Preserving the old ways: Wilts & Berks Canal (part 1).

A potted history:

In 1795 work started on the construction of the Wilts & Berks canal. It would join the Kennet & Avon at Semington Junction to the Thames at Abingdon. It took 15 years to complete and was officially opened in 1810. Four years later work began on the North Wilts Canal that would link the Wilts & Berks to the Thames and Severn Canal. This was late in the years of canal mania that swept the country during the Industrial Revolution but together the canals opened the west and, more importantly, the Somerset Coalfields to trade to the north and east.

It probably wasn't realised at the time, but the canal was to play a part in its own decline. In 1835 a proper genius of a chap, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (well, you're fated for great things with a name such as that), was employed to engineer the Great Weston Railway. Proper stuff too, it was broad gauge and everything, and linked Bristol to London. The canal was used to transport construction materials and probably workers along the planned route. Most of the track was built less than a mile from the canal.

The waterway probably hadn't seen so much activity before. However, when the GWR opened it provided a more economically viable means of transporting goods across the south than by water. The shift to the railways allowed the price of transportation to drop and the canal corporations couldn't compete. By the end of the century the Wilts & Berks carried very little traffic and the decrease in revenue meant it was unable to pay for its own upkeep. As the canal began to silt up boats were forced to carry less as, when fully laden, the maximum draft would cause vessels to ground. The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust cite that the last recorded boat at Wantage Wharf in the mid 1890s was only able to carry 17 tons instead of the maximum 34 tons.

And, as though to cause insult to injury, a storm in 1901 caused part of the Stanley Aqueduct over the River Marden to collapse thus draining a section of the canal. There was no money and no pressing reason to repair it. Technology had moved on and the railways were blazing a trail to a modern, more sophisticated, future.

The end of the Wilts & Berks Canal finally came in 1914 when an Act of Abandonment was passed by Parliament. This allowed the land adjoining the canal to be sold and, in some areas, redeveloped. Many of the original structures have been damaged or demolished, most notably by the army who used them for demolition exercises during WWII.

But not all is lost. There are people out there who still see the value of canals – and rightly so. In the 1970s a society was formed to protect The Wilts & Berks Canal and the North Wilts Canal from further development and destruction. Today the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust is actively restoring these old networks. By 2025 there will again be traffic on this once abandoned canal system and you too can be part of its rebirth.

Get involved and help save our waterways.


The canal joins the Thames beside Margaret Brown Gardens on Wilsham Road.

Across the road is an old foundry building. The wall on the left used to be part of a lock which opened into a basin. It is now a car park. Houses have been built over the route of the old system here but the line of the canal can be followed along Caldecott Road.

Caldecott Road.

The course of the old canal runs parallel to the Ock stream. This picture shows the line it takes as it emerges from the housing estate off Mill Road.

Following the lane at the bottom of Mill Road the trail leads out of Abingdon and into the countryside towards Drayton.

Under the low bridge of the A34, we followed the Ock. The canal is on your left as you walk west.

The canal resembles more of a ditch than a canal at this point but you can follow it as the fields curve towards Drayton Lock.

More to follow.

The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust
North Wilts Canal
The Great Western Archive

Sinodun Hills

Walk 2012

In this sweet field high raised above the Thames
Beneath the trenched hill of Sinodun
Amidst sweet dreams of disembodied names
Abide the setting of the August sun,
Here where this long ridge tells of days now done;
This moveless wave wherewith the meadow heaves
Beneath its clover and its barley-sheaves.

Across the gap made by our English hinds
Amidst the Roman's handiwork, behold
Far off the long-roofed church the shepherd binds
The withy round the hurdles of his fold
Down the foss the riverbed of old,
That through the long lapse of time has grown to be
The little grassy valley that you see.

Rest here awhile, not yet the eve is still,
The bees are wandering yet, and you may hear,
The barley mowers on the trenched hill,
The sheep-bells, and restless changing weir
All little sounds made musical and clear
Beneath the sky that burning August gives,
While yet the thought of glorious Summer lives.

- William Morris

National Trail

job #4 - It all adds up.

One t'ther half in a romper boiler suit

plus one newly fixed water heater home from a spell in a Mikuni borstal

equals HOT WATER!

Yes, yes, we have hot water. Not so pikey now, heh?

Well, okay, we are...

But at least we're clean!

Every boat should have one (you’ll feel naked otherwise).

It's true. You don’t realise it yet but you will. Yes, you will and you'll wonder how you survived so long without one.

All great ships in history had one (well ok, not all). The Vikings knew how to build a good ship and they used them to ward off evil spirits and scare the Bejesus out of everyone. The fact that not everyone believed in Jesus at the time is a mere technicality. I could have said it was used to frighten the pants off everyone instead, but I’m sure not everyone had undergarments either.

A mere nine centuries later it was introduced on galleons and other such vessels to help a non-literate society distinguish one vessel from another. I guess saying “that big ship over there” no longer held sway.

Yes, I’m talking about fidgureheads.

Their appeal has waned over the years but has never been entirely lost.

They might not seem an obvious feature on a narrowboat... primarily because they’re not. But this shouldn’t put you off having one. Traditionally ‘eyes’ were painted on the bow of a boat to ward off evil spirits but let’s face it, when you’re drunk and it’s dark and you’re trying to remember which boat is yours as you stumble home, it can be a bit difficult to pick out your boat in a line-up of likely characters – and the spirits (good or bad) don’t lend a hand.

And this is where Jon (aka Sasquatch - there have been sightings...) steps in to help. He, of the @workboatpug on Twitter makes figurehads out of rope. It’s like a fender-corndolly-type affair. And they are blimmin’ brilliant.

He’ll make you one – just ask him, and then you, like us, can have delusions of grandeur too. We no longer think of the boat as a humble monkey-come-narrowboat. No, we now sail in a mighty vessel that we use to scare the life out of the local population. In my head we are aboard The Queen Anne’s Revenge and we’re up to no good. That would make the Hubby Blackbeard and me... erm, ok, we’ll leave this analogy behind...

So, here's to Jon, allowing drunkards* to find their boats again.

*Not that we're this way inclined...

Job #3 involved a lot of swearing and some falling over.

No, it wasn’t fixing the hot water. The heater has been sent away to a Mikuni borstal in Southampton where it will be prodded with a stick whipped into shape.

We’ve got to the point in boat living where in order to navigate our way through the good ship we have to dodge the obstacles littering our path. These obstacles consist primarily of junk. Useful junk though, such as extension cables, tins of paint, art boxes, various hammers and screwdrivers... and an exercise bike (no, really...). There isn’t anywhere handy to store the bike but a nice big sideboard with drawers and cupboards would be ideal for hiding everything else away whilst making the boat look sophisticated and grown up. Sideboards are for grown ups. This is a well known fact.

So, we ordered a nice looking one online and were a little surprised to discover we had to pay an extra £10 for delivery. We have a van, we could collect (read ‘we’ as ‘the hubby’) but no, it would take two people to deliver it in a very big lorry. Pah, I thought, I’ll show them when it arrives and I carry it nimbly onto the boat without any assistance. They’ll have to pay me back my £10 because I’m so strong and capable and would have effectively delivered it myself...

Ok, so it didn’t quite go according to plan.

The lorry arrived eventually after getting lost on the way to our pub.

Yes, pub.

I pointed at the tiny marina and pulled an expression that I hoped conveyed the message of “does this look like a pub to you?” I fear it didn’t work as the deliveryman asked again if it was. Eventually he lifted my flat pack sideboard into my awaiting cart with such ease that I thought maybe he had accidentally delivered a box of Styrofoam balls by mistake.

Now, I am a bit useless at maths, but he drove the lorry, he unloaded my sideboard, he loaded it onto my cart... I count that as ONE man. I was tempted to ask for half my money back since I only got half a delivery service... I didn’t though because he was nice and friendly and I’d only have to phone up the company later to inform them that someone was missing a box of Styrofoam balls and please could I have my sideboard. I'd mention it then.

It was only when I came to transfer the box onto the boat that I realised I had in fact mistaken the delivery man for a human and not the Iron-man that he was because I tried to lift the box up and... Nothing happened.

It was too bloody heavy for me to lift.

So heavy in fact, that I had to unpack it and move it piece by piece onto the boat whilst accepting that I am a wimp with no upper body strength...or lower body strength for that matter.
Still, I was yet to prove my capabilities by assembling the sideboard. I’d have it done in an hour or so. I mean, how hard can it be to assemble a piece of flat pack furniture in a confined space?

Look it has knobs, well, feet to most people, but nowt shows progress like a set of knobs...
Six hours later the hubby arrived home to find me swearing at bits of wood and screws and he may have taken pity on me because he got involved (with a complete disregard for the instructions...).

At this point I was left to control the unruly wildlife that was taking an interest in proceedings and consume copious amounts of tea.

But we did finish the epic build only eight hours behind my original schedule. It hasn’t stopped us dumping all our junk on the floor and we still trip over everything. Well, I do because I’m clumsy with no sense of balance or self awareness. The hubby just strides over it all... but we do feel all sophisticated and grown up now because we own a sideboard.

HMS LCTNOITRMWWTLI goes for a run. Well, it was more of an amble.

Yes, we took the old girl (or should that be boy since we gave the boat a masculine name?) out to stretch her (his?) legs and have a break from all the DIY.

We didn’t go too far, just far enough to get away from the hustle and bustle of our home mooring. There’s a secret spot that only the locals know and where the world can pass you by in relative silence. I say relative because the geese were noisy beggars and kept up with regular swim-by honkings.

The only folk we met on the river were the inmates of HMS Salter’s Party Boat of Loud Disco Noises or Goring, if you prefer its proper name.

We disguised ourselves as a grassy bank:

Actually, I don’t think the spot is that much of a secret because there was a well used fire pit. I started the camp fire whilst the hubby wasn’t looking (I deny all accusations that I have a habit of accidentally setting things on fire).

Rob also took the opportunity to stand in a field and play his mandolin. The lengths some musicians will go to to get their music heard. He did a great rendition of Postman Pat though. Yes, that was one of my requests...

I think I drank a gallon of tea whilst Rob pickled himself slowly in rum. That made winning at cards that evening a lot easier but it did mean I had to do some proper crewing on the way home the following morning whist Rob recovered.

Was lovely to get out onto the river again. Hopefully, we'll do it a lot more.

Job #2 Prod the shower pump with a stick.

And so I did. This is no lie. I also threatened it with a hammer but we don't talk about that.

In all fairness, there wasn't anything wrong with the pump per se; it just needed a little bit of love and de-limescaling.

The plumbing from the shower to the pump, on the other hand, needed a bit more work (and prodding with a stick). I probably didn’t help matters with my over exuberance to get the work done (let’s just say that water was draining into the bilges for a little while).

In the end, Rob bought me this:

Who knew a plunger could be so much fun? And who knew how much limescale grit could get stuck in a plug hole?

This really isn’t an exciting post.

We now have a shower that drains remarkably well though.

Shame we don’t actually have any running hot water.

Ooh, could that be job #3?

DIY? Yes, I know I'm not to be trusted.

We've decided that since I've far too much spare time on my hands I should attempt to fix the boat.

So, I made a list of all the jobs that need to be done. It went something like this:


No, it isn't actually a list I know, but if I actually wrote one then I'd reach old age by the time it was finished and I really wouldn't be up for much DIY. And the boat would've sunk. So I thought I'd keep it simple.

So, job #1. Fix the lights.

This was a pesky one. You know there's that job you've been meaning to tackle for the last few years but have been putting it off because the last time you tried to fix it you just made it worse? Well, okay, you might have done it properly the first time round but read my bio, it says I'm rubbish at DIY. Anyway...

It really was a simple job: a 2 minute attach-a-wire type affair, only to get to the wire I had to take the ceiling down first. Not so difficult really, I know, but you have to factor in that to get the ceiling down I had to chip away at polyfilla-ed screws. 25 of them to be exact and that can make you lose the will to live.

The last time I did this job it went swimmingly right up until I put everything back together and the wire for the light fitting fell out. So I left it dangling for a year and a half whilst I cursed at it and gave it the Evil Eye. It turned out that this didn’t help fix it at all, which is why, on Tuesday I tackled the job once again. It took 4 hours to remove the polyfilla from the screws; it took 30 seconds to pull the ceiling panel down:
I reattached the wire for the light and gave it a good tug this time (not chancing that problem again). I then set about my one woman job of putting the ceiling back together.

I failed, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. The ceiling panel was big and I’m little. I could hold the panel in place but I didn’t have a spare hand to secure it. I tried using my head but even that wasn’t big enough. In the end I resorted to bullying Smiles, my neighbour, into helping.
And so, tadda:

I promptly showed off my magnificent handy work and the fuse tripped. I tried showing off the lights a few more times and each time they tripped and left me light-less. So, I returned to cursing it and giving it the Evil Eye and planned never to attempt to fix it again. It was to stay like that, a constant reminder as to why I should never do DIY. It would be my bargaining tool with the hubby in a “Do you really want me to try and fix that? Look what happened the last time I tried. Really dear, you should fix it yourself,” kind of way.

But Rob, the ever practical chap that he is, suggested trying a different light bulb. So I did and it worked. There was much whooping and even a victory dance.

We now have working lights and this is good news.
Unfortunately, it also means that I’m forced to tackle job #2.
I’ll let you know how it goes...

How (not) to be a pirate... or a lesson in how (not) to go boating.

Life sometimes gets in the way of boating. So, here are a few reminders to gently ease you back into life on the river. This is especially useful if, like me, you've forgotten what to do.

  1. Upon setting off untie your own mooring lines and not those belonging to your neighbour's boat. Never admit to anyone that you have made such a schoolboy error.

  2. Always make sure you are travelling on the proper side of the river. Just like driving on a road there is a right and wrong way. There are various tactics you can employ to ensure you get this right - the most obvious one is to look at the skipper of the oncoming boat. If he/she is waving their arms madly at you and shouting obscenities then you can safely assume that you should move to the clear water and pretend that you knew this all along. Another way is to remember the following phrase: THE OTHER SIDE, NUMPTY.

  3. Make sure you have enough fuel to get to your intended destination. It's no good just hoping for the best and then hitting a sandbank that tilts your boat so the engine runs dry. Your engine will also agree with this.

  4. If you forget the above send your hubby, who should be nicely pickled in Pimms by now, back to your home mooring to fetch the bike that you forgot to take. Tell him to collect fuel and cycle it back to you.

  5. Call out your neighbour to rescue you. Confuse him by being indecisive as to whether you actually need rescuing or not. Make it absolutely clear that you did NOT phone him to brag about your own idiocy. You should never tell anyone about that.

  6. Stare forlornly at the engine and shout words of love and encouragement as it gasps and chokes and dies. As a last resort tell it that you'll only have to make it bleed if it doesn't start.

  7. Cheer madly when the engine responds to these barbaric threats and turn the damn boat around and go home before you actually break something.

  8. Never admit to anyone that you ran out of fuel. An exploding engine or any other form of breakdown is fine. Running out of diesel is a sign that you really ought not to be allowed on the waterways... at least not without adult supervision.

  9. If anybody asks pretend you meant to breakdown. Claim it was an exercise in boat handling and competency.

  10. Make no comment about failing the above exercise.