Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Down the K&A with Jane Austen is the copyright of Jim Shead - A literary journey down the canal. First Published in Waterways World June 2000.
Down the K&A with Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lady novelist in possession of a good reputation, must avoid commercial waterways.
However little known the feelings or views of Jane Austen may be, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of her readers, that they may assume the illustrious author would no more be seen by a canal than she would be seen smoking a pipe. But Jane Austen's association with the Kennet & Avon Canal is much stronger than the casual reader could imagine. Take a trip with me down the canal and I hope to convince you of this long before we reach Bath.
Entering the River Kennet from the Thames we come up through Blakes Lock then turn right, into a backwater loop of the river, and moor next to the prison. This may sound like a bleak stopping place but in fact it is tranquil and pleasant. Between the high blank wall and us is a row of horse chestnut trees under which is a pathway and a grassed area bordered by iron railings. Tall modern office blocks with planted gardens shield the other sides of the moorings from public attention.
Mooring here on the bollards of Reading gaol we are reminded of Oscar Wilde, who spent eighteen months here from November 1895 to May 1897. It was while he was here that he wrote De Profundis but not The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote in France a few months after his release. Wilde was not the first literary figure to inhabit this part of Reading because right next to the prison wall are the ruined walls of the 12th century Benedictine abbey and the 13th century gatehouse that still stands. It was here, in 1785, that the ten years old Jane Austen went to school, spending two years close to the Kennet Navigation which had already been open for over 60 years.
The school in the gatehouse was run by the easy going Mrs La Tournelle, who had never learned French even though she had married a Frenchman. The large adjoining house, which provided accommodation for the boarders, has disappeared but the gatehouse still stands proud overlooking the splendidly planted park. This period of her life left Jane with a strong appreciation of romantic and picturesque ruins.
On the present day navigation we travel 19 miles to the end of the old Kennet Navigation at Newbury, this takes us through 22 locks, including two of the original turf side locks. Here, in October 1794, work was started on the new canal that was to link the Kennet with the Avon. Jane Austen knew the town well and mentions the Newbury races and the assembly in several letters. It was also the social centre for the village of Kintbury, just 6 miles and 7 locks down the canal.
Jane visited Kintbury periodically from her youth to the last year of her life. Kintbury Rectory was home of the Reverend Thomas Fowle and his family. The two elder Fowle boys, Fulwar and Tom, were among Jane's father's pupils at the Austen home at Steventon, Hampshire. The boys established a long lasting friendship with James Austen, who came midway between them in age. This was the basis of a lasting series of connections between the two families.
Through the Fowles Jane knew both Mr and Mrs Dundas. Charles Dundas was both MP for Berkshire and the Chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal Company. The Dundas family - in effect the squires of Kintbury - lived at nearby Barton Court. The Kennet and Avon canal must have caused huge interest in the village, especially on the 12th June 1797 when the section between there and Newbury was opened. The Canal Committee dined with Charles Dundas and travelled the newly opened section in a 60-ton barge. What Jane Austen knew or thought of this event we shall never know as none of her letters for this year survive.
Revered Fowles Kintbury church is probably much the same today as it was then but his rectory has long since vanished. Three miles and four locks on we come to Hungerford, another town Jane knew well. When her sister Cassandra was coming home from Cheltenham Jane wrote "If there were but a coach from Hungerford to Chawton!".
We have another 16 miles and 24 locks before we reach Devizes, which was often a stopping place on Jane's journeys from her Hampshire home to Bath. She seems well disposed towards the town, in May 1799 writing to her sister "At Devizes we had comfortable rooms, & a good dinner to which we sat down about 5; amongst other things we had Asparagus & a Lobster which made me wish for you, & some cheesecakes on which the children made so delightful a supper as to endear the Town of Devizes to them for a long time." This was a time when the construction of the canal was in progress, although the Caen Hill locks were not opened until December 1810.
Once through the 29 Caen Hill locks we have just 14 miles, but only another 8 locks, to Dundas Aqueduct, not only a structure named after the Kintbury "squire" but also the junction with the Somerset Coal Canal, a waterway in which Jane also had an interest. In May 1801 while staying in Bath she wrote to her sister Cassandra saying she and her uncle "are soon to take the long-plann'd walk to the Cassoon". This was a well-known excursion from Bath at the time, to Combe Hay on the Somerset Coal Canal, where the remains of Robert Weldon's failed caisson boatlift could be seen. This was one of the few cases where we have any record of Jane Austen's connection with waterways. This does not mean she was ignorant of them or lacked interest in them, just that it was not something she wrote about in her novels or letters. In the same way she lived through the Napoleonic Wars, and had two brothers on active service in the navy at the time, although her writing reflects only the personal aspects of the conflict - as when her brother Charles buys both his sisters "Gold chains & Topaze Crosses" from his prize money.
Jane's subjects for letters were generally personal interests as exemplified in a long letter to her sister, from Bath, dated May 1801 she writes of her journey to Bath, her impressions of the city, the price of fish, her relations and clothes. Only in the last words of the postscript does she add "Last night we walked by the Canal". On the 26th she records walking to Lyncombe and Widcombe which inevitably meant crossing the canal. Work on the Widcombe Locks had started at this time although they were not completed until 1810.
It is, of course, Bath that we most associate with Jane Austen. A short way from the top of the Bath (or Widcombe) Locks is Cleveland House, the former headquarters of the canal company, and Sydney Gardens, which the canal passes through. The Sydney Hotel and pleasure gardens had only been built a few years before the Kennet & Avon Canal came to Bath. The proprietors of the gardens had asked for 2,000 guineas from the canal company for taking the canal through their land. In 1801 Jane Austen and her family moved to the house at 4 Sydney Place, opposite the gardens and now marked by a plaque.
Jane visited Bath several times, lived there for 5 years and included scenes of the city in her novels, but it was not a place that had her wholehearted approval. Her association with the navigation does not end at Bath any more than the waterway ends there. Today many boaters go on to the end of the K&A at Hanham then onto the River Avon to Bristol Docks, a trip of 17 miles with 7 locks.
Less than a mile below the Docks is Clifton Suspension Bridge, completed in 1864. When Mrs Austen and her daughters left Bath forever in July 1806 their first stop was Clifton, a village rapidly growing into a Bristol suburb and a fashionable resort to rival Bath. Although they did not stop long in Clifton, Jane had fond memories of the place and on 30 June 1808 she wrote to her sister Cassandra "It is two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton, with what happy feelings of escape!".
So, like Jane Austen, we end our trip at Clifton, having started at Reading and stopped off at Newbury, Kintbury, Hungerford, Devizes, the Somerset Coal Canal and Bath. The Kennet & Avon Canal Act was passed when Jane Austen was eighteen and the route was fully opened when she was thirty-five, both were products of their age and remain valued parts of our heritage.
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