A year ago, I went for a walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal from Hungerford to Newbury; a week later I walked from Hungerford to Crofton Beam Engines. The walks were very enjoyable, relaxing, interesting, and free. A plan evolved to walk the length of the canal between the Thames in Reading and the Avon in Bath. Last week, I completed the project and I highly recommend it.
The canal was built during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the history of the canal is well documented. The canal links London to Bristol and when completed in 1810, it was the M4 of its day. When railway building took off in 1840, a line was built along the length of the canal. Today there are 17 railway stations along the 85 miles of the canal. Many of these stations sit alongside the canal. So, walking the canal piece by piece with days out by rail is a viable option.
My journey along the canal was in nine stages and is shown in the table. Most days started and ended at Hungerford station and involved a train ride to and from the canal. The train operators allow passengers to take their bicycles with them. About half of the length of canal is part of National Cycle Route 4 and is well suited to bicycles. There is no railway station in Devizes however, so my wife kindly made two journeys to Devizes, one to drop me off, and one to pick me up.
Along the length of the canal there are many interesting towns including Bath, Bradford-On-Avon, Devizes, Hungerford, Newbury and Reading. These towns provide services for those traversing the canal by boat. Today, almost all the traffic on the canal is for leisure, and pubs, restaurants and other businesses serve the needs of those on the canal boats.
Walking along the canal, it feels that the canal is embedded in the countryside and that it has been like that since it was built 200 years ago. However, this is not so. The last commercial use of the canal was in 1950 and by 1960 it was all but derelict. The canal was restored by volunteers working for the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, starting in 1960 and was fully opened to traffic in 1990. Since the reopening, the canal has been operated and maintained by the Trust and assisted by grants from the National Lottery and British Waterways.
For those who like to watch travel documentaries, the actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales made many series of programmes called Great Canal Journeys. The very first episode, made in 2014, featured them travelling the Kennet and Avon Canal. The programmes were broadcast on Channel 4 and are available on demand from streaming services. Timothy and Prunella were involved in the restoration of the canal and were part of the first flotilla of barges which traversed the canal following it reopening.
For me, the four best locations along the length of the canal are the aqueducts at Dundas and Avoncliff, the pumping station at Crofton and the flight of locks at Caen Hill, near Devizes.
The two aqueducts carry the canal over the River Avon between Bath and Bradford-On-Avon. The pumping station and its steam beam engines at Crofton pump water into the canal at its summit. The engines were installed in 1810 and are still working today. On holiday weekends in summer, the steam engines are fired up and pump water into the canal. The 29 locks at Caen Hill near Devizes lift the canal boats from the valley of the Avon to the valley of the River Kennet. On the west side of the hill, the ascent is steep, and on the east side of the hill the descent is very gradual down to the Thames at Reading. These sites are very impressive examples of excellent engineering from the era of their construction. That they are all still working today is testament to both the quality of the original work, and the maintenance which they have received over 200 years.
During World War II, the canal was armed as a line of defence in the event of an invasion of England from the south. Many concrete bunkers containing field guns were built in 1940 on the north bank of the canal. Thankfully, they did not see action, but they remain as silent reminders of their time.
Walking the length of the canal gives an appreciation of the work of the people of the past, especially those who built it, and those who restored it. Using only shovels and wheelbarrows, the navvies of 1800 excavated a channel of 85 miles, as well as building 105 locks, 300 bridges and other infrastructure such as wharfs, dry docks and workshops. More recently, volunteers restored the canal to its former state, using tools like those of the original construction.
Today, the Kennet and Avon Canal is an important asset for tourism in England. It is certainly one of the most important tourist attractions in our area and people visit from all over the world. We can be proud of the work of the people who restored and are operating the canal.