Jack Dalby on a little-known, little-used waterway.
The course of the narrow Wilts & Berks Canal lay midway between its broader counterparts, the Thames & Severn to the north and the Kennet & Avon to the south. Schemes to improve the Thames & Severn’s prospects by bypassing part of the upper Thames, and an earlier. more northerly proposed line of the Kennet & Avon Canal, influenced the decision to build a canal linking the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington and the Thames at Abingdon and possibly the appointment of Robert Whitworth and his son William, both involved in these abortive schemes, as the canal's engineers.
Discussion with the Kennet & Avon Canal in the design stages of both it and the Wilts & Berks Canal led to a choice of junction point advantageous to both - a most unusual circumstance! However, as it later turned out, the inclusion of 91 miles of the Kennet and Avon Canal as the link between the Wilts & Berks Canal and the chief source of its revenue, the Somersetshire Coal Canal, gave the larger company a convenient stranglehold in competing both for the coal trade of the districts between them and through traffic between Bristol and London. Apart from the tremendous disadvantage of the stretch of Thames between Abingdon and Reading, the Wilts & Berks Canal had the advantage of a more favourable route with 42 locks as opposed to 106 and a more sensible summit 9 miles long.
Work commenced at the Semington end late in 1795. The estimate for the 52 mile main line and the branches was £111,900. The effects of the Napoleonic wars and the fact that the link to the Somerset Coal Canal, so vital for the carrying of coal for brick burning and stone for bridges, lock parapets etc., was not completed until 1799, delayed the completion to September 1810 and boosted the cost to £262,000. The canal then settled down to its main purpose in life, the distribution of coal and stone to the Upper Avon valley and the Vale of the White Horse and even managed to compete at Abingdon with Midlands coal from the Oxford Canal (10,000 tons in 1818).
Scarcely had the main line been completed when proprietors launched schemes for ambitious extensions (1) to link their canal at Abingdon with the proposed Grand Junction Aylesbury arm; (2) a direct route from Foxham to Bristol bypassing the Kennet & Avon: and (3) a junction between their canal near Swindon and the Thames & Severn near Cricklade. (1) and (2) would have provided an all canal line from Bristol to London 154 miles long, 17 miles shorter than the combination of the Kennet & Avon and Thames Scheme (1) was opposed by the Grand Junction who neither wanted at that time to build the Aylesbury branch nor the competition of coal and iron from the west. Scheme (2) is would have been enormously costly and injurious to the Thames & Severn so it is not surprising that only (3) was acceptable! This, later, to become the North Wilts Canal, would. in theory at least, provide the Wilts & Berks Canal with an alternative supply of coal from the Forest of Dean via the Thames & Severn, the Somerset pits at that time not being able to satisfy both the Kennet & Avon and Wilts & Berks Canal it would also allow the Thames & Severn to bypass the upper reaches of the Thames.
The North Wilts, 9 miles lone. with 12 locks, was built 1813-19 for less than the estimated £60,000. It was soon in financial difficulty and was taken over by the Wilts & Berks Canal which had provided the majority of shareholders and all water. Forest of Dean coal was never popular on the Wilts & Berks line and before long more Somerset coal was being carried up the North Wilts than Forest coal came down. Between 1829 and 1839 the combination of the Gloucester & Berkeley, Stroudwater, Thames & Severn, North Wilts, Wilts & Berks and Thames carried a fast fly boat service between Gloucester and London, 5 days to the Capital and 6 days back.
The building of the Great Western Railway line made extensive use of the Wilts & Berks Canal, producing in 1840 the highest annual dividend of £9,000, but the railway then began to decimate canal traffic. In 1852, faced with inevitable ruin, the Company, following the example of the Kennet & Avon, offered their canal to the railway whose contemptuous offer of £20,000 was unwisely as it turned out, refused. From 1877 on, with traffic falling steadily year by year, a series of owners, lessees and Wilts County Council endeavoured to make the canal pay, but to no avail. Finally in 1914, Swindon Corporation, fed up with 3½ miles of derelict canal in its midst, obtained a Private Act to abandon the canal.
Engineering and Traffic
The building of the Wilts & Berks Canal was on a minor scale, no great aqueducts, no pumping stations or stupendous flights of locks as at Devizes on the K&A. The major engineering work was the two arched brick Stanley aqueduct over the river Marden near the junction with the Calne branch, the partial collapse of which in 1901 put paid to through traffic. The locks, 42 on the main line, 3 on the Calne branch and 12 on the North Wilts, could accommodate boats 72ft long 7tft wide, and carrying 25-30 tons. There are no records of other than horse or donkey drawn trading boats.
Following abandonment, over the years all road bridges but one were culverted, railway crossings were replaced by solid embankments and portions of the bed were filled in. Some accommodation bridges and lock structures provided demolition practice for the Army. Other locks provided a source of bricks for local buildings. The two reservoirs, Coate, south of Swindon, and Tockenham, near Lyneham, remain intact and much used by anglers.
In 1977 the Wilts & Berks Amenity Group was formed to arouse public interest in the well nigh forgotten canal. Although filled in through the towns, 70% of the channel still exists in the countryside. The ultimate aim of the Group is to restore a waterway link between the Kennet & Avon Canal or the Thames in the Cricklade area using as much of the old canal as possible. Obviously this is a long term project. It involves finding solutions political, financial and technical to problems of re-instatement of sections already infilled, of finding ways through or around Swindon and Abingdon, of crossing the A4, M4 and innumerable other roads, of negotiating security of tenure and lastly, but not least, the problem of water supply.
The Group is trying to mount a campaign to make sure that the potential of the canal as a through route is not lost for ever. It wants to define the line and then safeguard it to make sure that if it is not restored this generation, then future generations still have the option to do so. To this end a start has been made in surveying sections of a possible new route in the Melksham area.
In the meantime the Group seeks to create amenity areas for the benefit of the community. These areas are short lengths of canal ranging from a few hundred feet up to several miles which can be restored for fishing, nature conservation, canoeing, walking, industrial archaeology or even a trip boat.
At Calne the Group has rebuilt the parapets of Chaveywell Bridge and cleared land next to the canal to allow access for a mechanical digger. A North Wilts District Council Community Programme scheme has started and it is hoped that this can be used to complete all necessary work. The restored canal wi11 form the centrepiece of an extended Castle Park. The Group is negotiating with the landowner to allow public access to the restored section.
At Dauntsey, where the A420 crosses the canal line, there are buildings of an earlier canal settlement an a buried lock. 1½miles to the east are the remains of “Seven, Locks”. It is proposed to make the towpath walkable for the whole length, make a heritage trail up the lower half of the flight, restoring the locks to varying. stages of repair to illustrate lock construction, and restore a mile to east of the road for a trip boar and other water related activities. To support this project the lWA has offered an initial donation of £1,000 to be followed by a grant £1 per £1 raised by the group up to a total Inland Waterways Association contribution of £5,500.
North Wilts District Council has provided support for both the Calne and Dauntsey amenity areas and Thamesdown Borough Council has shown a lot of interest areas near Swindon, a clear and watered section of the main line at Kingshill which includes a beautiful skew bridge of the former Midland South West Junction Railway, and the landscaping of a portion of the North Wilts. Oxfordshire County Council supported the clearance of the one remaining main line bridge at Shrivenham. The Vale of White Horse have undertaken to safeguard the line in their area.
Practically the whole of the Wilts & Berks Canal line is marked on OS Landranger maps 173 anti 174. As most the canal is now in private hands, little, particularly at the west end, is accessible without prior permission: the exceptions are at Castle Park, Calne and Kingshill and Moredon at Swindon. But from West Challow, west of Wantage, to Abingdon, most of the towpath is a public footpath and the remains of the six Grove and the two Ardington locks can he found.
One day our children, or our children's children. will once again enjoy navigating the Wilts & Berks, Kennet & Avon and Thames circular route or even venture up the North Wilts to a restored Thames & Severn. The Wessex Waterways network will he whole again.
Waterways World May 1987