Having described the formation and the first year of the Group,
Neil Rumbol looks at the challenges facing the embryonic Group
Having survived the first year reasonably successfully, undoubtedly the most important task facing the Group was to do whatever it could to bring its existence, its aims and even more significantly its level-headed and realistic approach to its tasks, to the notice of the public. Our first AGM was held in the Memorial Hall in Shrivenham on 30th. September 1978, following the help and interest shown in our initial work by Shrivenham Parish Council and its then Clerk, Ken Pearce. Readers will appreciate the emphasis which fate was planning to lend to the work of the Group over the coming years, when they realise that the AGM was not to be held east of Swindon again until 1987.
We realised that there were many people still living who remembered working boats on the canal and who had a range of recollections about the canal and its history. We managed to talk to a few such people but I feel we let the canal world down by not meeting more of them. Sadly, we were unable to find someone with a tape recorder and car who had time to go out and chat to these people along the length of the canal and to record their memories: by the time this became possible it was too late. Many people of whom we were aware are no longer with us, and the rich history of the life of the canal which we might have recorded from them has gone forever with their passing.
Early achievements and setbacks in preservation & restoration
Our two existing work sites at Kingshill and Shrivenham continued to flourish with the help from time to time of various visiting groups and of the Job Creation Schemes run by the Manpower Services Commission. At Shrivenham the clearance work of the B4000 (Station Road) Bridge was completed during 1981 with skips financed at monthly intervals by Oxfordshire County Council. The work at Kingshill continued longer with interludes such as the arrival of "Barton's Folly", a 50-year storm drain which Thames Water decided to lay on the surface beneath the Skew Bridge and for which we had to dig the trench to avoid it being laid down the middle of the cut. It is not beyond anyone's imagination to work out why it received either part of the above name!
We continued to look at new potential sites and focused our attention on the section from Bourton to East Challow; this section included the cleared bridge at Shrivenham and several good lengths in water. We drew up provisional plans for the section and had much support from the local Parish Councils. most of these sent representatives to join us when Chris Toms (who had recently joined the Group) and I went to call on some twelve landowners on the 27th. October 1981, to broach the idea of 'restoration'. Indeed, the necessary support referred to earlier was now forthcoming not only from Parish Councils, but was also being expressed by both District and County Councils. We also came to realise that in spite of their voiced support, councils did not (yet) consider the canal to have a very high priority. At Cornhill Lane near East Challow a section of the canal was infilled suddenly and we new that the soil infill had come from the foundations dug for a garage in an adjacent garden. However, the council took no action, claiming that even such a blatant act without planning agreement was not of sufficient importance to warrant their attention.
We had made contact with Gordon Barnes, a landowner at Dauntsey Lock who was a grandson of one of the original carriers on the canal, and in 1979 we obtained permission to begin preliminary work on nearly a mile of canal. Our first activity was to survey the Wharf House before its more recent alterations, and this was followed by gradual clearance of the towpath and other work over a period of years. At Calne the Civic Society had begun clearing the towpath between the Town Lock and Chaveywell Bridge in 1980, and over the next two years clearance began of the section of canal owned by Lord Shelborne, who has supported our work to this day.
At Wootton Bassett we had identified a section of canal at Templar's Firs which would make an ideal picnic and amenity area, and with the support of the Town Council we submitted plans to Wiltshire County Council in 1979 for approval as they owned most of the section concerned. Permission was refused on the grounds that the section was in an area that had been bought for subsequent use as a rubbish tip. We appealed against the decision and in 1981 the Secretary of State agreed with Inspector Mrs. Brushfield that permission should be granted for our work. This appeal was probably the most demanding task we have undertaken, but the decision did not allow us to restore the canal at the time. Very shortly afterwards a number of large-diameter open-ended pipes suddenly appeared in the canal below water level but in the silt significantly above the original bed of the canal: the immediate effect was to drain a beautiful section of watered canal. It was claimed that the instruction to insert pipes 'below the bed of the canal' referred to the 'existing bed' and not the original bed of the canal, and so the builder's action was in accordance with county council intentions. These matters left a nasty taste in many mouths for years, but times changed and this is history, even if partly unwritten and unrecorded.
A few good men hold on and build foundations for the future
As we moved through 1982, I note that we were seeking a Publicity Officer, as we still were until recently: it is the one position which we have never filled satisfactorily for any length of time in the history of the Group. We had been in existence for about five years, and many of those who started the Group were no longer involved for various reasons, but new blood had not been easy to find or retain. Ron Churchill had been our Membership Secretary since the Group's formation, while Peter Boyce had been the originator and Editor of 'Dragon Fly'. Towards the end of 1982, the Group was finding it difficult to keep going. The amount of work behind the scenes and in terms of available restoration was increasing dramatically but the number of active workers was decreasing all the time, although membership continued to rise. I wrote to the effect that if we did not get some more support to help run the Group, it might well collapse and have to be disbanded. Our Editor's other commitments prevented him from bringing out a magazine and 'Dragon Fly' did not appear from November 1982 until August 1983, when Chris Toms and I joined forces to bring out an emergency edition to let the members know how critical things were. Richard Porter, who had also been with the Group since the start, then agreed to take over as 'Acting Editor' for the next edition (in practice one invariably ignores the first word in organisations such as ours) and he held the post for many years.
There were then only six active members running the Group, and by 'running' I don't mean just administration, but organising work sites and negotiating with landowners and councils. We could not continue in this way for long: we had to replace those we had lost from Council. We had previously taken a decision to split the administration of the Group into East and West sections run by sub-committees (a Central section was added later) and it was hoped that somehow this would get more local people involved. In Richard Porter's first 'Dragon Fly' in November 1983, a name appeared in the list of new members, and I have no doubt that had that person not joined the Group when he did, there would probably have been no Wilts & Berks Canal Amenity Group today. John Henn had joined the Council by March 1984 and he soon became our West End Co-ordinator. The untiring effort which he put in beyond the call of duty from then turned the Group's fortunes around completely at a time when we could not have continued much longer as we were. The success of the Group today probably owes more to John's arrival on the scene at that time than to any other single event or individual.
The Question mark in my heading was not a typographical error, but was intentional as readers may have got the impression from my comments that over this section of its history the Group had gone downhill and virtually ground to a halt. However, that was most definitely not the case. Our numbers had dwindled to almost nothing in terms of active members, but we had several growing work sites and more importantly we had raised the profile of the Group with the authorities to the extent that they were writing to ask us about the condition of the canal, and some had indicated in writing their wish to protect the line from harm whenever possible. Not yet a major commitment, but a start, a real achievement. They had definitely been years of consolidation on which we would now build with the help of the new blood that was to respond to John Henn's efforts for the future of the Group over the coming years.
Reproduced from "Dragon-Fly" December 1993