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Naming and Cutting by the Duchess of Cornwall - to Celebrate 200 years
Thursday, 09 September 2010 00:00

Duchess of Cornwall naming DragonflyThe Duchess of Cornwall came to Semington to lead the celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Wilts & Berks Canal.

The event on Wednesday 8 September 2010 was designed to mark two forward-looking projects that will increase the Trust's momentum in restoring the canal. Firstly, the Trust's brand new trip boat will raise the Trust's profile in Swindon and will be an incentive to open a route to the new canal constructed in Wichelstowe, and secondly, the ambitious Melksham Link has strong local backing and is being seen as important in economic regeneration.

The main event was at Semington Bridge, on the site of the proposed junction between the Kennet & Avon Canal and The Melksham Link and adjacent to the historic junction between the Wilts & Berks Canal and the K&A. British Waterways had helped prepare the site by taking out a section of hedge and levelling the ground. The Melksham branch volunteers had continued the site preparation, working over the weekend, as well as the Tuesday and Wednesday to erect the marquees. Rob Jones, Chair of Melksham branch said, "Our volunteers are amazing. It's humbling to see volunteers come together to pull off an event like this in such a professional manner."

2010-09-08_002The site was already busy at 08.30 under a veil of drizzle. The large marquee (kindly provided by the Somerset Arms) was already in place and the events team were putting up the WBCT gazebo, with Melksham volunteers setting up the refreshment tent. The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust had also loaned the Barbara McLellan and crew so WBCT could invite supporters and partners to see the day's events unfolding. Invited guests started arriving, donning rain-spattered badges and boarding. There was a tight schedule to meet with the Barbara McLellan scheduled to sail at 09.30 sharp so the guests could enjoy a short cruise to Hilperton Marina, to rendezvous with the WBCT's new trip boat.

The specially-designed trip boat was funded through a generous donation from the Underwood Trust, which has been a staunch supporter of the restoration of the canal. The Underwood Trust is keen to see further parts of the canal opened for public enjoyment, and the trip boat will provide additional incentives to open more lengths of waterway. Representatives of the Underwood Trust were on board as the two boats cruised in convoy back towards Semington.

HRH boards DragonflyThe journey back had a scheduled stop at Whaddon Lane Bridge where the boats moored to allow HRH the Duchess of Cornwall to board the trip boat en route from an engagement at Trowbridge Library. After meeting her fellow guests, the Duchess unveiled a brass plaque in the cabin of the trip boat to commemorate the day and signed the fly leaf of the boat's log book.

For the WBCT project team it was a great relief that the rain stopped, the skies brightened and instead of showers we had warm sunshine to greet the royal party. Just before reaching Semington, Her Royal Highness was invited to make her way to the aft of the new boat and take the tiller. Skipper Tim Pyatt slowed the boat and the Duchess approached Semington at the helm, steering the new boat gently through Semington Bridge. Local people were standing on the bridge to get a good view, and on the far side, the Duchess was able to see the original junction between the Kennet and Avon and the Wilts & Berks, as the skipper once again took the tiller to turn the boat around and take her back through the bridge to moor bow to bow with the Barbara McLellan.

Arrival at Semington Bridge

Skipper Tim Pyatt said, "The Duchess took the tiller from a kilometre out. She had never steered a narrow boat before but she did a grand job and seemed to enjoy it. I could have taken the tiller back but I didn't need to. She's obviously competent at the helm because she steered the vessel straight through the centre of the bridge."

Pouring the Wadworth beer over DragonflyThe Royal British Legion Junior Band have been playing together for less than 6 months but played the national anthem as the Duchess stepped off the boat onto the tow-path. Tradition suggested that a canal boat should be named with a bottle of beer rather than champagne, and fortunately, Wadworth Breweries had just the thing. Their K & A 200 golden ale, was brewed specially to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the opening of the local Canals in 1810. The Duchess poured the K & A 200 over the bow, unveiled the name and announced that the new trip boat was to be called, "Dragonfly." She went on to say she looked forward to a day when the boat would sail the length of the fully restored canal.

The Duchess, wearing a simple, knee-length suit in duck-egg blue, went on to greet the children from St George's C of E Primary School who attended the ceremony. The children were delighted to notice two delicate silver dragonfly brooches on the Duchess' collar. She was then invited by John Laverick, to cut the first symbolic sod of the Melksham Link and to start the process of building the first length of new canal in Wiltshire for 200 years. John Laverick said, "The original line of the Wilts & Berks Canal through Melksham has been lost under decades of building as the town has expanded. This new route, being planned with the participation of our many Partners in the community including the owners of the land along the line, will link with the historic route north of the town as it wends its way to Lacock, Swindon and to the Thames at Abingdon and at Lechlade."

Cutting the first sodUsing an engraved shovel the Duchess cut the first sod and passed the shovel to Indiana, from Year 6 at St George's school who also cut a sod of earth. Then one of the reception class students, Xavier, on only his second day at school, presented a posy of flowers to the Duchess. Later, the shiny shovel was passed from child to child as each of the children had a chance to make their place in history by digging some earth at the start of the link.

Laura Almond, the Head Teacher of St George's C of E school, Semington said, " We are pleased to take part, and share in the event with the community. The students often visit the canal because we use it to support the curriculum in science, geography and history, so it is really exciting that new developments are taking place."

The Duchess was then introduced to local landowners who are working with the trust and some of the key people who had made the day possible including the Managing Director of ABC Leisure, Edward Helps and the manager of Hilperton Marina, John Froggatt who had been pivotal in managing the logistics for Dragonfly. Her Royal Highness also met David Dare of Oxfordshire Narrowboats who pulled out all the stops to build and deliver Dragonfly to the tight deadline for the event. The Duchess also met key members of the Wilts & Berks Canal Partnership whose support has been vital in developing the plans for the Melksham Link.

Cake cuttingIn a departure from the planned programme Her Royal Highness paused to cut a cake with a narrowboat theme which had been baked by Linda Hewlett of Melksham Branch. Linda is renowned as the lady who bakes cakes to fuel the Melksham working parties and has a proud boast that she's never made the same cake twice.

To commemorate the visit, the Parish Council of Semington Without took the opportunity to give the Duchess a signed copy of "Semington Past and Present". The official part of the day ended as the Lord Lieutenant's Deputy, Mr Robert Floyd escorted Her Royal Highness back to the car.

The guests seemed to really enjoy the day. John Stainer, landowner said, "It has been a new experience. I've never been on a canal boat before. Melksham is my home town and I think the canal restoration will give the town a lift, open it up and make it a better centre. "

Ian Brown, Head of Countryside and Amenity at Wiltshire Council said, "It has been a fantastic day and really well-supported. Wiltshire Council is keen to support WBCT because it is drawing in volunteers and private funding. Having a permanent Canal Officer is helping highlight the importance of green infrastructure."

Colin Harrison of Melksham Chamber of Commerce said, "The Chamber is completely behind the project. When you consider the benefits the canal has brought to Bradford on Avon, or Devizes. It is a superb idea..

Councillor Chris Petty, Deputy Mayor of Melksham Town Council, said, "The new link will be something important for Melksham, bringing tourism and jobs into the area. It will be good for the people of Melksham and I look forward to seeing the project completed."

Dave Winning of Semington, a keen local walker was passing on his morning walk and said, "I am looking forward to the Melksham link. It will give me more areas for walking. I think it will be good for the economy and it will benefit the wildlife, I often see heron and kingfishers by the canal as I am walking."

Dragonfly on 8th SeptemberFor boat enthusiasts, the new trip boat is a traditional design with a steel hull and superstructure. At 36 feet long she is approximately half the length of a traditional working narrowboat, but she has the standard narrowboat beam of 6 feet 10 inches. She is designed to carry up to 12 passengers, and can be used as day boat for Trust members as well as for public trips. The boat has been designed with extra wide doors and there is space to fit a lift to make the boat fully accessible. The lift will be fitted as soon as funding is available.


More photos of the event can be found in the Photo Galleries.