Templar's Firs Canal Restoration, 1994-1995
November 1994 could be considered the turning point for canal restoration in Wootton Bassett, when the length of canal in water increased dramatically. However, it took a few more years before boats could navigate the entire length, thanks to a sunken sewer pipe. To get a feel for what it was like at the time, here’s an article written by John Allen in ‘Dragonfly’ issue 55, December 1994:
“There is one topic focusing all our energies at Wootton Bassett at the moment, and that is the further dredging of the canal currently taking place. Last September, following the Open Day, it seemed for a time as though we had gone into hibernation, recovering from four years of fevered activity, but then a very nice man called Ron Kemble changed all that.
“Prior to his appearance on the scene, more major work was not envisaged for some years. Some work was taking place, for example, Noremarsh Bridge hole south of Brynard’s Hill was being excavated by hand to reveal the invert arch base and wing walls. Ron Kemble appeared with digger one Sunday morning and offered to dredge out the bridge hole, taking just four hours to complete 3 months’ hard manual labour. What an instant transformation to the site! It generated more interest from people using the site, and sudden grand ideas from at least one Branch member who wishes to remain anonymous.
“But it was too late. As you know, one event leads to another, and so Ron aroused the interest in his boss, digger owner David Horton, a local contractor, to arrange a favourable contract of work for 3 weeks’ dredging starting within 2 weeks. Talk about instant panic setting in. It was fortunate that at the same time WCC gave us permission to dredge, so rather than wait for them to change their minds after 13 years arguing our case, the Branch decided to go for it. Paul Pennycook in anticipation of all this had obtained the funding, so it was a piece of cake.
“Well, not exactly. There was a small matter of creating a wooden bridge to cross the current watered site to ensure we could re-water the new site, but more of that in a moment. It is a tribute to Branch members that everything worked so well. Many people who otherwise might not have taken an active part have been helping on site supervising the work, although that changed to enjoying watching the digger at work more than giving instructions, which Ron just smiles at and then gets on with it anyway. We have virtually reached the first mile of canal here and Wootton Bassett might even appear on the TV again.
“However, there’s more! The Branch had previously agreed we should pursue conservation through restoration, not just along the canal itself, but managing and improving the whole site area, which in our case covers the area from the canal to the railway including Templar’s Wood. As a result, plans are in hand to create a pocket park securing the wood and meadow areas and WCC, the owners, have been very favourable to the idea!
"In addition, we have created our own wetlands area beyond the woods with the creation of a pond, following advice from our Conservation contacts with the intention of creating new habitats for animal and plant life.
“The results will take several years to come to fruition, but then “canal people” have a vision of the future result even if, as in our case, it will have taken nearly a decade to achieve.
“Meanwhile, back at the wooden bridge that had to be built within days…. John Bower’s bridge is an engineering masterpiece, much more interesting than the second Severn crossing, be it a little shorter and lower. All who have seen it and crossed it will agree with me in saying “well done”, given the time and lack of materials, which brings me nicely on to the question of the need for a Work Party Organiser to assist John, whose time has become limited. Someone out there must relish the challenge to make a difference to the lives of the Wootton Bassett community?
“Another major problem we have had with the site has been access to deliver materials which we must have on site if the future plans to rebuild the bridges are realised. Once again David Horton came up with a solution that enabled him to remove unwanted rubble from a contract site ad us to get a new road running from the Council Depot to the canal site, thus bypassing the worst parts of the field. There will be no reason now, with the greatly extended car park by the road, for the Fishing, Canoeing and other fraternities not to use the site and its amenities for what it has been intended.
“We cannot escape the work ahead to get back to the navigable canal as opposed to a Local Amenity. For example, rebuilding the bridges, lowering two pipes below the canal, not to mention rebuilding two locks, and that is just the Templar’s Firs site. But as has been demonstrated these last few weeks, people come forward to fill those needs and get the job done. Those who visit the site will agree it has been a job worth doing. I thank you all.”
Most of these photos were supplied by Peter Smith, who was Restoration Director at the time. He liked the area so much that he moved to Royal Wootton Bassett from Hertfordshire. Here are some more or Peter's photos, sorted from east to west:
Here’s another contemporary article, by Project Officer Paul Pennycook, in ‘Dragonfly 56’ of March 1995:
“I was particularly pleased to see a further stretch of Canal dredged and re-watered at Wootton Bassett just before Christmas; this is a project with which I have been intimately involved since starting with the Group almost 2 years ago, and it is the first project which I have specific involvement with, which has come to fruition.
“I must express thanks to all of those committed members down at Wootton Bassett for their determination in getting on with the job, and to Rural Action Wiltshire who match-funded money raised from a range of Charitable Trusts, most of which prefer to remain anonymous; however, heartfelt thanks to all those involved.
“The next jobs at Wootton Bassett are the rebuilding of two accommodation bridges in brick, the subject of a WRG work party soon, and to press on with the Pocket Park at Brynard’s Hill in co-operation with the various Local Authorities. Plans are also afoot for serious restoration work on Dunnington Aqueduct. We are also in negotiation with the Local Authorities regarding the Wootton Bassett by-pass and the new railway station, the former possibly providing us with routes under both the Marlborough and Lyneham roads. Unfortunately, Wiltshire County Council have had to shelve, for the time being, plans for the Swindon to Wootton Bassett cycle way, which was planned to follow the Canal towpath; however, the study has gone ahead. It is only a matter of time before it is built.”
Now for a photo of Peter Smith on the towpath, plus a viewpoint from John Bower in ‘Dragonfly 57’, June 1995:
“The task of clearing the towpath of accumulated soil has proved impractical without mechanical assistance. We estimate it would take up to a year to do this manually. So we hired a small excavator for a couple of days over Easter and, with a crash training course from Roy Murrell, we cleared a considerable length of towpath though we were not able to complete the job.
“The task now is to lay chippings on the cleared section. Again this will be an arduous task by hand though there is little alternative. We have acquired the Smalley excavator from Foxham, anticipating this will speed up some of the work. However, because of the limited manoeuvrability of this type of machine I think it will be of limited use other than for static tasks such as loading the dumper.
“There has been major progress at the site of the first bridge. Ron Robertson, assisted and supported by other members, especially Allen Porter, has rebuilt the bridge remains and wing walls back to towpath level.
"The towpath has been reinstated to its original route and water re-introduced to the bridge site. Stop-plank channels have been built in to facilitate future work. It is quite remarkable to see the difference a professional bricklayer can make when laying these old and original bricks. Ron has been on site for several days each week over a long period to complete the task.”
More work was documented in the next issue; a ‘Blockhouse’ spill-weir complete with a valve for rapid emptying was built by Ron Robertson, while the canal was dredged to the west end by excavator driver Laurie Lavender, and a slipway was built.
It all came together at an Open Day on 19th August 1995 when the first narrow-boat to cruise on the restored Wilts & Berks Canal took to the water.