1626 Henry Briggs, an Oxford don, carried out a survey after which he proposed a navigation from the Somerset Avon to the River Thames. He intended to make the Avon navigable and then connect it to the Thames well upstream at Cricklade. To link the two he proposed an artificial cut but his Bill wasn’t taken very seriously and it failed in parliament. However, it sparked off numerous similar proposals over the next few decades. (For more information on Henry Briggs and other west coast to River Thames proposals see the file on the Thames & Severn Canal).
1699 Bath Corporation tried to revive a scheme which had been dropped in 1606 to make the Avon navigable from Bristol to Bath. There was a lot of protest and it took 13 years to gain the powers needed to start construction. However, protests continued so strongly that the scheme was eventually shelved.
1708 A proposal to make the River Kennet navigable also received strong opposition. The people of Reading and traders on the Thames feared major losses. However, the towns to the west of Reading were strongly in favour of the scheme and eventually an Act to make the Kennet navigable was passed in parliament in 1715.
1723 An 18½ mile stretch of the Kennet, engineered by John Hore of Newbury, opened between Reading and Newbury. The route consisted of stretches of the River Kennet and of artificial cuts running alongside the river. However, using the waterway was a brave adventure, especially through the centre of Reading where boaters were often threatened by those who feared loss of trade due to the new navigation.
1724 Bath was fast becoming a famous and trendy spa town. Building work was taking place all over the city and the need to get materials into Bath as cheaply as possible rekindled ideas of making the Avon navigable. John Hore was called in and work began on the river from its current terminus at Hanham Mills (near Bristol) to Bath.
1727 The first barges arrived at Bath and the Avon soon became one of the country’s most used waterways.
1788 A proposal was made to connect the Avon to the River Kennet. The route was planned to be called the Western Canal and 3 men (including Samuel Simcock) were asked to survey a line.
1789 The surveyors proposed a route from Newbury to Bath via Hungerford, Marlborough, Chippenham and Bradford.
1790 After arguments over the practicality of the route, John Rennie was called in and he re-surveyed the line. At the end of the year he reported that the route was fine.
1793 At first raising money was difficult but as soon as the nation-wide canal mania arrived the promoters had little problem. Rennie was asked to take a detailed survey of the route but when he reported back he said a more southerly route via Devizes would be preferred because the original route would have too many water supply problems.His new line closely followed the Avon all the way into Bath. As the committee were based in Marlborough and had hoped for a canal in that town, Rennie also proposed a branch line and the whole scheme was accepted.
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1794 The Act of parliament was passed to enable the building of a canal which would join the River Kennet Navigation at Newbury to the Somerset Avon at Bath. The route would be called the Kennet & Avon Canal. John Rennie was appointed Chief Engineer and the canal proved to be his greatest work. It was built on a grand scale to broad dimensions, there was boldness in its design as it twice crossed the Avon on large aqueducts, it entered Bath through the beautiful Sydney Gardens and strode up Caen Hill at Devizes on a dead straight line of 29 broad locks.
1795 An Act was passed for a neighbouring company to create a narrow canal from Semington on the Kennet & Avon Canal (which was still under construction). The new route was to serve agriculture in the Vale of the White Horse but it was also planned as a short cut to Oxford and the Thames which it was to join at Abingdon. This route was to be called the Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal.
During the same year another waterway was planned under the name of the Dorset & Somerset Canal. This was proposed at a time when a number of plans were being made to link the English Channel to the Bristol Channel. The canal was to be 49 miles long from the Kennet & Avon Canal, between Bradford and Bath, to Sturminster Newton, on the River Stour. The Stour would then take the route to the south coast at Christchurch. However, although an Act was passed the following year only a small part of the canal (near Frome) was ever built.
1796 The Kennet & Avon company were beginning to struggle in many ways; the inexperience of local contractors was causing problems, the uncharted geology presented construction problems and the Napoleonic Wars were causing major financial problems. Many of the shareholders decided to forfeit their initial shares and refuse to pay-up when asked for more cash. To gain extra revenue the company bought virtually all the shares of the Avon Navigation Company.
1797 The Kennet & Avon company fell into such bad financial trouble that their bankers forced them into instructing Rennie to cut back on his construction costs. This can’t have gone down well with a man currently in the middle of his greatest creation! Things got worse when it was found that the canal treasurer, Francis Page, was swindling money from the accounts. He admitted to taking £10,000 and to pay it back his brother Frederick, who conveniently owned the River Kennet Navigation, offered to sell his waterway to the canal company.Unfortunately for both Page and the canal company, he’d left them in such a financial state that there was no way they could afford to buy the river navigation.
1798 The first part of the Kennet & Avon Canal route was opened from Newbury into Hungerford on the eastern side of the route but the western side was still far from finished and progress was going so badly that in 1799 the company suspended all work.
1802 The Somersetshire Coal Canal made a junction onto the Kennet & Avon Canal at Dundas (between Bath and Bradford). It ran south and, not surprisingly, was built primarily to carry coal.
1803 It took over 2 years until a new Act of Parliament was granted and work could continue – though still very slowly. A local grocer, John Thomas, was appointed as resident engineer and bit by bit the route progressed until it was possible to open a stretch from Great Bedwyn to Newbury and another from Bath to Foxhanger, west of Devizes.However, there was still a gap in the middle of the canal and there was no connection into the Avon.
1804 Rennie had problems when building the Avoncliffe and Dundas aqueducts. He’d wanted to build them in brick but the company insisted that they should be constructed in local stone similar to that used in Bath. The stone came from quarries nearby but it was not of the best quality and the aqueducts (Dundas in particular) suffered from cracks and from pieces dropping off!
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1805 After already spending over ½ a million pounds on the route the company were forced to seek yet another Act of Parliament to allow them to raise another £150,000. This allowed Rennie to begin building the missing link between Great Bedwyn and Devizes. A reservoir and a pumping station were needed on this section due to the short summit level.
1808 At long last, the canal was nearing its completion though two major hurdles still needed to be overcome. At Bath a flight of locks was needed to carry the canal down to the Avon and at Devizes a massive lock flight was needed to climb up Caen Hill.
1809 While Rennie struggled with his aqueducts, water supply problems, the mighty lock flight at Devizes, lack of money and the demands of the upper classes on his approach into Bath – the Wiltshire& Berkshire Canal company opened their route. However, the Wilts & Berks company appear to have got a little over confident with their early successes gained before the Kennet & Avon was fully open; They began thinking they could become the dominant through route to London.They planned to cut out the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Thames & Severn Canal by creating a line direct from Wootton Bassett into Bristol.Although this plan never came to fruition, it sparked the Kennet and Avon company into promoting a new route of their own which would link their canal to the Basingstoke Canal at Old Basing. The scheme was opposed by Frederick Page who still owned the River Kennet Navigation and by the Commissioners of the River Thames. Both feared that the new route would rob them of trade and both were very much looking forward to the Kennet & Avon Canal providing them with through traffic between London & Bristol, they didn’t want traffic diverted and the scheme was defeated in Parliament.
1810 After a final Act for yet more cash the route was finished and the Kennet & Avon Canal finally opened. This allowed passage of barges from the Bristol Channel to London via the Avon to Bath, the Kennet & Avon Canal to Newbury, the Kennet Navigation to Reading and the Thames through to London. The first boat to climb the Caen Hill flight did so in December with a cargo of stone. There was no ceremony and no celebrations.
The canal was soon more successful than their northern rivals, the Thames & Severn Canal and the Wilts & Berks (which depended on the Kennet & Avon Canal for an outlet). Most of the Kennet & Avon’s success came by way of coal from the Somersetshire Coal Canal which joined the Kennet & Avon alongside the Dundas Aqueduct. Most of the coal travelled east to Semington and then north on the Wilts & Berks to Swindon.
The chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal, Charles Dundas, spurred the shareholders of the canal into buying out Frederick Page and take control of the River Kennet Navigation (they already had substantial control of the Avon from Bristol to Bath). The purchase of the Kennet Navigation gave the canal complete control of the whole through-route from Bristol to Reading, a distance of nearly 90 miles. The plan, however, was for even greater things. Some shareholders had already taken up shares in the Great Western Canal in Devon thinking that a line all the way from Exeter to London would be the next step – though this never happened.
1813 Unfortunately, while Rennie’s aqueducts were often described as magnificent, his water supply plans were always very suspect. He had supply problems of the same sort on virtually all his canals though whether it was his poor planning or his reluctance to fight the wishes of the promoters is not clear. His summit levels were often far too short though on the Kennet & Avon Canal this led to a unique pumping station which Rennie designed himself. Near Claverton, a water wheel was installed to pump water from the Avon up to the canal on the hillside high above the river.
1824 The first promise of things to come arrived when the first railway proposals were made. This would have been a very early railway though no tracks were ever laid. Once again the threat of competition stirred the canal company into thinking about the future and they backed a proposal which was put forward to create the Hants & Berks Junction Canal which would connect the Basingstoke Canal to the Kennet & Avon. This was much the same scheme that had originally been proposed by the Kennet & Avon company themselves in 1809. Back then they had been defeated by the River Thames Commissioners and Frederick Page who had then owned the River Kennet Navigation. This time opposition once again came from the River Thames Commissioners because the new route would bypass their waterway completely. Ironically the main promoter for the scheme was Frederick Page who now worked for the Kennet & Avon Canal and later became Chairman for a short period until his death in 1834. However, his proposal was successfully defeated by the Thames Commissioners once again when the Bill was brought to Parliament. The Hants & Berks Canal was never built.
1841 The Kennet & Avon Canal was always expensive to maintain but it was also successful for many years, especially compared with its rival for the London to west coast through traffic – the Thames & Severn Canal. However, as soon as the Great Western Railway entered the scene with its line from London to Bristol, the Kennet & Avon began to backslide.
1846 Struggling from railway competition, the canal company took a Bill to parliament proposing to turn the canal into the London, Newbury and Bath Direct Railway Company. The Bill failed but Great Western Railway started to show interest in the waterway, fearing that the canal company would make further attempts to convert the navigation. GWR made a bid to take over the canal but the Kennet & Avon company rejected their offer.
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1848 The canal began to cut wages so they could afford to cut tolls in an attempt to fight off railway competition, but rather than get better things only got worse. More railways arrived including the Reading to Pewsey line which ran right alongside the canal.
1851 The canal company continued to cut wages and costs in order to cut tolls but it was a losing battle. GWR made more offers and eventually the Kennet & Avon Canal sold out and the railway took over the whole route.
1852 An Act of Parliament was passed enabling GWR to legally run the navigation but only on the condition that it was kept open as a canal. They did this, but only just. They made no attempt what so ever to maintain (let alone improve) the route. In fact, the new owners were so disinterested in the waterway that the canal didn’t even have a head office. All administration work was carried out at Paddington in London.
1876 The canal made its last profit after years of declining trade. The following year it made a loss and never recovered. A number of complaints were filed by private canal carriers and the Board Of Trade surveyed the situation and agreed that GWR were not keeping the route up to a reasonable navigable standard. However, GWR took no notice what so ever and nothing was ever done to improve the deteriorating waterway.
1905 The Kennet & Avon Canal was in a sorry state, it was suffering from chronic water shortages and the route was generally in poor repair. All the same, GWR charged tolls some 50% higher than on any other waterway in the country.
1926 Following WW1 road traffic increased in the area and the remaining trade on the canal was lost. GWR announced that they would close the entire route. They would start by closing locks and converting them into weirs to maintain the water supply. They also suggested that local authorities should take on the stretches which ran through their boroughs. However, the whole scheme gained such widespread objections that GWR were forced to drop the idea.
1932 Traffic had virtually ceased with only the very rare sighting of a pleasure boat crawling through the weeds.
1948 Maybe a saviour was on the way? The railways were nationalised and ownership of the canals fell into the governments hands. Surely they would put the canal back on the right “tracks”?Sadly, over the next 5 years the route was left to rot until it fell into complete dereliction.
1954 Most of the water had drained away, lock gates had fallen off and the British Transport Commission proposed to officially close the canal. However, right on time, the canal preservation movement was just building up a head of steam. The Kennet & Avon was virtually the first canal to have its own local branch of the Inland Waterways Association and they refused to allow the canal to die. They had to over come many battles which not only included the BTC and local councils but their own national body as well. The national IWA were intent on saving every inch of canal in Britain while the Kennet & Avon branch believed that only waterways with a viable future should be saved – and this, of course, they believed included the Kennet & Avon.Their beliefs caused a split in the IWA but they stuck to their guns and fought hard for the restoration of their own waterway.
1955 The BTC surveyed the whole inland waterways network and categorised each canal. The Kennet & Avon was certified as useless – that is -a class 3 waterway, “insufficient commercial prospects to justify its retention”. The Act that followed this report relieved the BTC of responsibility for such canals and the Kennet & Avon was left to continue to decay.
1958 A new report by the Bowes Committee rescued the canal by saying that although it didn’t feel its status should be changed, the canal should be considered for redevelopment.
1962 After years of campaigning, the Kennet & Avon division of the IWA pushed the Inland Waterways Advisory Committee into agreeing that the canal should be restored. However, very little financial aid would come from the government, the local IWA reformed as the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust and began a restoration plan which would take 28 years to complete. The battles with the government, local councils and the British Waterways Board are a very long story but eventually the hard work and years of negotiations paid off. Bit by bit some stretches were reopened and the river stretches at each end were classified as “cruiseways”
1980’s The main bulk of restoration work was needed on the canalised stretches between Newbury and Bath. At Devizes (for instance) every one of the 29 locks had to be cleared out, repaired and re-gated.
1990 After decades of hard work the Kennet & Avon Canal was fully restored. It was re-opened by the Queen on August 8th and is now one of the most popular pleasure routes in Britain.
THE FATHER OF GEOLOGY
Not many Resident Engineers get a mention in canal history books though one of those who worked for John Rennie on the Kennet & Avon Canal certainly made his mark in history. He was William Smith who started his career on the Somersetshire Coal Canal and later was Resident Engineer on the Kennet & Avon Canal. While he worked he began to note the many different rock formations along the canal and when he gave up working on waterways he went on to develop Stratigraphy, the art of dating fossils and other geological features. He is known as the “Father of Geology”.
The K&A Canal is fully restored and is open to boats, walkers and cyclists – although it is advised that the latter two should stick to the towpath! The waterway can be walked without problem all the way from Reading to the final lock near Keynsham, a total of 86½ miles. There are a couple of places where walking along the water’s edge is not possible; (1) Bruce Tunnel which has no towpath but the walk across the top, through Savernake Forest, is very nice; and (2) a one mile stretch of the Avon west of Bath from Saltford Lock to Swineford Lock. Here the footpath leaves the river and uses a main road. It should be noted that the footpath on the River Avon section does not always allow access to the locks and pubs which I mention below. Likewise, riverside pubs are sometimes situated on the weir streams and there may not be access to the locks or riverside footpath. Beyond the last lock the Avon is tidal for about 8 miles into Bristol but there is both a riverside walk and a cycleway.
John Rennie’s original canal simply connected the River Kennet to the Avon though today the navigable sections of both rivers and Rennie’s Canal are all considered to be one route under the name of the Kennet & Avon Canal, stretching 93 miles from Reading to Bristol.
The Kennet & Avon Canal begins at Reading where it leaves the River Thames (grid ref SU737739). This is the section which was originally known as the River Kennet Navigation and had been used for many years before the canal was built. In the early days of the navigation boaters on the Kennet were often threatened by those who’s livelihood depended on the success of the River Thames. There is at least one story of a Kennet boatmen receiving death threats!
The River Kennet (as we travel west and upstream) passes through the centre of Reading. The first lock is to the east of the town. This is Blake’s Lock which is reached along the wide towpath on the south bank known as Kennetside. This has houses on it and two pubs, one to the east of the lock and one to the west. On the north bank, situated in an old pumping station, is Blake’s Lock Museum which has displays and information about the navigation.
In the centre of Reading there are a number bridges and access points. There is also a sharp bend in the navigation where boat movement is controlled by traffic lights as the waterway arrives at County Lock (SU714730) situated between Bridge Street and the “delightfully” named Inner Distribution Bridge!
The route soon enters the countryside and that is where it stays throughout its journey west. Locks are well spread out in this area and nearly all are on the south side of villages which lie between the navigation and the “great west road” – the A4. The Great Western Railway also runs fairly close to the waterway but never spoils its beauty. The locks on this stretch were all turf-sided though only one of these survives today, the others now have the more usual stone or brick chambers. Although this portion of the route is a river navigation, a lot of it is “artificial cut” from the days before canals officially existed.
Along this stretch access to the canal can be gained from any of the roads which cross it heading south off the A4. These include Burfield Road (SU681707), Basingstoke Road (A340) at Aldermaston Wharf (SU602671) where there is a canal information centre and Brimpton Road at Woolhampton (SU551662). These and a number of other bridges have locks close to them. The Kennet leaves and re-enters the canal a number of times between Reading and Newbury. Where it runs close to the canal it is often worth stopping at the road bridges because it really is a very pretty river.
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Newbury was the original terminus of the original Kennet Navigation. Today the route through the town is very nice, a park runs to the water’s edge and then the waterway passes along a narrow stretch between buildings and under the old town bridge at Bridge Street (SU471671). Just to the west, Newbury Lock is surrounded by water channels which once belonged to mills. The town church, with its clock tower, overlooks the lock. Some of the old mills still stand and have now been converted into apartments which also overlook the waterway.
Leaving Newbury the route passes through West Mills with its pretty canal side cottages and swing bridge. The Kennet & Avon Canal has now taken over from the Kennet Navigation though the small River Kennet still runs alongside the canal until Hungerford. On route the canal passes by Hamstead Marsh (SU423669) and Kintbury (SU385671) both of which are pleasant situations with a lock beside their road bridges. At Hungerford (SU338687) the A338 crosses over at a point where the canal waterfront becomes wide and is very picturesque. Old houses line the canal and there is a waterside green, popular for picnics, just west of the bridge alongside the well used moorings. Hungerford Lock is about 100 yards west of the bridge.
Shortly after Hungerford it is the railway and not the river which now runs closest to the canal. At Little Bedwyn (SU290659) the high speed trains look down onto the lock and at Great Bedwyn (SU279644) a trail takes walkers from the large village church, right across the railway tracks to reach the lock.
A little way further west Wilton Water Reservoir appears on the south side while Crofton Pumping Station (SU261622) is on the hillside directly opposite. The pump drew water out of the reservoir and pumped it into the summit level a few hundred yards further west. The pumping station is open to the public every day during summer and the pump (powered by the oldest working beam engine in the world) can still be seen in action several weekends throughout the year. Close to the pumping station are 6 locks which take the canal up from Wilton Water to the summit level.
On the summit level is Bruce Tunnel (SU244624), the only tunnel on the whole canal. It is named after Thomas Bruce who was Earl of Ailesbury. It is only 502 yards long but has no towpath. Instead, there are chains along the inside walls which were used to pull on to haul boats through the tunnel. Whereas this was very useful for the boat crews, it isn’t much use to walkers and cyclists who must walk across the top of the hill. Above the tunnel is the Savernake Forest which is open to the public with footpaths, drives and picnic sites.
The summit level ends at the beautiful village of Wootton Rivers (SU194628). In the village a lot of the houses have thatched roofs and are surrounded by pretty gardens. The attractive Royal Oak pub dates back to the 16th century and it too has a pretty garden. There are two locks and the old canal cottage next to the bottom lock also once had a thatched roof though this has now been replaced with ordinary tiles.
Near Pewsey the canal crosses the infant Salisbury Avon on a small stone aqueduct. On the north side of town is Pewsey Wharf (SU157610) situated on Marlborough Road (A345). After Pewsey the landscape opens up, gone are the wooded areas of Savernake Forest and now rolling hills can be seen for miles around. This is the area of white horses, long barrows and Stone Henge, though you certainly won’t see the latter from the canal as it is almost 20 miles away! What you will see is the village of Wilcot (SU141612) where Alton Road crosses the canal and the village of Honey Street (SU104614). Here there is a boatyard and also an imposing canalside building that was once a slaughterhouse, a bakery, a brewery and a grocers. Even today you can still buy a meal consisting of meat, bread and veg, as well as drink a cool glass of ale – its now the Barge Inn! And if you are a fan of the Inspector Morse TV series you may recognise it from the episode entitled “The Wench Is Dead”.
The next major place on the K&A is Devizes where the A361 (London Road) crosses the route. Better access to the canal can be had at the old wharf situated in Wharf Street (SU003617) which is now home to the canal restoration trust who maintain the waterway (along with BW). Their HQ, along with a canal shop, a visitor centre and other businesses are all housed in a former stable block. An old warehouse on the canalside is now a small theatre. Access to the wharf for visitors arriving by car is very easy because the wharf is also a car park!
Less than a mile further west is one of the country’s most impressive canal sites – and sights. Caen Hill is a steep drop and 29 locks were needed to take the route down the slope. Sixteen of the locks were built in a straight line, one immediately after the other. These broad locks with their symmetrical black beams and white footbridges look very impressive from any angle but the very best view is from Marsh Lane road bridge (ST976614) at the bottom. From here it is easy to see the flight striding up the hill and also the massive side ponds which are situated on the northern side of each lock. Each pond is a mini reservoir which was vital on a canal which suffered badly from lack of water. In fact, this is still true today and the locks were only open a couple of times a week until 1997 when back pumps were installed.
Past Devizes the route continues through pretty countryside and passes the village of Seend Cleeve (ST936616) where an ironworks once employed hundreds of people. Although the works stood right by the canal the only evidence today are a few humps on a grassed over area. Nevertheless, Seend Cleeve is another pretty village with 5 locks and a modern canalside pub.
At Semington (ST899610) the A350 crosses the canal. To the east of the road bridge is the former junction with the Wilts & Berks Canal. A lot of this route has been filled in though restoration was begun in the late 1990’s. It left the K&A in a northerly direction parallel to the A350. After passing through Swindon it headed for the Thames at Abingdon.
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Within a few more miles the Kennet & Avon Canal passes the new and very large marina at Hilperton Marsh and then crosses two small aqueducts standing side by side, one over a railway and the other over the small River Biss (ST855596). A few yards further, on the northern side, the Bristol Avon appears for the first time. Bradford Marina and then Bradford itself comes into view but the canal is high up above the quaint old wool town which lies to the north. There is an old wharf (ST824598), a boatyard and one of the country’s deepest locks at Bradford Wharf.
Beyond Bradford the canal continues west, perched high on the side of a sheer drop into the Avon Valley. However, the canal is only half way up the hillside. Small settlements, farms and a minor road run parallel, out of site, way up above. At Avoncliffe (ST807599) is the first of the two well acclaimed aqueducts on this stretch of the K&A. The tiny settlement of Avoncliffe is reached by a road which is one of the narrowest and steepest country lanes I have ever driven on – but its all well worth it. As well as the magnificent aqueduct there is a bookshop, a pub and a cafe. Cars used to cross the aqueduct on the towpath though the “road” is now closed.
After crossing the Avon the canal now runs along the river’s northern bank, though still high above it. Within a few miles the Dundas Aqueduct (ST786625) takes the route back to the opposite side again though both river and canal have curved northwards by now. Like Avoncliffe, Dundas Aqueduct is a very elegant structure and the two are quite similar in appearance. Rennie was a very stylish designer and aqueducts appear to have been his forte because the River Lune Aqueduct on the Lancaster Canal – probably the grandest aqueduct in England – was also built by him. The Dundas Aqueduct was built of similar material to that with which the city of Bath was built (known as Bath Stone). It has 3 arches and looks most impressive from down below in the Avon Valley (there are steps on the south east side). While you are down there you will notice that when the railway was built they ran their track through one of the arches of the aqueduct and later, when the railway owned the canal, they ruined parts of the aqueduct by patching up damaged bits with old bricks!
On the west side of the aqueduct is a basin with an old canalside crane. Heading south out of the basin was the Somersetshire Coal Canal which (you guessed it) carried coal from Somerset! The SCC has been derelict for many years though the first few yards of it are used for private moorings. There is a footpath from the aqueduct to a point just beyond the moorings. Here there is a short stretch of restored canal and a brand new visitor centre which (among other things) contains a cafe and some displays giving information about the SCC.
Back on the K&A, just over one mile further north the route passes under Claverton Bridge (ST791641) which carries the narrow Ferry Lane. This lane drops down a slope towards the Avon but it is thwarted by the railway line. Walkers are able to cross the track and immediately on the other side is Claverton Pumping Station which pumped water from the river up to the canal. The pump can still be seen in action on a few days each year.
Next on the route is the pretty village of Bathampton (ST777664). The canal swings west here and runs right past the George Inn (on Mill Lane). This is a very old pub which was the scene of the last ever duel to be fought in England. There is a green in front of the pub, alongside the canal. This is always very popular with drinkers on warm summer days. Also in Bathampton, but a little way north (on Mill Lane), the River Avon is crossed by an ancient toll bridge. This is a also a very popular spot where canoes can often be seen on the river making use of a noisy weir. An old mill, which is now a restaurant, stands on the southern bank. A second restaurant is on the opposite bank, this is a more modern building with a mock water wheel built on its outer wall. When this turns it also turns the floor inside the restaurant! As the floor turns it gives the diners periodic views of the Avon and the old bridge.
Back on the canal the route now approaches Bath. As it does so it swings south west and enters Sydney Gardens through a short tunnel under a road. Sydney Gardens is a beautiful Georgian park, when the canal came through it the promoters were forced to make the waterway match the gardens. They did well, using pretty cast iron foot bridges and attractive portals on the larger stone bridges. At the exit of the park is the former canal company house which actually straddles the waterway. The gardens of large Georgian houses run down to the canal as the route curves west and down through the 6 locks of the Widcombe Flight. All the way down are views of Bath and, in particular, the Cathedral in the city centre. The penultimate lock was the deepest in Britain until very recently. It was built to the depth of two locks when the next one down was removed during road widening.
The final lock on the canal is called Thimble Mill. The old mill itself is a restaurant next to a large hotel complex which has a basin but does not appear to allow boats into it. Directly below the lock, the canal enters the Avon. To the right (north) is a short stretch of navigable river which leads into the heart of Bath and right up to the famous weirs. When I was here in the summer of 1995 it was 10pm but still warm and light. A dozen canoeists were making use of the weir, people were paddling and swimming, dozens of people were standing around looking onto the river, trip boats and narrow boats were coming right up to the weir and boats of all shapes and sizes were moored along the banks.
Continuing west from the end of the canal, the K&A now uses the River Avon which winds around for 11 miles to Hanham Mills Lock after which the river is tidal. Between Bath and Hanham Mills Lock there are 5 other locks, most of which are situated in pretty surroundings and usually have a pub nearby. Having said that, the first lock is not in the prettiest of surroundings…
Some 1½ miles west of the centre of Bath the navigation leaves the river and enters Weston Cut (ST724629). This is about ½ a mile long with Weston Lock at its far end. The cut runs alongside Locksbrook Road and a number of less than pretty buildings on the north bank. Between the cut and the river to the south (which has a large weir on it) is an island containing more industrial premises. I would not suggest that you miss out this area, just don’t plan your picnic here!
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Three miles further west is a much better situation. In Saltford on a road called The Shallows is Kelston Lock (ST687688), surrounded by trees and grass with moorings and a large pub (on the south bank). The river is very wide here as it splits into two. The lock and riverside path are directly opposite the pub (on the north bank) and are not accessible from the village and pub. It is the weir stream which is closest though boats can moor on this side close to the pub. Within another mile is Saltford Lock (ST691678), reached either along the footpath on the northern bank or along Mead Lane from Salford village. There is a pub here too but this time the lock runs right alongside the terrace at the front. In fact, the island between the lock and the weir is used as a beer garden. The noisy weir is very close, boats are moored just below it and the remains of an old viaduct is just downstream. It is at Saltford Lock (ST692688) that the footpath leaves the river for nearly a mile, rejoining at Swineford Lock.
About two miles downstream of Swineford is Keynsham. Here boats pass through a narrow cut, under an old road bridge with the Lock Keeper Inn alongside and then arrive at Keynsham Lock (ST659690). At this point, as with most of the route since leaving Bath, the waterway is surrounded by open fields and small clusters of trees. However, just around the next bend the southern bank is dominated by a huge factory. Past here the rural atmosphere soon returns.
The last lock on the River Avon is Hanham Lock on the very narrow Ferry Road (ST647700) which drops steeply from Hanham village (on the north bank) and comes to an end at the river’s edge. Here there are two popular pubs and a row of cottages overlooking the weir stream while the canal cut and lock are on the south side with an island between the two waterways. As far as I could see, the lock is not accessible from the pubs on foot. It is here that British Waterways jurisdiction comes to end and below the lock the Avon is tidal. However, it is still possible to walk or cycle the final 8 miles to Bristol city centre. The Avon Walkway follows the river and the former railway line which ran very close to the river is now an official cycleway.
The quaysides at Bristol are on a canalised section of water known as the Floating Docks. This section of the navigation leaves the River Avon on the east side of town and runs right alongside the city centre. A few years ago the council proposed to fill in the docks, which were then mostly disused and becoming derelict. This plan was successfully opposed and the docks are now fully restored and very busy. The old quays are now converted into museums, shopping areas, cafes and many other amenities while the waterway itself is very busy with boats, especially the numerous (and very reasonably priced) “water taxis”.
To the west of the city the docks re-enter the River Avon which itself immediately enters the Avon Gorge where large cliffs climb high up above the water. Across the top is the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. The A4 runs alongside the river and under the suspension bridge but parking is not allowed. Up above there is a small visitor centre and excellent views of the bridge, of Bristol and of the gorge below.
West of Bristol the river meanders westward with the A4 close by on the north bank. Although this is not such a picturesque stretch of water – especially at low tide when the mud banks are visible – it is worth a visit just to admire the magnificent gorge. At the end of the route the river runs past the commercially busy Avonmouth Docks and then then runs into the Severn Estuary.
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The K&A has hundreds of access points. Below I have listed just some of the interesting possibilities…
Blake’s Lock, Kennetside, Reading (SU726735). Reached either by walking east along the towpath (Kennetside) from the centre of Reading or via the housing estate between the canal and Kings Road (A329).
Newbury (SU471671). There are numerous access points to the riverfront in Newbury. There are, of course, plenty of car parks in the town as well, including one by the river on Wharf Road. Newbury Lock is just west of Bridge Street and the pretty West Mills area is just west of the lock.
Hungerford (SU338687). The A338, Hungerford High Street, crosses the canal beside a green which is a popular picnic spot facing old canalside buildings. Hungerford Lock is about 100 yards west of the bridge.
Little Bedwyn (SU290659). Reached on the minor road heading south west from the A4 at Froxfield. The view from the canal bridge is one which appears in many canal books and magazines. From the bridge you can look down onto the lock, its canalside buildings, the railway line and the village in the background. The best photographs from here are those which catch a speeding inter-city train flying by as a narrowboat slowly enters the lock.
Crofton Pumping Station (SU261622). Situated on the minor road heading south west out of Crofton Village. The station is home to the oldest working beam engine in the world – open daily April to October. The canal runs just south of the pumping station, access is via a path which passes under the railway. On the south bank is Wilton Water, a canal reservoir resembling a small lake. This has a public footpath along its banks.
Wootton Rivers (SU194628). Reached via the minor roads to the north of the B3087 (Burbage Road) west of Burbage. A beautiful canalside village. There are two locks on the canal here.
Devizes Wharf, Wharf Street (SU003617). The old wharf in Devizes is now a car park but an old stable block (housing a visitor centre) and a warehouse (now a theatre) can be seen. This is also a good place to park your car in order to walk along the canal to Caen Hill (see below).
Caen Hill Lock Flight, Marsh Lane road bridge (ST976614). From this bridge you can see up the main part of the mighty lock flight and gain access to the towpath though it is probably more enjoyable to park at Devizes Wharf (see above) and walk along the canal (westward) about 1000 yards to the top of the flight or 2000 yards to the bottom.
Seend Cleeve (ST936616). Reached via minor roads north off the A361 at Seend. There are 5 locks, a modern pub and the site of a former ironworks.
Semington (ST899610). The Wilts & Berks Canal began just to the east of the modern (and busy) road bridge on the A350 just north of Semington. A little further east are 2 locks while the (relatively) small Semington Aqueduct is to the west.
Bradford Wharf, Frome Road (A3109) (ST824598). There is a small boatyard and one of the country’s deepest locks at Bradford Wharf. Down the bank to the north is the old wool town of Bradford On Avon. The setting around the river is very nice indeed, including the ancient bridge with its old lock-up. One of very few bridges left in Britain which have a building on them. On the north of the river is the quaint, narrow shopping street called The Shambles.
Avoncliffe Aqueduct (ST807599). Reached via a minor road heading south west out of Bradford to Westwood. This is one of the narrowest roads on earth! Prepare to do lots of reversing back to the nearest passing lay-by. At Westwood turn north down a steep lane to Avoncliffe. As well as the magnificent aqueduct there is a bookshop, a pub and a cafe.
Somersetshire Coal Canal Visitor Centre, Lower Stoke Road (B3108) & Dundas Aqueduct (ST786625). There is a car park within the grounds of Dundas Marina. Note, the gate is only open to the public during “office” hours. To reach the visitor centre and a restored section of the SCC climb the steps from the car park. To reach the aqueduct walk along the rough path north for about 400 yards. Outside of normal opening times it is still possible to reach the aqueduct by road. There is a lay-by on the east side of the A36 (Warminster Road) about 400 yards north of the B3108 junction. From here, steps lead down to the canal beside the aqueduct.
Claverton Pumping Station. Reached via Ferry Lane over Claverton road bridge (ST791641) off the A36 at Claverton. This small, dead-end lane is easily missed. It heads east, crosses the canal, then turns sharply north east and down to the railway line. Although there is only just enough room for two cars to pass, it is on this lane that you must park. However, the canal, pumping station and river are very popular so expect delays on summer weekends. To reach the pumping station you must cross the railway line at the bottom of the lane. The pumping station is open only on Sundays and only between Easter and October. On the 4th Sunday in each month the steam engine can be seen in working order.
Bathampton, George Inn (ST777664). Reached via Down Lane, north off the A36 within Bathampton. Turn right at the end of Down Lane into High Street. The canal bridge connects High Street with Mill Lane, next to the village church and the George Inn. There is a lovely waterfront here, very popular in summer.
Bath. Bath has a lot more to offer than just the canal but the canal is certainly well worth seeing. Sydney Gardens and the Widcombe Flight are to the east of the city centre. Possibly the best way to gain access is to head for the famous weir in the city centre. From here you can walk south along the “promenade” which flanks the river. This will bring you to the canal junction where the towpath will take you up the flight to Sydney Gardens. From the gardens it is a short walk back to the city centre.
Weston Cut, Locksbrook Road (ST724629). Reached on Locksbridge Road which heads south west off the A4 just west of Windsor Road Bridge (on the west side of Bath). Although not the prettiest of canal locations, there is a lock with a pub nearby.
Saltford. Two locks to the north of the A4 within the village of Saltford. Kelston Lock (ST687688) is on the road called The Shallows and Saltford Lock (ST691678) is at the end of Mead Lane. Although the two locations look very different their content is very similar. Both have boat moorings, a riverside pub, a weir and somewhere very pleasant to sit!
Keynsham Lock (ST659690). Next to the Lock Keeper Inn on Keynsham Road (A4175). An old lane and bridge run parallel to the current main road bridge. There is a rough car park on this old road next to a chandlers. There is another car park further along the old road but this belongs to the pub so it’ll cost you a pint to use it! The canal lock is to the west, beyond the “new” road bridge.
Hanham Lock, Ferry Road, Hanham (ST647700). Although I’ve listed this location, I believe there is no access to the lock (which is the last on the Avon). However, there is a pleasant stretch of river on the weir stream – made all the more pleasant because there are two pubs next door to each other with terraces overlooking the river!
Visit the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust website http://www.katrust.org/
Also see www.bath4u.com