Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Cruise the Bardic Ring is the copyright of Jim Shead - Cruising the Avon Ring. First published in the Midland Scene supplement to Canal & Riverboat May 2003.
Cruise the Bardic Ring
Although there are over a dozen cruising rings available on our inland waterways the Avon Ring has some powerful claims to occupy the pride of place. It is amazing to think that fifty years ago almost half of the ring was un-navigable and it is only through decades of work by volunteers that we are able to cruise the Avon Ring today. The Lower Avon, from Tewkesbury to Evesham, was reopened in 1962 and the southern part of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, from Kingswood Junction to Stratford, was reopened in 1964. It was not possible to cruise the whole ring until 1974, when the Upper Avon was opened from Evesham to Stratford. It is not restoration projects, however worthy, that make a cruising ring popular but the quality and variety of the waterside landscape, and the scope for shore side excursions that appeal to a wide range of holiday makers. The Avon Ring will not disappoint you.
We will start our journey at Stratford-upon-Avon, probably the UK's biggest tourist destination outside of London, and a town I never tire of, despite the hoards of tourists that never entirely desert the place. We slip our mooring opposite the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre and head down the Avon. We need to keep a sharp lookout here, for we have not seen so many boats, of all types and sizes, moving in so many directions, since we last passed through Henley on a summer weekend. There is also a chain ferry that crosses the river here. A little way beyond on the right bank, before we come to Colin P Witter Lock, is Holy Trinity Church where the Bard of Avon is buried. Once through the lock river traffic is lighter and the bucolic scenery belies the proximity of the busy town. Weir Brake Lock quickly follows this being the shortest reach on the river.
The Upper and Lower Avon are managed by two separate Navigation Trusts but you can buy a combined visitor licence, which covers the whole river, either at Stratford or at Tewkesbury depending on which way you are cruising the ring. To do the whole ring you will of course need a British Waterways licence that covers all the other navigations. If you are doing the ring on a hire boat make sure you understand which licences are included in the standard hire charge.
Many of the locks on the Upper Avon have overnight moorings and some also have water, rubbish and sewage disposal facilities. Bidford on Avon is an attractive old village just nine miles down river from Stratford. Its fifteenth century bridge has a rather small navigation arch on the extreme left and on the other side there are moorings on both sides of the river. Another nine miles of river cruising brings us to Evesham where the Upper Avon ends and the Lower Avon Navigation Trust takes over responsibility for navigation.
On the right, before Evesham Lock, there are visitor moorings, which are handy for the town. Because the lock is the last on the Upper Avon it is manned by a lock keeper, who will issue you with a Lower or Upper Avon licence if you don't already have one. The modern lock keeper's house is a triangular shaped structure that straddles the channel that was formerly an old sluice. Once through the lock we come to Workman Bridge with more moorings for the town centre, which offers a good range of shops and services.
The Lower Avon offers marvellous vistas as it winds its way down the valley sometimes through open pastures, or perhaps below a steep wooded hillside, past picturesque mills and villages. The only town before Tewkesbury is the Georgian market town of Pershore, providing convenient moorings by the recreation ground. The river widens as we pass Bredon and approach the final few miles to Tewkesbury, a town with enough history to fill several books. The last lock on the Avon is also manned and takes us on to a short channel that leads past the flourmills to the River Severn.
Turning right, up the Severn, we can see that we are on a very different river with its high banks and wide channel. Up ahead Thomas Telford's cast iron bridge crosses the river with a single span of 170 feet. It is sixteen miles from Tewkesbury to Worcester with the single Severn lock (Diglis) on the outskirts of the city. The trip takes about four hours and the only place to stop is Upton upon Severn, an interesting little town but its riverside moorings always seem full when I pass, however, it does have a large marina if you really want to stop. Just three miles away from Worcester we pass a boatyard and a lot of moored craft at Kempsey, then before we turn off of the river is Diglis Lock, which like other Severn Locks is manned and controlled by traffic lights. There are two locks side by side here so watch for the green light to show which one you should use. Less than half a mile from the lock you will see, on the right, the signs for the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. The floating pontoon on the river here serves as a lock landing stage for the canal entrance lock.
Although the Worcester & Birmingham is a narrow canal the first two locks are barge locks that go up to the Diglis basins, which are accessible for wide beam river craft. Leaving the canal basin, at the point opposite the barge locks, you will find some moorings before the first narrow lock (Sidbury). By this lock is the Commandery, which served as Charles II's headquarters before the Battle of Worcester and is now a museum. Not far away are the Royal Worcester Porcelain Museum and the cathedral, both well worth a visit. A little way on we pass the Viking Afloat hire base in Lowesmoor Basin then more narrow locks take us up out of the city.
At one time this stretch of canal between Worcester and Tardebigge Top Lock was claimed to be the most heavily locked in the country (58 locks in 16 miles) but with the opening of the restored Huddersfield Narrow Canal (which has 74 locks in 20 miles) this record has been shattered. After 16 locks, at the top of the Offerton Flight, we get a welcome 6 mile lock free pound that passes the village of Tibberton, Dunhampstead Tunnel and the junction with the Droitwich Junction Canal (currently being restored). The locks continue in flights with six Astwood locks, a mile after which come the six Stoke Prior locks almost immediately followed by the thirty Tardebigge Locks. If you don't fancy tackling 36 locks one after another there are some moorings in the short pound between the flights and the popular Queen's Head pub is opposite. All these locks raise us high above the Severn Valley and open up views across some glorious Worcestershire countryside and to the Malvern Hills beyond, so spare the time to look back as you ascend.
Between the top lock and Tardebigge Tunnel is a BW Yard which during the Second World War was the mooring of the narrowboat Cressy, the floating home of the author L T C Rolt who wrote the book Narrow Boat, which started the post war interest in our neglected waterways. Near the top lock there is a plaque that commemorates the meeting between Rolt and Robert Aickman here aboard Cressy in 1945 and their subsequent founding of the Inland Waterways Association. Years of work by the IWA changed the attitude to canals from "stinking ditches that should be filled in" to "national assets that should be preserved and restored".
There is no lack of variety on the Avon Ring. In the next nineteen miles there is not a single lock to work but there are four tunnels, starting with the 580 yard Tardebigge Tunnel followed, in less than a mile by the 613 yard Shortwood Tunnel. Four miles of rural cruising carries us by Alvechurch, the home of the Alvechurch Boat Centre hire fleet, under the M42 and beside the Lower Bittell Reservoir before we plunge into the darkness of the 2,726 yard West Hill Tunnel (also called Wast Hills or King's Norton Tunnel). Emerging into the light we find ourselves deep in the suburbs of Birmingham, which, unseen by canal boaters, have extended half way across the top of the 1½ mile long tunnel. A mile more of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal brings us to King's Norton Junction.
Turning right at the wide junction we come onto the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal and pass through an unusual stop lock with wooded guillotine gates at both ends, which are now left permanently open. A swing bridge follows before we come to the short Brandon Tunnel. There are a couple more miles of suburban housing before we get some more open views approaching Bridge 8 - an electrically operated drawbridge. Six miles of open fields, wooded cuttings, a couple of good pubs and two more (manually operated) drawbridges lead to Lapworth Top Lock. This northern section of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal is not only part of the Avon Ring it is also a popular route from the Grand Union Canal into the centre of Birmingham, a lock free cruise from Lapworth Top Lock. Although there are officially 26 Lapworth Locks one of them (number 20) is on the arm that connects to the Grand Union and they don't have to be tackled all together as there are several mooring places within the flight. Between locks 14 and 15 there are some moorings which are handy for the nearby Boot Inn. Below Lock 19 the canal divides. To the left is the arm to the Grand Union, our route is to the right.
From this point we are on the southern section of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, the part that was disused for many years before its restoration and reopening in 1964. All canals have their own characteristic look that distinguishes them from the others, often these unique features are a subtle combination of factors but here on the southern Stratford-upon-Avon Canal they are obvious and somewhat quirky. Here at Kingswood Junction we see the first - a barrel roof cottage. We will see more of these as we make our way south, back to Stratford. Locks continue at regular intervals down to Lowsonford where the ancient Fleur-de-Lys inn offers hospitality, as it has done for over 400 years. Just before Bucket Lock we come to the first of the three iron aqueducts that are a feature of the canal. This is a very short aqueduct but, like the longer ones that follow, it has a towpath that is level with the bottom of the channel rather than being above the water level as are most towpaths.
The next flight of three locks, at Preston Bagot, marks the start of a six mile length with only one lock. It is probably only by cruising these canals that you can see how much wonderful countryside there is in Warwickshire. The next village, Wooton Wawen, is a gem of a place. Most of the village is a little way down the road but there is an excellent farm shop close to the canal and the Navigation Inn is on the road just the other side of the aqueduct. In the basin here is an Anglo Welsh hire base. More rural scenery precedes Edstone, or Bearley, Aqueduct that carries the canal across a road and railway track.
Wilmcote is not only another pretty Warwickshire village but was also the home of Shakespeare's mother. Mary Arden's House, open to the public, is a regular stop on the Stratford tours and very close to the canal. Soon after the village we start to descend the eleven Wilmcote Locks with Stratford clearly visible below. Soon we will be in the suburbs, then the town, as we pass through the final four Stratford Locks that bring us to Bancroft Basin opposite the RSC Theatre.
What a trip it has been: 109 miles and 131 locks. My logbook tells me that it takes around 53 hours of cruising, so if you are prepared to do 8 or 9 hours cruising a day you can do it in a week. If you take twice as long you still won't have enough time to see everything of interest along the way. Countryside, historic towns, rivers, canals, village pubs, urban shops and restaurants, water mills, locks, aqueducts and tunnels - the Avon Ring has it all.
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