Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Shakespeare's Avon is the copyright of Jim Shead - Criusing the Warwickshire Avon from Tewkesbury to Stratford. First published in Waterways World February 2006.
When cruising Shakespeare's Avon one has a sense that the river and surrounding countryside has not greatly changed over the centuries, providing an uninterrupted thread reaching back to the time of the Bard.
However, the river was not made navigable until 1639, twenty-three years after his death, and the Upper Avon navigation was effectively abandoned by its owners, the Great Western Railway, in 1875. For almost a hundred years the river above Evesham saw no boats bound for Stratford and below Evesham the Lower Avon went into decline.
Our voyage up the Avon started at its junction with the Severn where a short length of water takes visiting boaters to Avon Lock. Here we paid £44 for a two week licence covering the fees to both the Lower and Upper Avon Navigation Trusts who are the navigation authorities for the river below and above Evesham respectively. The lock keeper here issues the licences and works the lock.
Coming out of the lock boats need to make a ninety-degree left turn to head upstream under King John's Bridge. There are visitor moorings between the lock and the bridge. We pass Tewkesbury marina on the right and are soon out into an open landscape that is not obstructed by high banks as we found on the Severn.
We then pass under the M5 motorway bridge immediately before the village of Bredon. Its impressive tithe barn can be seen from the river and behind the village Bredon Hill rises, where A. E. Housman described in his eponymous poem listening to the skylarks and church bells - but not to the roar of the M5. The boat moorings and caravan site near here have long mooring poles and the mobile homes are lifted high above the ground showing that flooding is expected.
Our next lock is Strensham, which in 1951 was the first lock to be restored in the first waterway restoration of the post-war era. On 12 March 1949 the Evesham Journal carried an article by Inland Waterways Association member Mr K Gill Smith describing the sad state of the navigation. This stimulated a lot of interest in the condition of the river that was then reported to be "blocked from Wyre onwards".
In the same year C. D. Barwell, a local engineer and businessman, took his boat up the Avon but was defeated by the poor state of Nafford Lock. He soon became a committee member of the IWA Midlands Branch who started work on a plan to restore the river. In 1950 it was announced that C. D. Barwell had bought the Lower Avon Navigation and early in 1951 Strensham Lock had been restored. The Lower Avon Navigation Trust, of which Barwell was chairman until 1970, worked for many years restoring and improving the river. The whole of the Lower Avon was navigable by 1962 and a year later the opening of Evesham Lock enabled boats to cruise two miles of the Upper Avon.
Two miles above Strensham lock we pass under the 16th century red-brick Eckington Bridge. There are moorings here and the village is only half a mile away. Continuing upstream there is a mooring less than a mile away at Birlingham Wharf, right on a hairpin bend that can rival any on the Thames approaches to Lechlade.
At Nafford Lock there is a swing bridge across the lock chamber that must be opened before the lock is used. For five miles above the lock we continue through rolling countryside, the wide loops of the river hugging the hills at Great Comberton (where there is a visitor mooring) and at Birlingham. At this point we have travelled three miles and one lock from Birlingham Wharf but are now less than one mile as the crow flies from the wharf, which is on the opposite side of the village.
We approach Pershore under a concrete road bridge with visitor moorings on the downstream side. This is followed by the 14th century Pershore Great Bridge and very soon we arrive at Pershore Lock.
This lock is now much deeper than it was before the restoration of the river because the navigation weir and water gate that were downstream of Pershore old bridge have been removed. It now has one large ground paddle in the centre of the lock as well as gate paddles.
After the lock we pass one or two pubs with garden moorings before arriving at the main town moorings by the recreation ground. Pershore is a picturesque Market Town, famed for its elegant Georgian architecture and magnificent Abbey, founded in 689AD by King Oswald but with most of the Abbey's architecture from the 13th century. There is a Co-op supermarket close to the recreation ground and the High Street contains a variety of individual shops, pubs and restaurants.
Beyond the town is Wyre Lock, one of those almost diamond shaped locks, similar to the ones on the Oxford Canal but larger. When we arrived the at lock it was manned by Lower Avon Trust volunteers and we were beckoned into the chamber, which was already occupied by three cruisers, to fill the space in the middle. The lock was filled gently as we had nothing to which we could moor.
After the lock is the village of Wyre Piddle where on the river bank is an old pub surrounded by some modern housing. After this we are back to the meanders of the river valley seeing little of any habitation until we arrive at Fladbury because although we pass close to Cropthorne the village is high on a steep hill above us.
Fladbury Mill, the weir and the lock present one of the most picturesque scenes on the Avon. The village was also the home of Sir William Sandys (1600 - 1669), an MP who in 1636 received an Order in Council authorising him make the river navigable and by 1639 he had finished having built 13 flash and pound locks so that 30-ton barges could navigate from Tewkesbury to Stratford.
Above the lock we pass the gardens of some rather nice village houses before passing under the railway bridge to travel two more miles to Chadbury Lock. The next reach takes us into Evesham, on the way crossing back under the railway just before a facilities point that includes a pump-out.
There are visitor moorings opposite Abbey Park and further on before Workman Bridge, close to the town centre. Little remains of Evesham Abbey today. It suffered the same fate as many others having been dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540 and used as a source of building materials in the following years.
Shortly after Workman Bridge we come to Evesham Lock with its unique lock house built over the weir. This is a manned lock that marks the boundary between the Upper and Lower Avon navigations so the lock here will issue licences for anyone needing them. Above the lock on the left are moorings that are handy for shopping in the town.
Although William Sandys made the whole river to Stratford navigable the Lower Avon was under separate ownership from 1758 while the Upper Avon was abandoned in the 1870s. By 1964 both the Lower Avon and the Stratford upon Avon Canal had been restored leaving the Upper Avon as the gap in the Avon Ring.
The Upper Avon restoration project got off to a good start with an IWA member offering an £80,000 contribution and the appointment of David Hutchings, fresh from restoring the Stratford Canal, as the Project Manager. It was not a straightforward process as major structural work was required and it was not clear who owned the navigation rights to the river. In 1972 the Upper Avon Navigation Act was passed to enable the Upper Avon Navigation Trust to complete the restoration, which it did in 1974.
The first Upper Avon Lock we encounter is George Billington Lock, which like many of the locks on the upper river is named after a benefactor of the restoration. It is a replacement for Haverington Lower Lock but some of these locks have been moved from their former positions and there is one new lock at Stratford.
This lock is closely followed by Robert Aickman New lock, named after the man who was not only Founder and Vice-president of the IWA but was also Chairman of UANT for many years. The "New" in the name is because the lock was re-sited in 1983 due to problems with erosion and silting in its original position. There are short-term moorings by this lock as there are on many of the Upper Avon locks.
Inland Waterways Association Lock is next, about a mile before we arrive at Bidford-on-Avon. The 15th century bridge here caused some problems for the river restorers as they had to improve the depth of water under the narrow navigation arch without undermining its foundations. There are moorings here just before the bridge so that you can visit this pretty village that has a surprisingly good selection of shops and services for such a small place.
Elsie and Hiram Billington Lock and Pilgrim Lock come next before arriving at W. A. Cadbury Lock close to the village of Welford on Avon. From here to Stratford is less than three hours cruising. The next reach is three miles long, taking us under Binton Bridges on our way to Stan Glover Lock. It was in this stretch that we passed Ivor Batchelor coming down river with Mountbatten and Jellicoe. It is always nice to see familiar boats turn up in unexpected places. We had several such experiences on this trip down the Avon, including meeting Merlin with whom we had shared so many locks on the Rochdale Canal the previous year (see WW April 2005). The reach above Stan Glover Lock is over two miles long and, although it is still rural, hints at the proximity of Stratford with expensive looking houses that can be seen to the north.
The reach ends at Weir Brake Lock, which is closely followed by the final lock on the river. Colin P. Witter Lock has a very unusual structure with large steel girders above the lock chamber, it also marks our arrival at Stratford-upon-Avon.
To me this always seems like an abrupt change; below the lock it is just like any other part of the Avon, above you are undoubtedly in Stratford with Trinity Church on the left, opposite open parkland and all around there are boats. Here on any summer day you are likely to see rowing boats, punts, small motorboats, peddle boats and trip boats, all in addition to the many private and hire narrowboats and cruisers that are found everywhere on the Avon.
There are moorings at most places on the right side of the river all the way from the lock to the tramway bridge. If you have time to spare on your Avon licence this is probably the best place to stop as the moorings in Bancroft Basin, and the few on the canal in Stratford, are often full.
The lock into Bancroft Basin is the point at which the licence requirement changes from the Upper Avon navigation Trust to British Waterways, a point to remember in whichever direction you are travelling. If you enter the Avon from the Stratford Canal you will find notices at Bancroft Basin telling you where Avon licences can be purchased.
Stratford-upon-Avon is a busy tourist centre that some people try to avoid. Personally I always enjoy my visits to the town. It has lots of places of interest, a good shopping centre, pubs, restaurants, the Avon and the canal. As a boater I could moor in Bancroft Basin beside the Shakespeare Memorial, on the Avon opposite Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, or across the river from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, all with views that cannot be matched by the best hotels in Stratford. Surely a perfect end to our trip up the Avon.
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