Wilts & Berks Canal
For the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, 2022 has – as with most of us – been a year of ups and downs. The anticipated M4 crossing has had to be put on hold, as National Highways was unable to proceed to the next stage of the project, for which it would have awarded WBCT a grant of some £870,000. Undaunted, the trust is now seeking to raise a similar (or even greater) sum from one or more of the larger grant-giving bodies so the project can proceed to the construction stage. However, the trust has had some successes, most notably acquiring a lease at a peppercorn rent at Naish Hill, between Chippenham & Lacock, which allows WBCT to restore 500m southwards from the current stretch, in which much restoration work continues, particularly on the locks, dry dock and carpenters’ workshop at Pewsham. It also adds some 80 acres of land, for which the trust has purchased a light tractor and trailer, the aim being to mow the land and render it suitable to be part of the Bee Route I mentioned last year. For the latter, the trust has received a £25,000 grant from the Underwood Trust, thanks to which it already has Bee Routes under preparation at various points elsewhere along its 70 miles. The tractor and trailer will be used at these and other points as needed, relieving work parties of much manual labour and freeing their time for other things.
The second lease WBCT has acquired is at Uffington Gorse, a woodland of 9 acres including 200m of canal. This is effectively a purchase, as the lease is for well over 900 years. The plan is to slowly turn it into an amenity area similar to Canal Park at Shrivenham. The astonishing generosity of trust members in response to an appeal was to raise some 42% of the £50,000 needed to complete the deal; the rest came from other grant-giving bodies, with whom WBCT is having increasing success.
Covid is still around but is hardly affecting the trust’s activities; many meetings continue virtually, not least because of the wide geographical spread of trustee and executive members. Some live around Bristol, some in Abingdon so virtual meetings make a lot of sense. One such group is engaged in progressively replacing the 80 or so signs along the line, some embarrassingly out of date. Information boards have been replaced in most branches with more in the pipeline; other, smaller signs will be refreshed in due course.
WBCT has been able to resume most of its boat trips, though the 2022 drought prevented any at Pewsham. However, both of the smaller trip-boats, Mary Archard and Damselfly, ran trips on the River Avon at the resumed Melksham Food & River Festival. The trust’s 40ft steel boat Dragonfly was able to run all year in Swindon, albeit on a shortened route, and 2022’s Santa trips, though less well booked than 2021, enabled some 80 groups to experience Santa on the canal and have an enjoyable experience despite a certain amount of ice-breaking.
The trust’s structure is constantly under review. The Back to Business group, set up a couple of years ago, has become Major Projects & Programmes (MPP) which basically does what it says on the tin. This has enabled the trust to retain a focus on restoration while its trustees seek a permanent chair and the executive seeks a permanent CEO. The comms function is being broadened and strengthened and its strategy document is being updated, the fundamental aim being to publicise the project with a long list of key stakeholders including, of course, the general public. Throughout, the trust’s aim remains: to recreate a southern waterways network with two cruising rings incorporating the River Thames and the Kennet & Avon Canal, thus linking with the rest of the canal system.
WBCT’s pub, the Peterborough Arms at Dauntsey Lock, having survived Covid, suffered reduced trade because of a road closure due to a large landslip nearby. The tenants are bravely continuing and it is hoped that Wiltshire Council will install signage to the effect that it is still open for business. The visitor centre in Swindon now has a ‘proper’ manager, Julie, who has re-energised the team of volunteers. Two video displays run continuously alongside the sale of second-hand books, and spare copies of Dragonfly magazine are available for the public to peruse. You can follow the progress of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust throughout 2023 at wbct.org.uk, on Facebook (where followers have increased to over 6,600), Twitter and Instagram.