The Ghost of a Canal

This morning, I had business in Swindon, so despite the rain I took the opportunity to explore a part of the Wilts & Berks Canal to the north of the town centre. I’d seen it by car – as has anyone who’s traversed Fleming Way – but it’s not the sort of road you’d want to walk along. I braced myself.

Way back at the beginning of the 20th Century, the old canal was derided as ‘stinking ditch’. In 1914 Swindon Corporation took control and closed it down; the ‘ditch’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy even though some visionaries could see the possibility of a linear park and a place of recreation. Latterly, the town centre has been comprehensively redeveloped, and I am quite familiar with the ‘Canal Walk’ from south to north. The canal’s become a pedestrian link between the shops, and is celebrated in swirls of text underfoot. However, I was unsure about the exact location of the junction between the Wilts & Berks and the North Wilts.

Aerial photos from the ‘Britain from Above’ web-site show the canal junction, but so much has changed in the last 60 years that the location’s now unrecognisable. The Ordnance Survey mapping tool from the National Library of Scotland finally gave a clue when I overlaid the old six-inch map with a Bing satellite image as seen here:


It’s possible to use a slider to change from satellite image to old OS map and back again. It reveals that the north bank of the junction coincided with the entrance to the underpass under Fleming Way. The triangular shape of the junction, seen below from Canal Walk, is lost under shops built right over the two canal arms:


Viewed from Fleming Way, it’s even less clear where the canal used to be. It’s to the left of this photo, behind the bus stands:


From here, I turned round to follow the line of the Wilts & Berks Canal north-eastwards. Fleming Way follows the canal as far as the ‘Magic Roundabout’, passing the magnificent mural of the Golden Lion Bridge painted by Ken White, seen here:


Further east, Fleming Way neatly slices through the site of York Road Bridge, leaving the houses either side ‘so-near-and-yet-so-far’:


Magic_Roundabout_with_canal_footpath_in_distanceIn the distance just out of sight is the fabled ‘Magic Roundabout’, built slap-bang on the canal wharf. Whether attempting to walk across or drive around, this calls for total concentration, and is not the place to take photographs. I aim for the trees in the distance.


This walking and cycling route is called the ‘Eastern Flyer’; the former canal from Kingshill to the town centre has been converted into another ‘Flyer’. Hopefully part of the ‘Southern Flyer’ will one day become a canal towpath again.

I fear that the ‘Eastern Flyer’ will remain just a foot and cycle path because too much of the old canal line has been built on – but there’s an alternative route for the canal around the south of Swindon and then through the ‘Eastern Villages’.

There’s something to see in the distance on the ‘Eastern Flyer’. Just visible is an old canal bridge, still intact. It is an old ‘accommodation bridge’, usually built to allow access from one field to another. In this case, it was for the benefit of Marsh Farm, now long disappeared:


Crack_Willow_trees_alongside_canalThere’s more to see after the bridge. The banks of the canal were often flanked by self-sown trees, especially the ‘Crack Willow’.

Here’s a whole parade of contorted Crack Willow trunks.

So perhaps the line of the canal is more real after all; not just a ghost, but the physical presence of bridges and trees.

The next road crossing is Ocotal Way, a new road bisecting the old Swindon Marsh Farm.


Balancing_pond_between_houses_and_old_canal_lineThere are plenty of new houses beyond Ocotal Way, built on marsh-land. Between these houses and the old canal line is a balancing-pond designed to capture storm water, as seen here.

So many parts of Swindon are marshy; the clue’s in many names such as ‘South Marston’, not far away, where the Honda works are based.

Swindon has a problem: a tendency for its marshy land to flood. The Wilts & Berks Canal is a solution: a linear balancing-pond that can carry storm water away. Why doesn’t the message sink-in?




One comment

  1. I remember the first time I encountered the Magic Roundabout in my 2CV. I was so amazed that I had to turn round and go back for another go!

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