This amazing canal allows navigation all the way from the Thames to the cities of Bath and Bristol. Intrepid boaters include famous faces like Timothy West and Prunella Scales, David Suchet,Timothy Spall and even HM the Queen.
It is a never-ending source of wonderful views, enchanting sights and sounds along most of its length and with some severe physical challenges such as the Caen Flight of Locks. This canal was abandoned in the 1960's but rescued by volunteers who included Timothy West and Prunella Scales. They made the first voyage along the newly re-opened section and have now revisited it and made a moving, inspiring series of the TV series "Great Canal Journeys" on More 4 - starting with the Kennet and Avon Canal.
day trip to Bath)
The story of the construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal is truly remarkable. It was originally built in the 18th century to designs by the Engineer John Rennie, and is a broad beamed canal, with locks wide enought to take a large beamed boat or two narrowboats side by side. However, it was not finally completed all the way from Reading to Bath and Bristol until 1810. It was heavily used until the opening of the Great Western Railway from Paddington London to Bath and Bristol. From then on the canal suffered from severe competition from the railway, and trade declined sharply. By the end of the First World War large sections of the canal were virtually unused and traffic ceased altogether in the 1930ies. The Kennet and Avon Canal fell into disrepair.
|Above: The junction of the
River Thames and the Kennet and
canal - photo by D. Burgess.
|| Above: The Kennet
and Avon Canal - lock near Reading - photo courtesy D. Burgess |
In 1962 a group of waterways enthusiasts formed
The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust with the stated
objective of restoring the canal to its former glories. The history of how they managed to achieve this is probably one of the most famous
stories of restoration in the entire network of canals. The Trust was faced with rotting lock gates, derelict locks, leaking canal beds and
bridges and towpaths which had been neglected over 100 years.The task of bringing all this work together and making the canal
navigable by boats again seemed almost impossible. However, with determination and co-operation between British Waterways Board, the local authorities and the
Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, work on the
restoration projects was undertaken gradually, and bit by bit the canal became a viable project once again.
In 1990 The Queen visited the the newly restored canal, when - after a grant of £25 million
from the Lottery Fund - the canal was finally completed right through to Hanham Lock Bristol, where it joins the
Bristol River Avon.
The route of the
Kennet and Avon canal goes through some of the loveliest scenery in Southern England. This first part of the canal from Reading to Newbury is in fact a river navigation, where the engineers
canalised the River Kennet in the period between 1718 and 1723 and built 20 locks.
Above: The Kennet at
by Pam Brophy and reproduced by kind permission
, the Kennet leaves the
just below Caversham Lock, and it soon reaches
Blakes Lock. This lock is very unusual in that it is the only one NOT actually located on the River
Thames that is controlled by the Thames Conservancy/Environment Agency staff. On leaving here one gets a superb and uninterrupted
view of the gasometers next to the canal, and the very busy road and railway..... However, there are some plus points later....
Beyond Blakes Lock on this stretch of the
canal are convenient moorings above Blakes
Museum, or at Chestnut Walk near the prison, if you want to reach the shops in the centre of Reading
. As stated before it should be pointed out that this section of
the Kennet and Avon Navigation is actually managed by The Environment Agency, and your
boat licence will enable you to navigate a boat only as far as Blakes Lock. After here
you will need to have a windlass which operates the paddles of the rest of the locks on the Kennet and
, AND to have paid for a special licence which authorizes
you to navigate the rest of the canal. The stretch of the canal up to
and just beyond is subject to fast flowing currents. Beyond here up to
Burghfield you can see day trippers enjoying the
surroundings on the Kennet Cruisers boats, which start from
The Kennet and Avon between
The towpath starts in
at the Horseshoe
Footbridge, which carries the Thames Path over the mouth of the River Kennet , but quickly comes to a difficult
section between the
. This section of the canalside is - at the present point in time - not very attractive (it has to be said). It is
only when you have walked along the inner distribution road bridge, and gone down a ramp under a flyover from
, that the towpath appears as a "normal" canalside path, right up
until Burghfield Lock is reached.
In summary, the city of
is beginning to address this
section of the Canal, with a view to making it more user friendly to visitors and maximising the asset that the canal will obviously be to the
However, after this rather negative caveat, it should be clearly stated that the rest of the Kennet and
is a "must" for exploring, for its beautiful scenery and for its abundance of wildlife, fascinating canal architecture, and
industrial antiquities such as the Crofton pumping
station, the Claverton Water Mill
and the Devizes flight of locks at Caen
Hill. As I mentioned above, these unique constructions were designed by the intrepid 18th century civil
engineers as their solutions to the seemingly impossible problems that faced the construction of the Kennet and
Avon canal along its route. More about them later ....
Above: The Kennet and Avon canal and towpath near
photo courtesy od D.
Above: Monkey Marsh turf side lock - photo by Peter Land
and reproduced by kind permission
OThe canal now travels through some tranquil water meadows from Woolhampton past
Monkey Marsh Lock (see above) towards the little town of
This section of the canal was restored
using a combination of local authority, Manpower Services and consortium manpower and even some workers from a local prison!
From Thatcham the canal continues westwards until it reaches the large town of Newbury. The canal sits
right through this town and Newbury makes the most of this fact! Boaters are positively welcomed - there are extensive moorings here,
plus all the shops for the usual supplies, and another old warehouse building which has been converted by the Kennet and Avon Canal
Trust as a Visitor Centre.
Above: The wharf at Woolhampton - photo by Peter Land and
reproduced by kind permission
Above: The Dundas Arms on the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal at Kintbury - photo by Pam Brophy and
reproduced by kind permission
The Canal from Newbury to Bath
Newbury the canal is now a "canal proper" - the River Kennet is left behind. The canal climbs up locks
towards the village of Kintbury, and passes through some truly delightful scenery of woods and hills with
vistas in all directions. Kintbury is actually located on a small hill to the south of the canal and - again - has lots of supplies for boatersplus pubs like the Dundas Arms for those thirsty helmsmen, and a waterside mill . Possibly the only
drawback to this section of the canal is the (very) close proximity of the railway, with the constant noisy passing of the high speed trains
to Bristol - the station at Kintbury is almost on the canal itself... You may like to bear this fact in mind if you are planning an overnight
stop hereabouts, and not get caught out with a noisy night's "sleep", as I did!
Leaving Kintbury, we travel west towards
the nice old town of Hungerford which is easily reached from the canal by way of the bridge just after the
railway bridge. Beyond Hungerford you travel over the Dunn Aqueduct and past Froxfield
Bridge and locks, and Great and Little Bedwyn, two settlements which are both divided by the
Above: The canal at Great Bedwyn - photo by Peter Land
and reproduced by kind permission
is particularly attractive, and the pubs are at the top of the main street - so you leave them to return to your boat on the
canal and you just gently amble your way downhill. This is a very pleasant experience on a warm summer's evening after you have
enjoyed a pint or three. The only downside to all this beauty is the continuing presence of the railway lines, with their noisy high speed
trains. The usual boating necessities like bread and milk are available here, and visitors should stock up because there is a long-ish
stretch of the canal ahead of this spot where no such supplies are available. Again, I write from bitter
After the villages of Bedwyn the next notable
construction on the canal is the Crofton Beam Engines pumping station. The building of the Crofton Pumping station was necessary because the summit level of the canal at this point is 450 ft
above sea level. The pumping station, with its two steam-driven Cornish Beam engines, pumps water from
natural springs in the area and Wilton Water.
Above: The Crofton Beam Engine House - photo by Chris Allen and reproduced by kind permission
Above: The Boulton and Watt Engine - the oldest still working in the world - photo by Chris Allen and reproduced by
The Boulton and Watt engine installed there dates from 1812 and still operates
today........ The engines are open to the public most of the year - phone the Kennet and Avon
Canal Trust on 01380 721279 for details. The need
for a continuous supply of water here was the most pressing problem for the original engineers who contrived to evolve all sorts of
solutions to the problem. One of the Cornish Beam Engines - the Boulton and Watt - is the oldest working
beam engine in the world which is still in its original engine house, and capable of actually doing the job for which is was intended. The
other steam engine is a "Harvey". These beam engines still work - a huge tribute to the intrepid engineers
who designed them. Nowadays for most of the time water is pumped up from the reservoir at Wilton Water by
The Crofton Pumping Station is just below the summit pound in a
deep cutting, and shortly after leaving here you pass through Crofton Top Lock and will see the portals of
the short Bruce Tunnel in front of you.
Above: The south entrance to the Bruce
Just after the tunnel you reach Burbage Wharf Bridge, where you will see some of
the original canal brick buildings which are being restored and converted to domestic use. The canal - having reached the summit - now
commences the long descent towards Bath and Bristol, and the first lock in the descent is Wootton Top Lock.
Just beyond this lock is the charming old village of Wootton Rivers, with its many thatched
cottages and church with a clock with letters instead of numbers. You can easily reach the village from the canal.
now in for a treat as far as boating is concerned - a 15 mile long pound with no locks for you to work, which stretches all the way from
Wootton Rivers to Devizes. Boaters can concentrate on the wonderful scenery that surrounds you in all
directions as you glide gently along, perhaps sipping your mugs of tea..... The settlement at Pewsey Wharf
grew up here because the main village is located over a mile away from the canal. It has pubs - the Waterfront and the French Horn - cottages and warehouse buildings, but you will need to visit
the village itself for supplies. Next you reach Wilcot, a pretty village with a lovely old pub called the Golden
Swan and shops with supplies. From here the canal skirts around Woolborough Hill, with great views to the
south, before you reach the quaint old canalside pub called The Barge Inn at Honey Street, a lovely little
canal village, with sawmills, and a really well landscaped new development right next to the canal.
Above: The canal at Wootton Rivers - photo by Brian Marshall and reproduced by kind
Above: The Bridge Inn at Horton bridge - photo by Trevor Pearce-Jones and reproduced by kind
The next pub you can reach is the Bridge Inn at Horton
Bridge several miles west of Honey Street - between the two the canal twists and turns and
winds its way through lovely countryside to follow the contour line, rather like the reaches of the South Oxford canal above Fenny
Compton. There are no canalside villages here, just hills to the north of the canal which are part of the Wiltshire Wolds, and rolling fields
and woods which fall away gently from the canal bank to the south.
Above: The canal at Horton Bridge - photo by Trevor Pearce-Jones and reproduced by kind
After you leave Horton Bridge it is not long before you begin to see the
outskirts of the large town of Devizes. Despite the roar of traffic on the way to Bath and Bristol Devizes still
manages to retain an atmosphere of an old market town, which it was for many hundreds of years, long before the canal was built.
Devizes has many pubs, all the usual shops for supplies, and the headquarters of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust at the Wharf.
All of this alone would be enought to single out Devizes as a place of note on your canal journey
- BUT it also has what is - for me at any rate - the most astonishing feat of 18th century civil engineering in the whole of the UK on its
doorstep. This is the famous Caen Hill Flight of locks. There are 29 locks in all between the Kennet Lock at
Devizes Town Bridge and the bottom lock at Lower Foxhangers. Included in these is the Flight "proper" -
with 16 huge locks and enormous side pounds constructed one after the other like a staircase, in order that narrowboats could descend
the steep escarpment. The side pounds made it possible to hold sufficient amounts of water to fill the locks in the staircase. One can only
marvel at this feat of civil engineering, constructed in the days where the only earth movers were gangs of hard working men with
shovels, the original navigators or "navvies", toiling ceaselessly for over 5 years to create this staircase of water.
Along with the whole canal the flight of locks here was badly neglected after the Second World War, and
remained derelict, until the enthusiasm of the volunteers of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust attacked the
problem of restoration - and we should be profoundly grateful that they did so.
Above: The Caen Hill flight of locks from the top - photo by Bruce Hall and reproduced by kind
Above: View of the Caen Hill Flight of locks from the bottom - photo by Neil Geering and reproduecd by kind
Queen re-opened the flight in 1990, and it has been busy ever since, with narrowboats and their crews negotiating the 29
locks. It takes on average 6 hours to complete the ascent - or descent! At the bottom you can moor and visit the town of
Devizes for supplies - and a well earned beer! Leaving Caen Hill and Devizes behind you will still have to be prepared for the locks between the village of
Seend Cleeve, Semington , Hilperton Marsh and Trowbridge as the canal continues its descent to the valley
of the River Avon.
Next along the route of the canal is the lovely old town of Bradford on Avon, built in golden Cotswold stone.
Bradford on Avon is a gem of a little town, one of the highlights of the whole route of the canal, and full of architectural treasures, like the Great Tithe Barn, the Saxon Church of St Lawrence, and a MediaevalTown Bridge with a chapel - one of only four in the whole of England.
Above: The Tithe Barn at Bradford on
Above: The Saxon
You can moor here and spend days exploring all the delightful streets and quaint old pubs - and as well you can purchase all essential supplies here for your continuing journey west.
The canal now takes a turn towards the north and you find yourself navigating the canal over the valley of the River Avon far below by traversing it on the Dundas Aqueduct. This is another gem of architecture, combining function with style, and constructed of golden Cotswold stone in 1804. Yet again the credits go to John Rennie for such a magnificent structure and for his architectural and engineering skills. A short section of the former Somerset Coal Canal diverts off to the west here and the Bath and Dundas Canal Co. occupies the Brassknocker Basin and has moorings.
I mention the Crofton Beam Engine above as an 18th century method of ensuring a constant supply of water to the summit level of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The second famous solution to the water supply is the Claverton Pumping Station and Water Mill at Limpley Stoke, which is located beyond the Dundas Aqueduct and just outside the city of Bath. It lifts the supply of water from the River Avon over 49 feet to the canal above. It was designed by John Rennie and is built in beautiful honey-coloured Bath stone. The ingenious design provides for power generated by a massive water wheel 24 feet wide and 17ft in diameter, which is driven by water from the river Avon.
Aqueduct - photo by Martin Clark and reproduced by kind permission
Above: The pumping station at Claverton - photo by Chris Allen and reproduced by kind permission
Two tons of water each second flow onto the
wooden slats which turn and power the beam engine. This drives the pump which delivers 98,000 gallons an hour to the canal. New
electric pumps now mainly perform the work of raising the water on a day-today basis, but you can still see the original wheels working
on well-advertised weekends.
The continuous supply of water is made necessary because the canal now drops down to the level
of the River Avon by means of the Widcombe flight of locks here, and every time
a boat passes through this flight thousands of gallons of water are "lost" from the canal into the river. The Claverton
Pumping Station is again maintained by a dedicated team of volunteers.
The Kennet and Avon Canal now reaches what I regard as the "piece de resistance" of the whole canal - the wonderful City of Bath with all its architectural delights, built in the local honey-coloured stone. The city has excellent moorings for river visitors, and you can explore the Roman baths and spa, the magnificent gothic Cathedral, the Georgian houses and streets such as the Royal Crescent famed the world over, the thousands of quaint little shops, the Costume Museum, the American Museum and a host of other wonderful sights - all from your narrowboat on the river here. You should plan to spend at least two days here to sample all the wonders of this great city.
Above: The canal as it enters the lovely city of Bath - photo by Peter Land and reproduced by kind
|Above: The River Avon in the
. Photo by Stephen Worsfold.
The River Avon from
After leaving behind you the hills and valleys around
through the villages on the River Avon plain. The first of these is
Saltford, a pretty place, with the usual selection of
pubs, shops, houses and all supplies needed by your average narrowboater.
Saltford provides some safe moorings in
delightful surroundings, and is well worth a visit.
|Above: The scene at Saltford
- photo by Charlotte Ford
|| Above: Narrowboats
at Saltford - photo by Charlotte
With Saltford behind you the canal reaches Keynsham - a dormitory town for both Bath and Bristol. Again, you can find all necessary supplies here and safe moorings for the night. The lock at Keynsham lowers you down once more.
Keynsham is followed by Hanham - the last lock on the canal proper before you reach the River Avon.
Hanham is - again - a nice peaceful spot to moor before you reach the hustle and bustle of the huge city of Bristol. It is the last lock on the canal proper, before John Rennie was faced with the problem of ensuring that the River Avon could accommodate boats on this section, when it was already silted up and subjected to tidal action and erosion of the banks.
Above: The lock at Keynsham - photo by Charlotte Ford
|Above: The lock at
Hanham - where the Kennet and Avon canal meets the River Avon - photo by Charlotte Ford
||Above: The Avon at Hanham
- photo by |
Because of this the City of Bristolhad to construct the huge Floating Harbour to accommodate boats when the tide retreated and left mud flats due to silting up. The Floating Harbour has moorings for visiting boats. It enables you to moor in the centre of the huge city of Bristol and walk to all the main attractions. In addition, you can visit the famous "SS Great Britain", designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the replica ship "The Matthew of Bristol", which in 1497 was sailed by the famous Bristolian, John Cabot, toNewfoundland, thus pre-dating the Pilgrim fathers by more than a century!
Above: The Floating Harbour at
Bristol - photo by Charlotte Ford
The restoration of the Kennet and Avon Canal is a huge success story. We should be deeply grateful that a dedicated band of volunteers grouped together and worked so hard to save this unique part of Britain's heritage for us all to enjoy for the future.
I hope that this short introduction to the wonders and delights of the Kennet and Avon Canal has inspired you to see it for yourself and that you too will soon be enjoying all that this wonderful canal has to offer.
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