|The Early Days The First 5 years|
The Formation of the Group
Having been asked to write an article about the start of the Group and its first five years of activity, I should start by including a few comments to those of you saying, ‘Why is the Company Secretary writing about this? Perhaps he remembers these early days.' Well, yes I do. But it's a bit more than that due to the fact that I was the original promoter whose activities resulted in the formation of the Group. During the early part of 1977, I placed articles about the canal in the waterways press - then rather less extensive than it is now - and this resulted in a meeting being held in Swindon that autumn, at which the Group was formed. To the best of my knowledge there is no-one now active in the Group who remembers that cold, wet Saturday afternoon in the Long Room of Swindon Arts Centre, although there are still a few members from those early days, where we heard the late Jack Dalby (who was later to become our first President) talk and show slides about the canal which he had made his own.
Jack was not convinced then of the wisdom of forming the Group and although he was the only person who could possibly have spoken at our first gathering, it took a lot of persuasion before he agreed to be there. I hope that Jack looks down now with satisfaction on the achievements of the Group in those intervening twenty years.
I should perhaps also make an apology to those who do remember the gathering on 8th October, 1977, as there are only a limited number of ways of describing the main events of those first years, and some of you may have read similar descriptions more than once already!
IWA Sceptical of our aims
The first few years were probably rather boring in comparison with what goes on today, in that we were proposing work on a waterway which had been abandoned in 1914 and had been built over in towns like Swindon, Melksham and Abingdon, and even to the IWA we were considered to be on the fringe of sanity (or of insanity, depending on how you view it!). You can possibly imagine therefore how we were seen by the councils through whose areas the canals passed - they did not want to take serious note of us, and I'm sure were all convinced that we would sink without trace (there were a few bits of the W&B where the mud might just have been deep enough) and not trouble them for too long.
Preservation the Early Aim - Restoration much later
They were, of course, very wrong, but inevitably we were to spend perhaps the best part of the next fifteen years (or should I say 20 bearing in mind that the Trust was formed only last year) convincing them of that. We did rapidly gain support from many of the parish councils whose interests were more restricted than those of District or County Councils, and then we set to work to convince everyone else that we meant business. It was decided early on that, at least publicly, we would not announce ourselves as having the aim of restoring the canal, but more of preserving what was left - we did want to have a certain degree of credibility left to work with. Although we did have a clause in our constitution which allowed us ‘to protect the canal line by physical action such as channel clearance and work on the structures', it was not until ‘Incorporation' in 1988 that the emotive word ‘restoration' was actually written into the Group's aims, by which time the ‘political situation' with both authorities and landowners was such that it could be accepted.
In those early years we had a Steering Committee of some 12 people in total, while I continued with the task of being convenor of the Group - which rather imprecise title I was given at the inaugural meeting. This basically involved being Secretary and Membership Secretary and dealing with all communications, from MPs to speakers for meetings - yes in the first year we did have social meetings, but support soon waned due to the fact that many members lived some way from the canal and they were soon abandoned.
Walking the Length of the Canal and its dangers !
It was indeed communication that was the essential requirement of the Group at this time in order to put forward its ideas and try to ensure that as many people as possible were made aware of our existence and of our desire to preserve the remains of the canal. This of course included landowners, and I and others spent many hours meeting them (when we could actually find out who they were - this often necessitated knocking on doors around the canal, talking to farmers in fields, and by word of mouth establishing who owned what). This was good preparation for IWAlk which was held in June 1978 and involved different groups walking the whole length of the canal. This was of great benefit not just because we had to find the landowners to get permission, but also because we got our first real look at every mile of the canal and were able to record what we saw (I have a recollection, although the passage of time has removed the details of when it was, but the story has been told about a couple of walkers coming round the side of a barn to be confronted by an irate farmer with a pitchfork who had not personally been asked for access permission - he didn't actually spear the two concerned but it was a close thing!).
Starting work on sites
The same year saw the start of our first two work sites. Initially, we negotiated with (then) Thamesdown Borough Council to allow us to clear the canal beneath the Skew Bridge in Swindon (which used to carry the Midland & South Western Junction Railway) and to continue that work towards Kingshill Road itself The second site was agreed with Oxfordshire County Council and allowed us to clear the rubbish from beneath the B4000 (Station Road) bridge in Shrivenham. We had the support of Shrivenham Parish Council and were helped by local people - that help has, of course, continued to the present day in the form of West Vale Branch (and the Chairman of that Branch, Alan Norris, is now the Group's Vice-chairman). The county council only decided to finance the skips at Shrivenham when we convinced them via the Act of Abandonment that they were responsible for the ground beneath the bridge). Each work site, of course, has many stories attached too numerous to recount here - some may remember Barton's Folly at Kingshill (I think it's still there) while others will know the story (but we never found an explanation) of the disappearing Mini shell at Shrivenham.
Early in 1979 we began negotiations with Gordon Barnes who then owned much of the canal around Dauntsey Lock and whose family had been carriers on the canal in the early days. We subsequently obtained a lease on the canal, and towpath clearance work was carried out from the A420 (as it was then) to the end of the Barnes' land near Bowd's Lane, many years before the establishment of the Canal Company. We carried out a detailed survey of the Wharf House and other buildings (before alterations) and the results of these formed the basis for several years of a ‘Canal Pack' which we produced
1980 was the year of the Appeal at Templar's Firs, where we objected to the refusal of the county council to allow us to develop the canal there into an amenity area - although we won that appeal with the help of MPs and local councils, it was to be many years before work got under way there - the site of course of this year's highly successful Trail-boat Festival. We continued to establish new work sites such as that at Calne, and while we were always developing contacts with the authorities, the situation at Wootton Bassett reflects the real problem which the Group faced - i.e. recognition of the seriousness of what we were planning, and the fact that we were here to stay: it was the need to convince the authorities of this which prevented much work on the ground for 10-15 years.
Landowners listen to proposals
During this time, support for the Group remained high and we had an active Committee of about 12 people, although I continued to carry out all the administrative duties and arranged all the contacts, and ‘Branches' were still some years away. In 1981 Chris Toms (now our Membership Secretary) and I visited a large number of landowners between Bourton and East Challow with a view to starting some form of work in this area. We were always very impressed by the attitude of most landowners who were always most interested, and while they did not always say that we could restore their section tomorrow, they were generally very ready to listen to our proposals.
A low point for the group
My ‘terms of reference' for this article were the first five years, but I'm going to stray into someone else's territory by moving into 1983 because it's important to appreciate that a voluntary organisation such as our own can only flourish if it has volunteers, and the ones of which it is usually short are not those who dig out the mud from the canal - we usually have enough of these (although it has often been necessary to restrict the number of active sites for many reasons) - but it is administrative people i.e. those who write letters and make phone calls and sit at a (then) typewriter. All organisations have their ups and downs and 1983 was the Group's lowest ebb in its history and it came very close to being folded up. Those of you who have Dragonfly 18 (August 1983) will notice that this was described as an emergency edition put together by m our Membership Secretary Ron Churchill, there was virtually no>active in running the Group.
New members make a great difference
However, as they say, things can only get better and they did. I know it can be invidious to mention names when there are so many, and it is in no way to belittle the achievements of many, many others if I single out three people around whom I feel the development of the Group has hinged. Within a year we were joined by Richard Porter and John Henn, and at that time I have no doubt that their arrival on the scene saved the Group, and also led both to the rapid development of the ‘west end', and to the forerunner of our branch structure with the subsequent establishment of ‘end' and ‘centre' representatives. The west end then took off, but the east end would for some years remain ‘behind' the west end as it was to be another couple of years before we were joined by Peter Scatchard, and the Group and its achievements have not looked back since these three people came along.
Volunteers needed for admin work
In conclusion, therefore, I want to stress again the need for volunteers - if you are sitting back reading this ‘Dragonfly' and have never done any work for us, do think whether you can wield keyboard, telephone, pen, or even simply, mouth. If so, offer your services even for only a few hours month. Even in the days of the Trust, administration is the key and your help is always needed.
[reprinted from DragonFly 70]