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Water, water everywhere
IT is, everyone agrees, a jolly good day for boating. Ablaze with celebratory bunting a modest cruiser chugs triumphantly up and down a sun-dappled stretch of waterway while a Victorian skiff called Emily expertly skirts the grassy banks and rushes.
There are cheers and hurrahs as wine glasses clink, cuppas are sipped and a ribbon is dutifully cut by the beaming Mayor of Swindon, Derek Benfield.
It is the summer of 2003 and group of cheery people – some sportingly sporting traditional boating gear – are toasting the return of a once prominent local institution. Or at least, a small but significant part of it.
On a patch of countryside in South Swindon a re-excavated stretch of the Wilts & Berks Canal has been opened – an inconceivable notion 25 years earlier.
And across it sits a sturdy, finely-arched stone bridge painstakingly constructed to look exactly like one built on the same spot 200 years earlier.
Its predecessor long ago crumbled into dereliction before, in a final act of indignity, it was blown to pieces by World War Two troops practising for the green fields of Normandy.
Its replacement, rising like the proverbial phoenix 60 years later, has been expertly re-built with the aid of a 1920s photograph.
“There was nothing left of it. But that old picture gave us some idea of what it looked like,” says bricklayer and canal restoration volunteer Ron Robertson, 65, who donates his time and expertise to head the project.
Its renovation along with the return of a kilometre of silvery water typifies the spirit and endeavour behind not only the UK’s toughest canal restoration but also the equally ambitious venture to bring the old girl back into Swindon.
Today – ten years later – anyone driving through the nearby South Swindon growth zone of Wichelstowe cannot fail to notice a canal running through it – the first new stretch built in Swindon for two centuries It is exactly 36 years ago yesterday – a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon on October 8, 1977 – that the seeds are sown to revive a canal which increasingly exists only in fading memories, crumpled yellowing maps and scratchy, monochrome photographs.
Eighty people – historians, engineers, nostalgia enthusiasts – gather at Swindon Arts Centre to form a group to preserve the scattered remnants of a canal officially shut 63 years earlier in 1914, a century ago next year.
No-one actually utters the word “restore” for fear of being laughed out of the building.
They are talking about two canals: the 52.4 mile Wilts & Berks that connected Kennet & Avon Canal at Semington near Melksham to the Thames at Abingdon, via Swindon; and the nine-mile North Wilts off-shoot from Swindon to Latton where it joined the Thames & Seven.
Over the years the group evolves into a fully-fledged charitable trust with eight branches dotted along the W&B route – including Swindon which is slap bang in the middle.
At some stage in the Eighties, they come right out with it: “We are going to bring back the canal to full working, navigable order.” More than 60 miles – including the Swindon-Latton link: a glorious, wildlife rich, environmentally friendly linear parkway.
Guffaws of derision erupt. Doubters accuse them of having water on the brain. It’ll never happen, they say. Too expensive, for a start.
Today, the timetable for completing this vast, many-faceted project is just ten to 15 years: 2026 has been mentioned. The cost? Around £300-400 million.
“It has been headlined the ‘impossible dream,’ but I don’t believe it is an impossible dream,’” says Ken Oliver, a former trust chairman and chief executive, now a Wiltshire Council countryside officer with responsibilities for canals and waterways.
“Perhaps to those who started it all in 1977 it may have seemed like that. They wanted to save what was left of the old canal.
“But we would not have attracted the support of so many key partners without a realistic prospect of it happening. The only doubt is the funding. But who’s to say that it’s not around the corner?”
Ken, a former electronics engineer, adds “If the project was driven by passion alone we would have already completed the Wilts & Berks restoration.”
As it stands, a string of bridges, tow-paths, and slivers of the canal itself, have been revived – about ten to 15 per cent of its infrastructure.
He said: “Most of us involved want to put something back into the community that will leave a legacy for future generations.”
Key is the goodwill and expertise of an army of voluntary workers including many retired professionals, from land registration experts to engineering designers.
Government cash, however, is vital. But the canal restoration ticks a lot of boxes: leisure, wildlife, environment, tourism.
Swindon is its trickiest obstacle; shops, roads, houses, offices and a whole bunch of underground pipes and cables occupy the original route.
Instead the Wilts & Berks will snake around Swindon via Wichelstowe before joining the old route along the Oxford road.
Meanwhile, another new stretch will supply the town centre with something it sorely lacks – a decent drop of water.
From Wootton Bassett via Kingshill it will slide rather prettily alongside the Railway Village before heading onto the North Wilts route towards Cheney Manor and Mouldon Hill, where some of the canal is restored.
Swindon council says it will bring the “wow” factor to the town centre. The Labour opposition insists it will become “Swindon’s Millennium Dome” – leaking oceans of cash.
But you have to admit, boating through Swindon sounds pretty cool – even to those of us who may well be in our dotage when it happens. And I use the word ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
l The Trust’s AGM is held at East Wichel community school on Saturday, October 19 at 2pm. Visits and displays from 10am. More information about the trust and its work: www.wbct.org.uk
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