Friday, 17 March 2017

A View from the Back Window

This week I am taking a rest and its over to Guest Editor Steve Bacon

Since the beginning of this year, Ken has provided an information-packed blog eagerly awaited each weekend. This week, I hope to give another perspective from a Branch member. I retired in October 2015 and a couple of months later we moved to Royal Wootton Bassett having chosen just the spot to keep us occupied.
In February 2016 I started with the weekly working parties offering unskilled labour, and so I've seen our stretch of the canal through every season. It's very satisfying to see a job completed in a day. Early spring last year started with clearing trees and brush from the Dunnington Aqueduct with neat bonfires to consume the piles accumulated during the work-party. We moved on to the restored section at Templars Firs to tidy the offside – again with a bonfire or two to mark our activity – and later in the summer onto the canal to remove the weed growth. The yellow water-lilies are very attractive but they choke the canal; however, the two clumps of large white water-lilies were strictly protected and have been the subject of much amateur photography. I often meet camera-wielding walkers while I'm out with the dogs.

Our branch has a faithful band of volunteers coming from far and wide to keep the grass mown and the hedgerows held in check, and a well-respected WPO in John Bower to guide us in the tasks in hand. He has three deputies, so we can split up into sub-groups as necessary. The team has a wide range of practical skills to counter-balance my lack of them; several members can drive diggers and dumpers, but no-one can make it look quite so simple as Richard Hawkins who can fashion a track or a trench in a trice. The excavator is just like an extra arm, levelling the clay like spreading butter.
Other volunteers have left their mark on the Peterborough Arms: Frank Keohane and John Phillips have worked on plastering based on the traditional lime mix needed for a listed building, and although their achievements have already been celebrated in a report given to those who've loaned money for the PA, this year their handiwork will be revealed to a much wider audience.
Having moved from the clay soils of central Berkshire, I know how just how much difference there is between the water-logged soft mess in winter and the cracked dry surface in summer. The clay soil at Studley Grange is an order of magnitude stickier and softer in winter, but with a decent towpath it will become accessible this year. In mid-February, an excavator was hired for two days to create a spill-weir at the western end of Studley Grange by Bincknoll Lane; two trenches were dug, two ribbed plastic pipes were sunk in the clay and covered over, and the team's hi-viz jackets ended up a very low-vis grey.

Having moved to a house in Templars Firs (the road), I was asked to become project manager of the Templar's Firs Extension project (the canal). Actually, I've been busy working in the canal itself over the last few months diverting a path – but I hasten to add that this stretch is in my back garden, and not for restoration. Over Christmas and New Year, I was also busy managing the diversion of the all-weather access track, swapping hats between project management and unskilled labour under John's command. Many others joined the extra work-parties to erect the fencing and help lay 200 tons of scalpings.
Behind our back garden is the old Council Depot, which was moribund when I first saw it in 2015, but when we moved in, we found that it was a hive of activity 24/7 from Monday to Sunday, occupied by a consortium named ABC Electrification whose staff have raised funds for us and kindly allowed the WRG excavator to be parked overnight for over a fortnight. Last week, they finally vacated the buildings and the once-busy yard is now empty and waiting for a buyer.
Will the Templar's Firs Extension have to move up a gear soon? Will we need two work-parties in future – one midweek for us 'Last of the Summer Winers' and another at the weekend for those still working?
Steve Bacon,
Trustee representing the Membership.

If you would like to be one of our occasional guest editors let me know
Ken Oliver

Friday, 10 March 2017

Slowly coming back to life

Another opportunity this week to visit some more of the canal. This time it was the most recent restoration at Studley Grange Royal Wootton Bassett. I don't think any of the WBCT management team would argue with me when I say that this project has been difficult and is not yet complete. I know everyone is waiting for the official opening but like most things Wilts & Berks a bit more patience is required!  However things are happening and the RWB team are working their way through a long list of installing information boards benchs and leaning posts.

This project is part of the strategy to link the canal from Royal Wootton Bassett to Swindon and my reason to visit this week was to discuss how we can temporarily link the towpath to Hay Lane. This will require the permission of Biffa Waste Ltd to access land to the north of the canal. It was a lovely spring day for the walk and as you can see the canal looks very good and will look even better when Wiltshire Wildlife Trust complete some further planting later this month.

Ken Oliver

Friday, 3 March 2017


It nice to get out of the office and have a look a section of the Wilts & Berks I have not  seen before , so with some of the WBCT team , and with permission of Wiltshire Council's property team, on Tuesday I had a look at Lower Forest Farm just outside Melksham. This is part of the land that Wiltshire Council has agreed to  give to WBCT and most importantly contains the new route out of the river Avon to re-join  the historic route of the canal . It is a very picturesque  spot and the new locks required to come out of the river and climb up to the canal  will be very impressive. The old canal is a mixture of in filled sections and derelict waterway just waiting to be restored.
Derelict Canal  Lower Forest Farm
Site of junction with River Avon

Seeing this section of the canal 100 years after abandonment is very relevant  to  a report by consultants Peter Brett Associates shortly to be published. The study  has looked at the whole canal route as it is today  and relates it to local habitats  and will be an important tool in future planning applications to assess what mitigation may be required as part of the canal restoration.
The start of the week was a meeting with the WBCT engineering  team to finally conclude how the canal will connect from Croft Road Swindon to Coate Water Country Park.

Thankfully  unlike the Whitworths when they had to  physically survey the canal we were able to rely on 21st Century technology and use 'Lidar'  mapping to establish the levels along the route . The meeting concluded  that  we will need 5 locks to get from the old summit pound (99.1m) to  a new summit at 114m . The aim will be to build all the remaining locks at a standard 3m depth.
This week concluded with a visit to the Peterborough Arms ( looks better each time I go) for a meeting of the WBCT Executive.

Ken Oliver

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Big Picture

The last time I visited the Kings Cross St Pancras area of London was last year by boat so it was a slightly different perspective I viewed the egents Canal  from the meeting room close to Batllebridge basin, where on Friday IWA had assembled 20+ knowledgeable delegates from canal restoration groups. The aim of the day was to work out how IWA could advance waterway restoration on the national stage to further expand the work on their Restoration Hub. It was agreed by all  that a small team needs to be set up and resourced to define a 'vision' for what the waterways might look like in 10-15 years and then to promote this with all its benefits to national and local government and the leaders of relevant national organisations. In my opinion this is a big leap forward and I hope that the outcome will produce effective results for all waterway restoration schemes. The physical outcomes of waterside regeneration were all around us so a very appropriate venue for this work.
The Gas Works St Pancras (Jul 16)

The Cotswold Canal Partnership met this week at a very windy Slimbridge. Their main focus at present is to address the issues raised in the last attempt at securing HLF funding for their Phase 1b (connecting the existing restored section at Stroud to Saul Junction). The exciting news is that Stroud District Council has committed £3m to the scheme.
The Wilts & Berks is also hoping to attract some HLF funding for Pewsham Locks and I met with the bid team this week to assess what needs to happen next before the HLF project officer visits the site at the end of March.
Elsewhere on the project I have just started to review the latest Swindon consultations on the New Eastern Villages and I will be working with the WBCT Exec to see how members can best try to influence the proposals.

Ken Oliver

Saturday, 18 February 2017

This weeks Carry On

Celebrity Carry on Barging (Channel 5 Friday 8pm) to me had a title that raised at least an eyebrow  with an expectation of high jinx on the canal. Hats off to the producers who have come up with a formula  that captures the flavour of canal life seen through the eyes of Simon Callow Lorraine Chase Nigel Havers & Debbie McGee. I have to say that they would have been a bit more exhausted tackling the Caen Hill flight of locks without the help of the CRT volunteer lock keepers!. Anyway in my opinion well worth watching  especially episode 2 (aired Fri 17th) which features a short section about the Wilts & Berks restoration filmed at Pewsham Locks.

Acquiring the route of the Wilts &Berks is clearly the first step in fully restoring the canal and all day last Monday the WBCT Land Team and Branch Chairs met. The whole route of the mainline and North Wilts Canals were reviewed and a number key priorities identified to deliver strategic sections of the restoration.
In 1998 one of the big steps forward for the Wilts & Berks was a comprehensive feasibility study carried out  by consultants Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick.This has been the engineering 'bible' for the project since then, although quite a number of areas have been revised  by subsequent reports.  Currently I am working with the WBCT engineering team to review some of the basic specifications for the canal and we intend to publish a revised document shortly having checked some fundamental issues. This is a crucial piece of work as increasingly WBCT is having to advise third parties on how to build the canal. To ensure that the specifications will be generally in harmony with Canal & River Trust waterways, CRT have agreed to be part of the review procedure for this document.

Ken Oliver

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Hearts and minds

I think we still have to overcome one of the biggest challenges yet to move forward ,by which I don't mean the funding but the will of the communities along the Wilts & Berks to want to have the canal back as a central part of local life. This was illustrated vividly to me this week when I became involved in commenting on a Facebook page (Save Swindon Heritage- its a closed group so you have to ask to join) . The page was set up to challenge some of the decisions being made around the Heath Hydro- an amazingly preserved Victorian facility. The post asked what everyone thought about bringing the canal back to Swindon- there was plenty of support but not for the first time a number of posts that said they did not want the 'stinking cesspit' back - I presume a reference to the state of the derelict canal that survived into the 1970's. Another post talked about it being a death trap  and in my mind I really struggle as someone involved in the waterways  for half of my life to understand how these images of the canal persist particularly when there is so much upbeat  publicity with 'Tim & Pru' and others out and about on the canals. So still some work to do to win some hearts and minds.
The week included a meeting of the Melksham Link project team who plough on with the task of assembling and responding to comments on the planning application- we all think we are now very close!. 
Plans for the spring are in hand to complete the planting at Studley Grange and I am pleased to report that Wiltshire Wildlife Trust  are engaged to carry out the programme.
Behind the scenes there is much going on and I hope you appreciate that it is not always possible to share this, as  'going public' too early could jeopardise sensitive negotiations. I think I can say that if all goes well there may be something to say soon about Swindon Town Centre. 

Ken Oliver

Monday, 6 February 2017

Home thoughts from abroad

I resisted the urge on Saturday to write this week's blog as we were enjoying a few days away in the Mediterranean sunshine, so now being firmly back in the UK winter on Monday morning, time to catch up on the week's (or in my case half week) events.
Continuing the theme from the previous week Swindon once again featured with two important meetings about the New Eastern Villages  & Wichelstowe .
The first was with Cllr Toby Elliott Cabinet Member Strategic Planning & Sustainability and senior officers from the NEV team + WBCT Chairman and other Exec members.  We all came away feeling that the issues raised  were being taken seriously and that we had made some progress. I guess what actually happens next will be the measure of words versus actions!.
The same day some of the WBCT team attended the NEV Developers Forum.This was an attempt by SBC to bring together developers, service providers and local residents and interest groups. It was clear that there is still a long way to go before harmony breaks out in this arena!

My role also includes working with the Cotswold Canals team and currently I am hoping that I can help them get planning consent for a restoration scheme north of Cricklade at Roundhouse Farm as part of the restoration of some gravel workings. I suspect this may not be  able to be done quickly!!
My final thought for the week is to congratulate the WBCT team  for starting to get the Peterborough Arms at Dauntsey Lock back into use. Much hard work from the volunteer team has gone in to getting the building ready and some interesting community events are starting to be held there and we all look forward to the eventual use as a canal side pub and the prestigious HQ for WBCT.

Ken Oliver