A talk on the Wilts & Berks Canal, by Martin Buckland of the Canal Trust, was enjoyed by members of the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group on 8 January.
The Canal was intended to carry coal from Somerset via the Somerset Coal Canal and the Kennet & Avon Canal. It started near Melksham and ended at Abingdon, rising to a summit of 346 feet and falling 129 feet again to the Thames; the total length was 52 miles. The canal was started in 1795 and went into operation in 1810, the same year the Kennet & Avon opened. It formed part of a network with the Oxford Canal (1790) and the Thames & Severn Canal (1789).
Unfortunately it was never very successful commercially, facing competition from the railways from 1830. Traffic along the canal declined during the 19th century and the collapse of the Stanley Aqueduct in 1901 proved to be the last straw; it was finally abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1914. In subsequent decades the canal became largely filled in and the land returned to adjacent landowners.
Restoration of the canal (and its locks, bridges and aqueducts) by volunteers started in 1987; it was hoped that the work would be completed in some 30 years. Most of the length of the original canal remains, although some sections passing through towns, such as Swindon, and are unsuitable for restoration. Funding has been obtained from the lottery, although it is hoped that major companies will assist in the future. In 2004, the Canal was adopted into the British Waterways Vision 2025.
Restored sections of the Canal provide habitats for threatened wildlife, and the waterway and its towpaths provide leisure amenities for local people. There is still much to do; completion of the restoration is expected to take a further 30 years – from now.
Next month’s talk will be on 5 February and given by Michael Redley – on Victorian and Edwardian Henley – including the 1906 election when, uniquely, the Conservative candidate was not returned.