Wilts & Berks Canal
The 52-mile Wilts & Berks Canal linked the Kennet & Avon Canal at Semington, near Trowbridge, with the River Thames near Abingdon, and the North Wilts Canal linked Swindon to the Thames & Severn. With nearly 70 miles of waterway to reinstate, this is arguably the most ambitious waterway restoration of them all. Not just because of its length, but also because of the complexity of the task ahead, as the canal has been infilled and built over in urban areas such as Swindon, Melksham and Abingdon. Recently the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust has been fortunate enough to secure an original map of the canal as it was proposed in 1793, which will be added to its archives.
Undeterred by such local difficulties, the trust has, over the years, restored numerous locks, bridges, culverts and spill weirs, and an increasing number of sections are in water. The two ends of the canal that connect up to other waterways are, of course, key: a length of canal in the east now joins the Thames from a new line which created a new junction (Jubilee Junction funded by IWA during its Jubilee year) and starts a new line westwards, because the original junction in Abingdon was unuseable. The Melksham Link, which will join the Wilts & Berks Canal to the Kennet & Avon and River Avon in the west, is within the planning process and this year the trust hopes to hear that this long-awaited step forward can commence.
The trust is actively looking at the work needed to join the various short sections that are in water from Royal Wootton Bassett to Swindon. A new section of the canal at Studley Grange and the first length of water within the Templars Firs project in Royal Wootton Bassett are already completed and the local working party will complete a footbridge replacement project along the Templars Firs stretch this year. Meanwhile, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust has protected the special environment of unimproved meadows around Chaddington lock by purchasing the farm from Wiltshire Council and creating Morningside Meadows nature reserve which will be canalside. Plus two sections of new canal have been constructed within the new Wichelstowe development on the edge of Swindon.
Possible financial support via a Highways England fund is being actively pursued to get the canal under the M4, which is a serious physical barrier to full restoration. The trust continues to work with Swindon Borough Council to understand how the canal can feature in the redevelopment and regeneration of the town centre and to the east of the A419 road. Flood alleviation is a major part of the story here, and the benefit that the restored canal will bring to new developments is being actively promoted by the trust, both regionally and nationally.
The Melksham, Calne & Chippenham branch are gradually working their way through the various elements at the Pewsham site: the dry dock has been revealed and rebricked, the middle pound waiting wall has been rebuilt and work will hopefully start on the top lock bridge during 2020.
WBCTs trip-boat Dragonfly has been busy throughout the summer season and has continued into the winter months too now that there is a more visible and accessible launching place: outside Waitrose in Mill Lane, Wichelstowe (SN1 7BX). The trusts smaller trip-boat, The Mary Archard, has been seen on the Templars Firs stretch and at several festivals in the Melksham, Calne and Chippenham area where the trust continues to attend many events, including the popular Melksham Food & River Festival, which will be held again at the beginning of September 2020. The trust was also the recipient of funds raised at the inaugural Wichelstowe Games held in August 2019 and will be putting these funds towards a hard slipway for the removal of Dragonfly for maintenance and the benefit of the wider community, such as local canoe clubs.
The major project of refurbishment of the Peterborough Arms at Dauntsey Lock, one of only two pubs along the length of the W&B and purchased with the help of members and community supporters in 2014, is almost complete. Upstairs letting rooms remain to be refurbished but the pub itself opened in December 2018 and has gained a great reputation for food and hospitality. The other phase of this project, the construction of the trusts HQ and community centre, was completed in the spring of 2019 and is now providing a meeting place for local groups.
The Wiltshire, Swindon & Oxfordshire Canal Partnership, which includes the trust and some 25 local and national organisations, continues to actively support the delivery of all WBCTs work.