Date walked: 1st October 2016
Distance: 9.3 miles
Time taken: 3 hours 45 minutes approx
How we got there: Drove to Bedwyn station (from Wallingford, approx 1 hour travel time), where we caught the only train on a Saturday (9.16am) to stop at Pewsey (approx 10 minute journey).
How we get home: Met the car at Bedwyn station (adjacent to canal) and drove back.
Travel costs: Train = £7.50 for both of us (using a Two Together Railcard) + petrol costs
Watch out for: This stretch can get quite muddy, and the steps up from the Bruce Tunnel entrance were very slippery. Oh, and wasps!
Highlight: The incredibly long and dark Bruce Tunnel marking the highest point of the canal – thankfully we didn’t need to walk through it!
Difficulty rating: 2 /5
Walking route map:
The summer months were incredibly busy for myself and Hannah. Just a few days after finishing our last walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal, we flew off to Toronto before then making our way over to Cuba with some friends for a wedding in the Caribbean sunshine. Can’t complain!
Along with us moving from Newbury to Wallingford in July, me changing jobs in August and most other weekends seemingly booked up for us with various family visits, festivals and reviews for our other blog Beers and Burgers, we seemed to lose a bit of momentum with our walk from Bath to Reading.
So when we finally came across a free Saturday, slightly over four months after reaching Pewsey, we were determined to make sure we hit the towpath once more – despite the very gloomy forecast of heavy rain for the whole day.
Reaching Bedwyn was going to be an important point in the walk for us – this was where more frequent train services started, with stops along all of the major points on the rest of the route. This meant completing the canal should (in theory) become a far easier task!
The Saturday train schedules had changed since I had last investigated this stage of the walk, and thankfully in our favour. Usually, despite them only being 10 miles apart, the train would involve a mammoth trek in the opposite direction to change at Reading, before coming back on yourself – taking some two hours if you were unlucky!
However, there was now a single train running between London Paddington and Exeter St. Davids which would stop at both Bedwyn and Pewsey – ideal for us, even if it did mean getting to Bedwyn station in time for the 9.16.
Standing on a sodden wet platform wasn’t particularly pleasant, but that was soon forgotten when the train arrived, and we were whisked to Pewsey in just nine minutes.
Arriving in Pewsey, we made our way back up the thin pavement alongside the steep A345 Marlborough Road, and were soon back outside The Waterfront at Pewsey Wharf.
It was great to be back here, where we had last left the towpath after a two-day, 26 mile trek back in May, albeit in far different weather in much quieter surroundings.
It wasn’t long, as we set off in the direction of Bedwyn that we got back into our stride, but boy was it muddy! Of course the rain wasn’t helping the situation much – it was really lashing down at points, making me wonder whether we had made the right decision choosing today to do what was going to be one of the most remote sections of the Kennet & Avon.
To be fair though, I did have a sense that, up to this point in our various Trail Hiker adventures, we had been incredibly fortunate with the weather. Almost every step we had taken had been in glorious sunshine, so maybe it was about time that we experienced something different.
There are two advantages with walking in the rain – firstly, you pretty much have the towpaths to yourself, and two, you get to see the wildlife from a different perspective. So, excited to finally be on a walk that had eluded us for over a third of a year, we were determined to make the most of it and plough on.
And what wild surroundings we would experience on this nine-and-a-bit mile stretch. Stage three included some beautifully remote stretches as we left the more touristy sections around Devizes behind. But today we would stay entirely within the confines of the North Wessex Downs, crossing the path of just one A-road and passing only the smallest of villages along the way.
Around a mile and a half after setting off we came across this plaque, highlighting a point on the King Alfred’s Trail – a circular walk around Pewsey and the surrounding areas. I’d love to come back and take this on, given the stunning Wiltshire countryside here.
Each of the plaque’s highlight an animal, insect or plant that you can commonly spot at that point. Unsurprisingly, this one, on a bridge crossing the canal near Clench, marked a heron – a notoriously shy bird which is far more likely to be seen somewhere like here than the sections through built up areas.
One insect that we really didn’t want to see, but unfortunately came up against multiple times, were wasps. Signs warned us that wasp nests were common alongside the towpath, and it was particularly around these (which I believe are Ivy plants) where huge numbers of the things buzzed around in the manic way they do in October.
Apparently Ivy thrives around late summer and through autumn, so it’s something to be aware of if you are walking along the canal at the time of year. Safe to say we moved past them pretty quickly, and with as much distance as having a body of water on the other side of us would allow!
We were now approaching Wooton Rivers. Although we hadn’t immediately noticed, we soon realised that this was the first lock we had seen since we had left Devizes Wharf – a distance of around 15 miles or so!
Rather than the towpath running alongside the lock, we needed to cross another bridge over a minor road to reach the other side. A friendly chap stood at the top of the bridge said hello to us, and, with some sarcasm we joked about how we had picked a great day for walking. By now, filled with far more positivity, I said “it’s refreshing!”, as we marched on with gusto.
Almost coincidentally, just a few minutes after crossing the bridge, as we approached Burbage Wharf, the clouds broke and the sun started to shine down on us – amazing considering the forecast had been for an all-day washout!
Here we could take in the view of Burbage Wharf crane. Originally constructed in 1833, and restored as recently as 2012, this is the last surviving crane along the whole of the Kennet & Avon canal.
Back when the canal was the main way to transport goods, the crane was used to lift coal, bricks and other heavy items on and off the boats.
We were now approaching one of the most important landmarks on the whole canal. Looming ahead of us, with a very abrupt end to the towpath was the Bruce Tunnel. The only tunnel on the route, this marked the “Summit Pound” of the canal – in other words, we had reached the highest point of our journey.
At just over 500 yards long, the Bruce Tunnel – named after Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury – is the only tunnel on the Kennet & Avon canal, and its construction was completed in 1809. As the towpath doesn’t run inside it, in the days before engines barge operators needed to haul themselves along its interior using a chain, while their horses would be guided along the path over the top.
And this is exactly what we would need to do to carry on with our journey. Around twenty metres before the tunnel, a rather steep and very slippery set of steps guided us up, first underneath the railway tracks, before climbing even further so we were high above them.
From here we had a completely new vantage point, and were able to see this First Great Western intercity train racing past in the opposite direction on the London to Exeter line.
For the first time since setting off from Bath we were not next to the canal, though the signs directed us through the heavily wooded area.
We feel a bit lost after crossing the relative quiet Savernake Road though. Here it feels like you need to walk down someone’s driveway to access the path again, and being typically British and not wanting to annoy anyone, we hesitated about doing this at first. Fortunately, a lady in her Land Rover was driving past at that very moment, and, clearly seeing the confusion on our faces, slowed down to let us know we were indeed heading the right way.
The track then started to head back down the hill to meet the canal once more. Here we saw the entrance to the Bruce Tunnel from the other side.
Here a plaque, in surprisingly good condition, commemorates the construction of the tunnel. Interestingly, they originally wanted to built the canal through Thomas Bruce’s land, and it only because he point-blank refused that the tunnel exists at all.
I was interested to see how crossing the summit pound would change the walk, and whether it would become any easier from now on. We had obviously been walking uphill, albeit gradually up until this point, but it wasn’t until we started passing locks (which were now coming thick and fast) that we could see how the water was now flowing downwards, rather then upwards as it had until the tunnel.
One of the final landmarks of this stretch came in between Bruce Tunnel and Bedwyn. The Crofton Pumping Station was built to supply water to the summit pound of the canal, due to there being no means of getting any there gravitationally. It is still in operation on selected weekends today.
Originally, the Crofton Pumping Station used water from nearby springs, but then the Wilton Water reservoir (pictured below) was created for a more reliable supply of water directly adjacent.
We wound ourselves down the towpath for a further mile or so before the houses on the other side of the fields and an increasing number of moored barges signalled we were nearing our final destination for the day, Bedwyn.
After our two previous walks totalled 14 and 11 miles respectively, this stretch of slightly over nine miles felt far easier to complete, even if it was a tad slippery underfoot at first. However, despite the weather, it had been one of the most enjoyable stretches so far, partly due to the quiet, and partly due to the sheer natural beauty of our surroundings. Of course, it was also great to see some of the most historically important landmarks we would witness on the entire canal.
I was delighted to finally reach Bedwyn, and get this stretch ticked off after it took so long for us to get around to doing it. Now in frequent train territory, I was hoping it would make it far easier get back to the Kennet & Avon more frequently, and complete our goal of reaching Reading.
In stage five we would be coming back to Bedwyn, before setting off for Kintbury in my “home” county of Berkshire. Be sure to come back and read how we got on very soon.