“THE canal,” said Chris Coyle, “was opened in 1810, and was built primarily to carry coal from the Somerset coalfields through Wiltshire and what was then Berkshire, and then on as far as London.

“Somerset coal was highly prized. It was good quality coal and people were prepared to pay a premium for it.

“Coal and food were required in the growing towns. The Wilts and Berks Canal was the M4 of its time.

“The length, including all the branches and the North Wilts Canal, was about 70 miles.

“It ran from Semington down on the Kennet and Avon, down from just below Melksham.

“It branched to Chippenham and Calne and then up through Royal Wootton Bassett, round the back of the hill on which Swindon sat, and then out through Shrivenham and across the Vale of the White Horse to join the Thames at Abingdon.”

Another branch went to Cricklade.

In the mid-19th Century, just as the profitable coal was running out, a certain Mr Brunel opened a competing railway line and the canal as a commercial entity was doomed.

By 1900 it was an underused shadow of its former self and in 1914, with ruined infrastructure and in places choked with rubbish, it was abandoned by Act of Parliament.

The council took over the old canal reservoir. Today we call it Coate Water.

Chris is originally from Portsmouth, the youngest of three children born to a secretary and a World War Two Navy veteran who worked in construction.

He’s always been interested in history, although he studied modern languages at university.

After working briefly for brewing company he moved into chartered accountancy and later spent many years as an independent management consultant before retiring a few years ago.

Family narrowboat holidays were an antidote to a stressful career, but it was thanks to his career that he first became aware of the Wilts and Berks canal during a trip to Wantage.

“It was probably in about 1985. I had a new client as a management consultant, and I decided to get there very early on the first day - you never want to be late to meet the managing director.

“I parked in their car park and I was looking around. I saw this profile, this shape in the ground, at the bottom of their car park, and I realised it was a canal profile.

“I then started investigating, found out about the Wilts and Berks, joined, did lots of physical work repairing things on Sunday mornings.”

The aim of the canal trust is easily summed up. “To restore the Wilts and Berks Canal to a full navigable standard from Semington to Abingdon and to Cricklade,” said Chris.

Some sections, such as those in parts of central Swindon, can’t be restored, but that leaves about 65 miles, of which the trust has about 10 percent up and running, including the stretch at Kingshill.

“The purpose is to provide an amenity for the whole community,” said Chris.

“Clearly there will be boating - the Wilts and Berks will be terrifically important in terms of boating because it will provide connections from the Kennet and Avon across to the Thames and up to the Cotswold canals.

“But that’s only five percent of it - only five percent of the users of canals are actually boaters.

“The other 95 percent are anglers, walkers, nature photographers, cyclists, families out on a stroll on a Sunday afternoon, canoeists - it’s the whole community.

“We’re talking about a 65-mile long leisure facility, and then you’ve got the benefits to wildlife.

“A canal profile is four different habitats. You’ve got the water itself, which obviously will contain fish and aquatic creatures; you’ve got the bank below the towpath, which is wonderful for water voles; you’ve got the hedges and trees and scrub on the other side of the tow path which provide a different kind of habitat, and then you’ve got the hedges and trees which always fence off the towpath to make it secure, and that’s a natural habitat for birds and insects.”

Chris would like to see the project at least nearing completion in about 15 years, with much of the funding coming from businesses in exchange for the future profits from canalside businesses.

He cites research concluding that every pound spent on canal restoration yields a sevenfold return.

One of those canalside businesses will be the old Peterborough Arms at Dauntsey Lock, which the trust purchased and plans to reopen. The trust also operates a successful pleasure boat, Firefly, along the main Swindon stretch of canal, and plans to add another vessel.

As well as negotiating with businesses - details have yet to be announced - the trust liaises with local authorities including Swindon’s and the county council.

He said: “If you go to many cities in this country - Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Banbury, Reading, and I could reel off 15 more - there’s been a huge boost to the town simply by regenerating it based around a waterway.

“We’re talking about making the centre of Swindon a destination, a water-based area with all that goes with it in terms of cafes, a ‘wow’ factor, the canal bringing jobs in the form of restaurants and marinas, chandleries, boat servicing places.”

The trust welcomes inquiries potential supporters, whether they’re volunteers for its shop, would-be Firefly pilots, businesses anxious to hear more about commercial benefits or people who simply want to pick up a spade or a pickaxe and spend some time outdoors.

It also welcomes information about canal history and artefacts, and plans to display its own collection, much of which was discovered during excavation.

Its website is wbct.org.uk