A Journey through the Heart of Wiltshire without getting your feet wet: the Kennet and Avon Canal
By Rebecca Davies Bsc. (Hons).
A Kennet and Avon Canal Journey
Wiltshire is the finest county, with a great many things to see and do, and good access to London and Bristol. If, like me you’re interested in the past, there is, what appears to be, an endless supply of antiquities to study. Such as the Alton Barnes white horse that you see in the image below.
But! One big snag in Wiltshire life – no coastline. Nor are there are many navigable rivers or lakes in the county. And so few opportunities for boats.
So…we need to dig a canal…
In around 1373 the Dutch invented the pound lock. That being a simple system for getting boats over different water levels, on a river, below the weir to above the weir, and on a canal allowing it to cross over a hill rather than having to go around it.
This is, of course, a Eurocentric version of the story; the Chinese had pound locks on their canal as early as 984 AD.
The Kennet and Avon (K&A) canal is in many ways a typical English waterway. It opened in the late 18th century, enjoyed profitable use until the coming of the railway. And then suffered a slow decline until closure. Now, in recent decades, it’s re-watered as a tourist attraction.
John Rennie, in 1794-181, built this canal. The canalised part is 57 miles (93km) long. including the canalised sections of the Kennet and Bristol Avon it is 87 miles (140km) in total. There are 105 locks and the last barge through came through in 1948.
The Kennet & Avon Canal Trust was one of the first organisations to fight for the preservation and restoration of the canal system for the benefit of the leisure industry. This idea took a while to absorb, given the negative vision of canals as nasty stagnant places full of rubbish winding without purpose through drab urban slums.
The K&A canal opened fully once more in 1991.
Wiltshire Features – Travelling from Avoncliff to Little Bedwyn
Dundas aqueduct – this is where the K&A crosses the River Avon from Somerset into Wiltshire. It was the first canal structure declared a scheduled monument in 1951.
Avoncliff aqueduct – Another aqueduct over the picturesque valley of the Avon. Close by is the famous old pub The Cross Guns. It’s built of Bath stone. The dip in the middle has been there since the edifice was first built.
Caen Hill Locks
Caen Hill Locks (Lock numbers 22-50) – How do you get a barge up a hill? With a great deal of patience and one of England’s longest flights of locks.
It takes 5-6 hours to navigate by boat, though people say that a Newbury trader, J. T. Ferris, worked up the flight in 2.5 hours. This was the last part of the canal to see completion with the locks opened in 1810.
K&A Canal Museum. The museum of the K&A is at Devizes, run by the K&A Trust. This is the location of their headquarters and the shop. They do cruises in the summer months.
Honey Street Wharf – Roughly the half way point of the canal, Honey Street wharf was the main boatbuilding yard on the K&A. It’s known for its famous pub, The Barge.
Wilcot Wide Water – Environmental concerns amid industrial envelopment are not new things. Lady Wroughton, unlike some landowners, was not against the idea of a canal. But she cannily insisted it should be in the form of an ornamental lake. `Wilcot Wide Water`. The bridge at the end is especially decorative.
The Bruce Tunnel – Thomas Brudenell-Bruce did not like the idea of a canal cutting upon his land, so a tunnel, (502 yards 459m) got built instead. Since there were no towpaths, the unpowered boats became drawn along by a chain.
Crofton pumping station
Crofton Pumping Station – This is the summit pound of the canal meaning that everywhere else is downhill – or stream. Using locks loses water and so needs topping up. This happens via a reservoir (as we see at Coate Water, near Swindon). Or pumped up from lower levels. There are both methods used at Crofton.
The `Number One` 1812 Boulton and Watt engine is the world’s oldest steam engine still in its original location. And it’s still able to do the job it first was fitted for. It’s accompanied by the `Number Two` engine, built by Harveys of Hayle, in 1846. This is the high point of the canal in more than mere altitude.
Water Adds Value` the Canal and River trust tell us. A canal is a haven for wildlife which one might otherwise not find in the dry county of Wiltshire. It\s a place for industrial archaeology, a throughway for the waterway traveller, and a dwelling place for boat people,. And lastly it is part of flood prevention systems.
The Kennet and Avon is one of England’s most beautiful canals, being free of dowdy industrial or urban stretches. Yet, due to the significant number of locks, (105) it is more for the dedicated boat traveller rather than the cruising holidaymaker. Though you can hire holiday boats!
And, incidentally, you can enjoy the canal on foot or by bicycle as well as by boat.
Clew, Kenneth, (1978). Wessex Waterway, A Guide to the Kennet and Avon Canal, Moonraker Press, Bradford Upon Avon.
Crofton Pumping Station Crofton Beam Engines – Crofton Beam Engines(Accessed 2nd January 2021).
Cross Guns Pub, Avoncliff. Home – Cross Guns Avoncliff (Accessed 6th January 2021).
The Barge Inn, Honeystreet. The Barge Inn – The Barge Inn Honeystreet (the-barge-inn.com) (Accessed 6th January 2021).
K&A Trust website – KACT (katrust.org.uk) (Accessed 2nd January 2021).
K&A Museum Museum – KACT (katrust.org.uk) (Accessed 2nd January 2021).