The oldest steam engine in the world has been taking a breather today after being pressed into action at the weekend to save stranded boaters on the Kennet and Avon Canal in the Pewsey Vale.

The 1812 Boulton and Watt and 1843 Harvey of Hayle steam engines were brand new when they were installed in the Crofton Pumping Station to maintain water levels at the highest point of the K&A as it passes up and over the Marlborough Downs.

The engines and the 200 year old pumping station fell into disuse when railways took over the canal traffic in the early 1900s and when the canal was restored and re-opened the elderly pair, that underwent full restoration starting in 1968, were replaced by a modern electric pump.

The engines were restored back to full working use by volunteers from the Crofton Society, now the Crofton Branch of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust.

The old engines are normally steamed up only on high days and holidays and have become a major tourist attraction.

The canal relies on pumps to take water from a header reservoir Wilton Water to replace the thousands of gallons lost each time a lock is opened on either side of the Crofton summit.

However on Friday the canal began to run dry after the electric pumps failed and a frantic request for help was sent to the Crofton Society which is run by volunteers.

Maxine Hawkins who runs the pumping station with husband Nigel said the volunteers were only too pleased to help out and respond to the SOS sent out by British Waterways after boats began to get stuck along the canal either side of Crofton as water levels fell.

Mrs Hawkins said it took four hours to get the boilers in steam to drive the engines that lift one ton of water every minute to replenish canal levels.

The volunteers worked flat out all weekend to restore the levels in the canal and help get the dozens of stranded boats moving again.

However, explained Mrs Hawkins, the teams that run the steam engines are all volunteers and many have day jobs so today the old engines were silent and British waterways had to padlock lock gates again to maintain levels.

Mrs Hawkins said: “We simply do not have enough volunteers to keep them running full time so the engines are resting today although we plan to have them going again tomorrow.

“Until then the canal remains closed.”