Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Wide Way West is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Kennet & Avon Canal from Reading to Bath. First published in Canal & Riverboat January 2003.
The Wide Way West
The Kennet & Avon Canal starts near High Bridge, Reading, and is connected to the River Thames by a short stretch of the River Kennet that is controlled by the Environment Agency. The canal should perhaps be called the Kennet & Avon Navigation because only the central section is actually a canal, the ends of the navigation being composed of the River Kennet and the Bristol Avon, which were made navigable before the canal section was built. However, the canal company bought the two river navigations to complete their route from Reading to Bristol and thus the whole route was called the Kennet & Avon Canal.
Before passing under High Bridge a boater must press the button that changes the traffic light here. If the light immediately turns green the narrow section of river between here and County Lock is clear, but if it remains red it means that someone has already entered the section from the other end and you must wait for the green light. This narrow section of river, now in the middle of a new shopping centre, can run fast - hence the precautions.
County Lock is the first of 104 locks in the 86 miles to Hanham Lock, where the navigation joins the tidal River Avon. All the locks are at least 14 feet wide but the locks on the river sections are bigger and vary from lock to lock. The Kennet section has two of the rare turf-sided locks, one at Garston (lock 102) and the other at Monkey Marsh (lock 90) near Thatcham. These locks have sloping sides that are covered with vegetation and have a framework of metal rails to hold boats in the centre of the chamber. Because plants are used to cover the sides of these locks they must be left empty after use. Another feature of the canal is the swing bridges which come in may forms from light manually operated footbridges to automatic push button operated road bridges.
The River Kennet section is 19 miles long from Reading to Newbury, through 20 locks, and offers some really good river cruising. After the first mile we have shaken off the dust of Reading and are in the open river valley that forms a green corridor to the west of the town. All up the valley there are lakes beside the river, formed from old sand and gravel workings, although many of them are not visible from the navigation. Beside Ufton Swing Bridge is the chamber of Ufton Lock which has been de-gated and is no longer used as a lock. This is one of two original K&A locks that are no longer used, the other being at Bath.
At Aldermaston, Reading Marine has a base of with narrowboats for hire. Just before the lock is a lift bridge that crosses a busy road. Its operation is simple, a single press button will change the traffic lights, lower the barriers and raise the bridge but it can not be worked during rush hours. The next village is Woolhampton with the welcoming Row Barge pub beside the electrically operated swing bridge. Beyond the bridge is Woolhampton Lock with the weir stream beside it. To get into the lock boats need to turn left towards the weir then right into the lock. This is normally a straightforward manoeuvre except when the weir is running fast when it is possible to get swept across to the opposite side of the river.
Newbury was once the end of the Kennet Navigation and from here 56 miles of canal were built to link with the River Avon at Bath. The old terminus wharf and buildings can still be seen in the town centre opposite the park. The channel narrows as we approach Newbury Bridge, which has a stream entering from the right in the short distance between the bridge and the lock. After the lock we pass the picture postcard area of West Mills with its swing bridge. Newbury is a historic town with a shopping centre split by the canal. At Newbury Bridge shoppers look down at passing boats from the pedestrianised high street.
The nine miles between Newbury and Hungerford continue to be more like a river navigation than a canal, with the river flowing in and out of the canal at various places and some sections where the Kennet and canal share the channel. However, the locks are now of a standard canal style. Many of the locks have notices instructing boaters to leave the lock empty after use, a practise that often puzzles visiting canal boaters. The reason behind this procedure is that many of the locks don't have by-weir channels so overflows run through the lock. Some locks have no notices. In fact there are notices saying that locks may be left full, because these pounds have overflow weirs or the locks have had by-wash channels installed.
Although the railway runs close to the canal in many places in this section, as it does in so much of the Kennet & Avon, it does not overwhelm the beauty of this upper section of the Kennet Valley. The only place of any size before Hungerford is the handsome village of Kintbury, with the excellent Dundas Arms close to the lock. This pub is named after Lord Dundas, the chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal Company at the time of the canal opening, in 1810, and the "squire" of Kintbury. Jane Austen was a frequent visitor to the village during this period as the Austens had connections with the Fowles who lived in the Rectory here. A horse-drawn trip boat operates from the village and often takes passengers the three miles between here and Hungerford.
Hungerford is a much smaller town than Newbury and has a charm of its own, the waterfront between the bridge and the lock being particularly attractive. Above the lock is Hungerford Church swing bridge, followed by Hungerford Marsh Lock, which has a swing bridge across the lock chamber. The canal continues to climb through a series of individual locks, with the three locks at Froxfield, spread over almost half a mile, being the first on our journey to have any suggestion of being a flight.
The next place is Great Bedwyn, an archetypal Wiltshire village, and a popular stopping place although the moorings all along this section of the canal are very shallow. When we were there, in the summer of 2001, BW were piling some of the bank so I am hoping that leaps from the boat onto a reedy towpath will soon be a thing of the past. After Great Bedwyn the nine Crofton Locks rise to the summit level, passing the famous pumping station with two steam engines, both over 150 years old. The summit level of the canal is only two miles long and passes through the 502 yard Bruce Tunnel.
The four Wootton Rivers locks end the summit. Don't miss seeing this splendid village of thatched cottages, with its 16th century Royal Oak pub, just down the road from the bridge at Wootton Rivers bottom lock. From here to Devizes we have 15 miles of lock free cruising through some of the best scenery in Wiltshire. Pewsey Wharf is a half-mile from the town and is a popular mooring place. There are more moorings available on this side of the summit than on the other side - from Hungerford. After passing Wilcot the canal opens out into an ornamental lake leading to the ornate Lady's Bridge, an example of appeasing the local landowner, Lady Susannah Wroughton, who objected to the canal and was rewarded with the lake, bridge and £500. The bridge is attributed to John Rennie, the builder of the K&A who was certainly one of the canal engineers with a strong architectural instinct.
We are now in rolling countryside and a white horse can be seen carved into one of the hillsides. The little village of Honey Street faces the canal with Gibson Boat Services providing for the needs of the boat and the Barge Inn ready to top up the crew. As we get closer to the Devizes we pass Devizes Marina before meeting the suburbs. Devizes Wharf is the most convenient point for the town centre with moorings on both sides of the canal. There is a canal shop and museum on the wharf and all the usual facilities in this market town, given its first royal charter in 1141. The town also boasts one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways - Rennie's twenty-nine locks descending Caen Hill. Boats can enter the wider spaced locks at the start and end of the flight without restriction but the thick of the flight, locks 29 to 44 are opened at 8 a.m. and the last passage through is at 2 p.m. (or 1 p.m. in winter). Here the pounds between locks are very short and long side pounds form terraces on the steep hillside. When a pair of descending boats meet a pair coming up the flight there needs to be a bit of manoeuvring in these short pounds. There are various strategies that can be used to pass in these circumstances but the biggest problems occur when all the steerers have different strategies.
From the bottom of Devizes Locks ten miles of rural waterway takes us to Bradford on Avon. On the way we have seven locks and six swing bridges. The first locks are the flight of five at Seend with the attractive Barge Inn, with moorings, below the middle lock. Two miles on are the two Semington Locks with Semington Bridge below the bottom Lock. It was here that the Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal started its route, which went through Swindon and on to the Thames at Abingdon, until trade ceased about a century ago. Before we get to Bradford on Avon we pass Hilperton, on the edge of Trowbridge, where there is a marina and hire boat base. Bradford on Avon Marina is less than two miles from Hilperton and is the home of Sally Boats hire fleet and some of the Canaltime time-share boats.
There are moorings above and below Bradford Lock which are the best stopping place for walking into this quaint old town, which, like its northern namesake, was once a centre of the textile trade. Among its many attractions is the bridge across the Avon that has a chapel on it. Next to the canal, a little way past the lock, is a huge 14th century tithe barn.
The next ten miles to Bath rate as the cream of canal cruising as we cross the Avoncliffe Aqueduct and make our way round the steep wooded hillside past Limpley Stoke before re-crossing the Avon on the magnificent Dundas Aqueduct. On the far side of the aqueduct is a short branch, which is all that remains of the Somerset Coal Canal. A mile on is Claverton Pumping Station, which was John Rennie's ingenious idea for lifting water to the canal from the Avon below. Two waterwheels are used to drive the pumps, which are still operable, although electric pumps are now normally used. The village of Bathampton turns its best face to the canal and has the added temptation of the photogenic George Inn.
The approach to Bath gives us some great views of the city before the canal cuts through Sydney Gardens and descends the six Widcombe Locks. There were originally seven locks here but a road-widening scheme has reduced them to six, leaving the penultimate lock with a fall of 19 feet. Leaving the bottom lock we join the River Avon with the way to Bristol ahead. Turn right here to go up to Pulteney weir, where the view of Bath from the river is a real treat. There are moorings here opposite Bath Abbey although a fee is payable at the nearby Leisure Centre. Back on the main route free moorings are available just past the railway station.
From Bath there are still another 11 miles of the Kennet & Avon to Hanham Lock and a further six miles down the tidal Avon to Bristol Docks, but that has proved too much to fit into this article, so we must finish at this beautiful Georgian City. Surely this is a fitting end to a voyage of so much pleasure and interest.
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