A Special report this time from Martin Buckland
Just in time – twice, at least. The story of
Jubilee Junction at Abingdon.
“...what was achieved yesterday was of
inestimable significance in furthering the ultimate success of the Trust's
The Jubilee Junction having been completed with 24 hours to spare I get an e-mail reminding me that the Dragonfly deadline is tomorrow. I write this to the day one year after I took early retirement. "What will you be doing then?" my former colleagues asked? "Oh, probably a bit more work for the canal Trust." I say. If only I had known.
On 1st July 2005 there was an e-mail suggesting that there might be some serious cash waiting to fund a ‘significant canal project’. A bid is rapidly written and we are successful, hearing the result in November 2005. The grant is from the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) to celebrate their Diamond Jubilee. Therefore an opening date of 30th August 2006 is set, being two days after the National Waterways Festival which is being held a few miles downstream at Beale Park near Pangbourne. A condition is that we raise an approximately equal amount from other funders so three more bids are written. WREN Landfill Tax agrees to fund us and the Vale of White Horse provide the 11% matching funding. Aggregates Levy like the scheme but have no cash and are further cut when DEFRA merges with English Nature to form Natural England. Thames Water also funds our various necessary surveys and reports. Significant volunteer value is also expected from the Waterway Recovery Group.
Fourteen months later we open Britain's newest canal, albeit only 150 yards of it. Twelve of those months were spent filling five lever arch files with documents, submissions, reports and calculations both physical and financial. The last two months were spent getting up at an unseemly early hour (I am best at night) to be around with the three Waterway Recovery Groups (WRGies) and later with Tiggy, the digger driver from White Horse Contractors. Work in February 2006 involves taking out trees and bushes before the nesting season and in June there is some heavy scrub-bashing to help the expected WRGies out.
A couple more cliff-hangers, 18 WRGies waiting to go on 1st July and Planning Permission due on the Monday afternoon. Not too bad, but, because of the significant nature of the project the Plan goes to the Chair of Planning rather than the Officer delegation. A bit of a compliment but we don't get the OK until Thursday afternoon but we have managed to keep everyone occupied doing preparation work before starting on the towpath alongside the fishing lake. We discover that the Planning Permission has a condition which states we must do another water vole survey in case they have swum into our area from the other side of the Thames since the survey we did in November. Urgent call to the ecologist who carries out the survey two days later, (normally two weeks notice is considered polite) and the voles are still safely not in our patch.
Then it's WRGies week two and we get stuck into some serious wheelchair ramp building to get one metre up to the Peep-o-Day Lane footpath over a length of 36 metres. (What? You need another 12 tonne load of poo? as WRGies call subsoil.) A lot more fencing, towpath excavation and filling with road planings and vibro-rolling afterwards. During these two camps around fifteen WRGies got their `tickets' to drive various pieces of construction plant. BBC TV came and did some interviews in preparation for their coverage of the Grand Opening on 30 August. Radio Oxford also asked for an input into their breakfast programme.
Then follows a couple of weeks with intensive East Vale work parties; mainly the retired four or five who can make it during the week. August arrives but the final contract with our funder WREN still needs some sorting out due to the cost of the project having fallen by more than 20% which triggers the variance procedure for approving the grant.
Finally the contract is signed and it's a phone call to White Horse Contractors, who are only three miles away, and it's Go! for them. A twenty-one tonne digger and a twelve tonne dumper arrive and the earth begins to move.
The watching brief archaeologist also arrives to oversee what comes out of the ground. He gives a coffee-break talk to the WRGies about why they need to see what is under the grass and how it helps to build up a complete picture of the area. Where the winding hole is dug out a layer of peaty silt is found about eighteen inches down which turns out to be where the Thames was in the Sixteenth Century. At full canal depth another layer is found but this time there is no pottery to date it but it shows that the Thames has moved around the flood plain over the centuries. A goat bell and a small, as yet unidentified, token or coin were found together with the usual range of pottery. The presence of an ancient pond is also revealed.
The third WRG party arrives finishing fences, hanging gates and laying more tow-path. White Horse work proceeds apace and soon only a thin dam is left between the dry excavation and the Thames. The dewatering pump is turned off and as the water rises and a kingfisher moves in to view his new fishing ground. Proof, if ever it was needed, that canals attract wildlife. The pump is moved to a position where it can draw water from a lake, an abstraction licence from the Thames cannot be granted because of the drought, and the canal is filled in eight-and-a-half hours. Cain Bio-Engineering now arrives to install the water vole-friendly soft banking.
On Wednesday 23rd August the levels in the cut and the Thames are equal and news of the breakthrough is e-mailed and phoned around the area. BBC TV arrive for a second visit and Roy Murrell and I dig out the final few inches of soil separating the waters in the shadow of the twenty-one tonner and our own diminutive ‘Blue’ excavator driven by Bob Airey. After a symbolic handshake across the gap the diggers get stuck in, ‘Blue’ allowing Tiggy's machine to take out the final few metres. He topsoils the site and at last the awful clay, so firm when dry but glutinous when wet, is covered over. A great pity that most of his superb work is now invisible underwater. (This was also the day I fell in the Thames but that's another story.)
There are now just seven days to go but we are all off to Beale Park for four days to do various things at the Festival, me to do a couple of presentations on how to dig a canal oddly enough. Now that the water is in we follow Tiggy around the site putting in the cattle fences along the boundaries. Tiggy offers to push our fence posts in; there are twenty seven of them. Trust members Keith and Maureen Walker arrive in their narrow-boat ‘Willoughby’ and Keith and I lay out the posts in their exact positions. We are in place at 07.30 the next morning and it takes us exactly 9 minutes to push all the posts in! (Normally a backbreaking day's work for a team of four with a post bonker – as the WRGies will testify!) A splendid example of volunteers and contractors working together. It was also demonstrated throughout the month that volunteers and contractors can operate successfully on the same site.
It is now Thursday and we have two working days to go. Another cattle fence and a post and rail fence go up in record time on Friday and I depart for Beale Park arriving at 19.30, just in time for the evening meal. The East Vale crew are still working and virtually all the essential work is completed. The six weeks contingency time has shrunk to twenty-four hours and we don't intend working on the Tuesday. However, rumours at Beale suggest that certain parties are going to try to have an unofficial ‘first down the cut’ under the barbed wire and plastic fence we have slung across the entrance so arrangements are made for it to be removed moments before the IWA narrowboat ‘Jubilee’ enters from the Culham Cut opposite.
I resolve not to do anything on the Wednesday day of opening but late Tuesday BBC Radio Oxford ring and ask if I can do an 08.00 outside broadcast on site. (I did it in my pyjamas from home last time but the radio car is all lined up ready.) I duly turn up but the Thames has gone down six inches with all those boats coming back from the National and Keith's boat is sitting on the bottom. Roy Murrell sorts out ‘Willoughby’ and I do all the jobs that Roy was going to do. It's now 10.15 and I have to go home, change, collect Janet, my wife, and be at Culham Lock at 11.00. I make it with 14 minutes to spare.
From that point the real buzz begins which makes it all worth while. Peter Green, Mayor of Abingdon and Bill Hanks, Vice-chairman of Sutton Courtenay Parish Council. occupy the foredeck of ‘Jubilee’ at Culham. We arrive to meet a great gathering of boats large and small standing off in the Thames around the entrance. John Salter of Salter's Steamers has very generously provided one of his passenger boats to run a free trip from Abingdon Bridge and it is well loaded with onlookers. Warning hoots are given and the barbed wire is cut down as we cross the river and is rapidly hauled onto the bank. We process majestically along the cut towards the gold ribbon and are about to glide through and do the dual cutting when a shout from the press on the bank asks us to do a re-run for the cameras. ‘Windrush’ becomes understandably confused as we suddenly reverse. The second take goes like clockwork and the ribbon is cut on the count of three by the two councillors. Mike Palmer and I are greatly moved to see seventeen WRGies who had worked on the project, lining the bank in red tee-shirts having made the trip from Beale Park where they were extremely busy taking down the Festival. It was also an excellent publicity moment for volunteer input.
James Openshaw, who had been asked to steer ‘Jubilee’ at the very last minute then made an excellent turn in the winding hole and we come out passing the rest of the flotilla coming in. (James had also very generously given the WRGies a long boat trip on his narrow-boat on the Kennet and Avon.) It was then upstream past a great variety of boats powered by all sorts of energy including muscle, to the Abingdon Marina. A short walk or WRG bus ride to the Rugby Club where we were welcomed by the music of `Keepers Lock' canal folk duo, Susie and John. A stunning display of the work and achievements of the Trust had been prepared by Jan Flanagan and her team. The centrepiece was an aerial shot taken on Saturday by a friend of WRGie Taz, e-mailed to me Tuesday morning, forwarded to John Minns who that night produced the tenth of a series of large posters which he delivered that morning. Another ‘just in time’ to demonstrate how the members can rise to a challenge.
The next couple of hours were spent eating the excellent spread arranged by Priscilla Frost and talking to our invited guests. Nearly one hundred attended with some notable appearances by leaders of councils, other statutory bodies and our local MP, Evan Harris, former shadow Health Minister and Science Committee member. These are the people to whom we needed to demonstrate that the terms volunteer and amateur do not mean an inability to deliver high quality strategic projects. Not only were we ‘just in time’ but ‘fast track’ and ‘on budget’ to quote two other management speak terms.
My thanks to all those who helped in the planning, bidding, negotiating some sticky moments, and not least building what was described as “A small step for the Thames but a huge step for the Wilts & Berks.” While it is always invidious to single out particular people I must thank Roy Murrell and Bob Airey for weeks of practical support during the construction phase which was invaluable. Not least also to my wife Janet who, although we live in the same house, has seen very little of me over the last few months as I've either been pounding the computer keys or out on site. A long list of DIY jobs awaits me!
Finally three comments which reflect the impact we have made. From Bob Allen, our farmer landlord: “Two years ago I thought this was all pie in the sky.” And from his brother David, a former civil engineer, “I never thought you would do it!” (Neither apparently did lots of boaters who saw the state of progress on their way down to Beale Park.) Neil Rumbol, founder of the Wilts & Berks Amenity Group sent an e-mail this morning in which he says: “...what was achieved yesterday was of inestimable significance in furthering the ultimate success of the Trust's goal.”
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