Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article All Change for the K&A is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Kennet & Avon Canal from Reading to Bath. First published in Waterways World April 2002.
All Change for the K&A
Since our first trip down the Kennet & Avon Canal in 1995 Beryl and I have made the journey every alternate year, so in 2001 we made our fourth trip from Reading to Bath. During this period there has been steady improvements to the navigation, although there is still more work to be done, and on each voyage we notice the changes made. Quite apart from the progress that British Waterways is making there are changes that even the first time navigator will notice - these are changes in the character of the waterway as we traverse from the Kennet to the Avon.
Of the 86 miles of navigation called the Kennet & Avon Canal, from the name of the company who owned it, only 56 miles are canal cut by the company, the rest of the navigation being made up of 19 miles of the former Kennet Navigation and 11 miles of the Avon Navigation, both of which were purchased by the canal company. This history, in part, explains some of the varied nature of today's K&A, but, particularly on the Kennet, there is also a volatility of flow that is found on many rivers. Entering from the Thames at Reading we get our first indication of the state of the Kennet. If the boat noticeably slows this indicates fast flows and tricky approaches to some of the locks. On the other hand if your progress on the Kennet is much the same as on the Thames you will probably find the going easy and may wonder why you have been warned about the torrents at County Lock and the maelstrom at Woolhampton.
The first half mile of the Kennet is not part of the Kennet & Avon Canal and is administered by the Environment Agency. This includes Blakes Lock where you can by BW or EA visitor licences and which is built like the manually operated Thames locks above Oxford,. Just before High Bridge, Reading, we meet the push button traffic lights which control the passage of boats through the narrow, and often fast flowing, section to County Lock. This is certainly a section that has seen changes in the past few years. What was once a journey through the deserted back streets, industrial and derelict areas of Reading is now a passage through a new shopping centre, restaurants and leisure facilities thronged with shoppers and other onlookers. County Lock is the first on the K&A and stands beside a fairly wide weir.
The next mile takes us past the back of some of the older Reading housing, past a few industrial and warehouse sites and into some more open country before Fobney Lock. Reading sprawls out westwards for several miles but this cannot often be seen from the river which has much of its rural character protected by the railway on one side and the lakes formed from disused gravel pits on the other. Just four miles from the Thames we come to Burghfield where there are extensive private moorings, hire boats and a trip boat. Just after the bridge is the Cunning Man pub and towpath moorings, by which I mean some bank you can moor against, not marked visitor moorings and certainly not bollards or mooring rings. Lack of moorings is a complaint often made of the K&A and in some places it is difficult to find a mooring where either end of the boat is less than two foot from the bank but mooring on the Kennet section is fairly good.
Burghfield Lock is of conventional design but the following lock, Garston, is one of the two remaining turf sided locks that were a common feature of the original Kennet Navigation. The top part of the lock chamber has sloping banks which are covered by vegetation of various types rather than by turf. An arrangement of steel rails ensure that boats stay in the centre of the lock. These turf locks must be left empty after use. The next Lock is Sheffield Lock and is followed by the first of many K&A swing bridges. This bridge was manually operated on our first trip but is now electrically operated by a simple push button control. There are a great variety of bridge mechanisms used on the canal from the simple just push open bridge, through manually operated barriers, windlass winding to release the bridge wedges, manual barriers and electric opening, to fully automated operation. Most of the manually operated bridges, as far as Hungerford, are secured by a chain and large bolt which can be tightened or loosened with a windlass.
More pleasant countryside, locks and swing bridges bring us to Aldermaston, where Reading Marine build boats and operate a hire fleet. At this point we have come ten miles and eleven locks. Aldermaston Lift Bridge is fully automatic but is on a busy road so cannot be operated during rush hours nor within five minutes of the last opening.
If you would like to stop at Woolhampton there are moorings before the swing bridge and above the lock. The Row Barge stands close to the swing bridge and offers a good range of food and beer. The bridge and the lock can cause navigational difficulties if there is a strong stream but with normal flows there is not a problem. When Tom Rolt came through Woolhampton Swing Bridge in March 1940 it took him and "half the able-bodied males of the village heaving on crowbars" three hours to open the bridge. It is now electrically operated but we had some trouble with it. It stopped in a position that made it impassable for road and river traffic. A call to the BW hotline had help on the scene in fifteen minutes.
The railway runs close to the canal all the way to Thatcham, as it does in many places on the K&A. Thatcham's industry intrudes upon the north bank as we pass, although good moorings for the town are provided below Monkey Marsh Lock, the other remaining turf sided lock. The next town is Newbury where there are several places for mooring including some by the park, which are very close to the town centre but are not the best ones for overnight. Newbury marks the end of the old River Kennet Navigation and the start of the canal. The approach to the old Newbury Bridge is narrow and the single small arch is followed by the river entering from the right immediately before the lock mooring, close to the lock itself. When the water is flowing fast this can be another tricky place to navigate, however it is best to keep the scale of the difficulties in proportion and remember that the canal is used week after week by hire boats many with novice crews.
Even though we are now on the "canal" section it is difficult to see much difference in the waterway over the next nine miles, as the navigation makes frequent use of the river channel and we pass many weirs taking water in and out of the navigation. One difference that is noticeable is notices on locks asking for the lock to be left empty. This is because many of the K&A locks have no by-weirs and water needs to flow through the lock. You will find that not all locks have these notices, indeed some have notices indicating it is not necessary to empty the lock, and in these cases you will probably find that either a by-weir has been installed or that there is a weir into the river above the lock. Once past Newbury there is an improvement in the countryside and we pass the attractive village of Kintbury (with the excellent Dundas Arms close to the lock) on our way to Hungerford. You may also meet the horse drawn trip boat Kennet Valley which is based at Kintbury.
Hungerford is a small town that has a good range of shops close to the canal. There are a few visitor moorings near the bridge and it is possible to moor opposite these (on the towpath side) but these tend to be rather shallow. There are also moorings above the lock. Once through Hungerford you will find that the swing bridges are secured by padlocks instead of bolts, so from now on you will need your BW facilities key rather than a windlass to operate them. At Hungerford Marsh Lock there is a swing bridge across the lock, at least there is usually, this year it had been completely dismantled and BW were building a new one. Over the next few miles we found more evidence of British Waterways improvements in the shape of lock moorings which are being provided above and below the locks. Such luxuries as this had not been provided before and because of the shallow edges to this part of the canal it was often only possible to get the bow of the boat into the bank at many of the locks. It is a shame that there should be no adequate moorings on a part of the canal with so many tempting places to stop.
Great Bedwyn, 5 miles and 9 locks from Hungerford, is a very picturesque village and an ideal place to pause before the final climb to the summit of the canal. Unfortunately mooring here is not easy and a long line of boats can usually be seen here moored two or three feet out from the reed lined bank. BW were pile driving along this bank so I am hoping that on my next visit I shall not have to jump into the reeds trusting that my feet will encounter dry land rather than swamp. From here it is 2½ miles and 10 locks to the summit, a trip that takes us past the famous Crofton Pumping Station with its two historic steam engines. Opposite the pumping station is Wilton Water, built as a reservoir for the canal, with a footpath alongside that leads to Wilton village, which invites with the charms of a duck pond, windmill and the Swan Inn. There are also visitor moorings here.
Once on the summit we come to the 500 yards Bruce Tunnel which might not have been built but for the Right Honourable Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury as the canal engineers had proposed the cheaper option of a deep cutting, however, the Earl did not want a cutting through his deer park so the tunnel was built. Nevertheless the company still felt it necessary to erect an inscription above the tunnel entrance as "Testimony of their gratitude for the uniform and effectual support of the Right Honourable Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury". The short two mile summit marks another change in the nature of the canal. So far nearly all the locks have been single locks, with very few real flights before Crofton, now from here to Bath flights are the rule, with the only exception being the single lock at Bradford on Avon.
The summit ends with the Wootton Rivers flight of four locks. We waited here for a couple of days in 1997, due to water shortages. Now there is a permanent back pumping system installed and new visitor moorings above the bottom lock. Don't miss seeing Wootton Rivers, its a village that could convince you that thatching is a boom industry. We now have 15 miles before our next lock (and only two swing bridges) through countryside that is always pleasant and often magnificent. The first place of interest is Pewsey wharf, there is a good length of visitor moorings here and we had a very good Sunday lunch at the nearby French Horn. It is about a half mile walk into Pewsey from the wharf. There is plenty of interest in the next couple of miles as we pass Stowell Park, the village of Wilcot and enter the lake like reach known as Wide Water. This and the Lady's Bridge, at its end, was the price the canal company paid to overcome the objections of Lady Susannah Wroughton to the canal crossing her land. As the canal skirts the edges of Picked and Woodborough hills look out for the white horse carved in the higher hills beyond. Honey Street boasts two wharves, at the first is Gibson Boat Services offering all the usual services and at the next is the Barge Inn.
The next eight miles are mostly rural with little signs of villages until within two miles of Devizes. There are various places to moor including some new visitor moorings at All Cannings Bridge. We pass the Bridge Inn at Horton Bridge then a mile further on we come to the fairly new Devizes Marina. Another mile or so brings us to the centre of Devizes where there are moorings on, and around, the wharf. This is a convenient place to stock up as there are three supermarkets in the town centre as well as a good range of other shops. Just a short distance from the wharf is Devizes Top Lock, the start of the twenty-nine locks that make up the Devizes, or Caen Hill Flight.
The first time we came down the K&A passage of the flight was limited to two days a week and had to be booked in advance. Also all the flight had to be navigated at a set time with boats paired to save water. Back pumping was installed on this flight a few years ago and now the only restrictions on navigation are between locks 29 and 44, where the last time for entering the locks is 2pm each day. To do the whole flight of twenty-nine locks will take at least 4 hours, and probably nearer to 5 hours, even under the best conditions. This is a spectacular flight with good views over the surrounding countryside. It is also the only place I have seen the technique of "ashing up" used. If you are the last boat down the flight you may see the lock keeper following behind and pouring a shovel of ashes down the side and middle of the top lock gates to seal up any leaks. The effectiveness of the procedure is amazing, almost completely sealing leaks. On locks that have particularly bad leaks a length of wood is placed in the leaking edge of the gate before "ashing up".
About a mile after Devizes Bottom Lock we come to Sells Green Bridge where the new water point and visitor moorings that have been provided are conveniently situated for the nearby Three Magpies pub. Two more swing bridges take us to the Seend flight of four locks. The popular Barge Inn is located in the middle of this flight and has moorings outside the pub and on the towpath side opposite. This can lead to this short pound becoming suddenly very low if a number of the overnight moorers set of down the flight together. There are three more swing bridges before the two Semington Locks. At Lowes Swing Bridge there is a strange new landing composed of two wattle barriers, one near water level and one behind at towpath level. In between there is an earth filled section in which various waterside plants grow. As a piece of wild garden design this is quite attractive but as a landing stage it has drawbacks.
Just past Semington Bridge visitor moorings are sign posted but there has been a lot of towpath erosion here and we found that we could only moor well out from the bank, which is a pity as Semington is another village worth a visit. The next few miles take us past Hilperton Marina and then Bradford on Avon Marina. There is a supermarket on the south side of the canal near bridge 171 but for visiting the centre of Bradford on Avon there are moorings above and below the lock. If you have a taste for well preserved historic towns don't miss this one.
Many people consider the ten miles from Bradford on Avon to Bath to be the best that the K&A has to offer, certainly for scenery and points of interest it is difficult to beat. However I was disappointed to find a dramatic increase in the number of long term moorers in this area. Most people do not go boating to creep past mile after mile of moored boats and it is particularly galling when some of them display no signs of having paid for a licence.
A sharp right turn marks the start of the Avoncliff Aqueduct across the River Avon. It is sad to note that the excellent canal bookshop is no longer here but the attractive Cross Guns pub remains perched between the canal and the river below. The canal clings to the hillside as it passes the villages of Freshford and Limpley Stoke then re-crosses the Avon on the Dundas Aqueduct. At the end of the aqueduct is the junction with the Somerset Coal Canal of which only a short length remains and is used as moorings. A path leads down to the restaurant and day boat hire at the end. Another mile from Dundas brings us to the Claverton Pumping Station which used water power to pump water from the Avon to the canal. There are visitor moorings here and the water powered pumping is occasionally demonstrated but electric pumps do the day to day work. Just over a mile further on is Bathampton with more moorings and the wonderful George Inn, which has its upstairs rooms at towpath level and its front entrance down the embankment.
As we approach Bath there are visitor moorings that overlook the city, just before you reach Sydney Gardens. If you do not want to go down the Bath Locks it may be a good idea to stop here. There are also moorings immediately above the locks but these are often full. The six Bath Locks, or Widcombe Flight, take the canal down to the River Avon. There were originally seven locks here until a road widening scheme caused two locks to be replaced by one with a 19 foot fall. The bottom lock is situated on a bend of the Avon and if you turn right it takes you upstream to Pultney Bridge and weir. Here there are mooring that command the best view in Bath. A charge of £4.40 for 24 hours (payable at the nearby Leisure Centre) is made here. Even if you don't plan to moor its worth coming up here just to see the centre of Bath from the river. If you continue downstream from Bath Bottom Lock you will come to some moorings just past Churchill Road Bridges, there's not such a good view here but there's plenty of mooring space, it's just as close to the centre and it's free.
Reaching Bath always seems like a fitting end to the journey, and few places can equal the range of attractions here, but in truth the Kennet & Avon continues for another eleven miles and then there are six more miles of the tidal Avon culminating with Bristol Floating Harbour. There is enough interest in that trip to justify an article of its own and that we must leave for another time.
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