Happy New Year: Beck to the Future?

It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re about to wish a fond farewell to 2017 (or not so fond, depending on your year…) and welcome in 2018. Since our Multi-Story Water project officially concluded this year, I don’t expect this blog to be very active in the coming twelve months… And yet you never know. Rivers keep on flowing, and time has a funny way of looping back on itself for all of us.

In January, for example, I will be attending this meeting at Bradford City Hall to discuss possible futures for Bradford Beck — or more specifically, for the “Shipley Canal Road Corridor”, the ribbon of green space and river that runs north from Bradford into Shipley alongside Valley Road. Significantly, the photograph that shadows the background of the invitation above is taken from almost the exact same spot as the picture below: it shows the mouth of the “box culvert” into which the Beck flows for a short distance underneath the greensward near the bottom of Wharncliffe Road. The choice of image suggests that the possibility of removing this culvert — and thus “daylighting” this short, underground stretch of the Beck — might finally be on the city’s agenda.

If there’s a slight sense of time-looped deja vu for me here, it’s because I first heard this possibility mentioned back in 2012, at the very beginning of the MSW project, when I was first getting to know Shipley’s rivers. During that same year, Barney Lerner of the Aire Rivers Trust was undertaking a DEFRA-supported catchment assessment of Bradford Beck, looking at ways to improve the condition of the river. Barney came up with a number of recommendations, ranging from “soft options” like setting up a “Friends of” group (and of course he has chaired the Friends of Bradford’s Becks since its inception, as the group has undertaken everything from clean-ups to a walking guide to a poetry book) to more costly, technical options for daylighting the river. The end-game, for Barney and FoBB, would be for the Beck to be visible again all the way through Bradford city centre, but of course that is still a very long way from being feasible. A more possible dream to dream has always been the removal of the Shipley box culvert — a move that might potentially “light the way” towards further renaturalisation. Below is one visualisation of what this stretch might look like in future…

This image, and the drawings below, are reproduced with Barney’s permission from a feasibility study which FoBB commissioned from JBA Consulting, at Salts Mill, back in 2015. As you can see, there’s a pleasing, serpentine flow to the river in the picture above. The schematic drawing below shows how this more natural meander (which would including new tree planting around the Beck) would be created by removing the “straight-jacketing” of the box culvert…

It’s clear, I think, that this open meander would represent a considerable improvement on the aesthetics of what’s currently there. But it’s also pretty clear from the cross-section diagrams below what the benefits are in terms of mitigating flood risk. Instead of forcing the Beck through a closed pipe (which, in high water conditions will result in increased flow velocity and perhaps uncontrollable overflow), you put it back at the bottom of a valley with more gradually sloping sides…

In high water conditions, the Beck would naturally just start to rise up the sloping valley sides, but it could spread out further, so the flow would be slowed rather than sped up…

Now, obviously, I’m no technical expert. I’m talking here in layman’s terms, and I’d certanly welcome further clarification on these points from people who know what they’re talking about (please leave a Comment below!). I do, however, have some professional competence as a historian, and in light of these plans for potentially daylighting the Beck in this spot, I wanted to draw attention to this document here…

This is the front cover to a big, map-size document book that I found in the Local Studies section of Bradford Central Library. In 1903/04, Shipley Urban District Council was a pretty new entity, having evolved from the old Shipley Local Board, and it had big plans for Shipley’s regeneration (this involved, for example, a lot of development in the Dockfield area, as discussed in a blog from this time a year ago, and featured in our micro-theatre performance This Island’s Mine). Interestingly, one of the schemes that the SUDC planned at this time was a revamp of the Canal Road Corridor…

In the map diagram above, you can again see Valley Road, and the Beck running alongside it. Across the valley, though, is the line of the then-still-extant Bradford Canal (eventually filled in after its closure in 1922). The image below is the next segment of Beck/Canal/Road on the way towards Bradford… you can see the “mill goit” continuing from the picture above on to the left of the (more southerly) picture below. At this point, it seems, the Beck used to bend round towards the Canal so that they were almost touching…

These images show, then, the same section of Valley Road as the one currently under discussion — just over 100 years ago. It’s difficult to map these drawings directly onto a modern map, because none of the adjoining roads off Valley Road are the same as they were in 1904: there used to be lots of little streets with back-to-back houses which have all long since gone. But the big curve in the Beck is the same as the big curve in the pictures above… except that there’s no box culvert. It wasn’t there then. But note that comment on the first of the 1904 maps: “PROPOSED LINE OF DEVIATION OF BECK”. Plans were afoot to further control and straighten the flow of the Beck, and my guess is that the culvert was put in as part of this scheme…

And check this out…

These pencil-sketched engineers’ calculations almost look as if they could have been written yesterday. Don’t ask me what all the numbers mean, but the plan is for “66 feet of Culvert (covered)” — so about 20 metres. I found these sheets of calculations among the Shipley Urban District Council papers held by West Yorkshire Archive Service (to whom, thanks for permission to reproduce this image). The notes are undated, but they’re in amongst other papers relating to SUDC’s early 20th C. redevelopments, and they also provide detailed specifications about other sections of open culverting that this closed culvert will connect to (just as is indeed the case along Valley Road). Is this perhaps a handwritten plan for the construction of the box culvert in question?

Note that the writing in this picture states the culvert will run “under road”. The box culvert beside Valley Road does not, of course, run under the road — it simply continues next to it. But could these two words provide us with a clue as to why that culvert was built in the first place? Why would you cover over this section of the river, unless you were planning to put something on top of it? This has always been a bit of a mystery to me (what’s it for?), but perhaps there was originally an intention to curve or widen Valley Road slightly at this point — or, more likely, to build a cross-street across the valley, linking what’s now Wharncliffe Road over to Crag Road. Whatever the intention, it never came to fruition (perhaps World War One intervened?). I could be barking up the wrong tree entirely here, of course, but who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery?

More importantly, what appeals to me most here is the sense of time circling back on itself, into the new year… Once upon a time the river meandered, and we decided to “deviate” it from its course and hem it in. A little over a century later, we want to un-do what we did before and renaturalise…

Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

(Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii)

 

 

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