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


Monday, 3 July 2017

By the waterside

If you read last weeks blog you will know that a number of us are trying to persuade the wider world, and Government in particular, why they should engage with the volunteer movement to fully restore the country's lost canals. I would be very interested in your opinion and especially what you think makes our inland waterways special.
Wherever you are water is always a great attraction. We have just spent a long weekend on the Isle of Wight staying with friends on a houseboat - so relaxing and a great way to unwind. 
Bembridge I.o.W.

I am also certain about one thing that will resonate with politicians and that is the amount of volunteering activity canal restoration produces. Each month I report the hours logged by the Wilts & Berks team and there is on average at least 2000 hours reported which if turned into monetary value would contribute £30K-£40k - probably well over £0.5m each year.

Some of my time last week was spent going through the pages on the Canal Partnership web site and updating where necessary. Again I would be interested to hear about anything that I have missed, or that needs correcting.
If you live in the Grove/Wantage area you will know  just how much housing development is taking place at the moment. We intend to play some 'catch-up' shortly with the canal and I am submitting this week some information to the local Planning Authority so that the WB Canal Trust can get some 'pre-application' advice about the section of canal that will be built in the Stockham Farm area.

Ken Oliver