Founder member Neil Rumbol looks back over the years
to the formation of the Wilts & Berks Amenity Group ( the predecessor of the Trust)
One of the hazards of relinquishing a post held for any length of time in a voluntary organisation is the fact that one is likely to be asked to pen one's experiences for the magazine. When I decided recently that I had to take that course of action to keep up with business commitments, I was no exception and I was even asked to begin at the beginning!
That might seem very logical, but as those of you who have been with the Group for many years (or have acquired the early editions of 'Dragonfly') will know the story of my association with the Group actually begins some twelve months or so before the Group came into existence.
Following my departure, I think it's true to say that there are now no Directors left (although I know there are still a number of 'original' members left) who remember a cold wet Saturday afternoon in the Long Room of Swindon Arts Centre on 8th October 1977.
How I became hooked on canals and their restoration
But it all began for me some years earlier when I was introduced to canals by a pupil in the school where I worked, who suggested that I should organise a canal cruise. I looked at him rather blankly, but it sounded like something different and so I agreed, and before long three staff (including our present Membership Secretary, Chris Toms) found ourselves at Rugby Wharf in charge of three eight-berth boats and 21 teenagers.
In the following weeks I was introduced to the 'delights' associated with a canal cruise during which my two colleagues chose to go the wrong way round the ring (I organised it, so they must have gone the wrong way!). Nevertheless, that week hooked me on canals and was responsible for eliminating my 'spare time' for some fifteen years. My family visits to the county of my birth - Gloucestershire - soon brought me into contact with the Thames & Severn and Stroudwater Canals, and with the Latton Basin where there was once (yes, you've guessed it!) a North Wilts Canal. But what was it for? And were there even more derelict canals on the other end of it? I soon found out by walking and driving expeditions and decided that these canals should have an organisation fighting for their restoration.
I had by that time been raising money for the Stroudwater, Thames and Severn Canal Trust (now the Cotswold Canals Trust) and having enabled them to restore the eastern portal of Sapperton Tunnel, I felt the need to help these other derelict canals, that I had come across, before they disappeared beneath the combined efforts of the plough and the bulldozer.
A Society is formed
It was thus in the spring of 1977 that I went public and suggested in the waterways press that a society should be formed to protect and possibly restore the Wilts & Berks and the North Wilts canals. Should I have kept my mouth shut and crawled back into Sapperton Tunnel? Many people thought so then, even if only because they thought the idea of trying to restore these two canals was ridiculous. (History has, perhaps, still to decide whether those sceptics were correct or not). Many individuals and organisations such as WRG (Waterways Recovery Group) welcomed the formation of an organisation to protect what remained, but recommended that I did not talk of restoration because it might be laughed at by all concerned and might also bring disrepute on them and their various activities.
So we gathered in the Long Room where an organisation was formed which as it was to turn out, did not have 'restoration' among the aims of its original Constitution. we had attracted some eighty people to the meeting, and after the formal business of forming the Group, we heard our future President, the late Jack Dalby, talk to us about canals which by then he had made his own.
Achievements & Disappointments in our First year
During the first year of our existence, the main task which faced the Steering Committee was to begin to bring the Group to the notice of all concerned with the canal line in any way, and to prepare suitable working Constitution. We also started two work sites: one was at Kingshill to the south west of Swindon where a major attraction was the Skew Bridge which had carried the Midland & South Western Junction Railway over the canal. The other work site was at Shrivenham to the east of Swindon, where we had obtained permission to clear the rubbish from beneath the B4000 (Station Road) Bridge, which was the only public road bridge still in existence over the canal.
Also in our first year was held the IWAlk which was a series of sponsored walks organised for publicity by the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) on a weekend in June when similar took place along canals all over the country. We succeeded in obtaining permission from all oft the landowners along the canal route, and virtually the whole canal line was walked by different groups of walkers, each being started by the arrival of the previous group at a set point. The contacts made with landowners for this walk were probably not used as wisely as they might have been (and indeed some records appear to have been lost), as many years later we had still not contacted some of those landowners since the time of the walk.
So how can we sum up the first year of the Groups existence? On the positive side we had achieved a lot: two active work sites had been started which would help to increase the Group's profile in the areas where they were situated, and we had at least made contact with most of the landowners along the canal. We had also brought our existence to the notice of the statutory authorities with whom we would have to deal in the coming years: the next and by far more difficult stage was to establish our credibility with them. We needed to convince them that we would still be a force to be reckoned with many years hence. We did, of course, have two failures.
Two failings from our first year were the need to abandon, as a result of lack of support from the membership, the regular monthly meetings we had begun. We had a couple of embarrassing situations when speakers had travelled hundreds of miles to speak to half-a-dozen or so people, and after similar problems with planned outings, the whole idea of regular social events for members was discontinued and has only recently been started again at local (Branch) level: we have never attempted 'Group' meetings since. The other weakness was probably our failure to establish a system of 'lengthmen' to keep track of and report on short sections of canal so that we could be aware of their condition and any problems such as sudden 'filling-in'. As a result of this, we were short of information about parts of the canal for many years, and we often heard of infillings and similar problems by chance, long after we should have been aware of them.
Reproduced from "Dragon-Fly" June 1993