How it all Began.
Rumbol looks back over the years
One of the hazards of relinquishing a post held for any length of time in a voluntary organisation is the fact that one is likely to be asked to pen one's experiences for the magazine. When I decided recently that I had to take that course of action to keep up with business commitments, I was no exception and I was even asked to begin at the beginning!
That might seem very logical, but as those of you who have been with the Group for many years (or have acquired the early editions of 'Dragonfly') will know the story of my association with the Group actually begins some twelve months or so before the Group came into existence.
Following my departure, I think it's true to say that there are now no Directors left (although I know there are still a number of 'original' members left) who remember a cold wet Saturday afternoon in the Long Room of Swindon Arts Centre on 8th October 1977.... But it all began for me some years earlier when I was introduced to canals by a pupil in the school where I worked, who suggested that I should organise a canal cruise. I looked at him rather blankly, but it sounded like something different and so I agreed, and before long three staff (including our present Membership Secretary, Chris Toms) found ourselves at Rugby Wharf in charge of three eight-berth boats and 21 teenagers.
In the following weeks I was introduced to the 'delights' associated with a canal cruise during which my two colleagues chose to go the wrong way round the ring (I organised it, so they must have gone the wrong way!). Nevertheless, that week hooked me on canals and was responsible for eliminating my 'spare time' for some fifteen years. My family visits to the county of my birth - Gloucestershire - soon brought me into contact with the Thames & Severn and Stroudwater Canals, and with the Latton Basin where there was once (yes, you've guessed it!) a North Wilts Canal. But what was it for? And were there even more derelict canals on the other end of it? I soon found out by walking and driving expeditions and decided that these canals should have an organisation fighting for their restoration.
I had by that time been raising money for the Stroudwater, Thames and Severn Canal Trust (now the Cotswold Canals Trust) and having enabled them to restore the eastern portal of Sapperton Tunnel, I felt the need to help these other derelict canals, that I had come across, before they disappeared beneath the combined efforts of the plough and the bulldozer.
It was thus in the spring of 1977 that I went public and suggested in the waterways press that a society should be formed to protect and possibly restore the Wilts & Berks and the North Wilts canals. Should I have kept my mouth shut and crawled back into Sapperton Tunnel? Many people thought so then, even if only because they thought the idea of trying to restore these two canals was ridiculous. (History has, perhaps, still to decide whether those sceptics were correct or not). Many individuals and organisations such as WRG (Waterways Recovery Group) welcomed the formation of an organisation to protect what remained, but recommended that I did not talk of restoration because it might be laughed at by all concerned and might also bring disrepute on them and their various activities.
So we gathered in the Long Room where an organisation was formed which as it was to turn out, did not have 'restoration' among the aims of its original Constitution. we had attracted some eighty people to the meeting, and after the formal business of forming the Group, we heard our future President, the late Jack Dalby, talk to us about canals which by then he had made his own.
During the first year of our existence, the main task which faced the Steering Committee was to begin to bring the Group to the notice of all concerned with the canal line in any way, and to prepare suitable working Constitution. We also started two work sites: one was at Kingshill to the south west of Swindon where a major attraction was the Skew Bridge which had carried the Midland & South Western Junction Railway over the canal. The other work site was at Shrivenham to the east of Swindon, where we had obtained permission to clear the rubbish from beneath the B4000 (Station Road) Bridge, which was the only public road bridge still in existence over the canal.
Also in our first year was held the IWAlk which was a series of sponsored walks organised for publicity by the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) on a weekend in June when similar took place along canals all over the country. We succeeded in obtaining permission from all oft the landowners along the canal route, and virtually the whole canal line was walked by different groups of walkers, each being started by the arrival of the previous group at a set point. The contacts made with landowners for this walk were probably not used as wisely as they might have been (and indeed some records appear to have been lost), as many years later we had still not contacted some of those landowners since the time of the walk.
So how can we sum up the first year of the Groups existence? On the positive side we had achieved a lot: two active work sites had been started which would help to increase the Group's profile in the areas where they were situated, and we had at least made contact with most of the landowners along the canal. We had also brought our existence to the notice of the statutory authorities with whom we would have to deal in the coming years: the next and by far more difficult stage was to establish our credibility with them. We needed to convince them that we would still be a force to be reckoned with many years hence. We did, of course, have two failures.
Two failings from our first year were the need to abandon, as a result of lack of support from the membership, the regular monthly meetings we had begun. We had a couple of embarrassing situations when speakers had travelled hundreds of miles to speak to half-a-dozen or so people, and after similar problems with planned outings, the whole idea of regular social events for members was discontinued and has only recently been started again at local (Branch) level: we have never attempted 'Group' meetings since. The other weakness was probably our failure to establish a system of 'lengthmen' to keep track of and report on short sections of canal so that we could be aware of their condition and any problems such as sudden 'filling-in'. As a result of this, we were short of information about parts of the canal for many years, and we often heard of infillings and similar problems by chance, long after we should have been aware of them.
Reproduced from "Dragon-Fly" June 1993
TO BE CONTINUED.....
Part 2. December 1993
Years of Consolidation?
Having described the formation and
the first year of the Group,
Having survived the first year reasonably successfully, undoubtedly the most important task facing the Group was to do whatever it could to bring its existence, its aims and even more significantly its level-headed and realistic approach to its tasks, to the notice of the public. Our first AGM was held in the Memorial Hall in Shrivenham on 30th. September 1978, following the help and interest shown in our initial work by Shrivenham Parish Council and its then Clerk, Ken Pearce. Readers will appreciate the emphasis which fate was planning to lend to the work of the Group over the coming years, when they realise that the AGM was not to be held east of Swindon again until 1987.
We realised that there were many people still living who remembered working boats on the canal and who had a range of recollections about the canal and its history. We managed to talk to a few such people but I feel we let the canal world down by not meeting more of them. Sadly, we were unable to find someone with a tape recorder and car who had time to go out and chat to these people along the length of the canal and to record their memories: by the time this became possible it was too late. Many people of whom we were aware are no longer with us, and the rich history of the life of the canal which we might have recorded from them has gone forever with their passing.
Our two existing work sites at Kingshill and Shrivenham continued to flourish with the help from time to time of various visiting groups and of the Job Creation Schemes run by the Manpower Services Commission. At Shrivenham the clearance work of the B4000 (Station Road) Bridge was completed during 1981 with skips financed at monthly intervals by Oxfordshire County Council. The work at Kingshill continued longer with interludes such as the arrival of "Barton's Folly", a 50-year storm drain which Thames Water decided to lay on the surface beneath the Skew Bridge and for which we had to dig the trench to avoid it being laid down the middle of the cut. It is not beyond anyone's imagination to work out why it received either part of the above name!
We continued to look at new potential sites and focused our attention on the section from Bourton to East Challow; this section included the cleared bridge at Shrivenham and several good lengths in water. We drew up provisional plans for the section and had much support from the local Parish Councils. most of these sent representatives to join us when Chris Toms (who had recently joined the Group) and I went to call on some twelve landowners on the 27th. October 1981, to broach the idea of 'restoration'. Indeed, the necessary support referred to earlier was now forthcoming not only from Parish Councils, but was also being expressed by both District and County Councils. We also came to realise that in spite of their voiced support, councils did not (yet) consider the canal to have a very high priority. At Cornhill Lane near East Challow a section of the canal was infilled suddenly and we new that the soil infill had come from the foundations dug for a garage in an adjacent garden. However, the council took no action, claiming that even such a blatant act without planning agreement was not of sufficient importance to warrant their attention.
We had made contact with Gordon Barnes, a landowner at Dauntsey Lock who was a grandson of one of the original carriers on the canal, and in 1979 we obtained permission to begin preliminary work on nearly a mile of canal. Our first activity was to survey the Wharf House before its more recent alterations, and this was followed by gradual clearance of the towpath and other work over a period of years. At Calne the Civic Society had begun clearing the towpath between the Town Lock and Chaveywell Bridge in 1980, and over the next two years clearance began of the section of canal owned by Lord Shelborne, who has supported our work to this day.
At Wootton Bassett we had identified a section of canal at Templar's Firs which would make an ideal picnic and amenity area, and with the support of the Town Council we submitted plans to Wiltshire County Council in 1979 for approval as they owned most of the section concerned. Permission was refused on the grounds that the section was in an area that had been bought for subsequent use as a rubbish tip. We appealed against the decision and in 1981 the Secretary of State agreed with Inspector Mrs. Brushfield that permission should be granted for our work. This appeal was probably the most demanding task we have undertaken, but the decision did not allow us to restore the canal at the time. Very shortly afterwards a number of large-diameter open-ended pipes suddenly appeared in the canal below water level but in the silt significantly above the original bed of the canal: the immediate effect was to drain a beautiful section of watered canal. It was claimed that the instruction to insert pipes 'below the bed of the canal' referred to the 'existing bed' and not the original bed of the canal, and so the builder's action was in accordance with county council intentions. These matters left a nasty taste in many mouths for years, but times changed and this is history, even if partly unwritten and unrecorded.
As we moved through 1982, I note that we were seeking a Publicity Officer, as we still were until recently: it is the one position which we have never filled satisfactorily for any length of time in the history of the Group. We had been in existence for about five years, and many of those who started the Group were no longer involved for various reasons, but new blood had not been easy to find or retain. Ron Churchill had been our Membership Secretary since the Group's formation, while Peter Boyce had been the originator and Editor of 'Dragon Fly'. Towards the end of 1982, the Group was finding it difficult to keep going. The amount of work behind the scenes and in terms of available restoration was increasing dramatically but the number of active workers was decreasing all the time, although membership continued to rise. I wrote to the effect that if we did not get some more support to help run the Group, it might well collapse and have to be disbanded. Our Editor's other commitments prevented him from bringing out a magazine and 'Dragon Fly' did not appear from November 1982 until August 1983, when Chris Toms and I joined forces to bring out an emergency edition to let the members know how critical things were. Richard Porter, who had also been with the Group since the start, then agreed to take over as 'Acting Editor' for the next edition (in practice one invariably ignores the first word in organisations such as ours) and he held the post for many years.
There were then only six active members running the Group, and by 'running' I don't mean just administration, but organising work sites and negotiating with landowners and councils. We could not continue in this way for long: we had to replace those we had lost from Council. We had previously taken a decision to split the administration of the Group into East and West sections run by sub-committees (a Central section was added later) and it was hoped that somehow this would get more local people involved. In Richard Porter's first 'Dragon Fly' in November 1983, a name appeared in the list of new members, and I have no doubt that had that person not joined the Group when he did, there would probably have been no Wilts & Berks Canal Amenity Group today. John Henn had joined the Council by March 1984 and he soon became our West End Co-ordinator. The untiring effort which he put in beyond the call of duty from then turned the Group's fortunes around completely at a time when we could not have continued much longer as we were. The success of the Group today probably owes more to John's arrival on the scene at that time than to any other single event or individual.
The Question mark in my heading was not a typographical error, but was intentional as readers may have got the impression from my comments that over this section of its history the Group had gone downhill and virtually ground to a halt. However, that was most definitely not the case. Our numbers had dwindled to almost nothing in terms of active members, but we had several growing work sites and more importantly we had raised the profile of the Group with the authorities to the extent that they were writing to ask us about the condition of the canal, and some had indicated in writing their wish to protect the line from harm whenever possible. Not yet a major commitment, but a start, a real achievement. They had definitely been years of consolidation on which we would now build with the help of the new blood that was to respond to John Henn's efforts for the future of the Group over the coming years.
Reproduced from "Dragon-Fly" December 1993
TO BE CONTINUED.....
Part 3. June 1994
Boats to Lacock.....
In the final part of his potted
history of the Group,
By 1984 as we have seen, the active nucleus of those running the Group had sunk to an all-time low. However it is said that things are never quite as bad as they seem, and that was the case with the Group at that time.
The scene 'on the ground' was brighter in that the first stage of the Moredon Project came on line during that year, work continued at Calne and negotiations were taking place at various other points in attempts to secure additional work sites.
Activities along the Western section of the canal started to increase under John Henn's influence as he began to recruit new people into active roles. The Group published its 'Boats to Lacock (and beyond)' document, which outlined ways of making the canal navigable from Semington using routes including the River Avon through Melksham.
The Group had never thought seriously about filling formal positions such as Patrons, but towards the end of 1984, we managed to persuade the late Jack Dalby to become the Group's first President - a task which Jack carried out superbly on behalf of the Group for the rest of his life. Jack's interest in the canal is legendary and his active support in this way helped the Group's standing enormously.
Similarly, the Group had never had a chairman per se. I had always been Secretary, and chaired all the meetings, although my role of virtually running the Group was diminishing rapidly with the frequent arrival of new blood. No one had ever been found for the Chairman's job, and none of the active members would take on the role.
My personality was such that although I was happy to chair the meetings, I was not the ideal person to front the Group to the world, although I did many times. In 1985 we located a partially retired engineer who was interested in our work, and Noel Griffiths became our first Chairman. Noel's professionalism and also his availability during working hours made him the ideal choice, and his efforts were an invaluable complement to those of John Henn in building the Group further. Noel enlisted the help of a friend, Dudley Williams. Dudley became Vice-Chairman and also developed our first committee to look at long-term advanced planning such as the determination of possible routes through/round Swindon, rather than living from day-to-day as the Group had previously.
Having fought and won the appeal at Wootton Bassett to no avail several years earlier, the Group anticipated a similar problem early in 1985, when it discovered at short notice that Shrivenham Arch Bridge in Station Road was likely to be demolished because of problems with leakage. Panic set in and funds were raised to try to save the bridge, only for us to be told that the problem had been traced to a faulty access cover and the bridge was quite safe. Later that year the bridge was declared a Grade II listed structure as a result of our application.
As the importance of the Group became more widely recognised we updated and revised our Constitution in association with the Charity Commission, and at the end of 1985 we became a Registered Charity. Our administration was developing steadily under the leadership of three Regional Co-ordinators, although the east end post was at the time continually changing and so the west and central sections continued more effectively than the east end.
In 1986 we had our first positive written support from the councils, when West Wilts District Council issued a Policy Statement indicating its intention to safeguard the line of the canal wherever possible, and subsequently other councils made similar supportive statements in due course. We had been advised that we should become a limited company, and during 1986 we were in the process of preparing a suitable constitution with the help of the solicitors of the Inland Waterways Association.
During that year our treasurer had to leave us and failing any other offers, I took on the job for 12 months in addition to my other duties.
It is not possible to cover each work site in depth in a review of this nature, but suffice to say that he work sites previously mentioned continued to be developed wherever possible, and we started looking at what we could do with Seven Locks with the idea from Peter Boyce of developing the locks initially as a museum of canal construction until such time as they could be fully restored.
As we moved into our 10th. anniversary year, a development occurred at the eastern end which was to lead both to that section of canal 'catching up' with the western end in restoration terms, and subsequently also to the development of a much more professional approach to the Group's work. The development was the involvement of Pete and Val Scatchard and their appointment as East-end Co-ordinators. They approached the job in a professional way by firstly evaluating what they wanted to do and then going about it. So in 1987, the Group's AGM was held at Lain's Barn near Ardington, the first time it had been east of Swindon for many years.
To facilitate the involvement of the various councils in our work, a Liaison Group was formed which included representatives from North Wilts District Council, West Wilts district Council, Wiltshire County Council and Wessex Water, as well as the IWA and ourselves. This meant that there was a continuous flow of information both ways and so everyone was aware of the others' thoughts and activities.
The tree co-ordinators were drawing new people all the time, and the Group was flourishing. new work sites were begun at Foxham and at Elm Farm (Grove), and in the Autumn of 1988 the Group was incorporated as a Company Limited by Guarantee as well as being recognised as a Registered Charity. The preparation for this change had been financed by the IWA and in recognition of this the Group's Council of Management now included a IWA-nominated member.
In June 1989 the restored section at Calne was formally opened by Lord Shelborne, and this was to be followed by the later development of the wetland reserve associated with the restored canal. We successfully fought a planning application involving the coal yard at Grove, so that space was left for the canal to be routed round the planned houses, but the late construction of the Barwell Link road only added to the problems in this particular area.
We began to see the need for branches of the Group with such a long canal, and also the need for these branches to be actively involved in all aspects of the work of the Group. Wootton Bassett Branch was formed in 1989 to be followed by branches in all major towns near the canal, except Cricklade at present.
The Spring of 1990 saw us with two major administrative problems: Noel Griffiths resigned as Chairman after several years' invaluable service, and I found myself taking on the job of Membership Secretary (having relinquished the treasurership some time previously) as the second of two Membership Secretaries in as many years failed to deliver.
The Group was, in fact, left in a far worse state than we thought. Chris Toms and I banded together (again) to save the situation and it took nearly two years to clear up all the problems created because one person had failed to tell us he was unable to deal with the membership matters, and had left them unattended and unknown to anyone for some six months. Chris Toms later became Membership Secretary which he has carried out successfully ever since.
The lack of a Chairman was filled by Peter Scatchard's timely elevation from East-end Co-ordinator, and he has gone on to unite and lead the Group ever since. Peter's professional chairmanship has seen the Group prosper and develop as never before, when the amount of work for volunteers had become way in excess of what anyone could be expected to handle. it has seen the advent of Branch Representatives on Council, and the appointment of a full-time Project Officer to handle the Group's affairs in a way which volunteers who are not available during the day could not hope to do. The recent establishment of Forum Meetings at which members can put their views to Council is a further advancement to bring the membership into the decision-making process. We appointed a Group Secretary, which has allowed me to reduce my involvement to that of Company Secretary, this change being forced upon me by personal circumstances.
So we have reached the present day, and although I do not intend this to turn into fortune-telling, what does the future hold? We have to ensure that our Branches remain involved and we have to keep their members interested. Recently some Branches have lost a lot of their active members, and this cannot be good for the Group or the canal.
We must help to ensure that there is enough to enable us to recruit new members when others' interests change and they take their support elsewhere. It is important to work with all those who influence the canal in any way, and to negotiate and compromise when difficulties appear insurmountable. We have again tried and failed to get finance from the DoE for our work or our Project Officer, and we must try to ensure that this valuable source of finances secured in 1995. The future is bright and the canal will be restored, but all those interested must do as much as they can as volunteers to ensure that result.
Reproduced from "Dragon-Fly" June 1994
[The above articles are reproduced as they appeared in the three issues of 'Dragon-Fly', and show just how much is owed to Neil's foresight and perseverance. Things have moved on. Tony Davy is now Chairman and in March 1997 the Trust was formed. (DGS May 1997)]
"Waterways World", April 1977.
A group of enthusiasts is interested in considering the possibilities of the gradual restoration of the Wilts & Berks and North Wilts canals and wishes to form an organisation to promote these aims.
It is not intended that restoration to navigation should be attempted initially: this would be a very long term project and one of the most demanding and challenging ever undertaken. They do not contemplate any physical work on the canals at this stage unless an unexpected situation arises. The initial aim would to be to obtain the co-operation of county and local councils, planners and 200 landowners in safeguarding the routes of the canals against any further losses. It is expected to take years rather than months to achieve this. If and when such co-operation is obtained, plans would be prepared to provide localised amenities such as towpath walks and areas suitable for nature study. At a later stage, when these activities were established, it might be possible to consider re-watering lengths of canal for fishing and canoeing, but work towards restoring locks and linking watered sections for navigation must inevitably remain an ideal in the distant future.
These canals were abandoned in 1914, but in spite of this, a surprising amount of the line is intact. The canals are essentially rural and in these agricultural areas, re-excavation of infilled lengths would be comparatively simple. The major problem areas would be in those parts of Abingdon, Swindon and Melksham where the route has been obliterated; other obstacles would include dropped bridges and the M4 motorway.
The Wilts & Berks Canal is a "narrow" canal linking the Kennet & Avon Canal at Semington and the River Thames at Abingdon; the North Wilts Canal joins the Wilts & Berks at Swindon with the Thames & Severn Canal at Latton. Bringing these canals back to life would be a difficult, lengthy and expensive task, but it would open up some beautiful English countryside. It could eventually provide a large area for linear water storage in a region where shortages occur and could allow transfer of water from one part of the country to another.
These canals can be saved, but something must be done soon, as the situation will continue to deteriorate if no action is taken, with further infillings and obliteration of the route. Readers interested in supporting this project in any way should write today to me, enclosing a sae. It will be possible to follow up these ideas only if there is sufficient support.
And ten years later Neil reviewed the Groups progress………
Ten Years On...
As I sat looking through ten years' worth of "Dragon-Fly's" trying to decide how best to comply with our Editor's request for a look back over the last (and first) ten years of the Group, one thing struck me above all else. Precisely why the direction of the Group's work has followed a particular course over the years seems very difficult to pinpoint, but what is apparent is that on many occasions matters of concern have been raised, considered for a while, and have then fallen from note into oblivion.
As I said in the centre pages of the first "Dragon-Fly', we had at that time little idea of what might or might not follow from that cold, wet Saturday afternoon of 6th October 1977 in the Long Room of Swindon Arts Centre. We have certainly been able, as I anticipated, to increase the amenity use of some of what remains of the canals. Also, full restoration has become the main aim of the Group, and with our imminent change to Limited Company status, we hope we shall be able to further this aim even more actively and strongly. I referred also on those pages to lengthsmen. This idea has never developed and although people do occasionally write and notify us of relevant items of which they have become aware, it is regrettable that we have no operational systems of lengthsmen keeping their eyes open along the length of the canal, for possible dangers of any sort to the line of the canal and to future restoration.
Early on in our activities, we advocated the development of personal contact with landowners as the best way of helping them to appreciate the benefits of our plans. Although for one reason or another, relations sometimes get strained, and we do not meet a particular person for a while, this has proved the best way of over coming difficulties. It certainly proved most interesting when a few years ago, I spent several days visiting landowners on the East End.
Many of you will not know that in years gone by, we used to have regular monthly meetings designed for the interest our members. However, I suppose because of the length of the canal, and the geographical spread of the membership, these meetings were badly supported and ran at a loss for a while (with acute embarrassment when a speaker travelled many miles to talk to five or six people) before being abandoned. In an early Journal, we talked of developing a library and of making material from it available for loan this was short-lived, for what reason I'm not sure, although Pete Boyce our Archivist (and original Editor for many years) still maintains such items that we hold and which people send us.
Sometimes even whole projects have been planned and then lost to us, or altered in some way which we might consider to be quite unnecessary. Some of you will remember a lot of work being put in under the Skew Bridge at Kingshill (our first work site, of course) to dig a channel for a drain which became known (not very affectionately) as Barton's Folly. It was expected to carry water once every fifty years, but I'm not sure if it has yet been functional. I suppose there are now some (or even many) in the Group to whom Templar's Firs may be just a name, or even unknown. It lurks Just outside Wootton Bassett, and the Group (led by on Churchill who was Membership Secretary for many years) fought and won a Public Enquiry for permission to develop an amenity area there. Despite this, for reasons best known (only) to Wiltshire County Council and a building firm called Bradleys, we were never given permission and the canal ended up being drained by superfluous pipes installed by Bradleys. This area remains to this day a potential asset which we should pursue with greater vigour as soon as time permits.
Also in the early '80s, we began working at Dauntsey Lock under our initial license with members of the Barnes family, who own over a mile of canal in this area. This work continued on and off for several years, but was thwarted by he fact that at this time our Group was going through the lowest ebb of its existence to date. Several of our active members were to move away from the area, or to develop other interests and commitments, and we were similarly to lose our Editor. At one point we had only about four people working for the Group, as we had got into the sort of vicious downward circle in which because we had so few workers left, no-one had time available to recruit any more. It looked as though the Group would have to be wound up when it fell to Chris Toms and me to produce "Dragon-Fly" 18 as some sort of emergency edition. All active on-site work (such as at Dauntsey Lock) had ceased causing inevitable inconvenience to landowners such as Gordon Barnes with whom we had agreed to carry out particular work. As Gordon will know, we hope that we are now in a position to negotiate for the development, continuation and completion of the work which we had hoped to carry out so long ago. Studies we had begun at the East end and initial contacts with the Vale of White Horse District Council and Oxfordshire County Council began to fade when our potential East End Co-ordinator had to give up because of other commitments.
I note that in "Dragon-Fly" 12, I quoted a comment from someone (I have no idea now who it was) saying: ".. .I can't imagine what the Secretary of an organisation so realistic in its aims, so persistent in its actions, which produces a Newsletter that is a model combination of the academic and the practical, can find to feel insecure about". This real feeling of insecurity and of the imminent collapse of the Group, was probably around for 3 or 4 years. It seems to have been during late 1983 and early 1984 that things began to look up (not that they could have become much blacker). Ron Churchill and a couple of others at the West End had developed themselves into a sort of committee and had begun looking at possibilities at Calne, and some contacts had been made with North Wilts District Council. Richard Porter had taken over as Editor, and a new person appeared on the scene. I do not like singling out individuals for a specific mention as there are inevitably many who get left out although they deserve mention, for many reasons. However, I am going to mention two: the first is John Henn. John joined us when we were at our lowest point and I have no doubt that he saved the Group from possible extinction. He encouraged us to take out of mothballs ideas which had passed through our minds years before, such as using the Avon to negotiate Melksham, and he forged us into action from which we have never looked back. Neither has John, having become our West End Co-ordinator, and the prime mover of all the activity now to be seen in that area.
We were able to enlist the full support of Jack Dalby as our first President. Jack had for a long time been interested in the canal, and was a mine of information about it. He had been very sceptical about our intentions and chances of success when the Group was first mooted, and he still exercises a wise and guiding hand over our deliberations.
My initial theme in these jottings was that of chances missed. While the recent past will be familiar to most of you, and I do not propose to dwell on it, I continually see references to one sadly missed group of chances which we can never rectify. That is all the people (perhaps some 30-50 since the Group began) who have had stories to tell of the working days of the canal through personal experience or thoughts and writings of parents and others. Unfortunately, the passage of years means that many of whom we have been made aware are no longer with us, and therefore the chance of retaining their reminiscences has gone for ever; we sadly never found anyone who had time and inclination to go and talk to these people. A wonderful source of information has been lost, and I feel that this is one of the most regrettable omissions of the Group's first ten years, because it is too late: much of the information passed on with those who had it to offer.
My final topic brings us right up to date in that over the years our Group never had a Chairman. We tried all sorts of ways of chairing our Council meetings, but no-one in the Group was in a position to take the job on as a permanent involvement. We tried to locate people who might be interested, and after much failure became aware of an engineer who was partially retired and looking for an interest. I now come to mention my second name: that of our Chairman, Noel Griffiths. The arrival of Noel on the scene supplemented the arrival of John Henn perfectly. None of us others were normally able to make contacts with people during the day, or to travel to sites without taking enforced holidays, and so Noel filled a vital gap which has furthered the work of the Group to the point where things have never looked brighter.
In the next few months we shall be taking on the status of a Company Limited by Guarantee, and we shall shortly be applying to the Department of the Environment for a grant towards the employment of a full-time Manager for the canal. These possibilities, plus the fact that we now have Co-ordinators for all three sections of the canal, and who are working at their Jobs in the ways best suited to the nature and state of the canal in their areas, means that the next ten years should see more progress on the ground. The past ten have been years of establishment and political persuasion, resulting in the Policy Statements of 1966, by West Wilts District Council, and the establishment of the Liaison Group which one hopes will at an appropriate time be extended to include the three Councils not yet directly involved. But I am looking ahead, and that I believe is the task which our Editor has set the Chairman for a future issue. So I will close with an optimistic feel about our next ten years, by which Boats to Melksham (if not to Lacock) could well be a reality.
[Reproduced from "Dragon-Fly" 31, November 1987]
The EARLY DAYS
Having been asked to write an article about the start of the Group and its first five years of activity, I should start by including a few comments to those of you saying, ‘Why is the Company Secretary writing about this? Perhaps he remembers these early days.’ Well, yes I do. But it’s a bit more than that due to the fact that I was the original promoter whose activities resulted in the formation of the Group. During the early part of 1977, I placed articles about the canal in the waterways press - then rather less extensive than it is now - and this resulted in a meeting being held in Swindon that autumn, at which the Group was formed. To the best of my knowledge there is no-one now active in the Group who remembers that cold, wet Saturday afternoon in the Long Room of Swindon Arts Centre, although there are still a few members from those early days, where we heard the late Jack Dalby (who was later to become our first President) talk and show slides about the canal which he had made his own.
Jack was not convinced then of the wisdom of forming the Group and although he was the only person who could possibly have spoken at our first gathering, it took a lot of persuasion before he agreed to be there. I hope that Jack looks down now with satisfaction on the achievements of the Group in those intervening twenty years.
I should perhaps also make an apology to those who do remember the gathering on 8th October, 1977, as there are only a limited number of ways of describing the main events of those first years, and some of you may have read similar descriptions more than once already!
The first few years were probably rather boring in comparison with what goes on today, in that we were proposing work on a waterway which had been abandoned in 1914 and had been built over in towns like Swindon, Melksham and Abingdon, and even to the IWA we were considered to be on the fringe of sanity (or of insanity, depending on how you view it!). You can possibly imagine therefore how we were seen by the councils through whose areas the canals passed - they did not want to take serious note of us, and I’m sure were all convinced that we would sink without trace (there were a few bits of the W&B where the mud might just have been deep enough) and not trouble them for too long.
They were, of course, very wrong, but inevitably we were to spend perhaps the best part of the next fifteen years (or should I say 20 bearing in mind that the Trust was formed only last year) convincing them of that. We did rapidly gain support from many of the parish councils whose interests were more restricted than those of District or County Councils, and then we set to work to convince everyone else that we meant business. It was decided early on that, at least publicly, we would not announce ourselves as having the aim of restoring the canal, but more of preserving what was left - we did want to have a certain degree of credibility left to work with. Although we did have a clause in our constitution which allowed us ‘to protect the canal line by physical action such as channel clearance and work on the structures’, it was not until ‘Incorporation’ in 1988 that the emotive word ‘restoration’ was actually written into the Group’s aims, by which time the ‘political situation’ with both authorities and landowners was such that it could be accepted.
In those early years we had a Steering Committee of some 12 people in total, while I continued with the task of being convenor of the Group - which rather imprecise title I was given at the inaugural meeting. This basically involved being Secretary and Membership Secretary and dealing with all communications, from MPs to speakers for meetings - yes in the first year we did have social meetings, but support soon waned due to the fact that many members lived some way from the canal and they were soon abandoned.
It was indeed communication that was the essential requirement of the Group at this time in order to put forward its ideas and try to ensure that as many people as possible were made aware of our existence and of our desire to preserve the remains of the canal. This of course included landowners, and I and others spent many hours meeting them (when we could actually find out who they were - this often necessitated knocking on doors around the canal, talking to farmers in fields, and by word of mouth establishing who owned what). This was good preparation for IWAlk which was held in June 1978 and involved different groups walking the whole length of the canal. This was of great benefit not just because we had to find the landowners to get permission, but also because we got our first real look at every mile of the canal and were able to record what we saw (I have a recollection, although the passage of time has removed the details of when it was, but the story has been told about a couple of walkers coming round the side of a barn to be confronted by an irate farmer with a pitchfork who had not personally been asked for access permission - he didn’t actually spear the two concerned but it was a close thing!).
The same year saw the start of our first two work sites. Initially, we negotiated with (then) Thamesdown Borough Council to allow us to clear the canal beneath the Skew Bridge in Swindon (which used to carry the Midland & South Western Junction Railway) and to continue that work towards Kingshill Road itself The second site was agreed with Oxfordshire County Council and allowed us to clear the rubbish from beneath the B4000 (Station Road) bridge in Shrivenham. We had the support of Shrivenham Parish Council and were helped by local people - that help has, of course, continued to the present day in the form of West Vale Branch (and the Chairman of that Branch, Alan Norris, is now the Group’s Vice-chairman). The county council only decided to finance the skips at Shrivenham when we convinced them via the Act of Abandonment that they were responsible for the ground beneath the bridge). Each work site, of course, has many stories attached too numerous to recount here - some may remember Barton’s Folly at Kingshill (I think it’s still there) while others will know the story (but we never found an explanation) of the disappearing Mini shell at Shrivenham.
Early in 1979 we began negotiations with Gordon Barnes who then owned much of the canal around Dauntsey Lock and whose family had been carriers on the canal in the early days. We subsequently obtained a lease on the canal, and towpath clearance work was carried out from the A420 (as it was then) to the end of the Barnes’ land near Bowd’s Lane, many years before the establishment of the Canal Company. We carried out a detailed survey of the Wharf House and other buildings (before alterations) and the results of these formed the basis for several years of a ‘Canal Pack’ which we produced
1980 was the year of the Appeal at Templar’s Firs, where we objected to the refusal of the county council to allow us to develop the canal there into an amenity area - although we won that appeal with the help of MPs and local councils, it was to be many years before work got under way there - the site of course of this year’s highly successful Trail-boat Festival. We continued to establish new work sites such as that at Calne, and while we were always developing contacts with the authorities, the situation at Wootton Bassett reflects the real problem which the Group faced - i.e. recognition of the seriousness of what we were planning, and the fact that we were here to stay: it was the need to convince the authorities of this which prevented much work on the ground for 10-15 years.
During this time, support for the Group remained high and we had an active Committee of about 12 people, although I continued to carry out all the administrative duties and arranged all the contacts, and ‘Branches’ were still some years away. In 1981 Chris Toms (now our Membership Secretary) and I visited a large number of landowners between Bourton and East Challow with a view to starting some form of work in this area. We were always very impressed by the attitude of most landowners who were always most interested, and while they did not always say that we could restore their section tomorrow, they were generally very ready to listen to our proposals.
My ‘terms of reference’ for this article were the first five years, but I’m going to stray into someone else’s territory by moving into 1983 because it’s important to appreciate that a voluntary organisation such as our own can only flourish if it has volunteers, and the ones of which it is usually short are not those who dig out the mud from the canal - we usually have enough of these (although it has often been necessary to restrict the number of active sites for many reasons) - but it is administrative people i.e. those who write letters and make phone calls and sit at a (then) typewriter. All organisations have their ups and downs and 1983 was the Group’s lowest ebb in its history and it came very close to being folded up. Those of you who have Dragonfly 18 (August 1983) will notice that this was described as an emergency edition put together by Chris Toms and myself following the resignation of the then Editor. Pete Boyce (after years of sterling service). At that time, apart from our Membership Secretary Ron Churchill, there was virtually no-one else active in running the Group.
However, as they say, things can only get better and they did. I know it can be invidious to mention names when there are so many, and it is in no way to belittle the achievements of many, many others if I single out three people around whom I feel the development of the Group has hinged. Within a year we were joined by Richard Porter and John Henn, and at that time I have no doubt that their arrival on the scene saved the Group, and also led both to the rapid development of the ‘west end’, and to the forerunner of our branch structure with the subsequent establishment of ‘end’ and ‘centre’ representatives. The west end then took off, but the east end would for some years remain ‘behind’ the west end as it was to be another couple of years before we were joined by Peter Scatchard, and the Group and its achievements have not looked back since these three people came along.
In conclusion, therefore, I want to stress again the need for volunteers - if you are sitting back reading this ‘Dragonfly’ and have never done any work for us, do think whether you can wield keyboard, telephone, pen, or even simply, mouth. If so, offer your services even for only a few hours month. Even in the days of the Trust, administration is the key and your help is always needed.
[reprinted from DragonFly 70]
[reprinted from DragonFly 70]