Ideas for canal boat holidays & canal boat hire
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Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs
This amazing canal allows a canal boat journey all the way from the Thames to the cities of Bath and Bristol. Intrepid canal 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 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 TV series "Great Canal Journeys" including the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Also see A 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 enough 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.
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 the then 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 Reading - photo by Pam Brophy and reproduced by kind permission
At Reading , the Kennet leaves the Thames 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 Lock 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 Thames 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 Avon Canal , 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 County Lock and just beyond is subject to fast flowing currents. Beyond here up to Burghfield you can arrange canal boat hire and canal boat holidays.
The Kennet and Avon between Reading and Newbury
The towpath starts in Reading 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 High Bridge and the County Lock . 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 Fobney Street , that the towpath appears as a "normal" canalside path, right up until Burghfield Lock .
In summary, the city of Reading 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 city.
However, the rest of the Kennet and Avon Canal is a "must" for canal boat journey with beautiful scenery and for its abundance of wildlife, fascinating canal architecture, industrial antiquities such as the Crofton pumping station, the Claverton Water Mill and the Devizes flight of locks at Caen Hill. 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 Reading- photo courtesy of D. Burgess
Above: Monkey Marsh turf side lock - photo by Peter Land and reproduced by kind permission
The canal now travels through some tranquil water meadows from Woolhampton past Monkey Marsh Lock (see above) towards the little town of Thatcham.
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! Canal boaters are positively welcomed - there are extensive moorings, plus all 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
Leaving Newbury the canal is now a "canal proper" - The canal climbs up a series of 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 canal boaters plus 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 noise of the high speed trains to Bristol. The station at Kintbury is almost on the canal itself and you may like to bear this fact in mind if you are planning an overnight stop hereabouts. Don't 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 divided by the canal.
Above: The canal at Great Bedwyn - photo by Peter Land and reproduced by kind permission
Great Bedwyn is particularly attractive with pubs 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. The usual canal boat holiday necessities are available here and visitors should stock up because there is a long-ish stretch of the canal ahead where no supplies are available. Again, I write from bitter experience.
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 kind permission.
The Boulton and Watt engine 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 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, 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 electricity.
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 Tunnel
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. Having reached the summit - now commences the long descent towards Bath and Bristol. The first lock in the descent of your canal boat journey is Wootton Top Lock. Just beyond this lock is the charming old village of Wootton Rivers, with many thatched cottages and a church with a clock with letters instead of numbers. You can easily reach the village from the canal.
You are now in for a treat as far as canal 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 permission
Above: The Bridge Inn at Horton bridge - photo by Trevor Pearce-Jones and reproduced by kind permission
The next pub is the Bridge Inn at Horton Bridge several miles west of Honey Street - between the two the canal 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, 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 pemission
After you leave Horton Bridge it is not long before you begin to see the outskirts 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 enough to single out Devizes as a place of note on your canal boat journey - BUT it also has what is - for myself 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 (with canal boat hire possible). 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 canal boats 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. Anyone taking a canal boat holiday journey along this exciting and demanding stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal should spare a thought for the dedication and determination of those volunteers (including TV stars such as Timothy West and Prunella Scales) that made it possible. This section of the Kennet and Avon Canal is a 'must do must see in a life time' part of any canal boat holiday experience.
Above: The Caen Hill flight of locks from the top - photo by Bruce Hall and reproduced by kind permission
Above: View of the Caen Hill Flight of locks from the bottom - photo by Neil Geering and reproduecd by kind permission
The Queen re-opened the flight in 1990, and it has been busy ever since, with canal boaters 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 rest! Leaving Caen Hill and Devizes you will still have to be prepared for the locks between the village of Seend Cleeve, Semington, Hilperton Marsh and Trowbridge as your canal boat holiday journey 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 Mediaeval Town Bridge with a chapel - one of only four in the whole of England.
There are nearby canal boat hire operators.
Above: The Tithe Barn at Bradford on Avon
Above: The Saxon Church of St Lawrence
You can moor here and spend days exploring the delightful streets and quaint old pubs - and as well you can purchase all essential supplies. 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, constructed in 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 - another milestone in a truly memorable canal boat holiday. 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, driven by water from the River Avon.
Above: The Dundas 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 turning 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 necessary because the canal now drops to the level of the River Avon by means of the Widcombe flight of locks here. 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 canal boat and river visitors. You can explore the Roman baths and spa, the magnificent gothic Cathedral, Georgian houses and streets such as the Royal Crescent , the quaint little shops, the Costume Museum, the American Museum and a host of other wonderful sights - all from your canal boat on the river here. I recommend you have a 2 day break to sample the wonders of this great city.
Above: The River Avon in the City of Bath near
Pulteney Bridge - photo by Stephen Worsfold
Pulteney Bridge - photo by Stephen Worsfold
The River Avon from Bath to Bristol
After leaving behind you the hills and valleys around Bath the canal continues towards Bristol 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 canal boat holiday maker.
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 Ford
Keynsham is followed by Hanham - the last lock on the canal proper before you reach the River Avon. Hanham is a nice peaceful spot to moor before you reach the hustle and bustle of the City of Bristol. John Rennie was faced with the problem of ensuring that the River Avon could accommodate boats on this section of the river, 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 Kennet and Avon
canal meets the River Avon
- photo by Charlotte Ford
Above: The Avon at Hanham
- photo by Charlotte Ford
Above: The Floating harbour at Bristol- photo by Charlotte Ford
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