THE WILTS AND BERKS CANAL

Taken from
HENRY TAUNT'S "Illustrated Map of the Thames" Pub 1895.

This canal extends from the Thames at Abingdon to Semington in Wiltshire where it joins the Kennet and Avon Canal, a distance of over 52 miles. Besides this extent it has three short branches- to Wantage, Calne and Chippenham severally. Also being connected with and supplying water to the North Wilts Canal, the connecting link between this canal and the Thames and Severn. It is supplied with water principally from two reservoirs, the larger one of 67 acres at Coate, near Swindon, being fed by the headwaters of the Ray and the other of 17 acres at Tockenham, near Wootton Bassett.

The canal rises to its summit at Swindon by means of 18 locks to the height of 168 feet and then passing along an uninterrupted stretch of about 9 miles it descends by means of 24 locks to the level of the Kennet and Avon at Semington, their total fall being about 201 feet.

The canal at its Abingdon end is but little used and is very much grown up the traffic being so small as not to pay for keeping it properly in order. But beyond Swindon to the Semington end it is decidedly better and commands a fair amount of traffic in coal, timber etc. The canal is now in the hands of a new company who intend restoring it to proper condition but it is doubtful that the restoration will be carried farther than absolutely necessary.

As a rule the scenery is not pretty or even interesting save in a few places that will be noticed on our route. We touch few towns of any importance, Swindon being the largest, and this may account for the small amount of trade on it. But the barge-men on the canal complain bitterly of its shallow and grown up state hinting that it is this more than anything else that has caused the decay of its navigation. Its shallow depth (barely 4 feet at most) make it scarcely navigable for a pleasure steamer drawing any water and the weeds which everywhere grow luxuriously make a toil of pleasure even to a boat using oars.

Leaving the Thames at Abingdon we at once pass through Abingdon lock, a deep pound that varies with the river, the wharf into which we glide being a fair type of the canal. Winding alongside a road, under a bridge, and through a flat but pleasant country we reach Tithe Barn Lock (rise 9ft 2ins.) then, in succession, Drayton Lock (9ft 11 ins) Steventon Lock (9ft 4ins) Ardington Bottom Lock (9ft 5ins) and Ardington Top Lock (9ft 5ins) all amid the same fertile fields and pretty hedges bordered with trees. We are entering the Vale of the White Horse, a thoroughly agricultural district smiling with fertility and giving a rich promise for the coming Autumn days. While in the verdant meadows that near the canal are scattered cattle that look up lazily at us - too well fed to move. The six Grove Locks follow, -Grove Bottom Lock (9ft 9ins) Spirit Lock (8ft 5ins) Small March (9ft 5ins) Grove Common (9ft 3ins) Limekiln (8ft 9ins) Grove Top (8ft Sins) and we reach the small branch to Wantage.

Our journey onwards is without check in the shape of locks for several miles and just before reaching Challow the scenery for the first time grows really pretty - the bank on either side being fringed with a luxuriant hedge overshadowed at intervals with trees; while a little farther on one bank is bordered entirely with graceful poplars which bow their heads to the gentle breeze and at a turn that shuts out the distance we may imagine we are looking on the scenery of some midland river. We pass at East Challow the iron works of Nalder and Nalder and a short distance from the canal on the left, Challow Church. West Challow comes next on the other side of the canal its church being hidden from our sight by the high bank we are gliding past. On again through grass fields along a green towing-path which in some places shows the tread of horses along its spongy turf whilst the bank or hedgerow at the side is gay with the sweetest wild flowers and a little farther, at a farm, is our best place to stroll up the hill through the village (Kingston Lisle) to the Blowing Stone (1.5 miles) which "In days gone by war King Alfred's bugle horn" and is generally considered one of the curiosities of the county. It is a large irregular boulder of sarsen stone in which are several holes. On blowing into one of them a peculiar moan is heard which, in still weather, may be heard a long distance. This hole, or natural mouthpiece, is guarded by a piece of wood fastened with a padlock, the key being kept at an inn adjoining, named after it - The Blowing Stone.

On again past Uffington Station under the peculiar swing bridges with their upright posts, with swinging crossbeams and chains, different on this canal from all other canals we have navigated. In fact every canal seams to have its peculiar bridge in many cases utterly unlike any others of the same genera. Reaching Uffington Wharf we again turn aside to visit the church whose octagonal tower has been seen from some distance peeping through the trees. Back again to the canal which, making a turn northwards, passes under the G.W.R. Then come the Longcot two Locks, the bottom rising to 9ft Sins, and the top 9ft. We have here a prettier country, beautiful trees shading the canal where the short cut diverges to Longcot Wharf and the main waterway skirts the park of Becket House which, with Shrivenham, lies on the other side. Another somewhat dreary stretch by the road and once more under the line of the G.W.R. when we pass over the headwaters of the Cole, a headwater of the Thames, and in a short time arrive at Marston Locks. No 1 rises 7ft 8ins, No 2, 8ft 6ins, No 3, 7ft 7ins, No 4, 7ft 3ins. These rise us to the 9 miles of summit level and a short couple of miles bring us to Swindon Wharf.

The commerce, which comprises of coal, timber, culm* etc., is carried on in the usual class of monkey boats and I was an honoured visitor for the day on such a boat in a pretty reach a mile or so below Swindon.

*[Culms (or Coombes), the rootlets which are sieved from the malt at the end of the malting process; they are used for poultry and cattle food.]

"1 wouldn't stop here if it wasn't for the missis," said a ruddy, sunburnt boy, on board the barge where I was an honoured visitor for the day one of the hands was not on board, so we were waiting for his coming, in a pretty reach a mile or two below Swindon. The cabin we were in was a snug little place about 8ft. in length, but with not enough height to stand up fairly the season was cold, though spring was far advanced, so that the heat from the brilliant stove fire was acceptable, making, as it did, everything cozy and comfortable. The place was clean and nice; the brass ornaments shone like burnished gold, and even the stove itself had put on its best black face for the occasion, reflecting a bright white streak where it caught a gleam of sunshine. The white knobs on the little cupboard, that when let down from the table, a whole row of them all round brightened up the door, and reflected back again the shine sent on them by the brasses hung around. "Wonder if any un could dra'a a cabin if it were all in fettle now wie the brasses shined up now," said my young friend ; whereupon he takes one down and begins rubbing it up with his hands. The speaker was a bright specimen of a boat boy, clad in corduroys and heavy laced-up boots, his beaming face and clear eye looking straight into mine as he asked the question. The "missis" of whom he spoke at first, is a bonny little woman, very quick and kind hearted, with such a straightforward way of making one welcome that it is impossible not to feel at home. She is anxious today, her husband, the captain of the boat, is stopping behind, -a thorough good worker when all right, but sometimes a little fond of company, as all good fellows are; "has been with this same master nearly fifteen years," she tells me, "and never bad an angry word from him yet." While she is gone to meet him the lad tells me of his travels; how that he has "been to Brummagem by the canal, and to Lunnon down the river; and it be a main big place too". Been to Oxford? "Eas, ever so many times. Seed them ere boat races at Oxford once when we was there a lot of fellows there sweating away like anything. Them calls it pleasure, but I think it be main hard work."

By and by up comes the missis with the captain, none the worse for the stoppage; "met with a friend lie hadn't seen for a long time, and, of course, couldn't come away without a bit of a talk." "Kim up Dobbin!" and with a crack of the whip the old "hoss" strained at the barge rope, and on we went again. When we reached the next locks Dobbin was sent (he went himself) into the stable by the side of the house. Meanwhile the "missis" had busied herself and fried the dinner, placed a bright white cloth on the little table with knives and other necessaries then called us to "come to dinner". An early breakfast and a five hours' journey in the boat had sharpened tip all our appetites, so justice was done to the gude wife's cookery, -and need we to say the dinner was enjoyed? Dobbin , too, was not forgotten, his tin mouth-bag being replenished so that he could feed as he towed the boat along; at frequent intervals a crack of the whip, and "Kim up, old man!" told us that Dobbin was a shade lazy, now and then, like some of the rest of us who had relished a good dinner.

Description of countryside after Foxham locks..... "The villages all down this tract are 'straggling, queer, old-fashioned places ; the houses being dropped down without the least regularity, in nooks and out-of-the-way comers, by the sides of shadowy lanes and footpaths, each with its patch of garden. They are chiefly built of good grey stone and thatched. There are lots of waste-ground by the side of the roads in every village, amounting often to village greens, where feed the pigs and ganders of the people ; and these roads are old-fashioned, homely roads, very dirty and badly made, and hardly endurable during the winter ; but still pleasant jog-trot roads, running through the great pasture lands, dotted here and there with little clumps of thorns, with no fence on either side of them, and a gate at the end of each field, which makes you get out of your gig (if you keep one), and gives you the chance of looking about you every quarter of a mile".

[This description being in inverted commas I suspect it is taken from another author.]

 

Thanks to Alan Trinder for his research on this article.

[reprinted from Dragonfly, 1997]

 

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