By Simon Nuttall
I have been asked to write a few words about Chippenham tunnel. For such a short tunnel-90 yards- it has an interesting story behind it. The original 1795 Act of Parliament authorised the building of a branch to Chippenham leaving the main line above the Pewsham locks. The Act required the canal to be within 100 yards of the town. However the Act was poorly drafted and did not define where the town was. Thus initially the Canal Company terminated the canal in a meadow in what is referred to as ĎEnglandísí.
Chippenham Council pointed out to the Company, however, that Chippenham consisted of 500 houses, only 15 of which were within 100 yards of the end of the branch. The reasons for the canal ending where it did were, of course, cost and geography. In between the initial terminus and the final one is a ridge that would need to breached in some way. Clearly, if the Canal Company could avoid breaching it they would.
That said, the 1838 coal delivery tonnages show that Chippenham and Stanley were second only to Abingdon, receiving four times as much coal as Swindon. So Chippenham ultimately ended up as a very important wharf.
In 1801, the Canal Company obtained a second Act of Parliament, in which the problems regarding the location of the terminus were resolved in a very precise way, this no doubt to avoid any possibility of any further confusion. The Act required the canal to terminate "in or near the site of the dwelling house and garden belonging to Ralph Hale Gaby". It does not record what poor Mr. Gaby had to say about it!
Thus the Canal Company had to cross the high ground, the method chosen being that of a 90-yard tunnel, this being brick lined with the North end having a stone portal and the south a brick portal. The reasons for the difference are not known; perhaps the powers that be felt that boaters would need encouragement to visit Chippenham and a grand stone portal would indicate the quality of the town.
Chippenham Tunnel - North Entrance.
The tunnel and wharf were completed and opened in 1803, the wharf being owned by the aforesaid Chippenham Council who charged the princely sum of 2 shillings for each boat.
As an aside, it is not clear whether the wharf included room to turn or Ďwindí a boat. The 1900 Ordnance Survey map shows the canal a straight cut, the only area wide enough in which to turn being the original terminus south of Englandís bridge. It may be, therefore, that boats would have had to reverse one way through the tunnel. Perhaps the Canal Company had the last word after all.
Interestingly the map does not indicate a path over the top of the tunnel although the rest of the tow path is clearly marked. There must have been a path, however, as the tunnel did not include one. I assume boats were Ďlegged; through.
Inside Chippenham Tunnel - Autumn 1971
So, what of the tunnel in recent years? Nothing can now be seen of the tunnel and neither portal is visible, indeed the precise locations are unsure. The north portal is somewhere near the modem houses in Little Englandís with the southern entrance being by the car park behind Thomasís garage. I did, however, once talk to North Wilts a DC employee who claimed to be the last person to travel through the tunnel in a boat. This was in order to check the condition before it was filled in. He told me that it was in surprisingly good condition. The tunnel was filled in during the early seventies as part of the now maligned "Operation Bridge Guard". This was the title of a national operation to secure myriad disused canal and railway bridges which, for the most part, meant flattening them. This was not of course possible for the tunnel owing to the housing built over it. What was done, however, was the filling in with hardcore. So perhaps the tunnel is still there waiting for us.
[Reprinted from DragonFly 67 Winter 1997/98]