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 least because of the complexity of the task, as the canal has been infilled and built over in urban areas such as Swindon, Melksham and Abingdon, and the Act of Abandonment in 1914 returned all the land to its original owners. However, restoration will recreate a southern waterways network with two cruising rings.
Despite these difficulties, over the years the trust has restored numerous locks, bridges, culverts and spill weirs, and a small but increasing number of sections are in water. The two ends of the canal that connect up to other waterways are, of course, key. A short length of canal in the east now connects to the Thames at Abingdon. 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 in 2021 the trust hopes to hear that this long-awaited step forward can commence.
Recent works include a new section of the canal at Studley Grange and the first length of water within the Templars Firs project in Royal Wootton Bassett. The local working party completed a footbridge replacement project along the Templars Firs stretch in 2020. In addition, two existing stretches of canal within the new Wichelstowe development on the edge of Swindon will join a further stretch, taking the canal to the boundary of the M4 near Junction 16. This is a Section 106 obligation, to be completed once 2,700 dwellings have been built.
Financial support via a Highways England fund has begun, with just over £42,000 for design and feasibility studies to get the canal under the M4, the greatest barrier to full restoration. Feasibility in this case means how, not whether, it can be done, and other funding partners will be needed in due course. This will mean that well over half the distance between Swindon and Royal Wootton Bassett will be in water and navigable. Elsewhere in Swindon the trust continues to work with the Borough Council to safeguard and secure the line through the New Eastern Villages development to the east of the A419. Flood alleviation is a major part of the story here, and the benefits that the restored canal will bring to new developments are being actively promoted by the trust, both regionally and nationally.
The Melksham, Calne & Chippenham branch members are 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 and associated structures during 2021. The trust’s park at Shrivenham in East Vale adopted a different approach, with the objective of increasing the biodiversity on the site. The working party’s efforts have had extensive support from local business volunteers and other forms of community engagement. Partly as a result, the trust has received a generous grant from IWA which will enable the existing section to be rewatered and further biodiversity and community engagement work to be undertaken.
Where has Covid-19 been in all this? The pandemic struck shortly after the trust’s trip-boat Dragonfly had been taken out of the water for refurbishment, being almost ten years old. Lockdown caused interruptions, but once it was eased the work was completed and the boat re-entered the water, all dressed up but with nowhere to go, as the pandemic precluded its use as a trip-boat. Likewise, much working party activity came to a halt, though some resumption has been possible with minor tasks outdoors. But Covid-19 has not been an unmitigated disaster for the trust – far from it. Driven by the enthusiasm of the trust’s CEO, Gordon Olson, meetings were moved onto the Google Meet platform, and as a result not only continued but flourished, with small groups being set up to manage communications, planning and design, signage and to look at water resources. A Performance Improvement Group (PIG, of course) was set up. It meets weekly and acts as an action-orientated think tank. The website has been refreshed and is now updated almost weekly in one way or another. The trust’s Facebook page has now attracted some 4,500 followers. Virtual meetings have become the norm, and will no doubt continue as and when the pandemic is over. There was even a virtual AGM, with around 70 attendees.
Financially, the trust has done surprisingly well. Income generation was clearly down, but so was expenditure: the Vale of White Horse District Council gave a Covid-19 grant of £10,000 to assist; membership income increased thanks to a reorganisation of the system; other donations were received including an extremely generous six-figure legacy. The trust would have been in positive balance even without the last, so it is in an extremely strong position for 2021.
The refurbishment of the Peterborough Arms at Dauntsey Lock is effectively complete. Upstairs letting rooms remain to be refurbished but the pub itself opened in December 2018 and gained a great reputation for food and hospitality. Covid-19 restrictions have interrupted its function, but the trust negotiated a significant rent reduction with the licensees, enabling them to sit tight and hit the ground running when able to reopen.
Follow the progress of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust throughout 2021 on the trust's website or on Facebook.