A MAJOR milestone has been reached in the restoration of a former waterway through the Wiltshire countryside.

Boats are now able to pass under the local landmark of Double Bridge near Lacock for the first time in more than a century – thanks to hardworking volunteers from the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust’s Melksham, Chippenham & Calne Branch.

The volunteers have spent several years and tens of thousands of hours breathing new life into the formerly derelict stretch between Chippenham and Melksham.

The former canal bed has been dug out and filled with water, the towpath has been reinstated and various structures including spill weirs, culverts and a wharf have been rebuilt, while the wildlife habitat has been improved with tree planting, bird boxes and bat boxes.

Now the Trust has made another significant advance by extending the re-watered section beyond Double Bridge, which was officially opened by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall in 2009.

The line is now 1.25 kilometres long – making it one of the longest stretches of navigable waterway to be restored by the charity so far – and allows boats to pass under the bridge for the first time in more than a century.

Trust chairman Roderick Bluh said: “This is another impressive achievement by our fantastic volunteers and demonstrates the charity’s progress in bringing the canal back to life.”

Melksham, Chippenham & Calne Branch chairman Dave Maloney said: “Not so long ago Double Bridge was falling apart but today it’s a popular spot for walkers to sit on a bench and enjoy the view towards the River Avon in the meadow below.

“Now visitors can also see boats travelling past for the first time since the collapse of the Stanley Aqueduct in 1901.

“At the moment, the only craft permanently moored on this stretch is our workboat ‘Boswell’ which carries Trust volunteers and their tools from one end of the canal to the other, but we’ve also introduced a trip boat - the ‘Mary Archard’ -which will visit the site several times throughout the year.”

This stretch of the restored Wilts & Berks extends through open countryside from the bottom of Pewsham Locks near Chippenham to the edge of Reybridge near Lacock.

The Trust’s plan is to continue south to Melksham to connect with the Kennet & Avon Canal near Semington. The original route through Melksham has been lost under modern development but the charity hopes to create a new link using the River Avon instead.

Ultimately, the charity wants to restore the canal all the way to the Thames & Severn Canal near Cricklade and the River Thames near Abingdon, connecting Calne, Royal Wootton Bassett and Swindon.

Dave said: “The pace of progress is increasing and we now have several work parties throughout the area.

“We’d love to welcome more volunteers who can help us to maintain the momentum, with roles including digging, bricklaying and grass cutting. It’s a great way to enjoy fresh air and exercise.

“The Trust also has opportunities for people who want to be involved with fundraising and project management. Every hour is sincerely appreciated.”

The Mary Archard tripboat is next due to visit tomorrow (Saturday, May 12), and again on June 9, August 11, September 8 and October 13, from 11am to 3pm.

For further information on how to reach the canal from Pewsham or Reybridge, or to join the Trust, visit www.wbct.org.uk