Slow boat to Devizes
PUBLISHED: 11:01 21 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:57 20 February 2013
Waterways enthusiasts Cliff Colbourne and Sue Milton journeyed from Reading to Devizes along the Kennet and Avon Canal last May. Here is Cliff's log book account of the trip, illustrated by Sue's images
Even if you're not a waterways enthusiast, there's no denying that a well-maintained canal or river vastly enhances its surroundings, whether urban or rural. The 29 miles of the Kennet and Avon which lie
in Berkshire provide almost endless opportunities to explore, with numerous access points, often with nearby parking or mainline stations. For walkers and cyclists there are dozens of benches on which to rest. The surfaced towpath is a National Cycleway. You can fish almost anywhere.
But the best way to explore is by boat: trip boats, some horse-drawn, operate from several locations, and there are plenty to hire by the hour, day or week. (You'll need at least one reasonably energetic crew member to operate locks and swing bridges).
We cruised from Reading to Devizes last May, and there follow extracts from my log.
For the sake of brevity I have retained my usual abbreviations such as L (lock), SB (swing bridge), etc. K&ACT = Kennet and Avon Canal Trust.
Tuesday May 6
Left Tesco moorings on Thames 13.00, and into Kennet. Blakes L Keeper at lunch, so enjoyed working this easy L ourselves. Stream strong through the narrow Oracle channel, so glad of one-way traffic lights. Pity no moorings provided when Oracle was built.
Past steep back gardens, green willows and grassy banks. Kennet Island development, and the A33 close by, but invisible.
Fobney L 14.15. Straight, tree-lined reach above. Birdsong everywhere.
Southcot L: stopped for chat with boat crew going down. Lovely old former mill beside the cut. Beautiful rural reach. Paused for photos.
Swift flow through Burghfield B. Moored at Cunning Man 15.40. Lazed about in the sun before early meal in pub. Extensive menu, reasonably priced, big helpings. Completely rebuilt, higher, after floods six years ago, but you'd never guess. Chilly by time we retired to boat, 20.00.
Wednesday May 7.
Dawned cloudless. Birds woke us up soon afterwards. Away 08.30.
The Kennet navigation originally terminated at the wharf, 90 years before the canal was built westwards, and the balustraded bridge spanning the unnavigable river was too narrow to include a towpath. Barges had to be poled or hauled through.The car park behind the wharf was the terminal basin. The timbered and galleried building beyond was a grain store dating from about 1775. It now houses the West Berkshire Museum, with a section devoted to the K&A. The Public Library and Tourist Information Office are close by.
Burghfield L is entered through the old turf-sided one. Under M4, into Garston L, only authentic turf L still in use. Paused to take photos and video. Left 09.30.
Sheffield L has 'scalloped' sides: curved bays held against timber piles to prevent land movement. Picnic area on left with car park and tables. Old gravel pits form large lakes full
Through first SB at Theale: boater-operated but electric. Caused traffic jam. Manual SB beyond Sulhampstead L took both of us to open.
Tyle Mill SB electrified since we last came. Prepared L beyond it first as no room to wait between. Through 11.15. British Waterways, working on Padworth SB, operated it for us, saving time in mooring.
Moored at Aldermaston Wharf to visit the K&ACT's Information Centre.
Waited for a break in road traffic before working electric Lift B, but still caused huge traffic jam. Good job there are automatic barriers and lights. Through L 14.25.
Canal right beside railway at Woolhampton, then another elec.SB. Only a small traffic jam! The Row Barge looked inviting, but wrong time of day. Through L 15.30. Monkey Marsh L also turf-sided, but white paint and bollards added. Long Cut SB eagerly opened by children and their father, saving us a stop. Lovely reflections in dead straight mile leading to Widmead L. Seems very remote, but Thatcham and Newbury only just beyond railway. Ham Marsh and Greenham Ls increasingly urban. Moored 20.00 amongst swans beneath the ancient crane at Newbury Wharf
in a beautiful sunset. Supper on board tonight in preference over busy pubs.
Thursday May 8
Flat out against stream through bridge hole. Joined at L by "Black Velvet". Introduced ourselves and agreed system of working together. We went ahead and opened West Mills SB while they closed Newbury L, passed us and went ahead to
prepare Guyers L.
Met two coming out of Hampstead L,
so they left it open for us.
Joined unexpected queue at Dreweat's L 11.05 as horseboat came down to turn and went back up. Took till 12.00 to get through, but lots of photos and video.
Followed "Kennet Valley" to its Kintbury base. Moored after L to enjoy a drink on the canalside deck of the Dundas Arms (named after one of the canal's proprietors).
The wharf dates from 1798 when the new canal reached this quiet market town, giving it a new importance. Today, the remaining wharf buildings are upmarket housing. The A4 keeps a respectful distance to the north. The broad main street flanked by mainly Georgian buildings, featuring shops and several pubs for all tastes, is dominated by a large railway bridge, beyond which hides a thriving antiques arcade. The K&ACT boat "Rose of Hungerford" operates
Joined by "Widbury" at Hungerford 15.30; again organised joint working. Out into rolling hills and flower-filled water meadows. The stiff Hungfd. Church SB was a challenge, and the one across Hungerford Marsh L you have to remember to open before filling the L!
Cobbler's L 16.10: the prettiest yet.
Froxfield Bridge marks the
Berks-Wiltshire border. Continued to Great Bedwyn and stopped for night 19.40. Choice of pubs, like The Pelican, but decided to eat on board.
Friday May 9
Away 08.55 and moved on to Crofton.
Crofton Pumping Station
In the 35 miles from Reading, the canal climbs 350 feet through 52 locks to its summit. As this is higher than any rivers, water has to be pumped into it from nearby Wilton Water. Two huge Boulton and Watt steam engines were installed in 1812. One was replaced in 1845 with a Cornish engine by Harveys of Hayle, and the other is the oldest steam engine in the world still working in its original engine house. Lovingly restored and maintained by the K&ACT, both are steamed on certain dates The engine house is open daily from Easter to October.
Grass around locks very wet after overnight rain Moored 10.25 and visited pumping station, starting with coffee and cakes in the café.
Returned to boat for lunch, and away 13.40. Soon into 500-yard Bruce Tunnel. Summit is only 2 miles; past Burbage Wharf, now a picturesque private house and garden. Down the four Wootton Rivers Ls, then 15-mile level pound to Devizes.
Intended Pewsey for overnight stop with meal at the French Horn, but a bit early so continued. Good views of the White Horse on right.
Canal widens into a lake, built (together with the ornate Lady's Bridge and a payment of £500) to appease Lady Wroughton who was refusing to allow the canal to pass through her estate.
Moored at The Barge Inn, Honey Street 18.15 and treated ourselves to an excellent meal. Thunderstorm at 20.45 as we returned to boat.
Saturday May 10
09.10 left for Devizes.
"Devizes" comes from Old French, meaning "the place on the boundaries". The Norman castle around which it grew has gone, the latest one being Victorian. The busy town once boasted the largest markets in the West Country, and now combines 18th century elegance with some 16th century timbered buildings and modern shopping facilities. The impressive red brick Wadsworth's brewery dominates, and celebrated its bicentenary in 2008. There are many pubs and restaurants, and a museum housing one of the largest prehistoric collections in Europe.
Canal suddenly turns sharp R under London Road Bridge and into a cutting, emerging at the Wharf. Moored opposite, 11.55 and had coffee.
Spent rest of morning exploring town. After sandwich lunch, cycled down (and walked up) the flight.
Too knackered to cook supper so fetched fish and chips from shop we'd found earlier.
The galleried former granary, beside the bridge, houses the K&ACT headquarters, shop and museum. A brick warehouse beside the canal is now a theatre, and there is a large car park and a slipway for small boats. Passenger and hire boats start from here, as does the gruelling Devizes to Westminster canoe race held
Caen Hill Locks
The highlight of the canal. Devizes has 29 locks in 2½ miles, lowering the canal 230 feet towards the Avon valley. First come six spread over a mile, with a pub, The Black Horse, providing sustenance (especially welcome for those slogging uphill).
The middle sixteen, the famous
Caen Hill Flight, follow each other
in a straight line with only about a hundred feet between, each with a wide pound to the side to help maintain sufficient water supply. Finally a further seven end at Foxhangers, after which locks are spread out at irregular intervals towards Bath. The whole descent takes five to six hours, depending
on energy and traffic.
From here we continued our journey to Bath, but if you are short of time, this point makes a fitting finale to what will undoubtedly be a very memorable and rewarding journey if you wish to undertake it.
The Kennet and Avon Canal
The Kennet and Avon Canal was opened in 1810, forming a trade route linking the older Avon navigation from the port of Bristol with London
and the rest of England via the Kennet, Thames
and other waterways. It prospered until the Great Western Railway came in 1841, eventually purchasing it and deliberately letting it decline.
In the early 1950s, a campaign to restore it began. It took 50 years of work, lobbying and fundraising, led by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust and supported by local authorities and British Waterways. A £25m Heritage Lottery grant was obtained. Locks and bridges were rebuilt, leaks repaired, and lengths gradually rewatered. It was fully reopened by
HM The Queen in 1990, but improvement work still continues.