On 21 September, appearing via Zoom and resplendent in a luxuriant pandemic beard, Club member Martin Buckland related the history, and hoped-for future, of the Wilts & Berks Canal.
That, including the ampersand, was always its official name, starting with its enabling Act of Parliament of 1795. Canals were then prospering, because for bulky or fragile cargoes they were better than the rough – and often impassibly muddy – roads. The Wilts & Berks opened in 1810, offering a new 52-mile route from Semington (on the existing Kennet and Avon Canal) to Abingdon. This route was (and one day could again be) much shorter than via Newbury, Reading, and the Thames. The Wilts & Berks had branches to Chippenham, Calne, and Wantage; and later a link to the upper Thames at Cricklade.
The Oxford Canal had brought the price of coal (from Coventry) in Oxford down to £1.60 a ton, undercutting sea coal from Newcastle at £2.60 a ton, brought via London and the Thames. The Wilts & Berks hoped for lucrative traffic from the Somerset coal fields. It also carried grain for the Abingdon breweries. But there was little return traffic from Abingdon to the west.
The route passed through what were, in 1810, fields near the small market town of Swindon. From 1840, the canal briefly prospered, carrying materials for the building of Brunel’s Great Western Railway and the new Swindon railway works and town. But the canal thus brought on its own decline, because the railway captured much of its traffic. The canal bore increasingly unsustainable losses. Traffic had largely ceased by 1901, and the canal was formally abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1914. Its land was transferred to the adjacent landowners, although the local authorities retained responsibility for the bridges. Many stretches were built on or filled with rubbish, and some lock structures were used for demolition practice by the army.
In 1971 Jack Dalby’s pioneering book ‘The Wilts and [sic] Berks Canal’ was published, and awakened enthusiasts’ interest in restoring the canal to navigation. This is now being energetically taken forward by the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, in cooperation with the local authorities and the national Canal & River Trust. Several short stretches are open to navigation, and there are credible plans for new routes past Swindon and through Melksham.
2006 saw the triumphant opening of the first stretch of a completely new section of canal leaving the Thames nearly opposite the Culham Cut, and planned to replace the original route from Abingdon through Caldecott. That is now irretrievably built over: only a pretty bridge at the mouth of the Ock remains as a memento of the Canal’s wharf there. A free downloadable leaflet is available to guide you on a fascinating walk around the old and new routes from Abingdon.