How collapse of 'Fourth Grace' led to creation of Liverpool Link Canal

Liverpool Waterfront would not seem complete without its canal link spanning the impressive Three Graces, the Museum of Liverpool, and Albert Dock. But the fight to turn the Liverpool Canal Link from dream to reality was long and difficult.

Spanning a distance of 127 miles, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was a reliable and important transport route for cargo boats during the Industrial Revolution with more than one million tonnes of coal being delivered to the city each year. The main part of the canal took almost half a century to build, with work commencing at Halsall in 1770, crossing the Pennines and ending at the Lancaster Canal in 1816.

The canal was extended several times following its opening, being connected to the Bridgewater Canal at Leigh in 1820. This was extended again in 1822 to allow larger boats to access the western end of the canal which was previously too small to accommodate them.

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But its most significant development came nearly 200 years later with the creation of the Liverpool Canal Link connecting the canal to the Pier Head. The £22m link opened to boats in April 2009, and extends along the city's historic waterfront, ending at South Dock.

Martin Clarke, project director for British Waterways which oversaw the construction of the Canal Link, said the huge development posed a seemingly-impossible challenge, as his team faced countless battles with the council and landowners for both planning permission and funding to build it.

He said: "In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a lot of campaigns for restoring Britain's canals and British Waterways latched onto it. London docklands were being developed, (there was) the regeneration of the Albert Dock, so British Waterways became interested in waterside regeneration.

"There was a water space in South Dock where yachts could come in, and there was a marina at the other end, but the water was dead. There were no boats on it. British Waterways did a deal with English Partnerships where they took on the ownership of the water space and, at the same time, an idea came about to expand the waterway.

"Our crazy idea was to extend the Liverpool canal which ended at Stanley Dock. It was a dead end and so, for anyone on the canal, there was no reason for them to come into the city. We thought what if we could extend the canal, digging a channel through those docks, and across the Pier Head so people could get from Stanley Dock to South Dock.

"We had no money. We never had any money. We only had great ideas and talented people. The canal societies were great at lobbying the powers that be in council and government and tenacious lobbying was done. Liverpool started to think big and we got the idea of the canal link on the agenda."

But the canal link faced strong competition - proposals for a colossal building ominously named "The Cloud". Estimated to cost a whopping £228m, The Cloud was to be built on an artificial hill on Liverpool waterfront, and was supposed to contain a boutique-style hotel, luxury apartments, office space, and a rooftop "garden in the sky". Construction on the "Fourth Grace" was scheduled to start in May 2005 - but the project was axed before work could begin.

Martin, who lives in Dovecot, said: "It seemed like a really long shot that we could pull it off because we had no money, no land, nothing. The battle we had was largely due to the council being interested in this sexy - but ridiculous - idea of The Cloud. We were starting to fall down the pecking order, and eventually we were told we weren't going to get funding. We refused to accept it. We carried on lobbying.

"The Cloud project eventually fell apart when they realised the cost was going to be almost double what they originally planned. They were left with EU money to spend, Government money to spend and nothing to spend it on.

"The pendulum swung because of the collapse of The Cloud scheme. After being told to go away and stop being a nuisance, they came to us and asked if we could deliver."

Despite initial opposition from English Heritage, British Waterways (now renamed The Canal and River Trust) managed to secure planning permission for the canal link. Construction began in 2007 and ended in December 2008, opening in April the next year.

A view of the Liverpool Canal Link
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal with Bootle Hospital in the background, January 1958.

Martin said: "We were opposed every step of the way. Everything was against us, and look what happened. Any time there's a picture of Liverpool, the canal is there. In the end we felt fully vindicated. The canal went from being an idea that many didn't want into the centrepiece of Liverpool 2008.

"I have done a lot in my career but, as someone who lives in the city whose dad was a docker, I feel immensely proud. What we achieved can never be topped."