Kent and East Sussex Canal Restoration Group


Kescrg / WRG Summer Camp 201308, Whitehouses Pumping Station, Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal July 2013

Jessamy Bloom with contributions from Stephen Davis

Our camp this year was something of a reprise of last year – same site, same accommodation, same cooks, more-or-less the same dates, pretty much the same core of experienced volunteers and the same levels of enthusiasm and aptitude in the intrepid band of ‘first-timers’.  Even the work bore an uncanny resemblance to last year – pretty much the only change was the weather.  Last year ‘tent city’ provided protection for the bricklayers from the incessant drizzle that lasted pretty much all week – this year we coincided with the start of the July heatwave and the marquee and jury-rigged shelters provided invaluable shade to prevent the mortar drying on the trowel and us all turning into overcooked lobsters.  We had unprecedented wall-to-wall sunshine from Saturday to Saturday, and the fact that the burco was reported to be sub-optimal by the preceding camp was largely irrelevant as we consumed vast quantities of squash and water on site each day.  Amazingly we suffered no heat stroke, sun stroke or sun burn – a testament to the usefulness of a Mick, a lot of rope and several tarpaulins (and probably some sun cream).

Brick laying in the overflow chamber

At the end of the week, I expressed an interest in writing - not quite realising that I was offering to write the report on the week we had spent renovating part of the Wendover Arm, off the Grand Union Canal. However, that is what it turned out I was doing, so now I am piecing together the week from scrawlings in my journal.  We all started arriving - I was one of the first. Having never been on a canal camp before, I wasn't sure what to expect. The first thing I can say is that I had not expected the weather - a veritable heat wave, which continued for the entire week!  I can't complain, not after hearing about last year, where the entire week was spent in downpours of rain - and considering the clay underfoot in the bed of the canal, which was sludgy even in 30 degree heat, I imagine we got the better end of the deal this year!

The first thing that had to be done, after a few introductions, was to unpack the vans - bringing fridges, cooking utensils, and some kit into the village hall.  Then I was given the desirable job, along with a few others, of doing the trailer inventory to make sure we had all the necessary kit.  By the time we were finished, dinner was ready and an introductory speech was made by Stephen (our camp leader) with input from Ian (assisting), as well as watching the health and safety video.

The dinner was fantastic - Michael and Nina managed to surpass themselves every evening with amazing food, and wake us all up in the morning with great cooked breakfasts, as well as bringing us all lunch on site.  Later on, everyone got to know one another in the pub.  We had a nice mixture of complete novices (i.e. me) and people who had been doing these camps for years.

Our mission was to restore parts of the former Whitehouses pumping station site to operate as a water level control feature for the Tring Summit pound of the Grand Union canal, eventually allowing excess spring water from the Wendover Arm to weir into the original pumping shaft and down to Wilstone reservoir.  We were also creating a nature trail pathway to provide public access to the site once work is complete.  We have been working over the last couple of years to restore the structure so that when the Wendover Arm Trust reach this point with their Bentomat relining work, they can tie into the completed structure without being distracted by having to restore it themselves.

Laying the footpath

So to the week – on Saturday, while Mick, Anne and I sweated our way to Stoud and back to get the kit, pick up the cooks and do various volunteer pickups; Ian, Rob B, Rachel and Bobby spent the day on site strimming the 6ft nettles that had grown since May and preparing the walls for bricklaying to give us a head start to the week.

The first working day was a bit of a challenge - but it worked much better than we were warned it might. We managed to get to site just after 9am, and were all working productively by 10am.  I was assigned to the group building steps into the canal bank, so we could safely access the pathway nature trail which we started work on after lunch.  Other groups included block-laying for the Trust working party on the relining work a bit further along the Arm, and preparing the brickwork for rebuilding during the week.  Working in the heat was exhausting, but we managed to get gazebos over most of the site, and the nature trail was covered by trees, so we managed okay.

Packing up at the end of the day was hindered slightly by the majority of us standing around one of the vans, listening to Murray's final set against Djokovic in the Wimbledon final on the car radio! We got back to the hall in time for a Wimbledon themed dinner, and then off to the pub.

The next day, similar work continued.  I was block-laying on the relining work today, the only area that did not involve cover from a gazebo!  However, it was satisfying to see the blocks go up so quickly, so much so that we finished the section, and the next roll of Bentomat could be laid.

An interesting aspect of the Wendover Arm project is that the line of the Arm is still owned by CRT, as there is a pipe running under the dry section of the arm carrying the water from Wendover to the reservoirs, where it is pumped up to the Tring Summit pound by the Tringford pumping station.  This means that CRT are actively involved in the project, both from a heritage and an engineering point of view.  On Monday and Tuesday we were joined by Gary from CRT who was able to give us invaluable advice on mixing and working with Lime Mortar, generously sharing his experience and time, working alongside us rebuilding the front wall of the pumping station outfall on both days – giving us a massive boost to the project.  We were also visited on the Wednesday by Andy and Florence from CRT to look at our work so far, and we also had a guided tour of the fascinating Tringford pumping station.

Working on the Arches with CRT

Monday evening’s entertainment was a trip to the cinema - to see 'Despicable Me 2'. As it was the evening, the cinema wasn't exactly filled to capacity for a children's film, but personally, I think it was very enjoyable!

By Tuesday, the path had progressed almost to the point where no more strimming had been done, and lots of old bricks had been cleaned, ready to be used again.  The evening was spent walking along the open part of the Wendover Arm from Little Tring, finishing with refreshment at the Grand Junction Arms at Bulbourne.

Wednesday saw the path reach the end of its track, and we began to flatten the earth, ready for the aggregate layer.  There was also more brick cleaning to be done, as the brickwork was moving on at an alarming rate! Straight after site, we toured the Tringford pumping station (thankfully not the same as a ‘pump-out station’, which was what I heard the first time!).  Only one of the pumps is currently in working order, causing a bit of a headache for water-supplies to the summit level, highlighting the importance of the long-term benefits of restoring the Wendover Arm.  The rest of the evening was spent (by some of us) in the pub.

Front wall nears completion

I spent Thursday working on the nature trail, where we got to laying down the matting.  This was very exciting, until we realised that the (very heavy) whacker, which was being pulled along in front of the matting, was now at the end of the trail, with a large roll of matting preventing its return to the start! 

We had an interesting talk about the progress of the Wendover Arm that evening, and I found out that we were working on Stage 2 of the project (stage 1 being the already completed, and stage 3 not yet begun).

On Thursday, Nina and Michael our fabulous cooks had to leave us, but their inventiveness and clear joy at having the opportunity to let rip in the kitchen for a week really contributed to the great atmosphere of the camp.  The chilled soups at lunchtime were both thirst quenching and nourishing and the evening meals were not just food, but a culinary adventure to really look forward to - particular highlights being the Purple, White and Green Wimbledon themed evening in honour of a certain Mr Murray, and the Spanish and Indian evenings.  Never tried sliced oranges with diced root ginger?  Then I recommend that you do!

Friday was the last working day - also my last day, so I don't actually know what happened on Saturday! (you didn’t miss much – an awful lot of scrubbing and cleaning of the hall! – Stephen).  We poured road-stone onto the nature trail, and whackered it (having retrieved the whacker using 6 people and a wheelbarrow!).  The brickwork had progressed well, and was back to the point it had been when it was left last year! We left the site earlier than usual, to get back in time to clean and tidy the tools, and wash out the vans as well.

Ready for the coping stones

Overall, it was a very enjoyable week, helped by the amazing weather, the great work ethic, and the lovely people on the camp.

By the end of the week much preparation work and bricklaying had been carried out in the overflow chamber, and the front wall was once again ready for coping stones.  Kescrg returned to the site for our August weekend, and the coping stones are now sitting proudly on top of their wall once again.

Massive thanks have to go to Gary, Andy, Florence and Tom from CRT for all their advice, help and involvement; to Roger and Ray from WAT for their support and giving us such an interesting project to work on; and huge thanks to Ian and Liz for ably assisting me, to Michael, Nina, Anne and Liz for catering magnificently, to Mick and Rachel for being endlessly useful, and to everyone else for your enthusiasm, good humour, initiative, and for making leading this week an order of magnitude less stressful than the preceding 51 weeks of work!

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