Celia James and I took a walk from Rea Bridge at Lacock to the A4 crossing at Forest Gate to have a closer look today. Parts have been well restored and look as though they are just waiting for the boats to arrive, other parts are visible but an overgrown jungle while other parts have been completely reclaimed by the neighbouring fields so the route is barely discernible - such as at the junction with the Chippenham Branch in the middle of a vast barley field.
One of the things about long term restoration schemes such as this is that as soon as a passage is restored it needs maintenance and that eats up more and more of the money. That means that either the rate of progress gets slower, or the parts which have already been restored will need to be re-restored when the whole canal is finally complete. This I learned was one of the conundrums being faced by the painfully slow restoration of the Mongomeryshire canal where an restored but isolated section is filling up with weeds and silt due to lack of use. This can also be counterproductive from a conservationists point of view as the water starts to stagnate, leak out and deter rather than encourage the essential diversity of wildlife and vegetation which they are trying to encourage.
I am pleased that there are ambitious plans at each of three ‘ends’ of the Wilts and Berks canal at Semington, Cricklade and Abington. If a key focus is to get boats starting to use these accessible bits of the canal - and then transferring to the guardianship and maintenance of the newly formed Canal & River Trust - the restoration can then focus on nibbling away at the next sections to further the navigable potential of the canal.
At the same time the entire route must be protected. In the short term the towpath at least must be made accessible. This has been made harder by the Act of Abandonment of 1914 which effectively allowed for the land on which the canal had been built to be either returned or sold to the adjoining landowner. There is classic case of the local authority botching up progress here with the National Cycleway Network Route 403 now effectively severed by the termination of the access agreement with the local landowner. Wiltshire Council has so far failed to reach a solution here which is simply unacceptable.
You will see from the attached images a canal in various states of restoration. The current progress at the three Pewsham Locks is encouraging but I am concerned at the state of the neighbouring restored section which is sliding back into neglect. This length could easily be showcase for the area and a shining example of what is possible. It needs to be fully watered, in use with trailable boats, involving more of the local community (Pewsham estate is only 10 minutes walk away), involving the local media and engaging effectively with social media, and ensuring the route is fully accessible by walkers and cyclists.
This was a fascinating afternoon though and huge congratulations and thanks to all the volunteers who are so committed to this immense project. We shall visit another section soon!