The Lengthsman’s Hut stands next to the towpath as the Grantham Canal heads east from the Basin towards Grantham; about a 5-minute walk. It has always had a strong sense of ‘village memory’ about it and, as recently as the early 1990s, was a little dilapidated but its structure was clear and visible.
The Lengthsman had responsibility for maintaining his ‘length’ of the canal and there would have been several along the towpaths between Nottingham and Grantham. Probably built in the late 1800s (see Heritage Data report, below), it wouldn’t have been lived in but it had a small fireplace and chimney and would have been used for shelter and storage. The Hickling Lengthsman’s Hut is one of only two surviving huts on the Grantham Canal and is the only timber example. With a brick fireplace and chimney, the rest of the Hut was constructed from railway sleepers standing on end (a reminder of the early links with the railway companies) with an earth floor, overlaid with red bricks and a wooden roof. Such huts would generally have been made with whatever materials came easily to hand.
It is understood that Hickling’s last Lengthsman was Shelton Walker who farmed the fields to the north of the towpath (see photos, below). His son, John, planted Shelt’s Spinney a little further east (by the swing bridge) in his memory. These days, this is an extraordinary wildlife haven, particularly for woodland birds.
The Hickling Lengthsman’s Hut is an extremely rare example of a building of this type.
Both spellings are widely used and seem to be interchangeable.
‘Lengthsman’ as a word seems to have come into use in the 1700s but probably dates back to Tudor (or even mediaeval) times and refers to someone who kept a length of road tidy and usable.
These days the Canal & River Trust seem to have opted for ‘Lengthsman’ although both spellings are frequently used in connection with the canals.
The Collins dictionary lists both spellings with the same definition for each.
As the Millennium approached, restoration of the Lengthsman’s Hut was put forward as a project to commemorate the Millennium milestone; unfortunately, a number of false starts followed and it has taken a further 20 years for the restoration to reach completion. In the meantime, some of those original timbers and features have been lost but after a huge amount of work and determination the Hut now looks like its original self once again.
One of the other downsides of this long restoration process is that some of the old photographs of the original Lengthsman’s Hut have been lost. We would really like to hear from you, if you have any that we could add to this page!!
The Dilapidated Years:
We have been given a handful of photographs of the Lengthsman’s Hut which were taken in the 1990s and early 2000s (some perhaps earlier than this). As the canal fell into disuse, so did the Lengthsman’s Hut until you could barely tell that it was there – just a strange curve in the hedgerow and a mass of undergrowth. Underneath, though, the structure remained sound and many of the original materials could be re-used during its restoration. Interestingly, these photographs also show the grassed towpath and the old system of gates.
Sadly, we don’t know the photographer’s name – if you are able to help with this, please contact us.
There is only one other lengthsman’s hut known to have survived on the Grantham Canal and this is at Bottesford:
The lengthsman’s huts were very informal structures and were made from whatever materials came to hand. They were built gradually over time (not at the time of the original canal construction) and usually by the lengthsman himself to cater for his own needs; in Hickling red bricks and railway sleepers were the main components.
(July 2022) In a social media post members of the GCS explained that there are likely to have been 11 lengthsman’s huts along the length of the Grantham Canal. Although there are only two surviving, there is potential evidence of a third one at Denton Bridge whilst the location of a fourth one has been identified from an old photograph of “Colston Bridge (acknowl Anne Terza) [which] depicted a hut in Blue Hill Cutting, near the bridge (23).”
The Bottesford hut is “a short distance above Bridge 55, it is now in a very sorry state with just the back wall and chimney breast standing. (…) It appears a much more complex building than the Hickling example, utilising stone, brick, breezeblocks and timber. When it began to fall down, presumably the reason it was ultimately demolished, the complete fireplace and the bed were visible to the occasional passer-by. Hopefully, what remains of the bed is still hidden below the bricks and tarpaulin.”
From the Wadkin Archives:
Hickling: Reflections of Yesteryear – Page 56: Late 1940’s. Mr. & Mrs. Vincent Walker (…) Mr. Walker worked on the canal. His flat bottom boat was to be seen tied adjacent to the small black workman’s hut on the canal bank.
Maggie’s Memories: Page 13: Vince Walker. Granny Simpson thought as much of him as if he was her own son. Mr. & Mrs. Walker lived in a cottage near the canal next door to the Eggleston’s, and Margaret Richardson (nee Walker) lives there today. He was a good friend to Granny Simpson in many ways, he too fetched water from our pump and Mrs. Walker would come along with him in the evenings and stay for an hour or so. I remember so well the day Donnie and Vince returned to Hickling from a Prison of War Camp in Germany. The Church bells rang, people stood outside Rose Cottage waiting for their arrival from Widmerpool Station and there was such a cheer when the horse and cart drew up and the ex-prisoners were home again. I can’t remember who fetched them, Vince went on home to his wife and family. A meal was laid out on the kitchen table at Rose Cottage and their was tears as well as smiles. Mr. & Mrs. Walker were born at Cropwell Bishop and came to live at Hickling on their marriage. He worked on the canal keeping everything trim and tidy, the canal belonged to the railway. There was a small hut between Hickling canal basin and the Grange with a fireplace. In the winter time it was most useful, also a boat for using on the canal was fastened near this black hut. What a contrast these days, the canal is filthy and everything going, derelict, the owners are British Waterways. The field hedges were a pride in the days of Vince Walker, it was a pleasure walking along the canal bank in those days. (…) Going back to Mr. Walker working on the canal, one day each year the canal and bank was closed to the public, and Mr. Walker would stand by the gate letting only farmers with land by the canal to go through, there would be times when some of the public would try to be awkward, but Mr. Walker stood his ground until they saw sense.
Sadly, there are gaps in Hazel’s scrapbooks where photos of the Lengthsman’s Hut should be. We hope that these will find their way back to us one day but in the meantime we have found some very poor quality copies of 3 of her photos from 1982:
Heritage Data Report (2007)
In 2007 a full assessment of the state of the dilapidated lengthsman’s hut was carried out including an account of the materials used, its history and an approximate dating of the hut;CLICK HERE.
The Restoration (2019-2020):
(This section is in its very early days – more will follow!)