Melksham – a Wilts and Berkshire rally
This weekend of the 6th & 7th September 2014 saw some WBOC members and other boaters supporting the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust’s Melksham River Festival. This was an event which promoted the joining of Melksham to the Kennet & Avon canal at Semington close to its original junction via a new link, partially utilising the river Avon. It also saw the first powered boats navigating the river Avon for an approximate 3 mile stretch from the weir up towards Lacock.
This day saw boats starting to arrive at Melksham to launch down a new slipway behind the canoe club on to the River Avon (the Bath/Bristol one). Already on the water was Matchbox, the boat of the harbourmaster and Wilderness boat builder and designer, Ian Graham, which was soon joined by Tophyl of Taunton.
After 4pm, school pickup time had finished, more boats arrived. Grey Owl 3, Ark, Arwyn, Sloe and Snapdragon. The last launched in near darkness and five boats grouped together nosing into the bank in Wilderness manner so as to keep the canoe launching site clear in case they arrived for an early morning training session.
After a peaceful night, the day dawned and more boats soon started to arrive. First to arrive was the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust trailable / portable trip boat followed by Givan, Toad Hall and Y-Knot. After a relaxed morning seven Wilderness boats headed off for a cruise up the river towards Laycock. Whilst the river depth was fine in most places, the air draft was limited by trees encroaching on the river and in a few cases in was like going through a narrow chicane. We are told by locals that the river regularly floods surrounding fields in winter and we wonder if they are suffering from the same mindset of EA in Somerset and the Thames Valley, where vegetation on the banks has been left to encroach on the watercourse as river maintenance and dredging has been abandoned. Dredging in those two afore mentioned areas is now taking place after public outcry, perhaps it will here too. We nearly all made it to nearby Halfway Farm where overhanging trees down to water level stopped further progress. See the blue dots in the following maps as to where we finally beaten by the overhanging trees.
The way back was quicker as it always is but its was tricky to see the river for the trees. We did have a group of gongoozlers who appeared not to have seen a boat up here before!!
On returning to the festival site, the WBCT volunteers had been busy putting up marquees, security lighting and generally getting the site ready.
As the evening approached so did the boat Grey Owl, all the way from Rochester in Kent. As they prepared to launch some other boaters headed for the town and some food and drink at the local branch of a national pub chain, and very good it was too.
As this day dawned, teams of Wilts & Berks Canal Trust members were up early tending to all those last minute tasks that need to be done before the public arrive.
Also up early were the owners of 4 steam boats, Scathtan, S.L.Aurelia, Margaret Morrison and Genevre, some who arrived yesterday and some this morning. No quick engine start for them, lighting and stoking fires is the order of the day. Not sure if they can also cook their breakfast on a shovel as they used to on steam railway locomotives.
Back to our boats to rig bunting and lights so the event is colourful to the visitors.
At 11.15 the event and the new slipway was opened by the cutting of a ribbon across the slipway by a dignitary from Leekes, the events sponsor, along with Ian Simpson, the WBCT event Chairman, also owner of Ark, a 1973 Wilderness Water Rat still fitted out in the original manner.
With the event open the many Wilts & Berks Canal Trust volunteers got to work on stalls and on their, not one but two, trip boats operating up and down the river. They appeared to be very popular and were booked out on both days.
With the event starting to buzz, time to do the scheduled Wilderness cruise past. With Alison Perry (WBOC secretary) giving the PA commentary and Ian Graham leading the way in Matchbox, we processed past the assembled crowd behind the canoe building. It was amazing to hear the exploits of the boats and crews, who have visited so many waterways this year, both in the UK and abroad and by just those eleven Wilderness boats at this event.
Following on there was much to amuse the public, such as a Scuba diving demo, a try a canoe session and the steam boat cruise past with lots of steam whistles, all in bright sunshine.
After the event closed the cloud came over and it started to drizzle but that did not dampen things for too long as there was a Folk music evening in the canoe club. With multiple acts of a high calibre, it was a great evening.
This started in a similar way to Saturday, with a light overcast and with just a few people walking around the site, but the sun soon came out and after lunch so did the crowds. Again there was a cruise past by the Wilderness and Steam boats, canoe try a boat, scuba demo and in addition a river rescue demo by the Fire Service. Many of the public came over for a chat and asked about our boats, and Ian Graham was keep busy with taking a few for trips on his boat.
All too soon it was 4pm and time for the event to close. Down came bunting and lights and boats started to queue for the slipway. The first out was Y-Knot followed by Givan. With many gongozzlers watching, they came out easily even though the slipway is very steep and chocks were used to assist car handbrakes to ensure we didn’t winch cars into the river! Most of the rest of the Wilderness boats left on the Monday.
We must say a big thank you to WBCT members for their hard work in putting on a great event and making us so welcome. Thank you to to Ian Graham in his capacity as Harbourmaster for the event, for his hard work. We hope it motivates the local population to press and support the powers that be to get this link built soon.