Date walked: 14th May 2016
Distance: 10.13 miles
Time taken: 4 hours 15 mins approx
How we got there: Drive to Bradford-on-Avon station. Train to Bath Spa.
How we get home: Drive from Bradford-on-Avon.
Travel costs: Train ticket = £4.30 approx. Car parking charges here (free on Sundays)
Watch out for: Cyclists travelling very fast in some sections!
Highlight: Dundas Aqueduct (around the five-mile mark)
Difficulty rating: 2/5
Walking route map:
Originally from Newbury, I spent a large portion of my life living near the Kennet and Avon canal, so unsurprisingly it’s always been on my bucket-list to tackle this waterway on foot. I’d only walked the sections between Kintbury and Woolhampton up until now – and this was the time to change that!
The Kennet & Avon is made up of three waterways – “The Avon” – between Bristol and Bath, the “Kennet & Avon Canal” – between Bath and Newbury, and “The Kennet” – between Newbury and Reading. Some would therefore debate how far one would need to walk to complete the route (I discuss this a bit more below).
The “river” sections were made navigable in the 18th century, with the solely “canal” section being completed in 1810. Since then it’s needed numerous stages of regeneration as it’s fallen into disrepair; the Great Western Railway line – which runs adjacent to the canal for large sections – resulted in the Kennet & Avon being largely forgotten as a trade transport route once the industrial revolution took hold.
However, organisations such as The Canal and River Trust, along with numerous other bodies, have helped to restore it to its former glory, and make it one of the most recognisable (through landmarks such as the Caen Lock Flight and Dundas Aqueduct) canals in the UK. Today, thousands of visitors enjoy it every year, using it for leisurely walks, cycle rides, boating holidays and more.
Our first stretch of the Kennet and Avon started in the historic city of Bath, and was to cover a distance of around 10 miles along to the town of Bradford-on-Avon – a place I had only passed through on the train before, but was keen to explore further.
Many would argue that the Kennet and Avon walk should actually start in Bristol, and as we emerged from Bath Spa station’s southern entrance and made our way to the mouth of the canal you couldn’t fail to notice the signs pointing back to Bristol Harbour, around 18 miles away.
Yet with the River Avon leading up to this point from Bristol, I was mainly interested in tackling the canal section only. And whilst it’s true that, officially, the section between Newbury and Reading is classed as the “River Kennet”, and not a canal, after living by this section for most of my life, I will quite happily argue all day long that that section is far more a canal, with man-made walls and locks, than a free-flowing river.
Plus, the LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Association) mentions how the Kennet & Avon links The Thames in Reading with The Avon in Bath.
So with the canal-objective set, to me, this was where this walk had to start!
Here I was at the start, Bath Locks – a flight of six locks spanning the inner city area.
It felt strange to be coming to Bath and not doing the “touristy” thing. Yet whilst it’s a wonderful city from that aspect, I’d done that plenty of times before. Plus, I was raring to start rattling off the miles and to explore the natural beauty that lay between here and Bradford-on-Avon.
Just as a note for those coming to the canal from Bath Spa; it is much easier to use the station’s southern exit to access the starting point. This is basically the “backdoor”, so it doesn’t face the shops, restaurants and other touristy things that Bath is well-known for. It feels a bit strange when you step outside, but trust me, the canal is just a few metres away from here, and saves you having to try and get around the perimeter of the station, or retrace your steps back through it.
Back to the canal route then – you’ll notice that the locks here do start immediately after you hit the towpath. Unusually for an urban section of water, a rather daring heron sat alongside the very first lock – perhaps he was acting as the lock keeper for the day?!
Bath Deep Lock is also very close to the start of the walk. At a depth of 5.92 metres, it’s officially the second-deepest canal lock in Britain. Here you can see the sign showing how the two locks of 8 and 9 were combined to create it during this section’s period of restoration back in 1976.
These pedestrian priority signs appeared early on, and as we found later on dotted the route as we made our way along the canal. I’d already noticed the large number of bicycles using the towpath, making journeys through the city. I guess this is to be expected in a city area, where cyclists want to avoid the busier roads.
However, we’d find them to be a bit more problematic further along, when these signs were not particularly adhered to. But more about that later on.
The start of the canal through Bath heads steadily uphill, with the six locks eventually taking it up to a steadier course to Bathampton, a couple of miles along the towpath from the end of the lock flight.
It was nice to see that, unlike some areas of the Oxford Canal, Bath has fully embraced the existence of The Kennet and Avon, with regular landmarks signs pointing out it’s long and troubled history.
I particularly liked this sundial, placed here in 2010 on the 200th anniversary of The Kennet & Canal’s completion.
Another eye-catching monument in Bath was the Pumphouse Chimney, restored as recently as 2011. Originally constructed in the 1840’s, it was designed to appease wealthy residents on the nearby Bathwick Hill, who didn’t want to overlook an industrial chimney in the direction of the city centre.
Crossing the road at said Bathwick Hill (this is easy to do with a conveniently placed Zebra crossing), the towpath moves briefly onto the right-hand side of the canal as it passes the impressive and imposing buildings behind Bath Narrowboat rentals.
I’m not sure if there are apartments in these, but if they are I’d imagine they would come at a pretty big premium for such a picturesque yet inner city location!
When the canal reaches Sydney road, just a couple of hundred metres along the towpath, you cross back onto the left-hand side once more.
Here the canal runs through Sydney Gardens; one of the many parks in the city, and home to The Holburne Museum of Art. Visitors to the park can use these small iron footbridges to cross over the canal and capture what would be a fantastic view.
There were also a couple of these imposing tunnels, with stunning architecture and constructed in white stone. Don’t get too overawed by them however – the path thins considerably through them, as well as getting very dark, making it important to watch out for cyclists and runners approaching from either direction.
We were finally leaving the city centre area, and although there was plenty to see through this short yet historic section of canal. I was looking forward to reaching more rural scenes.
The board below was located on the side of the towpath, presumably to help those approaching Bath from the other direction pick out particular landmarks they would see along the way. I have to admit, I didn’t notice a board from the Bath Spa direction, but it would be a shame if there wasn’t one!
The audio trail is downloadable online.
Everything had gone great so far, until, as we started to leave the Bath city boundaries, we came across this sign and an ominously quiet-looking towpath ahead.
Keen to avoid diverting away from the canal (surely that defeats the point of walking from one end of the canal to the other!), we were relieved when we saw a couple of other walkers approaching us. We asked them if they had any issues and they said that whilst the path was being prepared for resurfacing, it wasn’t fully closed just yet.
With this new information and feeling rather lucky, we ploughed ahead, with the wide towpath stretching off into the distance.
It wasn’t long until we saw what all the fuss was about. It felt very strange and certainly unfamiliar to be treading on a tarmac pavement alongside a canal!
This was part of a 2.2km resurfacing project between Bath and Bathampton – a stretch which The Canal and River Trust says is one of the most heavily used by walkers and cyclists along the whole of the Kennet & Avon.
The Trust, along with Bath & North East Somerset council, have been working from west to east to complete to project, which started in March 2016 and due to last 18 weeks. By my reckoning they must have been well-ahead of schedule, with the majority of the surface works seemingly already completed by the time we walked this section in mid-May.
We soon approached the village of Bathampton, which, although initially appeared to looked to be another area with generic suburban housing, soon displayed a number of far more picturesque, quintessentially English cottages.
In the middle of the village sat The George Inn; a lovely stone building housing a Chef and Brewer pub. Although not really my favourite chain, you can’t deny the excellent location of this one – had it been later in the day it would have made a great place to stop for a swift half.
We quickly passed through Bathampton and headed off into the countryside again, with the rolling Somerset hills all around us.
We were spoilt with the spectacular scenery as we continued down to Claverton; albeit broken up by the regular stream of cyclists – many of whom seemed oblivious to the people on foot far more vulnerable than them. I started to lose count of the amount of times we needed to jump off the towpath to let a group of cyclists, unwilling to slow down or move into single file, get past us in their incredible rush towards Bath.
It was nice then when we arrived at what was one of the biggest landmarks of this ten-mile stretch of the Kennet & Avon. Slightly south of Claverton and north of Limpley Stoke the canal took a sharp left turn, with the towpath crossing over it via a footbridge.
As we turned around the bend, we could see the canal crossing over a bridge, with amazing views in both directions. This was the Dundas Aqueduct – which was completed in 1805 and carries the Kennet & Avon Canal over the River Avon, as well as the train line that we had used earlier to get to Bath.
The Dundas Aqueduct is actually a Scheduled Ancient Monument – making it one of the most important historic sites in the whole country.
Leading off from the Kennet and Avon here you can also find the start of the incredibly thin Somerset Coal Canal. Completed around the same time as the K&A, it was constructed to (unsurprisingly) transport coal from the Paulton and Radstock coal fields, to the larger, better connected Kennet and Avon.
Although it has long been closed to boat traffic, there is a society still committed to keeping it restored and in good order.
As we As we crossed the Dundas Aqueduct we spent some time taking in the views; yet it wasn’t until we took a small detour from the towpath and descended the flight of steps to the bottom of the aqueduct that it’s magnificence was revealed.
This truly was a spectacularly imposing structure; an incredible feat of engineering demonstrating the excellence of man-made waterway construction. I’m glad we made the extra effort to do this, as you don’t realise what it looks like just by standing at the top!
After taking some snaps from underneath the Dundas Aqueduct, we climbed back up and were greeted by this barge, selling teas, coffees and ice cream!
We were almost ready for lunch, given we had reached our walk’s halfway mark. Yet being such a warm day, and given we weren’t sure when or if we’d get the chance for an ice cream again, we decided we couldn’t miss the opportunity to grab a cone each before tucking into our sandwiches.
Fed and refreshed with our vanilla ice creams, we were somewhat stunned yet pleasantly surprised a couple of hundred metres further when this horse rider coming up behind us. We overheard some impatient cyclists getting annoyed with the fact that they were being held up, but to us it made for a very pleasant change when compared to almost being hit by a two-wheeled maniac every few minutes.
Plus, back in the days before motor engines, horses were used to pull along barges full of cargo. In my opinion, that means they were there first, so cyclists – get over it!
After letting our four-legged friend past us we carried on, with the elevated canal still sat high above the River Avon. Here you can see the river following the natural course between the Somerset hills either side.
Passing underneath the trees, we started to see a large group of purple t-shirt wearing people approaching us. We had seen signs warning canal users of the Walk of Life – a charity walk for the Royal United Hospital – which was happening that day. Fundraisers had the option to walk 9, 12 or 21 miles – with the maximum distance taking participants between Devizes and Bath.
Massive respect to these guys – not only were they raising money for good causes, they were also walking the length of two of our stages of the Kennet and Avon Canal in one go (we were going to be tackling Bradford-on-Avon to Devizes in our second stint).
I noticed that entries are already open for the 2017 event – you can find out more about it and sign up here: www.foreverfriendsappeal.co.uk/events/walk-of-life.
Maybe it was the sheer number of enthusiastic Walk of Life walkers we passed coming the opposite way, but it felt like we’d only been walking for another few minutes when we arrived at the edge of Avoncliff West – the last village on our route to Bradford-on-Avon.
Here we came across another imposing structure; the 100 metre long, 18 metre wide Avoncliff Aqueduct – once again carrying the canal high above the River Avon.
The Avoncliff Aqueduct is made of limestone, and was constructed in the early 19th century – making it as old as the canal itself.
On the other side of the aqueduct was a very welcome sight indeed. The No.10 Tea Gardens was an opportunity to rest our increasingly weary feet, and, more importantly, refill ourselves with some well-deserved tea and cakes.
I’d highly recommend the Victoria Sponge if you ever pay a visit!
It was a bit unclear, but on leaving the tea room the path actually takes you underneath the aqueduct, temporarily alongside the River Avon, before coming back up the hill onto the other side of the canal.
We were now on the home stretch, with approximately a mile and a half to go until Bradford-on-Avon. One last major landmark ran alongside the canal – Barton Farm Country Park sat in the area of land between the canal and River Avon, and as we passed it looked like it would be a very nice area to come back and explore; maybe we will one day.
Yet we were on a mission, and with the path here nice and wide – able to accommodate the ever-increasing number of walkers and cyclists enjoying the warm Saturday afternoon sunshine – we quickly reached the fringes of Bradford-on-Avon.
Here, the sign showed us how far we had travelled – and also gave us a hint of how far we’d have to go next time, when we were planning to trek to Devizes.
A little weary, but more from the warmth (and cyclist dodging) than the sheer distance we’d travelled, we finally arrived at the end of this walk – the lock in Bradford-on-Avon. Here, the first of just five official Kennet and Avon Canal tea rooms is located. (A list of where you can find the others can be found here).
To get back, we walked the half-mile or so back up to where we had parked the car at Bradford-on-Avon station. I have to admit that I was quite happy to be getting in the comfort of my own car, rather than having to wait around for a train, yet it would have been no issue if this were the case.
When we came back here we’d be taking on a bit of a two-day epic. With no train stations nearby the canal now until Pewsey, we’d need to do the next two stages in a row, with an overnight stay in Devizes.
See how we got on as we took on our longest walk so far in part two.