Guide to the Kennet and Avon Canal
Exploring the waterways of the UK on a canal holiday
Exploring the waterways of the UK on a canal holiday
At 87 miles in length, the Kennet and Avon Canal is an amazing waterway with walking routes, swing bridges and locks on the Kennet that links The River Thames in London with the Bristol Channel in the west.
The Kennet & Avon Canal we know today is made up of three different historic waterways, the Kennet Navigation, the Avon Navigation and the Kennet & Avon Canal.
The idea of an east-to-west waterway link across southern England was first mentioned in Elizabethan times (1500’s), to link the tributaries of the rivers Avon and Thames which were only 3 miles apart at their closest point.
However, it was only in the late eighteenth century that construction began on a canal linking route that would link the two rivers on a route via Devizes and the resulting canal was completed in 1810.
Despite the impressive length of the Kennet & Avon Canal, the waterway was never prosperous and the canal gradually fell into disuse after the opening of the Great Western Railway, which offered a more affordable and faster option for river navigation and transporting goods across the country, east to west and vice versa.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the canal was restored in stages, largely by volunteers and was fully reopened in 1990. The canal network now is managed by the Avon Canal Trust and used predominantly for leisure activities such as boat hire, canal boat holidays and water-based activities such as canoeing and paddle boarding, although there is also a cycle route running alongside it and the area is important for wildlife conservation.
Bristol (Floating Harbour)
Reading (River Thames)
Arguably one of the most scenic waterways in Southern England, the Kennet and Avon Canal is made up of two lengths of navigable river linked by a canal, having an overall length of 87 miles. The name is used to refer to the entire length of the navigation rather than solely to the central canal section.
Starting from the picturesque Bristol Floating Harbour, the national waterway follows the natural course of the River Avon to the famous Roman town of Bath. The Bath locks mark the transfer to the canal navigation, where the canal winds through the Avon Valley, through the flight of 29 Caen Hill Locks, through Devizes and the famous Devizes lock flight, before the canal links to the River Kennet at Newbury, and from there to Reading on the River Thames. In all, the waterway incorporates a flight of locals that totals 105.
You can find out more about our cruise guides and waterways maps on our canal boat holiday base information pages canal boat holidays in Wiltshire.
Caen Hill (pronounced ‘cane’), is one of the longest continuous flight of locks in the country – a total of 29 locks with a rise of 237 feet over 2 miles, located on the Kennet and Avon Canal between Rowde and Devizes in Wiltshire. It was built as a solution to climbing a steep hill and completed in 1810, was the last part of the Kennet and Avon navigation to be completed. So many bricks were used to create the lock chambers that a brickyard was created especially for the project, which remained in use for the following century. Because of the steepness of the terrain, the pounds (the space between the locks) are very short. As a result, fifteen of them have unusually large sideways-extended pounds, to store the water needed to operate them. The locks take 5–6 hours to traverse in a canal boat.
Water supply up to the summit of the Kennet and Avon Canal on the River Kennet soon became a problem, so in 1812 a steam engine was installed at Crofton to pump water from some springs adjacent to the canal. The Crofton Beam Engines at Crofton Locks Summit are a masterpiece, using two steam pumps to lift water 40 feet to the canal. These engines, built in 1812 and 1845, are among the world’s oldest working steam beam engines. This is a fascinating place to visit today, so ensure you leave yourself some time for a visit to the pumping station whilst on your canal boat holiday.
Bruce Tunnel at Savernake was a great endeavour, being cut manually in 1808 using picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, horse and cart, and gun powder. It has the second largest cross section of any British canal tunnel still in use (the Netherton tunnel on the Birmingham Canal Navigation is the largest). There was no towpath, vessels being hand-hauled by chain.
Landowners permission had to be sought for the canal to be built and the Wroughton family of Stowell Lodge had some specific conditions that had to be met before permission was granted. The canal was widened to create an ornamental lake where it passed near their mansion, plus an ornamental bridge was built over it. This structure, now a listed building, was built by John Rennie and known as the Ladies Bridge after two ladies in the Wroughton family.
John Rennie, the architect of the Ladies’ Bridge was also responsible for building two of the most impressive structures on Britain’s waterways, the Avoncliff Aqueduct and the Dundas Aqueduct.
The Avoncliff is over 100 metres long and the spectacular Dundas Aqueduct, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is 137 meters long. Both carry the Kennet & Avon Canal over the River Avon.
Transporting large amounts of goods between Bristol and London in the early 18th Century was not possible on the road due to poor conditions and the alternative sea route across the Atlantic and into English Channel was a hazardous expedition due to weather and frequent skirmishes with the French! The Kennet and Avon Canal would solve these problems.
The Kennet and Avon Canal is made up of three waterways – the River Avon, the canal and the River Thames.
The canal provided a route for goods and people from Bristol to London, essentially connecting the Americas with the rest of the UK. The Kennet and Avon Canal also transformed the city of Bath. Bath stone could now be delivered easily to London and other cities, and tons of coal, food and other goods essential for Bath’s profitable tourist industry could be brought into the city.
Until the 1870s travel through the tunnel was only achieved by men lying on their backs pushing the boats with their feet (legging). From 1871 steam tugs were used to pull boats through, and extra ventilation shafts were installed.
You can cruise on the Kennet & Avon Canal starting from our canal boat hire base at Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire. Check out our canal maps and cruise guides on our base page for more information for your canal holiday.
From our base at Wiltshire, you can start your canal boat holiday on the Kennet Navigation and Kennet & Avon waterway. Heading westward will take you over aqueducts, through bridges and locks to the World Heritage City of Bath, a gentle day’s canal cruise from the base. For the more experienced narrowboat crew a week will provide adequate time to cruise through Bath and onto Bristol, travelling on canals and rivers through the countryside along the River Avon.