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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


First Canal Festival 1974

The first festival of pleasure craft on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal took place at Hempsted in June 1974. It was organised by the recently formed Stroudwater Canal Society with the aim of promoting public interest in the restoration of what are now known as the Cotswold Canals. The event attracted good crowds on each day of the weekend.

The Site
     British Waterways provided a site at Riga Wharf off the Bristol Road below Hempsted Bridge where S J Moreland & Sons had formerly received the aspen logs that they had cut up to make match splints. However, the only available large space for car parking was on the opposite side of the canal, and so a means of crossing the water had to be arranged. This was achieved by borrowing Butler's former tar tanker barge MV Jolly which had been lying semi-derelict at Chaceley for several years. Jolly was towed to Hempsted behind one of Healing's corn barges and used as a floating bridge that could be moved out of the way when any boats needed to pass.

Boats Attending
     The boats that had gathered for the event were mainly local cabin cruisers and narrow boats augmented by some that had come specially from the Midlands. Of particular interest was the century-old steam launch Hero, which had featured in the Onedin Line television series, and two narrow boats that had been mocked-up as naval ships to attract recruits. The prize for the best turned out narrow boat was won by Joy of Gloster which had travelled 115 miles and 113 locks from Napton Bottom Lock on the Oxford Canal.

The Official Opening
     On Saturday afternoon, crowds of people made their way to the site, walking down the towpath and across the floating bridge. A number of local dignitaries arrived by boat from Gloucester Docks, and after a blessing from the Chaplain of the Mariner's Church, the event was formally opened by the Mayor of Gloucester.

Entertainment Provided
     Visitors were entertained by a programme of displays and competitions on the water, including the finish of a canoe race and a parade of boats, and those who wished to get afloat could take a trip on the Gloster Packet. On the land, the Stroudwater Canal Society and other local organisations had display stands, the Saintbridge School Band provided music and a range of sideshows included swings, a roundabout and a small steam locomotive providing rides along a 140ft track.

Cruise Curtailed
     On Sunday morning, the plan had been for the boats to cruise to Saul Junction and back, but industrial action by the bridgemen over a claim for extra money for working during the festival meant that the boats could not go beyond Parkend Bridge.

Surprise Visitor
     On Sunday afternoon, the public were welcomed again with a repeat of the Saturday activities - and a surprise addition. Without any prior warning, a large coaster was seen rounding Two Mile Bend on its way to Gloucester! The event organisers hurriedly had to clear people from the floating bridge, and they just managed to move the Jolly out of the way in time to let the coaster come through. As the ship passed by, it sucked all the water from under the moored boats, which bottomed momentarily before bouncing up again.

Floating Bridge at Hempsted

Steam Launch Hero at Hempsted

     This event reminded local people of the leisure potential of canals, and it paved the way for later events at Gloucester and for the very popular annual canal festival at Saul Junction organised by the Cotswold Canals Trust.

Sources: Citizen 24 Jun 1974; memories of Mike Ayland and Jim Williams; photos from Norman Andrews (b&w) and Jim Williams (colour).

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