Branches Melksham Calne & Chippenham Reports
Heroic Effort by Local Volunteers sees 220 year old Culvert Rebuilt

This June, after nearly a year of working in all weathers, from frost and wild winds, to torrential downpours and heatwaves, volunteers with the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust finally completed a mammoth rebuilding project at Pewsham Locks near Chippenham.

A 30 metre long, 220 year old brick culvert, which collapsed during the record-breaking wet winter of 2013-14, has been rebuilt after a herculean effort by a team of workers, who worked weekends and mid-week, clocking up an amazing total of over 2,000 voluntary hours during the project.

Basil Raddy, a volunteer with the Trust, who has been involved from the start, said: “I have been keeping a record of the hours worked, and by my calculations, the actual rebuild has taken 1,656 hours. But when you add in the time clearing out the silt and bricks, diverting the towpath, pumping out the water, and cleaning the original bricks, I would estimate over 2,000 hours is near the mark. We keep a record of volunteer hours as it is important to show funders what the Trust has contributed to a project.”

The historic structure was originally constructed between 1795 and 1799, to cross underneath the canal, and was effectively an underground tunnel to carry the small stream Cocklemore Brook. In January 2014, that stream became a torrent, and the destructive power of the water collapsed the arched culvert, creating a huge hole in the towpath and canal bank, allowing all the water from that section of the restored canal to drain out.

Ray Canter, project leader, said: “It has been a massive challenge. We couldn’t even start on the rebuilding for eight months, as it took that long for the water in Cocklemore Brook to lower sufficiently. Even then, volunteers had to don waders and work up to their chests in water and mud. Luckily, this last winter was not so wet, and by using three 4” pumps, we were able to clear all the debris and begin the rebuilding. We had to construct bunds (dams) on either side of the culvert, divert the towpath, and excavate the whole canal bed; it certainly gave us an enormous respect for the original builders who did not have the benefit of excavators and dumpers.

“Many of our volunteers are not professional bricklayers: they have enjoyed learning new skills and the culvert is now quite a stunning structure complete with over 8,000 bricks. Unfortunately, once finished, it will be completely hidden under the canal, so we want to show it off while we can!

“The fantastic donation of £10,000 from the Yorkshire Building Society, which we received last December, inspired members to redouble their efforts, and they worked heroically until the structure was finally completed this June. We are now looking forward to using our newly acquired skills on rebuilding the locks.”

On 3rd July, Bristol manager of the Yorkshire Building Society Lee Hathaway, was invited to ceremonially lay the final inscribed brick, as an acknowledgement of the importance of the YBS funding in securing materials and hiring machinery. Roderick Bluh (newly appointed Wilts & Berks Canal Trust Chairman), Councillor David Powell (Mayor of Chippenham), and Michelle Donelan (MP for Chippenham) also attended the ceremony, applauding the volunteers for their fantastic efforts, and admiring the new structure before it is finally reburied.

Dave Maloney, chair of the Melksham, Chippenham and Calne Branch of the Trust, said: “We were delighted that the Yorkshire Building Society contributed to this fantastic project. The funding was awarded as a Lasting Legacy grant to commemorate their 150 year anniversary, and this culvert will certainly last for another 200, or even 300 years. We understand that YBS would like to be involved in volunteering to help with the restoration project of the Wilts & Berks Canal, and we will be very pleased to welcome them along.”

The culvert itself will soon be lost again to view when the temporary bunds (or dams) are removed, the canal bed restored, and the canal below Pewsham waiting wharf will then be returned to its former glory.

The aim of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust is to restore the former waterway from the Kennet & Avon Canal near Melksham to the Thames & Severn Canal near Cricklade and the River Thames near Abingdon, connecting Chippenham, Calne, Royal Wootton Bassett and Swindon.

New members and volunteers are always welcome; see more information on the websites:

www.melkshamwaterway.org.uk and www.wbct.org.uk