Britain’s Great Journeys – a cruise along the K&A

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Discover Britain Magazine (1 October 2014) describes a canal boat holiday from Bath to Devizes: distance – 22 miles (and 43 locks); duration – about two days, longer if you stop to look at all the sights:

Our narrowboat holiday begins at the historic city of Bath, where the Kennet & Avon Canal leaves the River Avon Navigation. However, before heading eastwards along the canal, we start with an absolute ‘must’ for anyone visiting the city by water.

Just before the point where the river meets the canal there’s a short dead-end length of the Avon that leads into the heart of the city. Having taken the diversion, we cruise right up to Pulteney Weir, in full view of the city’s famous Pulteney Bridge, Parade Gardens and the Rec, Bath Rugby club’s famous stadium, before turning round and returning to the junction.

Here, a sharp left turn takes us into the bottom lock of the Widcombe Flight and the start of our trip along this superlative stretch of canal.

Although there used to be seven locks in Widcombe, there are now only six. Back in the 1970s when a new road was being built that needed to cross the canal, two of the locks were combined into one new one to make the job easier. The result was the cavernous Bath Deep Lock – one of the deepest on the entire canal system, which raises us almost 20ft.

As the locks lift us up the valley side, there are splendid views across the city.
With the locks safely negotiated, two short tunnels take the canal on through Sydney Gardens: the impressive Georgian Cleveland House which stands directly above the tunnel entrance was once the canal company headquarters.

Then Bath is left behind as we cruise eastwards along the hillside through Bathampton, with an assortment of moored houseboats for company and a couple of swing-bridges to provide some gentle exercise for our crew.

The hills close in and the wooded valley narrows as we enter one of the most attractive parts of the route, through Limpley Stoke and Avoncliffe. Twice, the canal turns and abrupt corner and launches out the river on the find Dundas and Avoncliffe aqueducts, both built in the characteristic local Bath stone.

Avoncliff Aqueduct is accompanied by the Cross Guns canalside pub, but apart from that it’s a quiet, secluded route with little to remind us of the outside world apart from the occasional train passing on the nearby railway line.

The valley opens out again as we arrive at Bradford-on-Avon, an attractive old town and a handy stopping-place for boaters with its shops and pubs.

We also reach the first lock since we left Bath; the wharf area around the lock is popular with local people so we’re assured of an audience as we pass through.

Quiet open countryside characterises the canal as it continues eastwards, skirting the north edge of Trowbridge and passing Hilperton and Staverton villages.

Semington is a pretty village, which was where the Wilts & Berks Canal used to branch north eastwards for Swindon and the River Thames. It closed a century ago, but there’s a campaign to reopen it, so perhaps Semington will one day be an important junction once again.

The two Semington Locks are followed by a flight of five (accompanied by a waterside pub) at Seend – but there are just a hint of what is to come.

By Lower Foxhangers Bridge we reach the first of the 29 locks leading up to Devizes – the second longest flight of locks in the country, and by far the most impressive. They begin gently enough, but after we’ve climbed the first half dozen we catch sight of the main series of 16 locks marching up the hillside at Caen Hill, in close succession with barely a boat’s length between them.#

The final six locks are more spread out, but we breathe a sigh of relief on arriving at Devizes Wharf in the knowledge that it’s another 15 miles before we’ll have to push a lock-gate or wind a paddle again.

This is where we end our journey, tied up at the historic wharf by the canal museum, at the heart of the historic market town of Devizes in Wiltshire.

Nearby Attractions

Bath’s famous sights – the Pump Room, the Roman Baths, the Royal Crescent and the Abbey – are within easy walking distance of the canal. And there are other less well-known attractions, such as the Herschel Astronomy Museum, the Jane Austen Centre and Postal Museum.

Just a few miles further east the canal passes Claverton Pumping Station, open to the public and in operation on occasional weekends in summer.

Dundas and Avoncliff aqueducts are splendid structures well worth stopping to look at, and on the approach to Bradford on Avon the canal passes the Great Tithe Barn.  Built in the 14th century and one of the best examples in the country, it is part of Barton medieval farm which is open to the public. Bradford is a fine old town on the Avon and its Saxon church is one of England’s best-preserved.

Devizes is an old country market town with many attractions – not least the flight of 29 locks by which the canal arrives in the town. The Kennet & Avon Canal Trust runs a shop and museum on the wharf, and for real ale lovers Wadworth’s Brewery makes its presence felt, with the company’s traditional horse-drawn drays still used.

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