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Wilts and Berks Canal
Opening of the Jubilee Junction

The Wilts and Berks Canal was proposed in 1793 and opened in 1810. The main route ran for 52 miles from the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington near Melksham to the River Thames at Abingdon. Branches also linked the canal to Chippenham, Calne, Longcot and Wantage. In 1819 the North Wilts Canal opened which oined Swindon to the Thames and Severn Canal at Latton near Cricklade. This nine mile route became part of the Wilts and Berks Canal in 1820. The canal declined in use and through traffic ceased in 1901 when Stanley Aqueduct collapsed. The canal was finally abandonned by an Act of Parliament in 1914. Much of the route survives. The Wilts and Berks Canal Trust aims to restore the whole canal. By 2002 some eight miles of the canal had been restored. More details on curent progress are at www.wbct.org.uk.

When we went by car to the Basingstoke Canal Festival over the May Bank Holiday weekend we were able to talk with members of the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust who had a small stand there. The canal, at its East end, used to join the River Thames in the town of Abingdon. Now the original line of the canal has vanished but there have been plans to make a new junction with the River Thames some 1500 metres to the south. For several years there has been a large sign at the Abingdon end of Culham Cut, stating that this will be the site of the new junction with the Wilts and Berks Canal. We heard unofficially that it was hoped to dig out a short length of canal during the summer, it is just 150m metres, and to formally join this length to the River Thames on 30 August, just after the IWA National Festival at Beale Park on the River Thames. It was hoped that many of the boats attending the Beale Park festival would also visit this short stretch of the Wilts and Berks Canal. We wrote the date in our diary and thought nothing more about it.

We attended the IWA National Festival, which was also the occasion of the Diamond Anniversary of the Inland Waterways Association. It is hard to believe that it is 60 years since the IWA was founded. There we again saw members of the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust, and this time it was confirmed that the junction with the River Thames would indeed be formally opened on 30 August. We paid our annual subscription and joined the society, purchased the classic blue T-shirt and paid in advance for our diamond shaped brass plaque to celebrate the opening.

We knew that we would not be able to take our boat to the opening, but set off on the day by car. The opening ceremony was due to start at 1200, and we got there far too early. There were very few people at 1120. There was a yellow ribbon stretched across the canal and the entry from the River Thames was barred by a length of bright orange plastic mesh. This was an important 150metres of water, and a winding hole had been excavated at the end, hopefully wide enough and deep enough everyone to turn. Eventually photographers and local TV arrived, as well as the volunteers in their red T-shirts who had done all the digging work.

The procession of boats came from Culham Lock, and because there is no winding hole above the lock we were told that some boats had to be towed down backwards so they were facing the correct direction for the start of their procession. The Wilts and Berks Canal Trust had radio contact with the procession of boats, including the various local civic dignatories, officials from the Thames Conservancy, the IWA, long-standing volunteers, enthusiasts like Chris Coburn, and lots of other passing boats who were caught up in the excitment. There was a lot of excitement when they heard that the procession had left Culham Lock, and the orange plastic mesh was dropped and the first boat, narrowboat Jubilee entered the new length of canal. It was not our local area so we did not recognise him, but we presumed it was the local mayor of Abingdon, Councillor Peter Green, who was carrying a large pair of scissors, had a broad smile on his face, and was ready to cut the ceremonial ribbon and declare the canal open.

The original idea had been for each boat in the procession to go along the canal, turn at the end, and the next boat enter. This was clearly going to take a long time. The Thames Conservancy launch Windrush was waiting and then it seemed to be agreed that everyone would just follow and there was width for boats going down to pass those coming back. Windrush is wide and long, but with a professional crew they had no problem turning. There would have been a lot of red faces if they had a problem. Not everyone kept to the correct (right) side of the little canal, but all the boats in the formal procession turned at the winding hole. We were surprised that they all turned to the left and Chris Coburn with NB Progress was the only boat to turn to the right. He took advantage of the prevailing wind, although approaching the turn from the right of the canal meant that it looked easier to turn to the left instead of the right.

At Beale Park we had been moored next to Keeping Up.. with the Jones's, a narrowboat which we had met previously and which is also a member of the Aylesbury Canal Society. We mentioned the opening of Jubilee Junction and they said that they hoped to attend.

By 1230 it was open for anyone to join the line and have a go, while the invited guests set off on foot for the celebratory lunch. Everyone travelling along the canal was offered the chance to buy the special brass plaque, and this caused some chaos at the junction while people tried to hand over cash, and receive their brass plaque. It was then that we saw our friends on Keeping Up, and signalled that we would take some photos for them. Their boat is long, 67foot as indicated by the number 67 on the front, and they had no problems with the winding hole. Everyone in the procession had turned easily, although later we watched as a much smaller boat managed to get it wrong and got stuck along the edge, although his crew eventually pushed the boat off.

Finally, on Saturday 8 September, we were able to do the journey ourselves. We stayed in the Abingdon area for the weekend and went back and met workers from the Canal Trust on the Sunday.

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Content revised: 24th July, 2020