26.33% – a peak, with the coming of railways just around the corner. Trade didn’t fall off straightaway however, as in 1827 the Gloucester & Berkeley Ship Canal (later renamed the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal) opened, cutting off the massive Arlingham meander and the rest of the twisty river route to Gloucester. This was the deepest and broadest canal in the world, and ran parallel to the Severn, intersecting the Stroudwater at Saul, where the latter was re-routed to deal with this change. According to the Cotswold Canals Trust, this is “the only place in the country where there is an intersection of two independent canals” – this sounds almost impossible, but in terms of a crossroads like this, might just be true.
If technology had remained static, then all would be well for the waterways of Gloucestershire. But, of course, the railways arrived – in 1863, the Stonehouse & Nailsworth Railway was approved in direct competition to the Stroudwater canal. Not long after, the final stretch of canal to the Severn was closed, and Saul became a T junction. By the 1920s, dividends were falling away to nothing and canals started to be closed. The T&S started to close from 1927, the Stroudwater from 1933. The G&S remained open maintaining Gloucester as an inland port, but the rest was history.
Or was it? (Da-da-daaa…). In 1948, in common with many other utilities, transport services, health care etc., the majority of British navigable waterways were nationalised as British Waterways, and in 1968 came the landmark Transport Act which divided existing waterways as either commercial (i.e. could cope with commercial traffic still); cruising (those to be kept for leisure use); or remainder (with no potential further use). The Gloucester & Sharpness fell into the first category, but as the other canals in the area had already closed they were almost forgotten. Saul would have been a quiet, pretty village again, with some industrial remains standing quietly by the banks of a solitary canal, disturbed infrequently.
However, in 1946, the Inland Waterways Association was founded by LTC Rolt and Robert Aickman, and this highlighted the future for both existing and former canals. Bodies like this and many other individual canal societies have campaigned and contributed not just money but their own blood and sweat to restoring forgotten waterways and turning them into the vast leisure amenity they constitute today. Saul today is not just a busy stop-off on the G&S; it’s also home to a large marina for permanent and long-term moorers, and one of the most active canal restoration programmes, working to restore the link between the Severn and the Thames. It was heaving when we visited, and it’s great to see. I’ve often hankered after a boatman’s life, and would seriously consider it if I could. Saul would be a fab place to live, and it would be fantastic to have a route through to the Thames – that would do masses for the leisure economy of the canals.