Canal boat enthusiasts are probably already planning their first trip on the completely renavigable Rochdale canal, even though work to the 28km route from Littleborough to Manchester is not due to finish until the end of 2001. But for those that know their canals, the Rochdale and its 91 locks, which take the waterway up 200m and over the Pennines into Lancashire is something of a holy grail.
'It's the equivalent of climbing Everest for canal boaters,' says Rochdale Canal Trust projectco-ordinator Ronald Rees.
The Yorkshire side of the canal has been renovated over the last 15 years, first by West Yorkshire and then Calderdale District Council. The drop down from Rochdale through Oldham into Manchester now needs attention - pretty much the first it will have received since the route opened in 1804. The four authorities along the way - Oldham, Rochdale, Manchester and Calderdale - combined in the mid-1980s with the Inland Waterways Association to establish the Rochdale Canal Trust in order to attract grant and later Millennium funding for the £23.8M of work needed.
By last year all the money seemed to be in place and the work parcelled into 30 discrete schemes. But a last minute hitch caused by the hiatus created when English Partnerships was being wound down and the Regional Development Agencies had yet to swing into action meant there was a shortfall in cashflow. A delay waiting for things to sort themselves out would have meant the trust losing its Millennium grant.
This is where British Waterways stepped into the breach. 'We had been talking to them anyway with regards to the sort of work that was needed to bring the canal up to BW standards,' says Rees 'and were going to hand over the route to them for maintenance.' BW said the Waterways Trust it established as a charity to help protect the canal heritage, could aid the RCT by providing the necessary funding to keep the project in cash. BW was called in to manage the scheme.
'So far we have done £2.4M of preliminary works, principally in Oldham on lock restoration, and the diversion of a major pipeline, the Hawsewater aqueduct. And we are now working on the legal agreements for transfer of implementation of the project to the Waterways Trust and operation and maintenance to BW. Once that's done, the work - with preliminary design by engineers from the local authorities - can begin, most likely in May, or sooner.'
There are three major blockages to be tackled. The M62 cut through the canal in the 1960s and the favoured option is to divert the canal flow from culvert to an existing tunnel under the motorway. The waterway also needs to find a navigable way through the A627M access roundabout which would involve taking some of the road on to viaduct to create headroom for a canal channel and carving a route through the middle of the roundabout for the waterway.
But the biggest problem is in Failsworth District Centre where a Co- op store straddles the canal culvert. Local authority Oldham Borough Council wants to redevelop the whole centre which would involve demolition of the store, but at the moment the Co-op is fighting any move. Result of a judicial review on the compulsory purchase order is due in June.
It that goes the right way, then the Rochdale canal will soon be back on the navigation map.