Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
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My Holidays on Inland Waterways - Cruise XV

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FROM THE BRISTOL CHANNEL TO THE THAMES. A five days' tour of 100 miles through the Kennet and Avon Canal.

OUR curiosity about the Kennet and Avon navigation was aroused by rumours of a projected service of motor boats between Bristol or Hanham (Glos) and Bath or Bradford-on-Avon (Wilts). So, after our journeyings in the Midlands, we decided to make the trip from Bristol to the Thames at Reading.

It had never been my lot to "go to Bath," as the old adage has it, under any circumstances, but, after making the journey, it struck me rather forcibly that one might do very much worse than go there via the Kennet and Avon Canal.

The Kennet and Avon Canal, which was built in the beginning of the 19th century, runs almost due east and west, and is 93 miles in length, with 108 locks to negotiate. It is the property of the Great, Western Railway, having been taken over by that company as far back as 1852. It is practically divided into three sections, in so far that the River Avon runs to Bath (Somerset), then the canal proper commences there and runs to Newbury (Berks), the River Kennet taking up the remaining section of the course to Reading (Berks), the terminus.

Like several canals we have traversed it has not moved with the times, and although it passes through many populous towns en route it has fallen into comparative disuse. However, on our voyage we were on pleasure bent.

As far as I could judge, the opening for a motor boat service between Bristol and Bradford-on-Avon struck me at once as being excellent. With a good draught of water, generally speaking, lovely scenery, and without too many locks, there is ample scope for a canal cruise on these waters. Apart from the scarcity of general business on the canal, it seemed to us strange that there were so few pleasure craft about with such capital opportunities for good sailing and boating. Bristol is a large commercial city, but, as the tourist remarked about Glasgow with its beautiful Clyde attractions, "It was a fine place to get away from," and so in this case it was - under motor boat conditions.

This canal was engineered by the elder John Rennie, and, together with the London Docks and Waterloo Bridge, ranks among his masterpieces. The Great Western Railway Company has maintained this stretch of the navigation in excellent repair.

To travel by motor boat was our first intention, but it was found impracticable at the time of year with the water she draws and some shallows on the reaches at the summit; also taking the state of the weeds into consideration, we deemed it inadvisable to make the attempt, so we had reluctantly-for the time being-to abandon the idea of the launch. Consequently we had to bring our skiff (26ft.) into requisition, and had it conveyed from Henley-on-Thames. It was found too long for one truck, so it had to be railed on a double passenger train waggon. We were glad, on arrival at Bristol, to find our boat safely transported to the Bristol Navigation Canal, quite close to the G.W.R. station, and so there our voyage began.

Our party consisted of four, including the ship's surgeon and the handy man, the latter being the purveyor. We were all willing workers, so much so that one vied with the other as to who was to scull first. With such a full crew, a trip of this nature becomes much more pleasurable. In addition to our sculling, we were fortunate to get at times a fresh westerly breeze, which we took advantage of for a part of the way, doing a delightful piece of sailing.

After a few miles of somewhat unsavoury navigation on the canal from Bristol Docks, we arrived at the River Avon, whence one gets a tidal way to Hanham, where the locks begin. The tide we found against us, and that made a stiff pull. The scenery all along gradually becomes more interesting as one progresses, and continues so up to within a mile or two of Bath.

Our first day's run was to that city, some 17 miles with 14 locks, there being a flight of seven at the finish of the journey. After a spell of fine water we approached Bath, a really fine town and health resort, as everybody knows. We saw rather an unusual craft just about this point. An enterprising barge-owner had fitted up a canal boat and furnished it throughout - with an awning on top - as a pleasure craft, the haulage being done by a horse. The intention was to run trips from, say, Bath to Bradford-on-Avon and back, some 20 miles, without any lock obstacles. The idea is a good one, as the route is through fine country, and it reminded us of the old times one reads about when passenger traffic was conducted on the canals, coaching then being so costly.

We had a pleasant stop at Bath, putting up at a homely hostelry, the Angel Hotel, in the heart of the city, where we found comfortable accommodation. The town itself is of a purely English character, and is well worth strolling through, the situation and hilly surroundings making it a particularly attractive place.

After this short stay at Bath we started early on our journey, Devizes (Wilts) being the destination according to the programme. It was a particularly interesting day: one passes through at the approach to Bradford-on-Avon, what is justly described as the loveliest canal scenery in England. With its hilly surroundings and fine foliage it makes a never-to be-forgotten picture. This description is not only applicable to one point, but to several miles.

At this point we passed the Somerset Coal Canal Junction, and, some distance farther, the Wilts and Berks Canal Junction, the latter leading to Abingdon, but both these water routes have now been abandoned. Next we came upon the famous flight of 29 locks, within a distance of 2¼ miles, at Devizes (Wilts). It really forms a striking and unique sight, and is alone well worth going to see. Instead of going through the locks, we took advantage of having the boat, put on a trolly and drawn up the hill to the top lock by a "young" donkey of 23 summers; we all assisted our "willing brother" in his efforts. After unloading and housing the boat, we put up in the town at the Bear Hotel, a fine old country house, where we were well cared for.

On our third day Devizes (Wilts) to Hungerford (Berks) was our route. We made a start at 9.30 a.m., the crew going well and strong The first stretch is some 15 miles, without any lock interruptions through a fine country, although there is a certain sameness about it. Some five miles or so from the start, near Alton Priors, there is on the hillside a famous landmark - a large white horse dug out of the turf; it practically follows one for miles, showing up very distinctly as the sun shines upon it. Close to this we came across an old houseboat said to be the identical one on which William Black wrote his "Strange Adventures on a Houseboat," and it was this canal that the cruise was finished, as described in his book.

It was Bank Holiday, but, with the exception of few villagers, we scarcely met a soul on the canal banks, and this seclusion, which continues all along the route, adds to the charm of the situation. As for boat traffic, to which we have already alluded, we only met some half-dozen craft all the way through, including a canoe party doing the same trip as ourselves.

To relieve the sculling for a time we towed the boat to get through a few miles of a peculiar light green-coloured weed, not unlike Irish shamrock, which floated completely over the water. It just rests on the surface like a sheet of ice, giving a very pretty effect. We found this to be entirely local, as we did not come across it again.

The Savernake is the only tunnel on the Kennet and Avon Canal, and we went through it that afternoon. It is a well-built tunnel, 502 yards in length, about 17 yards wide, with a headway of 13 yards. In going through one is never in darkness, and one sees the other end quite distinctly. There is no towing path, but we paddled through quite easily. The following rather interesting inscription appears on a tablet above the end on the eastward side :-

"The Kennet and Avon Canal Company describe this tunnel with the name of Bruce in testimony of their gratitude for the uniform and effectual support of the Right Honourable Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury, and Charles, Lord Bruce, his son, through the whole progress of the great National Work by which a direct communication by water was opened between the cities of London and Bristol. Anno Domini 1810."

We eventually encountered the locks, 23 in number, after the 15 miles referred to, and had the misfortune to find they were all empty and against us. Apart from this, they were large locks and very slow in filling, so that our progress became very much retarded, and completely upset our calculations as to times mapped out. We, however, persevered, and, getting the aid of two kindly lock-keepers, we finished our day's, or, rather, night's, work at Hungerford at 11 p.m. We put up at the Bear Hotel here, and, after being well cared for, retired to a well-earned rest. In charming weather we made a 10 o'clock start on our fourth day, after bidding adieu to two of our party who had to return to town - very reluctantly. Proceeding, we came upon some delightful bits of scenery, and quite a change for the better.

In a former article I advocated the shallow draught punt as being the best boat suitable for canal cruising. Although we were prohibited from taking our launch, owing to our draught, we encountered at this spot a motor punt travelling from the Thames, and were pleased to see that such a craft could come along so far notwithstanding the surface weeds at certain places on the route. It proved the suitability of this type of boat for such work. As far as we could learn, that was the first motor boat that had been seen on those waters. In the afternoon we landed at Newbury (Berks), and spent an hour or so looking through the fine town. It was here that another friend, "the Major," joined us, and glad we were to see him, as he was invaluable, not for hard work, but for his helpful advice. With a late re-start, at 5.30 p.m., Aldermaston (Berks) was to be our resting place, some nine miles down, with 11 locks, for which we hied under the most perfect weather conditions. The moon after wards came out very clear, and assisted us to see our way in the later hours of the night. As we were again rather out of our time reckoning with the many locks, we had, as on a previous occasion, to do some late work. An obliging lock-keeper came down to pilot us a part of the way, and we duly reached Aldermaston at 10.30 p.m., after a very enjoyable evening's work. Although we had wired for rooms to the Butt Inn, we found everybody abed at this primitive little place. We, however, roused up the good people, who had given up hope of our turning up, and they provided us with all they had in the house, viz., simply bread and butter (very good fare it was at that, too), and nothing else except a little liquid refreshment. We quite enjoyed ourselves, however, at this wayside inn.

On our fifth and last day we commenced the day's journey in somewhat threatening weather, which afterwards developed into a heavy rainstorm, but cleared up, and then we had a fine afternoon. Reading was our destination, with 12 miles and 12 locks, and although we had not the sunshine we were compensated by a fine breeze aft, of which we were not slow to take advantage, and as we sailed along under such pleasant 'conditions the sensation was ideal. The scenery all down that stage, if not imposing, is very pleasing. The Kennet is rather tortuous about here; as one keeps meandering round the bends fresh views are brought before one at every turn, thereby making it very interesting navigation. So ended our trip on the Kennet and Avon Canal. All through our journey we had the singular misfortune, or call it a coincidence, to have, with one exception or so, every lock against us - i.e., closed. This, of course, meant a serious impediment to our progress and a loss of many hours each day. After our many experiences, we think, taking it all round, that we enjoyed this canal as much as any we had yet traversed, passing, as we did, through fine country, where we got many grand views. The lock-keepers on this canal we found to be a particularly good class of' men, extremely obliging, and willing to assist under any circumstances, whether early or late-as we some times were. One thing that struck us was the fact of their long term of service, as we were told that nearly all the men had been on the same duty from 20 to 40 years - truly a remarkable record. To the officials of the G.W.R., both at London and Bath, we, have to tender our best thanks for their kindness and courtesy: they did everything possible to facilitate our progress, even to the extent of advising men to be ready at the locks and drawbridges.

The journey to Reading took us five days in all, with continual progression from morning to night, but if time is no object a week or more could be satisfactorily passed on this interesting waterway, so that with fine weather and genial company, a more enjoyable vacation could not be spent.

For the benefit of those who might wish to under take such a trip, the following particulars about the hotels we stayed at and the distances covered may be found useful

Hotels we stayed at :-

Grand Hotel, Bristol (Glos).

Angel Hotel, Bath (Somerset).

Bear Hotel, Devizes (Wilts).

Bear' Hotel, Hungerford (Berks).

Butt Inn, Aldermaston (Berks).

Counties passed through :-Gloucester, Somerset, Wilts, Berks. The following table shows at a glance how each day was occupied :-

Day MilesLocksTunnels
1Bristol to Bath 17 14 0
2Bath to Devizes 20½ 37 0
3Devizes to Hungerford 26 24 1
4Hungerford to Aldermaston I7½ 21 0
5Aldermaston to Reading-on-Thames 12 12 0

Pictures related to this cruise

Near Bradford-on-Avon, on the Kennet and Avon Canal

The Twenty-nine Locks near Devizes, the Kennet and Avon Canal

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Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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