Our Meetings

Swindon Society Meeting Review

THE WILTS & BERKS CANAL
BY JOHN FARROW
Wednesday 10th October 2018


John Farrow

John Farrow is the Secretary of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust. He began his talk with a little bit of information about himself and how he got involved with the trust following his retirement from his working life as a chemist at the Research Councils. His hands-on involvement with the trust has seen him become a qualified dumper truck driver, as well as giving talks all over the town about the canal.

John gave us a brief overview of canal history - where they originated from (China) and why (for the more efficient transport of goods than a horse and cart). He then surprised a few of us in the room with the information that at one point there were five canals in Wiltshire:

  • the Salisbury Southampton Canal
  • the Thames & Severn Canal
  • the Kennet & Avon Canal (K&A)
  • the North Wilts Canal (which merged with the Wilts & Berks Canal in 1821)
  • the Wilts & Berks Canal (W&B), which John went on to tell us about.


I learned an awful lot from John’s presentation - he packed in plenty of information. One fact that really stuck with me was that the canal’s abbreviated name is actually the official one - it was never the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal, presumably thanks to the laziness of whomever drafted the official Act of Parliament! Not only is John very knowledgeable about the W&B Canal, but he is also quite a source of information about where to get the best refreshments along its route!

John told us that the canal was 52 miles long and was originally established to carry coal from the Somerset coal mines to the K&A Canal, but it was only in operation for 104 years from 1810 to 1914. The use of the canal had largely died out by about 1900 and then an aqueduct to the west of Calne collapsed, which further hastened its demise. As was the case with many canals, this one was used to transport materials which were used to build the railways. The railways then took over from them as the primary carriers of freight, hence the canals died out.

The W&B Canal joined the K&A Canal at Semington, a place most of us will recognise from the milestone marker still in Canal Walk which proclaims that it is 26 miles away. The supply of water to the W&B Canal was always a problem so a reservoir was built for the canal in the east of Swindon. This reservoir is now known to us as Coate Water.

A group to protect the remaining bits of the canal was formed in 1977 as the Wilts & Berks Canal Amenity Group and the W&B Canal Trust was formed in 1997. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is the patron of the trust and officially opened the Witchelstowe landing stage in 2015. She has a home at Reybridge, so has a local connection with the canal.

After taking us along the length of the canal with many facts and plentiful illustrations of exactly where and what he was talking about, John ended the presentation with a reminder that the trust needs support, even if it is of the armchair variety. He then showed us a short video of the Santa Trips on the Dragonfly and told us to book early as the trips sell out - a good reminder of how the canal is still relevant and important to Swindon people of all ages.

Kelly Blake - October 2018