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 & Berks.

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 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 dry.

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 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 Canal Trust


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