WILTS & BERKS CANAL
Tony Davy describes the past , present and future
of the canal. The Wilts & Berks Canal was
conceived in the period of Canal Mania in the late 18th Century. Canals had
proved to be a success in the more industrial areas of England, both as an
effective form of inland transportation, and as an investment opportunity. In
the 1780s, a fear that the North Wessex area was missing out on the benefits of
the Industrial Revolution, combined with discovery of the Somerset Coalfield,
just south of Bath, provided the justification for the formation of a Company to
finance the building of a canal up the Avon valley and across the Vale of the
White Horse to the Thames - the Wilts & Berks Canal.
A group of potential investors formed in 1793 and
commissioned Robert Whitworth (a pupil of the great canal builder James
Brindley) and his son William to conduct a survey of possible routes. They
quickly identified a suitable route and the necessary Act of Parliament was
passed in 1795. Work commenced at the southern end of the line near Melksham,
later that year. Given the distraction of the Napoleonic Wars, it is perhaps not
surprising that the 52 miles from Semington Junction on the Kennet & Avon
canal to Abingdon on the River Thames took 15 years to complete; the official
opening being in 1810. A further canal, the North Wilts, was built to link the
Wilts & Berks at Swindon, with the Thames and Severn near Cricklade. The
North Wilts opened in 1819 and shortly after was taken over by the Wilts &
In addition to providing a route for coal from Somerset
to London, the Wilts & Berks made supply of cheap coal available to the many
market towns along its route and to Oxford. At the same time, it offered
economic transport for regional exports of agricultural produce, plus bricks,
building stone, clay pipes etc. to the large markets of Bristol and London.
However, the canal was not a success. It was built for 7ft. beam narrowboats,
unlike its major competitor the Kennet & Avon Canal, which offered passage
for 14ft. boats and also provided a shorter, faster, cheaper route to London.
The Somerset Coalfield rapidly became worked out and the rural area served by
the canal provided little high-value cargo and thus little in the way of
profits. The Wilts & Berks was, however, less prone to water shortages than
the Kennet & Avon.
The 1830s were the best years for the canal. The
building of the Great Western Railway required the transport of vast quantities
of materials and, since for much of its length the railway ran within a mile or
so of the line of the canal, the Wilts & Berks provided that transport. Thus
the canal contributed to its own downfall.
The second half of the 19th. Century was a period of
steady decline. Traffic shifted to the railway, canal tolls and fees were cut to
compete, and as a result revenues fell and operating costs had to be reduced.
Essential maintenance was cut back and this, in turn, caused operating problems.
One example, from the mid-1880s, records that a boat which should have carried
34 tons could carry only 17 tons due to silting of the channel.
BY EARLY 1901, TRAFFIC HAD ALL BUT CEASED,
WHEN NATURE PRE-EMPTED ITS INEVITABLE CLOSURE.
By the early 1901, traffic on the canal had all but
ceased, then nature, aided by years of minimal maintenance, pre-empted the
inevitable closure. The Stanley Aqueduct carried the canal over the River Marden
and, one stormy night, a 4-foot square section of one of the arches collapsed.
The water simply ran out of the canal, leaving the section above Lacock high and
Since the canal was beyond economic repair, and thus
virtually useless, various parties attempted officially to abandon it, and thus
absolve themselves of their obligations and liabilities, but another 13 years
passed before Parliament passed the Act of Abandonment and the land on which the
canal had been built was returned or sold to adjoining landowners.
Over the next 60 years the Wilts & Berks atrophied
as nature reclaimed its own, aided by deliberate actions such as the infilling
of locks with domestic rubbish and even the use of the structures for demolition
practice during World War II. Yet despite such destruction, much of the canal
remains in surprisingly good condition, particularly in the rural areas which
constitute the majority of its original course, and here it requires little more
than scrub clearing and dredging to restore the Wilts & Berks to its former
glory. The major works required consist of rebuilding structures, such as locks
and bridges, and the building of new structures to cope with the effects of
developments since abandonment, such as the M4 Motorway and the expansion of
many urban areas along the route of the canal. In a few of these cases an
alternative route may prove to be necessary.
THE WILTS & BERKS CANAL'S LARGELY RURAL
NATURE, WHICH WAS THE PRIME CAUSE OF ITS PAST ECONOMIC PROBLEMS' IS NOW ITS
The Wilts & Berks Canal Amenity Group, a Registered
Charity, was formed in 1977 with the aim of preserving what remained of the
canal. In 1989 it became a Non- profit Distributing Company with the ultimate
objective of the restoration of a navigation for use by narrowboats, up to 70ft.
long, from the Kennet & Avon to the River Thames and the Thames & Severn
Canal, using as much of the original canal as possible. The Group is actively
involved in restoration and other canal-related projects at various points along
the route. To date, some 7 miles have been cleared or restored to water for
recreational use, and work is complete or under way on the rebuilding of several
locks and bridges. At Wootton Bassett a length has been restored sufficiently to
hold a Trailboat Rally on14th./15th. July this year. The Group is also involved
in the creation of amenity areas and footpaths, for the public and special
interest groups, with the long-term objective of linking all these projects
together to restore through navigation.
Although the task which faces the Group is a daunting
one, progress is being made. Group membership is rising steadily, as is the rate
of completion of restoration projects. One major step forward took place in
early July, when a canal trust was formed, consisting of the Amenity Group and
the various local authorities through whose areas the canal runs. Those
authorities are already protecting the line of the canal from further
development by, for example, incorporating bridges and culverts for the canal
into new road schemes. Now the trust has been formed, many of the Group's
current problems of obtaining site access and finance should be eased.
The Wilts & Berks Canal's largely rural nature,
which was the prime cause of its past economic problems, is now its most prized
asset, as the whole canal network is revitalised as a national amenity and
leisure resource. A re-built Wilts & Berks would provide the core of a
southern canals network. The Canal is the country's longest unrestored inland
waterway, and its strategic importance is clear.
The Wilts & Berks also provides a rare example of
restoration-led development. A company, The Wilts & Berks Canal Co. Ltd. has
purchased 1.5 miles of canal plus adjacent land at Dauntsey Lock and is
restoring the canal and associated cottages as a commercial venture. This work
is nearly completed. The Company works closely with the Amenity Group and has
helped to finance the Group's work in the area around Dauntsey
Tony Davy is Chairman of the Wilts & Berks