A PRESTIGIOUS award is being presented to hardworking volunteers today (21 September), in recognition of their successful campaign to breathe new life into a former waterway.
The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust will receive the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service from Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire. The award has an equivalent status to that of the single MBE.
In the last year alone, the charity has arranged more than a dozen workparties along the length of the route.
Volunteers have donated thousands of hours to clear rubbish and restore a wide range of original structures including towpaths, culverts, bridges and wharfs.
Their aim is to create a new wildlife corridor linking the Kennet & Avon Canal near Melksham to the Thames & Severn Canal near Cricklade and the River Thames near Abingdon, protecting our industrial heritage while providing a multi-million pound boost to local tourism and employment.
John Laverick, chairman of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, will receive the domed glass crystal award from the Lord Lieutenant Mrs Sarah Troughton, while a framed certificate signed by Her Majesty the Queen will be presented to vice-chairman Kath Hatton.
The presentation will take place alongside a restored stretch of the canal in Swindon before guests enjoy a short trip aboard the narrowboat Dragonfly to Skew Bridge, with the Lord Lieutenant invited to take the helm.
Mr Laverick said: “The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service is regarded as the highest award for charities, and therefore we are delighted and honoured to receive this royal recognition.
“The Wilts & Berks Canal played an important role in the industrial revolution before it was abandoned in the early twentieth century, and our first volunteers simply tried to protect what was left of the route.
“Then, the charity had a small membership and very few people outside of the organisation had any idea that the waterway had ever existed. It was in danger of being lost forever.
“However, today there is growing recognition of the ways in which canals transform the fortunes of local towns through increased tourism and employment, as well as providing important new habitats for wildlife.
“Membership is steadily increasing and there is now clear public support for the Wilts & Berks to be brought back to life.”
Mrs Troughton said: “I am delighted when groups are recognised for the unique services they provide to their communities.
“The Trust has done much to restore and promote canals within Wiltshire.
“The dedication, commitment and hard work of officers and other volunteers is to be commended and the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service is justly deserved.”
The canal was built between 1795 and 1810 and freight included coal, corn, stone, iron, timber, lime and chalk.
It was also used to transport materials for the construction of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s new railways, but it was ultimately the competition from the faster and cheaper trains which led to the demise of boat traffic.
The canal was finally abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1914. Roads and homes were built on top in some of the towns it served, and many remaining stretches in local countryside were abandoned and forgotten.
The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust was formed to protect, conserve and improve the route with the ultimate goal of restoring it to navigable status.
Significant stretches have already been restored near Lacock, Dauntsey, Royal Wootton Bassett, Shrivenham, Grove and Abingdon and provide a popular attraction for walkers and cyclists.
Elsewhere, plans are being prepared for new routes which bypass modern developments. This includes an ambitious scheme to bring the canal through Melksham town centre using the River Avon.
The Trust now has more than 2,200 members and hundreds of thousands of pounds have been donated by local fundraisers and businesses.
The charity hopes to fund the rest of the restoration from national bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Mr Laverick said: “We are under no illusions about the scale of the task, especially in the current economic climate, but we only have to look at the Kennet & Avon Canal to see what can be achieved by volunteers working with the community.
“The Trust already enjoys the strong backing of local councils and residents and we hope the Queen’s Award will help to raise our profile even higher.
“Working together, we can breathe new life into this wonderful waterway.”