Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Hello again
If you have managed to find this blog again apologies that there has been a gap in publishing as I had decided  the old Wilts & Berks Weekly had run its course and that it was time to start again its lust its taken a while!!!.
So on a somewhat less ardious schedule (not weekly!) I intend to share my views here about the world of canals and restoration  which I hope you will find interesting.

Ken Oliver

Sunday, 20 August 2017


No I am not going to write about leaving something in your will to the Wilts & Berks (but that would of course be much appreciated) however a recent visit to London put these thoughts in my mind.
Firstly its holiday time so I am afraid this weekly column is going to be on a more irregular basis until the middle of September.
The London trip was last weekend to watch an evening of athletics at the London (Olympic) Stadium -you may know that we took our narrowboat to the Queen Elizabeth Park last year when the waterways (what we used to call the Bow Back Rivers) were re-opened. It was fantastic to see how much the park- now a public open space - had matured since my first visits to some of the Olympic Games events in 2012. Last week it was back to the Stadium on foot .
Queen Elizabeth Park -view to the Swimming Pool
The trees and planting are fantastic - the natural wild flowers in the beds and alongside the waterways are a credit to the designer.
For canal fans like myself there was also an opportunity to see the recently restored Carpenters Road Lock with its unique sector gates 
You will know that there was much controversy about the cost of the Games however in my opinion the money was well spent on turning this derelict part of Hackney/Stratford into a wonderful place for the community to enjoy all the time plus the athletes village now social housing- plus a magnificent dual purpose football and world class athletics stadium plus swimming pool plus ... I could go on but sufficient to sayit was public investment in infrastructure that certainly is a huge benefit for all.
Just think what a fraction of the Olympic investment could do to put the Wilts & Berks back together again - as the social media says #forallofus. Perhaps Lord Coe you could work some of your magic for us ???

Ken Oliver

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Wilts & Berks at the centre of Swindon life

I have written much about the ambitions to bring the Wilts & Berks back to the centre to Swindon but perhaps time just to pause and have a good look at where the canal is currently being built. When I first became involved in the Wilts & Berks there was a huge local protest campaign to stop development on Swindon's Front Garden- I am not sure who coined this phrase for what Swindon Borough Council called the Southern Development Area.and at the time work was just starting on the Northern Development Area (Taw Hill Abbey Meads, St Andrews Ridge..) so in an ever expanding town the SDA was scheduled to be next. The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust has always stayed neutral on whether such developments should go ahead but if they do the aim has been, and still is, to make the best use of any funding to construct the canal. The SDA was planned on ground known to need extensive drainage and protection from flood events so with the Wilts & Berks route running through the area the canal was an obvious choice to be a central part of the drainage works. I think we should all be grateful that the decision makers at that time embraced the canal concept, as the drainage could have been done in other ways. So started the story of what became Wichelstowe and the construction of considerable amount of infrastructure to facilitate a navigable waterway. 
Wind the clock on to 2017  and the first part of the new canal has been built at East Wichel, and the next phase of upgrading the existing canal at Middle Wichel is about to start. This will mean closure of a section of the canal for a number of months while extensive engineering works are carried out prior to construction of a new public house, school and housing.
As a consequence from some time in September until at least next spring the Trust's trip boat Dragonfy will be running from the old departure point at Kingshill instead of Waitrose.
Beyond this immediate work future phases of Wichelstowe will link the two section of canal and extend it to the point where it will cross the M4. 
I think what is important to understand is that Wichelstowe will have the canal as a central feature and this alone must be a convincing case for extension into the town centre and beyond to Cricklade .

Ken Oliver 

Sunday, 30 July 2017

A green and pleasant waterway

 If you regularly follow this blog you will know that we currently have our boat in Birmingham  and we are now just starting a few exploratory cruises from our moorings close to Brindley Place. 
We certainly have plenty of choice of where to go, so this week mindful of the weather forecast we started off with a half day cruise. If you are involved in a restoration project like me you could easily think Birmingham is spoilt - that famous statistic that it has more canals than Venice is supported by the fact that the original Birmingham Mainline was a 'contour canal' winding its way taking the easiest 'flat' route. To speed up the journey time a new canal was built to iron out the curves on a straight line to Dudley and beyond  but leaving the old canal too. So we took advantage of this to make a circular route out on the 'new' in its deep cutting  and built so straight you could set the boat on cruise control and return on the old -up 3 locks and down again. As a new visitor what I think surprised me most was how green canal corridor is with so much open space and wildlife within in  a mile or so of the city centre.

and no shortage of herons with their shy please don't take a picture of me attitude 
Not to say that all of the journey was in a country park - on the old line there is the small matter of the M5 - I wonder how many of the millions who travel above  realise what is under their feet.
Meanwhile on the home front I have just spent the week working on expanding the audio trail for the Wilts & Berks so look out (or should that be listen out) for news soon.

Ken Oliver

Sunday, 23 July 2017

People Power- where there's a will....

Perhaps the biggest challenge to bringing the Wilts & Berks back to life is a natural scepticism that it can be done at all. We acknowledge ourselves that its the longest restoration in the UK so why should a major infrastructure scheme promoted by a volunteer led Charity be successful.?
I often outline my 'conversion to a beliver' as being when I saw first hand another mission impossible  -the Rochdale Canal - go from ambition to reality in less than five years. The step change came about by an unexpected windfall of money from the Millennium Commission and suddenly the impossible was done.
Does this make me think that we will need such a fortuitous event to complete the Wilts & Berks -well maybe but as I will not be around to wait for another turn of a century I am keen to at least explore other possibilities. 
I was particularly pleased to welcome this week Sam Anderson-Brown and Peter Walker from Canal & River Trust  who are in charge of restoration - both CRT projects and linking with projects like the Wilts & Berks.

Its very difficult to showcase all the work that's going on but our tour took us from Swindon to Pewsham near Chippenham via a number of key locations.We look forward to continuing cooperation and liaison with CRT and without doubt their support for a Southern Canals Network (Cotswold + W&B) with Swindon as its hub will be crucial,
On  Wednesday perhaps I had an illustration of how the Wilts & Berks pace of restoration could be accelerated. You could not doubt the enthusiasm in the air at the Switch on to Swindon Ambassadors event held last Wednesday .
Its is quite clear that in the room and beyond there was a will to showcase Swindon as a great place to live and work. It set me thinking that in a world where currently the 'will of the people' is making the unthinkable happen, our current challenge is to encourage and nurture that 'will' - I have no doubt that it is there to restore the canal- to persuade (force may be a better word) those with the power to make change, to properly consider that the Wilts & Berks canal made operational will do all the things and more that we promise for local communities the environment and economy.

Ken Oliver

Monday, 17 July 2017

A journey of 70 miles

The journey of a thousand miles that might have started with a single step is not quite comparable with rebuilding the 70 miles of the Wilts & Berks Canal but sometimes it feels that way!
The equivalent of that first single step was taken many years ago, perhaps by Jack Dalby and his interest in the lost canal,  and certainly the subsequent formation of a group of like- minded people who began the restoration of this waterway forming the missing link between the Thames & Kennet and Avon Canal.

When I first joined the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust one of the projects being talked about was the canal at Studley Grange - if you  do not know this location its just on the Wiltshire side of Swindon (Hay Lane) on the way to Royal Wootton Bassett. That was some 15 years ago so you might wonder why it takes so long to get from an initial agreement to do the restoration to the happy conclusion last week of the final buckets full of spoil being removed.

The answer is perhaps to be found in the scale of what has just been achieved- to dig out 1.2 km of totally infilled canal on land not owned by WBCT, situated next to a landfill site  The location had a major advantage in that Biffa Waste who operate the site agreed to take the canal infill directly as part of their landscaping operations. The big potential snag was the proximity of the canal route to the landfill site. Much of the time and a great proportion of the initial cost was in demonstrating the technical feasibility of the scheme. Passing this hurdle was a complex process and only when agreed was it possible to negotiate a lease for the canal corridor. Fundraising and construction were no less complex so it was with great satisfaction that I was able on Monday to see this excavation finally completed. Not quite the last piece in the jigsaw as some more work to do on fencing and a footpath link at the eastern end of the site, but we all hope now for a full opening next spring.
Meanwhile we need to join this section to the already restored canal at Morningside Farm with a new bridge at Bincknoll Lane .......

Ken Oliver

Monday, 10 July 2017

You can be Heroes for more than just one day

This weeks blog title paraphrases a famous David Bowie song which thankfully I am not attempting to sing !
You will probably have seen that last Thursday was a press day on the Wilts & Berks part of the Heritage Heroes project. Funded by the Peoples Postcode Lottery Dreamfund , Canal & River Trust and Help for Heroes have developed a programme where recovering Armed Forces personnel can take part in projects as part of reskilling and rehabilitation.-working with the volunteers at four restoration projects.

If you have been involved in anything to do with the media especially television you will know  that there is more waiting around than action (not that I was anything other than an observer anyway!). So the sunny morning progressed with an opportunity at least to chat to some of the team and I was particularly heartened (a strange word in the circumstances) by the stories I heard about how being a part of the team at Pewsham had literally started to transform the lives of those taking part. So a win for everyone with a new play area taking shape and some serious bricklaying on the lock .

The project continues for another couple of weeks but I am sure this is just the start of a much longer association between WBCT and the Help for Heroes team.
I conclude with my public thanks to the local MCC branch team for making this happen- a great and worthwhile job.
Ken Oliver