First and foremost I need to say that we aren’t living on a boat!! Those of you who saw our starring role on TV (Escape to the Country) may think we were tempted after being seen chatting to the owner of a wide beam canal boat. The title, however, refers to our wanderings while we are staying in Wiltshire along parts of the Kennet and Avon Canal.
This may be the most boring sentence I have ever typed in a blog but here goes (although Jonno will probably say that there have been many)…….. I have always been mildly fascinated by the history behind canals and the amazing amount of engineering and sheer manual work needed to build them.
Originally built and used for cargo giving a link to main industrial cities and rivers but now the 2,000 miles of navigable waterways are used for leisure and as a home to many. One figure says that there are more boats on the canals now than at the height of the industrial revolution.
The canal nearest to us is the Kennet and Avon. Apart from the countless footpaths and bridleways that criss-cross the canals and tempt us to wander down, what we love most are the incidental things we come across like this fairly unique narrowboat.
The Kennet and Avon Canal
Running from Bristol to Reading the K&A is 57 miles long with a length of navigable river at each end which adds another 30 miles (the Avon and the Thames). The canal gradually became used less and less in the late 19th and 20th century after the opening of the Great Western Railway.
Teams of volunteers completed years of restoration work and it was fully reopened in 1990. We both find tow path walking both relaxing and interesting. Comparing narrowboats, seeing the wildlife and watching the crews negotiate narrow locks and swing bridges. It gets particularly entertaining when some of the hire boats with their less experienced sailors rock up.
Below are just a few of our tow path wanderings:
- Junction of Kennet and Avon and Wilts and Berks Canal. There is just a concrete wall and painting where these canals linked up. The W&B Canal was abandoned in 1914 partly due to the collapse of an aquaduct leaving much of the canal unnavigable. Some of it has now been restored and rewatered.
- Caen Hill Locks. The 16 locks are part of the 29 which are known as the Devizes Flight. It can take between 4 and 6 hours to get through the whole system covering the height difference of 237ft from top to bottom. Overnight mooring is allowed in a couple of basins between certain locks. It must be a fairly demanding physical effort manoeuvring all the gates. A pumping station was installed to replenish the large amount of water needed to operate the locks. At maximum capacity it can pump the equivalent of one lockful every 11 minutes.
- Bradford on Avon and Avoncliff. On a beautiful sunny day, we walked from Bradford on Avon to Avoncliff and back. Bradford on Avon was buzzing with canal boats stopping off to have breakfast in the canal side cafe but as we walked along towards Avoncliff the tranquillity and slow pace of canal life resumed. There is an aquaduct at Avoncliff which traverses both the River Avon and the railway line. There is a pub nestled down by the river called the Cross Guns which had gardens overlooking the aqueduct but we opted for the tea gardens and had coffee and some rather yummy homemade scones.
- Semington to Bowerhill. This was our most recent short walk. We parked near the Semington bridge over the canal and walked east towards Devizes. A mix of swing bridges and a few locks along the route plus a few fellow towpath walkers to pass the time of day with made it the usual pleasant stroll. After around a mile and a half we came across a little picnic site just off the towpath which was obviously maintained by the residents of Bowerhill. It had around a dozen sitting areas completed with racks for disposable BBQs, a bug hotel and various other ingenious art and design features including Paw Paving.
There were a couple of noticeboards and it was on these that we read about RAF Melksham and Bowerhill. Despite Jon’s RAF background and interest in long lost RAF stations, this one had passed him by. RAF Melksham was never an operational base. Bit difficult really because it didn’t have a runway!!
But from 1940 to 1965 it was home to the No 12 School of Technical Training so there were plenty of aircraft parts being worked on. It was also No 10 School of Recruit Training and at it’s height it averaged about 100 airmen and women passing out. In it’s lifetime the Armament School was also based here. Year by year each training school was moved to other bases and it finally closed in 1965.
The RAF legacy continues though with some of the streets in the area having names such as Lancaster Road and Falcon Way.
Future Canal Capers
Back in June 2020 we were due to walk the length of the Llangollen Canal on the English Welsh Border. After working out our route and places to stay along the way, for all the obvious reasons that was shelved but we did manage to walk some of the Thames Path as an alternative from Tower Bridge to Hampton Court and visit Llangollen as part of our Shropshire and Staffordshire Road Trip.
We are still hooked on canals and walking by water in general and both feel a new towpath tramp (as they say in NZ) needs to be planned. Can’t sign off without a mention of the Canal and River Trust and their staff and volunteers who we have to thank for being guardians of over 2,000 miles of waterways, heritage buildings and structures in England and Wales. We have met some of their volunteers on our walks who have given us an extra insight into the particular area.
Just to answer the question that you may be thinking…..no, we are not planning to live on the water, we are land sailors although the simplicity and pace of life makes it rather tempting.
01/11 – 11/11/2021