Arguably one of the prettiest canal routes in the UK, the Kennet and Avon Canal (or the ‘K&A’ as it’s referred to by locals) is over one hundred miles long and runs across four counties in southern England. It was the canal that featured in the BBC 4 programme ‘The Canal Trip’, a two-hour real time cruise that beautifully showcased the sights and sounds of the area.
The Kennet and Avon was one of the main industrial transport routes in the country but it fell into disrepair as the faster railways took over the transportation of trade to London.
A voluntary group called The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust was formed in 1962 to restore the canal from Reading to Bristol, so that it could be used as a through navigation once more. Help was at hand in 1963 when the newly formed British Waterways, (created by the Transport Act of the previous year) took over the canal and, in partnership with the Trust and various local authorities, restoration work was able to begin.
The culmination of their hard work came in 1990 when the Queen officially reopened the canal and since then it has gone from strength to strength with the help of a £25m Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
The Kennet and Avon canal actually includes two lengths of navigable river; from Bristol to Bath the waterway follows the natural course of the River Avon before the canal links it to the River Kennet at Newbury and from there to Reading on the River Thames.
Starting in Somerset in south west England, the Avon Navigation cuts through wooded hills and the picturesque Avon Gorge on its way to Bristol and then onto the canal, winding its way up to Bath.
The canal circles around the World Heritage City of Bath (easy access to Bath on foot) and on to the historic towns and villages of Bathampton, Avoncliffe and Bradford on Avon (where the Black Prince base is located) running parallel to the river.
To the west of Bradford on Avon, you’ll navigate the impressive Caen flight of locks to Devizes , then on towards Hungerford and finally to Reading and the junction with the River Thames.
Any special canal engineering feats?
With its origins dating back to 1810, the waterway represents an impressive and ambitious feat of engineering for its time, made up of two river navigations and a linking stretch of canal.
Many bridges, aqueducts and other structures were built in an impressive classical style, designed by John Rennie. However his work on the canal was not totally successful. He used unseasoned Bath stone for ornamental work on bridges, which didn’t cope well with weathering, and the summit level was too short, causing the water shortages from which the canal still suffers.
Pumping engines had to be installed to supply the summit level and at Crofton the original steam pumping engines have been restored and can be seen in working condition.
The final engineering task was the completion of the Caen Hill Locks at Devizes.
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. Prepare to get fit working these locks!
What is there to see along the canal?
The countryside around the Avon Navigation starts with some beautiful woodland scenery as it cuts through wooded hills and the famous Avon Gorge on its way to Bristol and then meanders up to Bath.
Bristol is worth a visit. Head to the ‘Old City’, a charming rabbit warren of old streets and shop, plus the ‘Harbourside’ at the old docks, which is now an attractive, modern development filled with restaurants, bars, shops and hotels. Read more about the cruising route to Bristol here.
Further along the Kennet and Avon is another famous English town – Bath. This Roman spa town has many Roman remains, with fascinating attractions to visit. Bath also contains much 18th century classical architecture, including the famous Royal Crescent. There are two main contemporty spa’s in the town if you fancy a day chilling out in the ice rooms, hot pools and sauna’s!
The canal then climbs the Caen flight of locks to Devizes and runs amidst rolling hillsides along the Vale of Pewsey towards Hungerford to descend through pasturelands, woods and water meadows to Reading and the junction with the River Thames.
Bradford on Avon also has Georgian stone terraces. Devizes has medieval buildings and Norman remains, Salisbury Plain and Neolithic Stonehenge are close by.
The Kennet & Avon Canal is actually made up of three historic waterways, the Kennet Navigation, the Avon Navigation and the Kennet & Avon Canal.
In 1788 a “Western Canal” was proposed to improve trade and communication links to towns such as Hungerford, Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham and Melksham. The name was changed from Western Canal to Kennet and Avon Canal to avoid confusion with the Grand Western Canal, which was being proposed at the same time.
The two river stretches were made navigable in the early 18th century, and in April 1794 the Kennet and Avon Canal Act received the Royal Assent and construction began. The 57-mile canal section was constructed between 1794 and 1810. The canal opened in 1810 after 16 years of construction.
The canal started being used for trade from 1801. Good and produce initially had to be unloaded at Foxhangers at the bottom of what is now Caen Hill Locks, transported up the hill by a horse-drawn railway, and reloaded into barges at the top. When the flight of locks opened in 1810, allowing the same vessel to navigate the entire canal and trade on the canal flourished.
In 1812, the Kennet and Avon Canal Company bought the Kennet Navigation, which stretched from Newbury to the junction with the Thames at Kennet Mouth, near Reading.
By 1818, seventy 60-ton barges were working on the canal, the majority of the tonnage being coal and stone travelling via the Somerset Coal Canal. The journey from Bath to Newbury took an average of three and a half days, and was the most efficient and cost effective means of transport at the time.
The opening of the Great Western Railway in 1841 removed much of the canal’s traffic, even though the canal company lowered tariffs. In 1852 the railway company took over the canal’s operation but by levying high tolls and failing to invest in maintenance, they effectively forced goods onto railways.