The old Wilts and Berks canal ran from the Kennet and Avon Canal (pictured) at Semington through Melksham, between Chippenham and Calne, past Wootton Bassett, through Swindon and on along the Vale of the White Horse passing close to Wantage before connecting to the river Thames at Abingdon. It was abandoned 100 years ago, much of it has reverted to nature, and some sections have been built on, but never the less there are also stretches that have been restored and / or partially restored, and other places where complete new routes are being worked on (and some already open) with the objective of providing a through route once again.
The canal through Melksham used to run a short distance to the East of the town centre - there's still a rise in Spa Road where there was a bridge over the canal near Melksham Wharf. But if you look over the sided of the "bridge", you'll see that the canal has long since been lost.
There have been a number of proposals over the years as to how the canal could be restored from Semington past Melksham and onwards.
* The far eastern route
* The near eastern route
* Via the river - a short cut near Trowbridge
* Via the river - a new canal from Semington to Challymead (bypass bridge)
The far eastern route, leaving the Kennet and Avon near Seend, would avoid Melksham completely and be a countryside canal some distance from the town. Not only would this fail to benefit the town of Melksham, but it would also provide just a countryside route which - though it would be pretty - would not be all that attractive a stretch to boaters.
The near Eastern route would leave the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington, along the course of the old canal, but approaching Melksham it would vere off to the east, passing under The Spa roundabout and then behind Melksham Spa, going around the town to the east and following the course of New Road to join the old canal to the North, near Woodrow. In the past few years, the new Police station has been built on top of the proposed route, as has the new A350 Semington Bypass. As I write, the housing of East Melksham is also being built on top of the proposed route, so it's no longer viable. It's actually questionable whether it ever was a good option, as locks would have had to climb on both sides of the Calne road to a short summit pound, which would have required constant back pumping.
A short cut into the river near Trowbridge, with boats navigating upstream along the River Avon, is much the lowest cost option that's been put forward - or so it might at first appear. However, the flood meadows below Melksham would make for a tortureous route for boats, and a need for the maintainance to navigable standards of a whole series of naturally silting river loops. The journey by boat could be monotonous, and there could be flood control issues.
The final option is a new length of Canal from Semington (but on the Westerly side of the old A350 - see picture) across level land more or less parallel with the old A350 toward Melksham. One varient had the canal take a loop around Berryfield, but the currently favoured option has the canal pass between Berryfield and the old main road. From there, the canal would follow just outside (to the West) of the Melksham Bypass, dropping down locks into the river Avon just below the bypass bridge. Boats would then pass through Melksham using the course of the river Avon, which they would leave to the north of the town along the course of brook, passing up several new locks to rejoin the old Wilts and Berks canal bed to carry on through to Lacock and beyond.
A very great deal of detailed work has been done on this final option, and opinions are now being sought from the local community with regard to whether they would like to see it go ahead. And the canal proposals and the consultancy process are causing an apparent degree of anxiety and controversy. I have carefully not expressed any views (so far in this post) about the desirability (or otherwise) of reopening the Wilts and Berks canal in a modified form, nor have I described any positives or negatives that relate to the current option. But I will
now go on and look at the questions raised, and my thoughts (henceforth) may show personal views.
1. Should the Wilts and Berks be reopened?
All the evidence points to the most enormous revitalisation; the Kennet and Avon Canal, re-opened nearby, brings 20 million income into Wiltshire each year, and look at canals such as the Caldon, the Pocklington, and the Peak Forest in other parts of the country, and rivers such as the Stratford Avon and Bedford Ouse, and you'll see that the K&A is not an isolated case.
Canal boat users - and the hire boat industry - tends to sell well on circular holidays. And a canal that links Abingdon with Semington would completer the "Wessex Ring" - Thames, W&B and K&A. The North Wilts Canal (Swindon to Lechlade), and the Thames and Severn would add to the network, the rings, and bring further use and prosperity.
We must remember that only a small proportion of the 'wealth' brought to an area by a canal actually comes from the boaters themselves. You need a certain number of boats to keep the thing interesting, but then you get walkers, cyclists, fishermen, nature lovers, canoeists, dog owners ... all out on the canal.
It makes huge sense to reopen the Wilts and Berks Canal as a through, navigable route.
2. If so, should a re-opened canal serve or bypass Melksham?
It really depends on what you want for Melksham. The river currently runs through the 'back' of the town; there's limited use of the waterfront, and the town is - to a very great extent, a quiet little place that attracts few tourists and not too many shoppers at times, with tourists going to Bradford-on-Avon, Bath and Devizes, Lacock, Castle Combe and Longleat ... and shoppers being pulled by the officially sponsored investment towns of Chippenham and Trowbridge. Public Transport in Melksham - when you compare it to Chippenham, Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon, Westbury, Warminster is a travesty of a system - all of those towns get as many trains per hour as Melksham gets per day. And perhaps that's symbolic ...
If you're happy with Melksham being a quiet, inward looking place that turns its back on those around it, then you may be tempted to say that a re-opened canal should go on a route that avoids the town. But there's a danger that if you do that, you'll end up with Melksham being left behind - there's a fine line between stability and stagnation. I don't think we're in for "stability" anyway with thousands of houses being built - but few plans for the growth of the town. Nicer pavements (which are causing so much chaos as they are s-l-o-w-l-y installed) aren't going to pull in the business, and the new population will have to use the roads (remember how poor the rail service is) to get to the shops in Chippenham and Trowbridge - leaving Melksham as a heartless dormitary town of the 2020s, and perhaps a rundown sink town by the 2040s. So - if you say "leave it as it is", remember that the world marches on and "leave it alone" really means "neglect its future".
What difference could a navigable waterway that becomes the heart of the town make? It could make a difference that would be so great that few would believe it. Boats would moor up on the river - their crews visiting the historic old church of St Michael, the old Vistas and buildings of a town that in Georgian times was the biggest for many a mile, shopping in the shops, eating at the waterfront cafes. The townspeople would make use of the heart of the revitalised town, cycling along new traffic clear cycleways from Melksham Forest, from Berryfield, and beyond. And the town would attract an inflow of visitors too - no longer would Chippenham and Trowbridge be leaching our people and their leisure pounds, but we would be on equal terms with those towns - bringing in revenue from them - and from further afield.
Make no mistake - a decision as to whether a reopened Wilts and Berks canal should pass through Melksham or avoid it as huge one, and with huge consequences for the future of Melksham. It's my view that we should strongly encourage the forward looking development of an appopriate waterway - we shouldn't be "NIMBY"s to protect our own current Little Feifdoms, but rather we should be seizing an opportunity to make this a town where our children, and our children's children, will be proud of.
3. Is the currently proposed route a good and / or viable one?
I am not a canal engineer, but I have walked and travelled a great deal on waterways. The route as presented looks to be a sensible one, with the questions that I would have asked having been considered. I note a selection of bridge types, moorings and locks on the canal section, making the route one that would encourage waterborne, cycling and foot traffic onto an interesting route. I am yet to see details of the river Avon (town centre) and section, and the shorter section leading back up to the Wilts and Berks line.
I understand that the proposal is for the canal to be broad gauge (i.e. taking boats up to 14 foot in width) from the Kennet and Avon to Melksham, whereas the original width was 7 foot. The wider canal (at bridges and locks) to Melksham would allow visitors who are taking a holiday on the K&A to take a side trip to Melksham, but the restricted width to the North of Melksham would reduce the water needs of the canal, and conform to the original standard. The large majority of the 30,000 boats on the BWB network are to the narrow gauge.
4. Would there be any loss of facilities?
Most of the land on which the new canal would run is currently agricultural, and the loss of agricultural land is relatively small in proportion to the amount of such land available.
The proposed route passes between the community of Berryfield and Semington road, and at this point the there is a green lawned area in front of some of the housing, a children's play area, and the Berryfield Village Hall - which is a portable building of the type commonly known as a "Portacabin" also stands there.
It has been proposed that the play area / equipment be resited nearby, and also the Village Hall. Looking at the Village Hall, such buildings are not designed to be long life and the resiting would be an excellent opportunity for the hall to be replaced by something more permanent / with an extended life, more comfort, more up to modern standards and with lower heating / running costs, as in the local village hall at Bowerhill.
5. What about flooding?
The River Avon currently floods in the winter from time to time, below Melksham. Melksham Flood gates, above the town bridge, provide some degree of flood control. The question has been asked whether or not the navigation would increase the flood risk, and whether it would be useable at times of high water.
The proposal is to remove the Flood gate above Melksham, raising the summertime level by about a metre through the town, and then reducing it by a metre above the old flood gate site. A new weir would be built below the bypass (Challymead) bridge where the new canal turns off.
The current flood gate is - I understand - a flood control system that includes mechanical parts and required human intervension in order to control the waters. It is nearly life expired, and should it fail it could cause a significant risk to the town centre. The proposed new weir would be passive - i.e. it would be a control that required neither moveable parts nor intervention for it to perform its tasks.
Navigation along the river section of the W&B would need to be restricted on the occasions of high water - as is already common practise on other navigations. Perhaps one of the best comparisons is to the Stratford Avon, where such controls have been in place for many years. High water tends to be a winter phenomena, and most boating takes place in the summer. You won't have 365 day per year navigation, but then you don't have that anywhere during (for example) periods of canal maintainance.
6. What about safety?
Thousands of miles of canals and river navigations operate throughout the British Isles and whilst there are undoubtedly some associated safety risks, these are all well understood and have been taken into account elsewhere in the UK, and I know of no special local conditions that would make the canal / river navigation proposed any less safe than other navigations. Indeed, with the new canal and river being built from scratch, historic and potentially less safe equipment (such as old paddle gear on lock gates) would not be installed.
Where a town / village has a neglected / underutilised waterway, there is a risk of drownings and other accidents, with the accident not being discovered until it is too late. With a well used river / canal, well repaired banks, good flow of visitors, the chances of a serious accident of neglect are much reduced and the section through Melksham should actually become a safer place.
Particular issue has been raised about children falling in to the canal and drowning at Berryfield. There is actually an old canal section just across the road (though hidden in undergrowth), and the K&A less than 1 km away, also the river Avon across the fields from Berryfield, so the area is not new to water. However, the new canal sould come much closer. I understand that modern safety protection would be fitted, and that the relocated play area would be thoroughly risk assessed and minimised in order to reduce the risk.
A static water (canal) is far less of a risk than a seaside, and this country already has a great deal of experience with safety matters at the seaside; I think the concerns raised will be overcome in any detail of discussion. That's not to say there will never be an accident, but rather that the rate and seriousness of accidents will be commensurate with the levels at other such canal / navigable river locations, and considerably below what might be anticipated for a neglected backwater river through Melksham.
7. What about pollution?
There's already boating traffic on the river Avon in Bath - the same river - and I'm not aware of any boat-generated pollution problems there. There have been instances near the current Melksham Gate where riverside industry has accidentally discharged into the river; works in association with making the course of the river navigable would include bank work, during which the future prospect of such pollution matters would be considered and modern techniques used to lessen their number and effect in future.
Most modern canal boats are powered by diesel engines, with a fuel consumption of around half a litre per hour cruising. That compares to fuel consumption for a typical family car of between five and eight litres per hour. In other words, ten to sixteen boats are the equivalent of one car passing by.
Canal boats have retention tanks for sewage, and mandatory drip trays fitted under the engines so that they will not pollute the environment through which they pass; "pump out" facilities are provided at intervals alongside canals. One may already be seen locally at Seend.
8. What about the environment?
I am aware of the Conigre Mead Nature reserve which "fronts" the river section that's proposed to be made navigable for about a hundred yards, of wildlife in the stream upriver of Melksham that would provide a continuation of the canal up to the old course, and that the bypass bridge is a a roosting place for Bats. I am, however, not aware of any unique species in these particular or other locations.
Building a canal / canalising a river does cause some short term disturbance to habitat, though effects of this can be reduced (see current examples of amphibian fence at George Ward, and hedge protection at East Melksham new housing area). And within a very short time period, the area recovers and becomes a new haven - even attracting new species alongside the old. You can see examples of this on the former "dry section" of the K&A near Avoncliff, and even closer to home - you'll note that I mentioned the bat roosts in the bypass bridge - well ... that bridge isn't very old and is already a good example of a scheme that creates, rather than reduces, wildlife and environmental opportunity in the medium term.
9. What would it cost?
This is a major scheme - looking all the way from Semington to Abingdon, it's the longest restoration scheme that's happening in the British Isles. But it is said that funding is not coming from the public pocket; I understand that the Wichelstowe new section of canal - already underway and somewhat in water - is being funded by the developers and then (presumably) being added on to the price of the houses on the site. Canals / water are attractive living environments ...
This is not an area where I'm an expert - but I can't help feeling that there's a far more financially stable setup behind a canal that's going to be around week in, week out for 60 years (the common figure used in road scheme justification) than behind a millenium dome financed over a year, or an olympic village that's all based on a fortnight of use.
10. How should we be consulting on this? What is the best way forward?
There's a complete planning process in this country to consider plans such as this, and as part of such a process inputs will be sought and everyone from the experts in various fields, those with vested interests such as is highways, water and business, and the general public too, will be invited to comment.
But in some ways this is "even bigger" that the planning process, and wouldn't it be excellent if everyone came together, expressed concerns, and hammered out the best solutions all around? And I understand that it's on that basis that the Community Area Partnership has been invited to help provide details of the proposals to the community, and to listen to and correlate various viewpoints.
In my view, the best way forward is for everyone to discuss the options - there hopes, fears, concerns and interests, so that all of those issues can bel melded into an excellently tailored scheme that takes everyone's views and needs into account.
My hope is that we can follow that best way forward. My fear is that the supporters of the scheme will use the consultation to drive forward their case to the exclusion of the other views, and that the opponents of the scheme will do everything in their power (including scaremongering and questioning the extra consultations that have been put in place to help have their views heard) to put the brakes on to prevent Melksham getting the chance of a future that so many clearly support.
I have put up further pictures of that relate to this article [here]
The Wilts and Berks Canal Partnership website, including maps and further information, may be found [here]
. The Community Area Partnership's Waterway page may be found [here]
The second half of this article above has been written from a personal viewpoint, and is not designed to reflect the view of any organisation of which I am a member. However, whilst it's a personal view / post, I would very much like this web page to be presenting a balanced picture, so I'm inviting anyone who wishes to add anything to send me an email, and I'll add in that other information, with due credit. I can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org .
Update - 14th Novermber 2015
I have been challenged on some of the elements of the article above and in response provide answers / further comment [here]
. (written 2010-06-13, updated 2015-11-15)
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