Archaeological dig to find boat steeped in history

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The Chesterfield Canal Trust organised an archaeological dig on the site of the old Bellhouse Basin in Staveley during the middle two weeks in August.

The brainchild of long time Trust member Andy Robinson, the primary aim was to find the remains of a Cuckoo boat, unique to the Chesterfield Canal, that was believed to have been buried when the basin was bulldozed in 1972.

Staveley is on the western section of the canal that had been cut off after the collapse of the Norwood Tunnel in 1907, so any boats would have been well over 100 years old.

Andy had researched the project for many years and had lots of testimony from local people that there had been at least one boat, possibly two or even three, left rotting as the basin silted up in the 1950s and 60s, before being buried when the whole site was bulldozed in 1972.

In the autumn of last year, he applied to the Aviva Community Fund and, after gaining 9,500 votes in a public vote, he won £10,000.

Andy was determined that this would not be a closed activity for a small number of the usual Trust volunteers. He wanted to involve the local community, especially children.

There followed months of planning, aided by Mark Walker, which included an online system for members of the public to book places to join in with the dig. The response was astonishing with over 500 places being snapped up. Recording equipment was bought in order for to make an audio archive of the recollections of local people about the canal in general, but especially Bellhouse Basin. Richard Fearn looked after of this part of the project, which will continue for several months.

The professional archaeologists were from Elmet Archaeological Services, led by Christine Rawson, who has vast experience of community archaeology. T.C. Harrison/JCB lent the Trust a mini-digger for the whole fortnight. It was put to very good use, including recovering lots of stone from the site of an adjacent railway bridge that had been broken up and dumped into the canal.

On the very first day of preparations, some likely looking timbers were uncovered. Over the course of the following days, the slow process of digging with small trowels through the infill of ash, clay and muck gradually revealed two boats. One was almost certainly a Cuckoo, but it had been badly smashed up by the bulldozer.

The other craft was a maintenance boat in incredibly good condition. Many features of this exactly matched the only known photo of such a boat, taken at Killamarsh.

In the last few days, another trench was dug. This revealed the point where the first two boats met and, intriguingly, the end of a third boat, believed to be a workboat or pompey boat. Unfortunately there was not time to excavate this further.

Word of the dig soon spread by the usual electronic means and every day members of the public came to view the goings on. Tom Ingall came to film a piece for BBC Look North.

The finds included lots of pottery and bottles, and many pieces of metal and oddly shaped wood that will take some time to be identified.

Of particular interest to canal buffs was a very short arm that came off the basin to serve a nearby gas works. This was only extant for a few years before being infilled. A map of 1880 showed narrows at the start of this arm, so the spot was identified and dug up. Sure enough, masonry abutments were revealed complete with stop plank slots. It is hoped that this feature will be retained when the canal is restored.

The dig finished on a Friday, followed by an Open Day on the Saturday. This was astonishingly well attended, with well over 300 people having guided tours of the trenches.

Many people asked where the boats were going to be stored, but this was not a Mary Rose project. There was never any possibility of lifting an incredibly fragile 70’ boat, then storing and preserving it, so everything was reburied at the end of the dig. However, when the restoration reaches this point, they will again be dug up because there will be moorings on the site.

After the physical work was over, there remained lots of work to be done such as recording, evaluating finds etc. Part of the grant has been reserved to create an information board on the site, so that the whole event will be remembered.

The Trust wishes to pay particular thanks to Henry and Lorraine Day who allowed the use of their field for camping, car parking and accommodation facilities.