KENNET AND AVON CANAL
John Rennie's original canal simply connected the River Kennet to the Avon though today the navigable sections of both rivers and Rennie's Canal are all considered to be one route under the name of the Kennet & Avon Canal, stretching 93 miles from Reading to Bristol.
The Kennet & Avon Canal begins at Reading where it leaves the River Thames (grid ref SU737739). This is the section which was originally known as the River Kennet Navigation and had been used for many years before the canal was built. In the early days of the navigation boaters on the Kennet were often threatened by those who's livelihood depended on the success of the River Thames. There is at least one story of a Kennet boatmen receiving death threats!
The River Kennet (as we travel west and upstream) passes through the centre of Reading. The first lock is to the east of the town. This is Blake's Lock which is reached along the wide towpath on the south bank known as Kennetside. This has houses on it and two pubs, one to the east of the lock and one to the west. On the north bank, situated in an old pumping station, is Blake's Lock Museum which has displays and information about the navigation.
In the centre of Reading there are a number bridges and access points. There is also a sharp bend in the navigation where boat movement is controlled by traffic lights as the waterway arrives at County Lock (SU714730) situated between Bridge Street and the "delightfully" named Inner Distribution Bridge!
The route soon enters the countryside and that is where it stays throughout its journey west. Locks are well spread out in this area and nearly all are on the south side of villages which lie between the navigation and the "great west road" - the A4. The Great Western Railway also runs fairly close to the waterway but never spoils its beauty. The locks on this stretch were all turf-sided though only one of these survives today, the others now have the more usual stone or brick chambers. Although this portion of the route is a river navigation, a lot of it is "artificial cut" from the days before canals officially existed.
Newbury was the original terminus of the original Kennet Navigation. Today the route through the town is very nice, a park runs to the water's edge and then the waterway passes along a narrow stretch between buildings and under the old town bridge at Bridge Street (SU471671). Just to the west, Newbury Lock is surrounded by water channels which once belonged to mills. The town church, with its clock tower, overlooks the lock. Some of the old mills still stand and have now been converted into apartments which also overlook the waterway.
Leaving Newbury the route passes through West Mills with its pretty canal side cottages and swing bridge. The Kennet & Avon Canal has now taken over from the Kennet Navigation though the small River Kennet still runs alongside the canal until Hungerford. On route the canal passes by Hamstead Marsh (SU423669) and Kintbury (SU385671) both of which are pleasant situations with a lock beside their road bridges. At Hungerford (SU338687) the A338 crosses over at a point where the canal waterfront becomes wide and is very picturesque. Old houses line the canal and there is a waterside green, popular for picnics, just west of the bridge alongside the well used moorings. Hungerford Lock is about 100 yards west of the bridge.
Shortly after Hungerford it is the railway and not the river which now runs closest to the canal. At Little Bedwyn (SU290659) the high speed trains look down onto the lock and at Great Bedwyn (SU279644) a trail takes walkers from the large village church, right across the railway tracks to reach the lock.
A little way further west Wilton Water Reservoir appears on the south side while Crofton Pumping Station (SU261622) is on the hillside directly opposite. The pump drew water out of the reservoir and pumped it into the summit level a few hundred yards further west. The pumping station is open to the public every day during summer and the pump (powered by the oldest working beam engine in the world) can still be seen in action several weekends throughout the year.
On the summit level is Bruce Tunnel (SU244624), the only tunnel on the whole canal. It is named after Thomas Bruce who was Earl of Ailesbury. It is only 502 yards long but has no towpath. Instead, there are chains along the inside walls which were used to pull on to haul boats through the tunnel. Whereas this was very useful for the boat crews, it isn't much use to walkers and cyclists who must walk across the top of the hill. Above the tunnel is the Savernake Forest which is open to the public with footpaths, drives and picnic sites.
The summit level ends at the beautiful village of Wootton Rivers (SU194628). In the village a lot of the houses have thatched roofs and are surrounded by pretty gardens. The attractive Royal Oak pub dates back to the 16th century and it too has a pretty garden. There are two locks and the old canal cottage next to the bottom lock also once had a thatched roof though this has now been replaced with ordinary tiles.
Near Pewsey the canal crosses the infant Salisbury Avon on a small stone aqueduct. On the north side of town is Pewsey Wharf (SU157610) situated on Marlborough Road (A345). After Pewsey the landscape opens up, gone are the wooded areas of Savernake Forest and now rolling hills can be seen for miles around. This is the area of white horses, long barrows and Stone Henge, though you certainly won't see the latter from the canal as it is almost 20 miles away! What you will see is the village of Wilcot (SU141612) where Alton Road crosses the canal and the village of Honey Street (SU104614). Here there is a boatyard and also an imposing canalside building that was once a slaughterhouse, a bakery, a brewery and a grocers. Even today you can still buy a meal consisting of meat, bread and veg, as well as drink a cool glass of ale - its now the Barge Inn! And if you are a fan of the Inspector Morse TV series you may recognise it from the episode entitled "The Wench Is Dead".
The next major place on the K&A is Devizes where the A361 (London Road) crosses the route. Better access to the canal can be had at the old wharf situated in Wharf Street (SU003617) which is now home to the canal restoration trust who maintain the waterway (along with BW). Their HQ, along with a canal shop, a visitor centre and other businesses are all housed in a former stable block. An old warehouse on the canalside is now a small theatre.
Less than a mile further west is one of the country's most impressive canal sites - and sights. Caen Hill is a steep drop and 29 locks were needed to take the route down the slope. Sixteen of the locks were built in a straight line, one immediately after the other. These broad locks with their symmetrical black beams and white footbridges look very impressive from any angle but the very best view is from Marsh Lane road bridge (ST976614) at the bottom. From here it is easy to see the flight striding up the hill and also the massive side ponds which are situated on the northern side of each lock. Each pond is a mini reservoir which was vital on a canal which suffered badly from lack of water. In fact, this is still true today and the locks were only open a couple of times a week until 1997 when back pumps were installed.
Past Devizes the route continues through pretty countryside and passes the village of Seend Cleeve (ST936616) where an ironworks once employed hundreds of people. Although the works stood right by the canal the only evidence today are a few humps on a grassed over area. Nevertheless, Seend Cleeve is another pretty village with 5 locks and a modern canalside pub.
At Semington (ST899610) the A350 crosses the canal. To the east of the road bridge is the former junction with the Wilts & Berks Canal. A lot of this route has been filled in though restoration was begun in the late 1990's. It left the K&A in a northerly direction parallel to the A350. After passing through Swindon it headed for the Thames at Abingdon.
Within a few more miles the Kennet & Avon Canal passes the new and very large marina at Hilperton Marsh and then crosses two small aqueducts standing side by side, one over a railway and the other over the small River Biss (ST855596). A few yards further, on the northern side, the Bristol Avon appears for the first time. Bradford Marina and then Bradford itself comes into view but the canal is high up above the quaint old wool town which lies to the north. There is an old wharf (ST824598), a boatyard and one of the country's deepest locks at Bradford Wharf.
Beyond Bradford the canal continues west, perched high on the side of a sheer drop into the Avon Valley. However, the canal is only half way up the hillside. Small settlements, farms and a minor road run parallel, out of site, way up above. At Avoncliffe (ST807599) is the first of the two well acclaimed aqueducts on this stretch of the K&A. The tiny settlement of Avoncliffe is reached by a road which is one of the narrowest and steepest country lanes I have ever driven on - but its all well worth it.
After crossing the Avon the canal now runs along the river's northern bank, though still high above it. Within a few miles the Dundas Aqueduct (ST786625) takes the route back to the opposite side again though both river and canal have curved northwards by now. Like Avoncliffe, Dundas Aqueduct is a very elegant structure and the two are quite similar in appearance. Rennie was a very stylish designer and aqueducts appear to have been his forte because the River Lune Aqueduct on the Lancaster Canal - probably the grandest aqueduct in England - was also built by him. The Dundas Aqueduct was built of similar material to that with which the city of Bath was built (known as Bath Stone). It has 3 arches and looks most impressive from down below in the Avon Valley (there are steps on the south east side). While you are down there you will notice that when the railway was built they ran their track through one of the arches of the aqueduct and later, when the railway owned the canal, they ruined parts of the aqueduct by patching up damaged bits with old bricks!
On the west side of the aqueduct is a basin with an old canalside crane. Heading south out of the basin was the Somersetshire Coal Canal which (you guessed it) carried coal from Somerset! The SCC has been derelict for many years though the first few yards of it are used for private moorings. There is a footpath from the aqueduct to a point just beyond the moorings. Here there is a short stretch of restored canal and a brand new visitor centre which (among other things) contains a cafe and some displays giving information about the SCC.
Back on the K&A, just over one mile further north the route passes under Claverton Bridge (ST791641) which carries the narrow Ferry Lane. This lane drops down a slope towards the Avon but it is thwarted by the railway line. Walkers are able to cross the track and immediately on the other side is Claverton Pumping Station which pumped water from the river up to the canal. The pump can still be seen in action on a few days each year.
Next on the route is the pretty village of Bathampton (ST777664). The canal swings west here and runs right past the George Inn (on Mill Lane). This is a very old pub which was the scene of the last ever duel to be fought in England. There is a green in front of the pub, alongside the canal. This is always very popular with drinkers on warm summer days. Also in Bathampton, but a little way north (on Mill Lane), the River Avon is crossed by an ancient toll bridge. This is a also a very popular spot where canoes can often be seen on the river making use of a noisy weir. An old mill, which is now a restaurant, stands on the southern bank. A second restaurant is on the opposite bank, this is a more modern building with a mock water wheel built on its outer wall. When this turns it also turns the floor inside the restaurant! As the floor turns it gives the diners periodic views of the Avon and the old bridge.
Back on the canal the route now approaches Bath. As it does so it swings south west and enters Sydney Gardens through a short tunnel under a road. Sydney Gardens is a beautiful Georgian park, when the canal came through it the promoters were forced to make the waterway match the gardens. They did well, using pretty cast iron foot bridges and attractive portals on the larger stone bridges. At the exit of the park is the former canal company house which actually straddles the waterway. The gardens of large Georgian houses run down to the canal as the route curves west and down through the 6 locks of the Widcombe Flight. All the way down are views of Bath and, in particular, the Cathedral in the city centre. The penultimate lock was the deepest in Britain until very recently. It was built to the depth of two locks when the next one down was removed during road widening.
The final lock on the canal is called Thimble Mill. The old mill itself is a restaurant next to a large hotel complex which has a basin but does not appear to allow boats into it. Directly below the lock, the canal enters the Avon. To the right (north) is a short stretch of navigable river which leads into the heart of Bath and right up to the famous weirs. When I was here in the summer of 1995 it was 10pm but still warm and light. A dozen canoeists were making use of the weir, people were paddling and swimming, dozens of people were standing around looking onto the river, trip boats and narrow boats were coming right up to the weir and boats of all shapes and sizes were moored along the banks.
Continuing west from the end of the canal, the K&A now uses the River Avon which winds around for 11 miles to Hanham Mills Lock after which the river is tidal. Between Bath and Hanham Mills Lock there are 5 other locks, most of which are situated in pretty surroundings and usually have a pub nearby. Having said that, the first lock is not in the prettiest of surroundings...
Some 1½ miles west of the centre of Bath the navigation leaves the river and enters Weston Cut (ST724629). This is about ½ a mile long with Weston Lock at its far end. The cut runs alongside Locksbrook Road and a number of less than pretty buildings on the north bank. Between the cut and the river to the south (which has a large weir on it) is an island containing more industrial premises. I would not suggest that you miss out this area, just don't plan your picnic here!
Three miles further west is a much better situation. In Saltford on a road called The Shallows is Kelston Lock (ST687688), surrounded by trees and grass with moorings and a large pub (on the south bank). The river is very wide here as it splits into two. The lock and riverside path are directly opposite the pub (on the north bank) and are not accessible from the village and pub. It is the weir stream which is closest though boats can moor on this side close to the pub. Within another mile is Saltford Lock (ST691678), reached either along the footpath on the northern bank or along Mead Lane from Salford village. There is a pub here too but this time the lock runs right alongside the terrace at the front. In fact, the island between the lock and the weir is used as a beer garden. The noisy weir is very close, boats are moored just below it and the remains of an old viaduct is just downstream. It is at Saltford Lock (ST692688) that the footpath leaves the river for nearly a mile, rejoining at Swineford Lock.
About two miles downstream of Swineford is Keynsham. Here boats pass through a narrow cut, under an old road bridge with the Lock Keeper Inn alongside and then arrive at Keynsham Lock (ST659690). At this point, as with most of the route since leaving Bath, the waterway is surrounded by open fields and small clusters of trees. However, just around the next bend the southern bank is dominated by a huge factory. Past here the rural atmosphere soon returns.
The last lock on the River Avon is Hanham Lock on the very narrow Ferry Road (ST647700) which drops steeply from Hanham village (on the north bank) and comes to an end at the river's edge. Here there are two popular pubs and a row of cottages overlooking the weir stream while the canal cut and lock are on the south side with an island between the two waterways. As far as I could see, the lock is not accessible from the pubs on foot. It is here that British Waterways jurisdiction comes to end and below the lock the Avon is tidal. However, it is still possible to walk or cycle the final 8 miles to Bristol city centre. The Avon Walkway follows the river and the former railway line which ran very close to the river is now an official cycleway.
The quaysides at Bristol are on a canalised section of water known as the Floating Docks. This section of the navigation leaves the River Avon on the east side of town and runs right alongside the city centre. A few years ago the council proposed to fill in the docks, which were then mostly disused and becoming derelict. This plan was successfully opposed and the docks are now fully restored and very busy. The old quays are now converted into museums, shopping areas, cafes and many other amenities while the waterway itself is very busy with boats, especially the numerous (and very reasonably priced) "water taxis".
To the west of the city the docks re-enter the River Avon which itself immediately enters the Avon Gorge where large cliffs climb high up above the water. Across the top is the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. The A4 runs alongside the river and under the suspension bridge but parking is not allowed. Up above there is a small visitor centre and excellent views of the bridge, of Bristol and of the gorge below.
West of Bristol the river meanders westward with the A4 close by on the north bank. Although this is not such a picturesque stretch of water - especially at low tide when the mud banks are visible - it is worth a visit just to admire the magnificent gorge. At the end of the route the river runs past the commercially busy Avonmouth Docks and then then runs into the Severn Estuary.
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Blake's Lock, Kennetside, Reading (SU726735). Reached either by walking east along the towpath (Kennetside) from the centre of Reading or via the housing estate between the canal and Kings Road (A329).
Newbury (SU471671). There are numerous access points to the riverfront in Newbury. There are, of course, plenty of car parks in the town as well, including one by the river on Wharf Road. Newbury Lock is just west of Bridge Street and the pretty West Mills area is just west of the lock.
Hungerford (SU338687). The A338, Hungerford High Street, crosses the canal beside a green which is a popular picnic spot facing old canalside buildings. Hungerford Lock is about 100 yards west of the bridge.
Little Bedwyn (SU290659). Reached on the minor road heading south west from the A4 at Froxfield. The view from the canal bridge is one which appears in many canal books and magazines. From the bridge you can look down onto the lock, its canalside buildings, the railway line and the village in the background. The best photographs from here are those which catch a speeding inter-city train flying by as a narrowboat slowly enters the lock.
Crofton Pumping Station (SU261622). Situated on the minor road heading south west out of Crofton Village. The station is home to the oldest working beam engine in the world - open daily April to October. The canal runs just south of the pumping station, access is via a path which passes under the railway. On the south bank is Wilton Water, a canal reservoir resembling a small lake. This has a public footpath along its banks.
Wootton Rivers (SU194628). Reached via the minor roads to the north of the B3087 (Burbage Road) west of Burbage. A beautiful canalside village. There are two locks on the canal here.
Devizes Wharf, Wharf Street (SU003617). The old wharf in Devizes is now a car park but an old stable block (housing a visitor centre) and a warehouse (now a theatre) can be seen. This is also a good place to park your car in order to walk along the canal to Caen Hill (see below).
Caen Hill Lock Flight, Marsh Lane road bridge (ST976614). From this bridge you can see up the main part of the mighty lock flight and gain access to the towpath though it is probably more enjoyable to park at Devizes Wharf (see above) and walk along the canal (westward) about 1000 yards to the top of the flight or 2000 yards to the bottom.
Seend Cleeve (ST936616). Reached via minor roads north off the A361 at Seend. There are 5 locks, a modern pub and the site of a former ironworks.
Semington (ST899610). The Wilts & Berks Canal began just to the east of the modern (and busy) road bridge on the A350 just north of Semington. A little further east are 2 locks while the (relatively) small Semington Aqueduct is to the west.
Bradford Wharf, Frome Road (A3109) (ST824598). There is a small boatyard and one of the country's deepest locks at Bradford Wharf. Down the bank to the north is the old wool town of Bradford On Avon. The setting around the river is very nice indeed, including the ancient bridge with its old lock-up. One of very few bridges left in Britain which have a building on them. On the north of the river is the quaint, narrow shopping street called The Shambles.
Avoncliffe Aqueduct (ST807599). Reached via a minor road heading south west out of Bradford to Westwood. This is one of the narrowest roads on earth! Prepare to do lots of reversing back to the nearest passing lay-by. At Westwood turn north down a steep lane to Avoncliffe. As well as the magnificent aqueduct there is a bookshop, a pub and a cafe.
Somersetshire Coal Canal Visitor Centre, Lower Stoke Road (B3108) & Dundas Aqueduct (ST786625). There is a car park within the grounds of Dundas Marina. Note, the gate is only open to the public during "office" hours. To reach the visitor centre and a restored section of the SCC climb the steps from the car park. To reach the aqueduct walk along the rough path north for about 400 yards. Outside of normal opening times it is still possible to reach the aqueduct by road. There is a lay-by on the east side of the A36 (Warminster Road) about 400 yards north of the B3108 junction. From here, steps lead down to the canal beside the aqueduct.
Claverton Pumping Station. Reached via Ferry Lane over Claverton road bridge (ST791641) off the A36 at Claverton. This small, dead-end lane is easily missed. It heads east, crosses the canal, then turns sharply north east and down to the railway line. Although there is only just enough room for two cars to pass, it is on this lane that you must park. However, the canal, pumping station and river are very popular so expect delays on summer weekends. To reach the pumping station you must cross the railway line at the bottom of the lane. The pumping station is open only on Sundays and only between Easter and October. On the 4th Sunday in each month the steam engine can be seen in working order.
Bathampton, George Inn (ST777664). Reached via Down Lane, north off the A36 within Bathampton. Turn right at the end of Down Lane into High Street. The canal bridge connects High Street with Mill Lane, next to the village church and the George Inn. There is a lovely waterfront here, very popular in summer.
Bath. Bath has a lot more to offer than just the canal but the canal is certainly well worth seeing. Sydney Gardens and the Widcombe Flight are to the east of the city centre. Possibly the best way to gain access is to head for the famous weir in the city centre. From here you can walk south along the "promenade" which flanks the river. This will bring you to the canal junction where the towpath will take you up the flight to Sydney Gardens. From the gardens it is a short walk back to the city centre.
Weston Cut, Locksbrook Road (ST724629). Reached on Locksbridge Road which heads south west off the A4 just west of Windsor Road Bridge (on the west side of Bath). Although not the prettiest of canal locations, there is a lock with a pub nearby.
Saltford. Two locks to the north of the A4 within the village of Saltford. Kelston Lock (ST687688) is on the road called The Shallows and Saltford Lock (ST691678) is at the end of Mead Lane. Although the two locations look very different their content is very similar. Both have boat moorings, a riverside pub, a weir and somewhere very pleasant to sit!
Keynsham Lock (ST659690). Next to the Lock Keeper Inn on Keynsham Road (A4175). An old lane and bridge run parallel to the current main road bridge. There is a rough car park on this old road next to a chandlers. There is another car park further along the old road but this belongs to the pub so it'll cost you a pint to use it! The canal lock is to the west, beyond the "new" road bridge.
Hanham Lock, Ferry Road, Hanham (ST647700). Although I've listed this location, I believe there is no access to the lock (which is the last on the Avon). However, there is a pleasant stretch of river on the weir stream - made all the more pleasant because there are two pubs next door to each other with terraces overlooking the river!
Visit the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust website http://www.katrust.org/
Please Note: This site is not intended to be an up-to-date news site nor is it a guide to navigating the canal system. I regard this website as a historical archive. I very much hope you enjoy reading the history and descriptions but please do not email me with recent develpments. There are many other websites covering recent canal news.