Date walked: 29th May 2016
Distance: 14 miles
Time taken: 5 hours 30 mins approx
How we got there: Train to Bradford-on-Avon station.
How we get home: Overnight stay in Devizes (home from Pewsey in part 3)
Travel costs: Train ticket (from Newbury) = £11.00 (advance). Travelodge hotel in Devizes (£50 approx).
Watch out for: Cyclists (yet again) travelling very fast along the towpaths.
Highlight: An easy one – the magnificent Caen Hill Lock flight near Devizes.
Difficulty rating: 4/5
Walking route map:
In stage one of our Kennet & Avon canal walk we travelled one its most well-used, touristy sections – a distance of around ten miles between the historic city of Bath and the picturesque Wiltshire town of Bradford-on-Avon.
On a potentially even warmer Sunday towards the end of May, we planned to complete another 14 mile stretch, taking us further east to Devizes. Yet with its lack of train facilities, and to take advantage of the long, Bank Holiday weekend, we planned to stay overnight at a Travelodge close to the canal, before commencing with stage 3 the very next day.
It felt like the rest of the world was yet to wake up when we parked the car down a side street close to Newbury train station, before catching the 9.48am train towards Penzance. Changing at the first stop in Westbury, we then boarded the incredibly packed, delayed 10.58am train towards Cardiff Central. Luckily, Bradford-on-Avon was just the second stop, meaning we didn’t have to stand in the sweaty crush for too long.
I was excited to get going again, with the fantastic weather and the thought of an overnight stay (therefore no time limits to complete the walk) only increasing the anticipation.
There was just one thing – this was going to be our longest walk so far; something that was definitely in the back of our minds!
After arriving at Bradford-on-Avon station we took the short walk back to the lock where we left the towpath on our last outing. We were starting later in the day than usual due to train schedules (and the unexpected delay in Westbury), so the lock was already bustling with people enjoying the sunny Bank Holiday weekend.
Bradford-on-Avon is a lovely town, but as we set off in the direction of Devizes I was happy that we were immediately treated to some scenes more reminiscent of the middle of the countryside.
Here a barge was passing underneath the attractive Trowbridge Road canal bridge.
On the other side of the bridge sat Bradford-on-Avon marina, where a large number of barges were moored. These mainly consisted of Sally Narrowboats – a boat holiday company based here.
Between the two towns of Bradford-on-Avon and Trowbridge, the canal was largely rural. These large trees sat on the opposite bank, bending over the edge of the canal to provide some much-appreciated shade across the towpath.
Such was the greenery here that the towpath became tunnel-like when trees started to line our own bank. The canal was barely visible through the thick bushes.
The greenery eventually cleared, and we soon found ourselves crossing the railway line below. This was the same line that we had arrived into Bradford-on-Avon on earlier that day, with Trowbridge station lying a mile or so away to the south.
A sign marking National Cycle Network route 4 was also attached to the post here. Cyclists were no less frequent so far than on stage one, and with the towpath even thinner, were often an issue along this route.
I don’t want to be seen as moaning about cyclists, and I certainly don’t mind sharing the path with them when they are courteous and slow down as they pass walkers. Unfortunately, so many of them refused to slow down, to the point where it felt like they were making an effort to intimidate us (and probably every other walker they go past).
Perhaps the Canal and River Trust need to be doing a bit more to ensure that all waterway users are feeling safe as they make their way along the towpaths.
Anyhow, back to the walk – we then went past this bridge, directing canal users towards Trowbridge. This would take you out on Brick Lane in the north of the town, and with its railway station, you could potentially use this as a starting/finishing point when tackling the canal walk if it was easier for you to do so.
With the canal passing between the northern edge of Trowbridge and south of Staverton and Hilperton, we found ourselves alongside another barge rental building. This was the Alvechurch Boat Centre, located yards away from Hilperton Marina on the opposite bank.
Hilperton Marina sat on the other side of this bridge – which was far steeper on its approach than it appears from this photo. The elevated position provided great views in all directions.
We soon left the town and the noisy, adjacent B3106 road behind, and were greeted by this long, straight stretch of canal. Green fields sat either side, with a solar farm to the left. I was able to get a great view over the canal by standing on one of the swing bridges that became frequent in this section.
A little further on and another one of these swing bridges came into view. This one was near Semington, with a footpath leading towards the village on the other side of the bridge.
Semington also marks the start of the old Wilts & Berks Canal, which originally spanned the length of 52 miles to Abingdon in Oxfordshire. Unfortunately the canal has not been functioning for a number of years, though the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust are trying to restore it to its former glory.
A number of locks have been repaired since the Trust formed in 1977, and around 8 miles of it have been “re-watered”. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on their progress, as it would great to walk along its route one day in the future.
To the north of Semington, and starting to feel peckish, we came across this large lock and stone house, with an ideally placed bench to take a break and eat some lunch. It seemed like the last people to use the lock hadn’t closed the gates – I always thought that this was the usual protocol for barge users!
Around this area, it is possible to follow Semington road northwards to Melksham, where a train station is located with services up to Swindon, and then further afield. However, it’s around 2-and-a-half miles away, and after using Google Maps Streetview the road doesn’t look particularly pleasant to walk along, with just a thin pavement for the majority of its length.
With our bellies full we carried on, enjoying the tranquility of our surroundings, broken up only by groups of increasingly-fast-moving cyclists.
We eventually reached this junction, with a sign pointing canal users in various directions. Across the field (towards the “Convenience Store and Public House), you can reach the Melksham suburb of Bowerhill, whilst Seend Cleeve can be reached by either following the canal path (pointing right on this picture) or over the canal swing bridge located here and across further fields.
Of course, we pressed on along the canal, though we soon saw something which was very welcome indeed. The Barge Inn sat alongside the canal, with a bridge providing easy access to its bustling pub garden.
At around the half-way point on our walk, and with the afternoon sun beating down on us, there was no way we were missing the chance to enjoy a cold pint here.
Whilst it was busy, we didn’t have any problems finding a seat in some much needed shade.
As we left the pub and rejoined the towpath, we knew it wouldn’t be long until we approached the stand-out landmark for this walk, the Caen Hill locks – the longest flight of locks found anywhere in the country.
Caen Hill Marina marked the start of the locks, and the hugely impressive lift bridge was up as we made our way past. With the lock flight only open during the day light hours, and taking anything from four to six hours to complete, this is somewhere for barges to stay overnight before preparing to tackle the 29 locks that make up Caen Hill the next morning.
Opposite the marina, right next to the towpath, this board provided some fascinating insight about how the Lock Flight pumps are powered through the use of solar energy.
208 solar panels, installed in 2012 as a way to provide a greener, more efficient solution for powering the pumps, help generate the power that moves water 72.5 metres back to the top of the lock flight. Approximately 32 million litres of water are pumped to the flight’s summit every single day!
Today the board showed that 29KW of power was being generated. Given the wall-to-wall blue sunshine, I’d imagine it was a great day for storing that much needed solar energy that’s giving Caen Locks a more sustainable future.
Many people think that the Caen Hill Locks just comprise of the iconic, steep lock flight, seen in so many photos of this part of the Kennet & Avon. However, this is actually just 16 locks out of a total of 29, covering a distance of around two-and-a-half miles to the west of Devizes.
We then approached the proper start, with the first lock located just underneath the stone bridge. This takes the towpath onto the right-hand side of the canal.
The first seven locks come at fairly infrequent intervals, stretching off into the distance, with the path rising gradually as you approach them in an easterly direction.
But of course, it’s not long until you reach the highlight of Caen Hill – the lock flight. Here the next 16 locks sit in a row, almost like a wall in front of you, with the towpath steepening dramatically alongside it.
Caen Hill is another Scheduled Monument, demonstrating man-made construction and engineering at its finest. The flight, designed by Scottish Engineer John Rennie The Elder (who played a part in developing a number of canal and waterway structures across the UK), was the last section of the Kennet & Avon Canal to be completed back in 1810.
Rennie deemed the flight as the best solution for boat traffic to tackle such a steep incline. Prior to this, waterway traffic needed to be carried via a tramway up and down the hill – remnants of which are still visible on some of the road bridges in Devizes today.
Since then, the locks have fallen into disrepair during the introduction of the railways, and then restored again throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.
Due to the unusually steep nature of the flight, the individual locks have shorter-than-normal “pounds” – i.e. the section in which the boats sit when moving up or down. This means that excess water is stored in large run-off areas to the left.
Many of the locks on the flight are named. This one – Youth Division Lock, numbered #29 on the canal, is to commemorate the young people that gave up their time in the efforts during the canal’s period of restoration. Names of others include Monument Lock, Queen Elizabeth Lock, Trust Lock and Kennet Lock.
We spent some time making our way up the flight, taking in the views ahead and behind us as we went. As we approached the top, the sheer elevation of the lock flight was revealed, with the countryside far below us rolling away for miles, gleaming in what was now becoming the early-evening sun.
The top of the main lock flight marked the edge Devizes. However there was still a while to go yet – it’s about a mile-and-a-half to the town centre itself. We also had another 1.5 miles after that to reach our hotel, located on the opposite edge of the town.
Another six locks line the canal on the way into Devizes. Below is the final one – located just after you walk through the subway underneath the busy A361, moving once again onto the left-hand side of the canal.
You can always tell when you’re approaching a town when the number of houseboats moored up increases, and this was clearly another popular area where space was at a premium.
A couple of hundred metres down this path you reach Devizes Wharf. Located here is another Kennet & Avon Canal cafe’ and visitor centre, along with a museum where visitors can learn more about the canal and its vast history.
We had parked on our one previous trip to Devizes back in January. With very cheap parking rates, and no fee at all on Sundays, I’d highly recommend it if you would rather do a short walk to the locks and back, or if you just want to spend some time exploring the town.
We’d reached the middle of Devizes, but to get to our end point for the day we had another mile or so to go on the towpath.
At Devizes Wharf we crossed the bridge, moving back to the right-hand side of the canal. Here the towpath was elevated above the canal, providing some excellent views of the barges meandering past.
After half a mile the canal takes a sharp left turn, before passing by some rather large houses lining the banks. This white house in particular had a lovely garden which sloped right down to the water’s edge. It’s huge windows made full use of the view available to its lucky owners.
A few metres shy of 14 miles, we had finally reached the end of our route for the day. Where the canal meets Windsor Drive, a steep slope leads off the towpath up to the road, where about 0.3 miles away sits a Travelodge – our resting place for the evening.
After walking this far in the heat, saying we were tired would be a massive understatement. Our feet were aching bad, and that wasn’t even the half of it (I’ll spare the gory details!) Once we got to the Travelodge we didn’t move – we even managed to order a Dominos pizza straight to our hotel room.
Yet staying so close to the canal, knowing we had another 11 miles to tackle the next day filled me with excitement and renewed energy overnight, and come morning I was ready and raring to go again as we headed to Pewsey.
Come back soon to see how we got on in stage 3 of our Kennet & Avon Canal hike.