|The First 10 years of the Group|
The Company Secretary looks back over a decade of downs and ups.
As I sat looking through ten years' worth of "Dragon-Fly's" trying to decide how best to comply with our Editor's request for a look back over the last (and first) ten years of the Group, one thing struck me above all else. Precisely why the direction of the Group's work has followed a particular course over the years seems very difficult to pinpoint, but what is apparent is that on many occasions matters of concern have been raised, considered for a while, and have then fallen from note into oblivion.
Full restoration now the aim
As I said in the centre pages of the first "Dragon-Fly', we had at that time little idea of what might or might not follow from that cold, wet Saturday afternoon of 6th October 1977 in the Long Room of Swindon Arts Centre. We have certainly been able, as I anticipated, to increase the amenity use of some of what remains of the canals. Also, full restoration has become the main aim of the Group, and with our imminent change to Limited Company status, we hope we shall be able to further this aim even more actively and strongly. I referred also on those pages to lengthsmen. This idea has never developed and although people do occasionally write and notify us of relevant items of which they have become aware, it is regrettable that we have no operational systems of lengthsmen keeping their eyes open along the length of the canal, for possible dangers of any sort to the line of the canal and to future restoration.
Meeting Land owners
Early on in our activities, we advocated the development of personal contact with landowners as the best way of helping them to appreciate the benefits of our plans. Although for one reason or another, relations sometimes get strained, and we do not meet a particular person for a while, this has proved the best way of over coming difficulties. It certainly proved most interesting when a few years ago, I spent several days visiting landowners on the East End.
Early meetings poorly supported
Many of you will not know that in years gone by, we used to have regular monthly meetings designed for the interest our members. However, I suppose because of the length of the canal, and the geographical spread of the membership, these meetings were badly supported and ran at a loss for a while (with acute embarrassment when a speaker travelled many miles to talk to five or six people) before being abandoned. In an early Journal, we talked of developing a library and of making material from it available for loan this was short-lived, for what reason I'm not sure, although Pete Boyce our Archivist (and original Editor for many years) still maintains such items that we hold and which people send us.
Projects Planned & Lost
Sometimes even whole projects have been planned and then lost to us, or altered in some way which we might consider to be quite unnecessary. Some of you will remember a lot of work being put in under the Skew Bridge at Kingshill (our first work site, of course) to dig a channel for a drain which became known (not very affectionately) as Barton's Folly. It was expected to carry water once every fifty years, but I'm not sure if it has yet been functional. I suppose there are now some (or even many) in the Group to whom Templar's Firs may be just a name, or even unknown. It lurks Just outside Wootton Bassett, and the Group (led by on Churchill who was Membership Secretary for many years) fought and won a Public Enquiry for permission to develop an amenity area there. Despite this, for reasons best known (only) to Wiltshire County Council and a building firm called Bradleys, we were never given permission and the canal ended up being drained by superfluous pipes installed by Bradleys. This area remains to this day a potential asset which we should pursue with greater vigour as soon as time permits.
Also in the early '80s, we began working at Dauntsey Lock under our initial license with members of the Barnes family, who own over a mile of canal in this area. This work continued on and off for several years, but was thwarted by he fact that at this time our Group was going through the lowest ebb of its existence to date. Several of our active members were to move away from the area, or to develop other interests and commitments, and we were similarly to lose our Editor. At one point we had only about four people working for the Group, as we had got into the sort of vicious downward circle in which because we had so few workers left, no-one had time available to recruit any more. It looked as though the Group would have to be wound up when it fell to Chris Toms and me to produce "Dragon-Fly" 18 as some sort of emergency edition. All active on-site work (such as at Dauntsey Lock) had ceased causing inevitable inconvenience to landowners such as Gordon Barnes with whom we had agreed to carry out particular work. As Gordon will know, we hope that we are now in a position to negotiate for the development, continuation and completion of the work which we had hoped to carry out so long ago. Studies we had begun at the East end and initial contacts with the Vale of White Horse District Council and Oxfordshire County Council began to fade when our potential East End Co-ordinator had to give up because of other commitments.
Things begin to look up
I note that in "Dragon-Fly" 12, I quoted a comment from someone (I have no idea now who it was) saying: ".. .I can't imagine what the Secretary of an organisation so realistic in its aims, so persistent in its actions, which produces a Newsletter that is a model combination of the academic and the practical, can find to feel insecure about". This real feeling of insecurity and of the imminent collapse of the Group, was probably around for 3 or 4 years. It seems to have been during late 1983 and early 1984 that things began to look up (not that they could have become much blacker). Ron Churchill and a couple of others at the West End had developed themselves into a sort of committee and had begun looking at possibilities at Calne, and some contacts had been made with North Wilts District Council. Richard Porter had taken over as Editor, and a new person appeared on the scene. I do not like singling out individuals for a specific mention as there are inevitably many who get left out although they deserve mention, for many reasons. However, I am going to mention two: the first is John Henn. John joined us when we were at our lowest point and I have no doubt that he saved the Group from possible extinction. He encouraged us to take out of mothballs ideas which had passed through our minds years before, such as using the Avon to negotiate Melksham, and he forged us into action from which we have never looked back. Neither has John, having become our West End Co-ordinator, and the prime mover of all the activity now to be seen in that area.
We were able to enlist the full support of Jack Dalby as our first President. Jack had for a long time been interested in the canal, and was a mine of information about it. He had been very sceptical about our intentions and chances of success when the Group was first mooted, and he still exercises a wise and guiding hand over our deliberations.
My initial theme in these jottings was that of chances missed. While the recent past will be familiar to most of you, and I do not propose to dwell on it, I continually see references to one sadly missed group of chances which we can never rectify. That is all the people (perhaps some 30-50 since the Group began) who have had stories to tell of the working days of the canal through personal experience or thoughts and writings of parents and others. Unfortunately, the passage of years means that many of whom we have been made aware are no longer with us, and therefore the chance of retaining their reminiscences has gone for ever; we sadly never found anyone who had time and inclination to go and talk to these people. A wonderful source of information has been lost, and I feel that this is one of the most regrettable omissions of the Group's first ten years, because it is too late: much of the information passed on with those who had it to offer.
An offical Chairman at last
My final topic brings us right up to date in that over the years our Group never had a Chairman. We tried all sorts of ways of chairing our Council meetings, but no-one in the Group was in a position to take the job on as a permanent involvement. We tried to locate people who might be interested, and after much failure became aware of an engineer who was partially retired and looking for an interest. I now come to mention my second name: that of our Chairman, Noel Griffiths. The arrival of Noel on the scene supplemented the arrival of John Henn perfectly. None of us others were normally able to make contacts with people during the day, or to travel to sites without taking enforced holidays, and so Noel filled a vital gap which has furthered the work of the Group to the point where things have never looked brighter.
Limited Company status & Contacts with local Councils
In the next few months we shall be taking on the status of a Company Limited by Guarantee, and we shall shortly be applying to the Department of the Environment for a grant towards the employment of a full-time Manager for the canal. These possibilities, plus the fact that we now have Co-ordinators for all three sections of the canal, and who are working at their Jobs in the ways best suited to the nature and state of the canal in their areas, means that the next ten years should see more progress on the ground. The past ten have been years of establishment and political persuasion, resulting in the Policy Statements of 1966, by West Wilts District Council, and the establishment of the Liaison Group which one hopes will at an appropriate time be extended to include the three Councils not yet directly involved. But I am looking ahead, and that I believe is the task which our Editor has set the Chairman for a future issue. So I will close with an optimistic feel about our next ten years, by which Boats to Melksham (if not to Lacock) could well be a reality.
[Reproduced from "Dragon-Fly" 31, November 1987]