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First ever Melksham River Festival hailed a huge success

Volunteers dressed in traditional canal costumes

Volunteers dressed in traditional canal costumes

ORGANISERS of Melksham’s first River Festival have hailed it a success after huge crowds turned out to watch the entertainment. 

Organised by the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust on the banks of the river Avon in Melksham, attractions included canoeing and scuba diving demonstrations, steam boats, illuminated boats, live music and much more.

The Trust’s own narrow boat Dragonfly was specially transported to Melksham from her usual mooring place at Kingshill Swindon, and was used for public trips from near the recently completed, purpose-built slipway.

Over the festival weekend, Dragonfly was joined by Damsel Fly and Willow, the Trust’s other boats, to offer visitors the chance to experience scenic cruises up the river and back throughout the weekend. As well as entertainment on in the river there was also traditional fairground rides, food stalls, a beer tent and live music on King George V Playing Field with volunteers bringing the event to life by dressing up in traditional canal costumes.

Boatmaster Robert Yeowell said, “We were delighted that so many people wanted the chance to experience this beautiful river and its wildlife from the water. Some were lucky enough to see a kingfisher, heron or even a bird of prey, as well as the local moorhens, coots, swans and ducks. Any visitors who were disappointed not to get a trip at Melksham, will be very welcome at Kingshill Swindon once Dragonfly is returned to her usual berth.”

A flotilla of a dozen locally-built Wilderness Trailboats, each decked with bunting for the occasion, cruised the River Avon, as did four classic steam launches.

Bradford on Avon Scuba Diving Club, Wiltshire Fire Service Water Rescue Team and the Wiltshire Youth Canoe Club also took to the water and entertained onlookers with demonstrations of their skills.

Volunteers dressed in appropriate costumes helped to set the Edwardian theme of the festival, which was organised 100 years after the abandonment and formal closure of the Wilts & Berks Canal in 1914.  The historical theme was continued on the playing field, where visitors enjoyed time-honoured entertainments of a coconut shy, a ‘test your strength’ challenge and swing-boats, as well as watching or having a go at traditional crafts including bodging, spinning and weaving.

Ian Simpson, a local volunteer, and the festival director said, “We were absolutely thrilled with the success of the Melksham River Festival. The atmosphere was brilliant with so many friendly, enthusiastic visitors, traditional music, and both shore and river-based activities.

“We would like to thank Leekes of Melksham for their very generous sponsorship of the event, and their deputy manager, Jon Miller, for opening the festival. Thanks should also go to Viridor Credit Environmental Company who enabled us to secure the funding to build the new slipway, without which the festival could not have been staged, and Hall & Woodhouse, owners of Melksham’s newest pub, The Milk Churn, for their support.

“It was wonderful to see so many visitors enjoying themselves and appreciating this wonderful river. Many more local people now know about our plans to bring the canal back to Melksham, which will mean a terrific boost for the local economy and will help to regenerate the town centre. All the hard work by the volunteers has proved very worthwhile and we would like to thank the local community for their support and interest.”

The festival was supported by over 50 volunteers from the Canal Trust. It was organised to inform the local community about the imaginative plan to reconnect Melksham to the national canal network via a proposed new canal, the Melksham Link. This will see boats once more able to travel from the Kennet & Avon Canal at Semington, to the centre of Melksham using a stretch of the river.