Steve Davison explores the Kennet and Avon Canal on a fascinating journey from Reading to Bristol, taking in the sights and the history on this famous waterway.
At the height of ‘canal mania’ in the early 1800s, the Kennet and Avon Canal, which stretches across southern England from Reading to Bristol, formed a super-highway for the transportation of goods ranging from coal and timber to grain and stone, contributing to the late Georgian and early Victorian growth of the south. However, the widespread use of the canal lasted only a few decades before the arrival of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s much faster Great Western Railway.
The loss of business caused by the railways brought about a gradual decline of the canal system and by the 1950s the Kennet and Avon was in a very poor state.
However, plans to abandon the canal were brushed aside by public support. An army of volunteers set about the gradual restoration of the canal, culminating in its reopening by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.
Now this wonderful canal, which celebrated its bicentenary in 2010, forms a multi-faceted jewel for boaters, walkers and wildlife as it weaves its way through a patchwork of countryside from the rolling chalk contours of the North Wessex Downs to the southern edge of the Cotswolds, passing vibrant towns and cities as well as picture-postcard villages with thatched cottages, ancient churches and cosy pubs
Walking along the canal also takes you on a journey of discovery past numerous historical features and offers an abundance of peace and tranquillity, a slower pace of life, where you are surrounded by a wide range of wildlife, accompanied by the sounds of birdsong, the wind rustling through the trees, or a narrowboat chugging gently by.
We start our journey at Reading, where Henry I founded a great abbey in 1121 (now only sections of flint rubble walls remain) and where the playwright, poet and novelist Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in the late 1800s. Following his release Wilde wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The town is often known for its ‘Three Bs’ of Beer, Bulbs and Biscuits, relating to three former industries that originated in the town: Simonds’ Brewery, established by William Blackall Simonds in 1785; Suttons Seeds, founded in 1806 by John Sutton; and Huntley & Palmers, originally started by Joseph Huntley in 1822, which by 1900 had become the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world.
Next stop is Newbury where the wharf marked the terminus of the Kennet Navigation until the Kennet and Avon Canal was completed. In the late 15th century, Newbury was highly regarded for its cloth. The town’s most famous clothier was John Smallwood (or Winchcombe), known as ‘Jack of Newbury’. He helped fund the rebuilding of St Nicolas’ Church, a fine example of an early 16th-century Perpendicular-style ‘wool church’. To the south-east of the town, past Newbury Racecourse, is Greenham Common, a name synonymous with women’s peace camps during the Cold War. The airbase has now gone and much of the land has been reverted to open common, home to a wide variety of wildlife.
Further on, close to the western edge of Berkshire is the market town of Hungerford. This is the only place in the country that still holds the Hocktide Festival, which relates to the rights of the commoners. The highlight is Tutti Day (second Tuesday after Easter), when the Hocktide Court is held and the Tutti Men visit every house with common rights. In 1688, during the ‘Glorious Revolution’, an important meeting between William of Orange and King James II’s commissioners took place at the town's Bear Hotel. Shortly after this meeting, James II fled to France, which opened the way for William to rule jointly as William III with his wife, Mary II.
We continue through Wiltshire passing Great Bedwyn, where the rather large Church of St Mary the Virgin houses an impressive monument to Sir John Seymour, father of Jane Seymour who married King Henry VIII in 1536, becoming his third wife; their son became Edward VI (at the time the Seymours lived at nearby Wolfhall). Further west is the world-famous Crofton Pumping Station, built to raise water by 12m to the summit of the canal to replenish the water lost each time a boat went through a lock. Although electric pumps are now used to pump water into the canal, Crofton’s magnificent steam-driven beam engines – one of which is the oldest working beam engine in the world – are still used on several occasions throughout the year.
We meander on through the Vale of Pewsey, overlooked by the Alton Barnes White Horse to reach Devizes. For anyone interested in brewing, the Wadworth Brewery Visitor Centre is well worth a look. If you’d rather learn about Wiltshire’s history over the last 6000 years, then visit the Wiltshire Heritage Museum. The Crammer (town pond) is reputedly the setting for the legend of the ‘moonrakers’ where quick thinking smugglers outwitted the excise men; even today, many locals are proud to call themselves moonrakers.
The canal then makes a dramatic descent down the Caen Hill flight of locks. Designed by the Scottish civil engineer John Rennie (chief engineer of the Kennet and Avon Canal), the 16 locks were the last part of the canal to be completed and form the middle group of 29 locks that cover a fall of 72m in 3.6km from Devizes to Lower Foxhangers. Due to the steepness of Caen Hill, the pounds had to be very short so they were extended sideways to allow enough water to be stored to operate each lock. Rennie became known as one of the great canal builders in the UK, along with James Brindley, William Jessop, John Smeaton and Thomas Telford. We meet more of Rennie’s work when the canal crosses the magnificent aqueducts at Avoncliff and Dundas.
The former wool town of Bradford-on-Avon – formed where the Saxons drove their carts across the ‘broad ford’ – is well worth exploring, with a number of interesting buildings including the medieval Town Bridge across the River Avon. The distinctive dome roofed lock-up has a weathervane in the shape of a gudgeon (type of fish) which gives rise to the local saying ‘under the fish and over the water’. The timber-framed buildings in The Shambles date from Tudor times, while along Church Street is a lovely Saxon church (St Laurence’s). The nearby tithe barn, once owned by Shaftesbury Abbey and used for storing food (a ‘tithe’ was a tenth of a tenant’s produce), is said to be one of the country’s finest examples of a medieval monastic barn.
Finally the canal reaches the City of Bath, a World Heritage Site, whose history stretches back more than two millennia to the Iron Age, when the hot springs here were dedicated to the goddess Sul. However, it was not until the arrival of the Romans that Bath developed into an important bathing centre, named Aquae Sulis or ‘water of Sulis’. Subsequent renovations during the Victorian era unearthed the original Roman bath complex that can be seen today. Adjacent to the Roman Baths is the 16th-century Bath Abbey, described as the last great Gothic church in England.
The development of the Georgian spa town is mostly attributed to: Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, a celebrated dandy and leader of fashion in 18th-century Britain; Ralph Allen, onetime postmaster and owner of several Bath stone quarries; and three architects John Wood the Elder, who designed the elegant Circus (three curved segments of townhouses) his son, John Wood the Younger, whose most notable masterpiece is the beautiful curving Palladian-styled Royal Crescent and Robert Adam, who designed the shop-lined Pulteney Bridge across the River Avon.
The walk then follows the River Avon to end at the Floating Harbour in the heart of Bristol, England's sixth largest city. Created by impounding (closing off with lock gates) a large area of the tidal River Avon so that ships remained afloat at all times, the Floating Harbour was, for a time, the largest artificially impounded area of water in the world. Bristol’s growth and prosperity has been firmly linked with its docks since before the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. Over the centuries, the port has traded in a range of goods, from cloth to sugar and wine, and played a part in the African slave trade during the 18th century.
Following the closure of the commercial harbour in 1975, the area has been transformed, with art galleries, museums, cafés and bars occupying the former warehouses. Highlights include the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which, in 1845 became the first propeller-driven iron-hulled steamship to cross the Atlantic.
Our journey ends at the statue of Neptune – Roman god of the sea – a fitting finale to our journey along the Kennet and Avon Canal.