Celebrating the Wilts & Berks Canal’s 200th Anniversary
Canal Festival & Family Fun Day Out at Wichelstowe, Swindon on Sunday 12 September 11am to 4pm
This year is the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Wilts and Berks Canal. To celebrate the event, the Canal Trust, with Swindon Borough Council, are holding a Canal Fest from 1100 on Sunday 12 September at Wichelstowe. Come and join our family fun day.
On and around the water we will have boat trips, canoe demos and coaches on hand to teach the youngsters how to fish. On the field there will be a children’s fair, face & henna painting, bouncy castle, vintage tractor & motor bikes and many attractive stands with arts & crafts. There will be plenty of refreshments on site, including a Victorian ice cream bike, selling their wares. The Trust will have its own display stands giving more information about the Canal and a number of local charity stalls will also be joining us.
More information is available at www.wbct.org.uk
How to get there: (see map on right)
The canal towpath from the rear of the Esso Garage, Kingshill Road or the footpath from Old Town to Mannington that crosses the canal then use the towpath south
Vehicles to Redposts Drive (off Wootton Bassett Road, Swindon). Walk cycle towpath from bottom of Kingshill (behind Esso garage) or Old Town railway footpath from West Swindon.
Please note this event is being held on a field next to the canal and unfortunately the ground is uneven
About the Canal at Wichelstowe
The area to the south of Swindon is currently being constructed as a community called Wichelstowe. Bordered by the M4 to the south, Croft Road to the east, and the railway to the west, much of the infrastructure is now being built including the canal.
During 2010 the first new lock on the main line of the canal will be built to west of Croft Road and the canal is currently being constructed.
When Wichelstowe is completed over 4km of canal will be restored or newly constructed. The route to Wootton Bassett follows a new alignment towards junction 16 before turning south to a new proposed culvert under the M4.
More information about the Wichelstowe Development can be found on their website: www.wichelstowe.co.uk
When and where did the original Canal run?
The Wilts and Berks Canal, constructed between 1795 and 1810, ran for 52 miles linking the Kennett and Avon Canal at Semington near Melksham to the River Thames near Abingdon with Swindon at its centre. (At one stage extension eastwards to Aylesbury and the Grand Union Canal was considered.). There were 42 locks and two reservoirs fed the Canal at Coate Water (1822) and Tokenham (1840) west of Wootton Bassett. There were short branches at Wantage, Longcot, Calne and Chippenham.
The North Wilts Canal, built between 1814 and 1819, was incorporated into the Wilts and Berks Canal in 1822. It had 12 locks in the 9 miles connecting the Wilts and Berks Canal at Swindon to the Thames and Severn Canal at Latton, north of Cricklade.
Both Canals were built for narrow boats less than 72×7 feet (governed by the size of the locks rather than the Canal.)
Why was the Canal built?
The Wilts and Berks Canal primarily transported goods from the west, particularly coal from the Somersetshire coal mines south of Bath. The North Wilts Canal provided a link to the Forest of Dean coalfields and goods from the Midlands. It was quite successful between 1817 and 1841 although the area served was not densely populated and many craft returned west and northwards empty. The most successful time was probably in helping provide materials for the Great Western Railway; the construction of which also started the Canal’s decline. However, at no time was the Canal owned by the GWR.
When did the Canal close?
Traffic declined markedly between1841 and 1877 leading to transfer to new owners in 1877. Through traffic ceased after the Stanley Aqueduct between Chippenham and Calne partially collapsed in 1901. The Canal formally closed with the Act of Abandonment at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
What happened to the Canal?
Generally, the land was given or sold to landowners abutting the Canal. Some lengths were left untouched but most were filled in for agricultural use. Some parts, e.g. in Abingdon, Melksham and Cricklade, and the Wantage Branch, have had houses built on them.
In Swindon, the Canal and Coate Water Reservoir were taken over by Swindon Corporation. Over the years, the Canal became stagnant and by the early 1960s was mainly filled in and used for other purposes. For example, Fleming Way and Canal Walk were formerly parts of the Canal. Coate Water became a Country Park and part of the North Wilts Canal is now in the new Mouldon Hill Country Park. The towpath has been maintained as a right of way through Swindon.
The Canal at West Leaze and King’s Hill has been restored for some time. It attracts wildlife, including water voles and dragonflies, and naturalists – the Canal has featured in TV programmes with Bill Oddie and Alan Titchmarsh. It is this area which will be the focus for the Canal Fest celebrations on 12 September.
What is the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust (W&BCT)?
In 1997, the Trust is a charity, dependent on membership fees and donations, committed “to return this historic waterway to a navigable state for the benefit of the community and the environment.” It has a rising membership of over 2000.
The Patron of the Trust is the Duchess of Cornwall. The main office and administrative support are based at Spittleborough Farm near M4 junction 16. However, it is mainly supported through volunteers, grants from various bodies and through, for example, Landfill Tax. There is a Council of Management and Branches along the whole length of the Canal. The website www.wbct.org.uk gives a lot of information and pictures.
What does the Trust do?
The Trust seeks to restore the Canal to a navigable state along its over 50 mile route. Membership is split into Branches along the route which organise bands of volunteers restoring parts of the Canal by building bridges, locks and spill weirs, and maintaining towpaths. There are also volunteers aiding publicity and fund raising. Since the beginning of 2008, there has been a canal information shop at 1 Theatre Square near the site of the new library. Subject to volunteers being available, it is open on Fridays and Saturdays with the prime aim of informing members of the public about the Canal and future plans.