Wilts & Berks Canal
To an outsider, progress towards restoration of the 70 or so miles of the Wilts & Berks Canal may not look like much. The inside story is considerably different, despite a second year dominated by Covid. Wilts & Berks Canal Trust’s rapid take-up of the Google Meet platform for meetings enabled it to build up personnel resources, putting in place a structure to manage health and safety, engineering, accountancy, land expertise, planners, communications, design, signage and water resources. These groups sit between the trustees, who set strategy, and the executive committee in which all branches and the above groups are represented, along with others. It meets monthly and has a weekly telephone conference. An overall performance improvement group was set up; this morphed into a Back To Business (B2B) group which has just put together an overall, detailed and comprehensive strategy document to guide the trust through what looks to be the exciting next few years.
Other background work includes the successful migration of WBCT’s website as part of a refreshed communications strategy that includes a monthly email update to trust members plus its quarterly magazine Dragonfly, sent by email and also by post to those who request it. Throughout, the trust never lost sight of its ultimate aim to recreate a southern waterways network with two cruising rings. These will link the River Thames and the Kennet & Avon Canal in two places and, of course, link these southern waterways with the rest of the canal system.
Financially, WBCT is having increasing success in obtaining grant income. It has engaged professional fundraisers Marsha Miles Consultancy and, so far this financial year, the grant income has reached six figures of between £400 and £25,000. This has enabled the trust to progress with rewatering the canal at Shrivenham Canal Park, to establish a bee route (biodiversity is an important part of canal restoration) and many smaller projects. The resumption of boat trips, including the popular Santa trips, brought in almost £10,000. Lastly, many of the loans WBCT received from kind trust members to enable the purchase and renovation of the Peterborough Arms pub at Dauntsey Lock are even more kindly being converted to donations. The pub continues to operate successfully despite Covid.
There has even been visible progress on the ground: in anticipation of the M4 crossing going ahead, recent works to create a road underbridge taking an access road under the M4 near J16 have included a culvert at the place where the canal is due to pass. A new footpath has been created that links the eastern end of the recently restored Studley Grange section with the B4005 just south of J16 , where it will be within a few metres of the M4 crossing canal towpath when completed. At Harris Croft Farm, near Royal Wootton Bassett, an almost impassable stretch of towpath has, with the kind permission of the landowner, been properly drained and will be further improved. In Wichelstowe, where the trust’s trip-boat Dragonfly runs, the Canalside partnership (the developers) is applying for planning permission to restore the canal in the next phase of development, more than doubling the existing length in water. A later phase will take the canal to the M4. This project continues and it is expected to proceed to the next stage during 2022. Works at Pewsham, described last year, continue, helped by the addition of a welfare unit, thanks to yet another grant.
WBCT’s social media presence continues to grow. Activity has resumed on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and its Facebook page has increased its followers to almost 6,000. Work parties constantly engage with passers-by and a business card has been created to hand out to those interested. Existing signs and information boards are sadly out of date so they will be renewed through 2022 and beyond. With the relaunch of Damselfly, there are now three trip-boats, two of them trailable – an important part of the trust’s public engagement. Last but not least, the visitor centre in Swindon has reopened with a larger team of volunteers and is now open five days a week from 11am to 3pm (closed on Wednesdays and Sundays). It also sells second-hand books and vinyls, as well as branded workwear for trust members. A video display runs continuously and volunteers are kept up to date with what is going on in the trust which includes spare copies of Dragonfly magazine. Please follow the progress of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust throughout 2022 at wbct.org.uk, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.