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Walking the Kennet and Avon Canal
It was during our week in Bath in September 2004 that I developed a passion for walking on canal towpaths. I had walked along one years ago in New Hope, Pennsylvania. It was interesting, but was just a short walk. I walked along an abandoned canal in the Cotswolds a few years ago, as part of a country hike. I had read on the Slow Travel website about boating on the canals and started to think they might be fun to walk along. When I was preparing for our 2004 England trip, a friend of a friend told me to walk the Kennet and Avon Canal from Bath. (Thank you, Cully from Devizes!)
Steve and I spent a week in Bath, and did three different walks along the canal path from Bath. Then we drove to Devizes to walk along the canal there. The walks are lovely and the canal is beautiful and interesting. It is well worth your time to seek out the canal and go for a walk if you are near Bath.
Canal path at Bathhampton, just outside of Bath
The Kennet and Avon Canal, 57 miles long and completed in 1810, connects the River Thames at Reading with the River Avon at Bath. With this canal, barges transporting goods went from Bristol (a major port) to London, via the River Avon, the Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Thames. After the railways were built in the mid 1800s, the canal was no longer used.
In the 1960s, the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust was formed to help save the canal and open it for tourist travel (boats, narrowboats, walkers). The Kennet and Avon Canal was reopened in 1990. The British Waterways organization is now responsible for the canal.
Walking on the Kennet and Avon Canal path is a great way to experience some of the canal life and see the countryside. You can walk the entire canal from Bath to Reading. From Bath to Bristol, there is no towpath, but you can follow the Avon Walkway trail that goes along the canal.
From Bath to Devizes is a national cycle route. From Devizes to Reading, the cycle route follows along the canal, but not on the canal path.
It would take several days to walk the entire canal, but you can do good shorter walks along parts of the canal. We walked the canal path from Bath to Bradford on Avon and in Devizes. Information on walking these stretches is given below.
Canals are man-made and go straight along planned routes, instead of meandering like rivers, so they have locks to deal with elevation changes. A lock is like a step. The boat floats into the lock, closes the lock gate behind it, fills the lock with water causing the boat to rise, opens the lock gate in front and floats out to the canal at a higher level. The reverse to go downhill.
It is a fascinating process to watch. It takes about 15 minutes to get through one lock. The locks are usually 14 feet wide, just enough to accommodate two narrowboats side by side (so two can go up the locks at the same time).
There are two aqueducts on the route from Bath to Bradford on Avon: Dundas and Avoncliff. The Dundas Aqueduct is a short stone bridge that takes the canal over the train tracks and the Avon River. The water flows on the bridge, so that the canal boats go on water across the valley from one side to the other. It was built between 1797 and 1801 and is named after the first chairman of the Kennet and Avon Company (Charles Dundas). The Avoncliff aqueduct is similar to the Dundas aqueduct.
Narrowboat going over the Dundas Aqueduct - a bridge of water over a valley.
Living on a Narrowboat
Narrowboats are boats made specifically for traveling on canals. They are long and narrow and powered by motors. Two can pass on the narrow canal or sit side by side in a lock. You can cook and sleep on these boats. Some people rent them for a weekend or a week. Others own boats and use them for their vacations. We met a newly retired couple who were spending a year on a narrowboat touring the Midlands (most canals are in the Midlands area). See Jack's England Canal Boats notes for information about renting a canal boat for a few days and having a holiday on the canals - a floating vacation rental!
Narrowboats move slowly and much narrowboat life takes place on the decks, so you have a good view of narrowboat activity as you are walk along the canal. The boats do not move much faster than the walkers.
The boats moor at designated areas and when moored, the grass between the canal and the path becomes an extension of the boat. Travelers set up chairs and sometimes barbeques. For the walker, it is like walking through private living rooms. The narrowboat travelers are a pretty friendly group. We talk to them as they are working the locks or when they are moored. When we walked along the canal, we even got to help out at a few locks.
Walking Along the Canal from Bath to Bradford on Avon
It is an easy nine mile walk from Bath, south and east along the Kennet and Avon Canal, through the Limpley Stoke Valley, to Bradford on Avon. This is a good part of the canal to walk because there are two locks where the canal starts in Bath and two aqueducts along the way. You pass through several nice small towns with pubs and restaurants and transportation is good, so you can walk one way and take a train or bus back to where you started.
We walked from Bath to the Dundas Aqueduct in 1.5 hours. On another day we walked from Bradford on Avon to Avoncliff in 20 minutes. The entire walk could easily be done in 2.5 - 3 hours one way. The path is wide and flat.
Two narrowboats side by side in the locks near Bath
If you are walking in the morning, walking from Bradford on Avon to Bath works best, because you are heading north west and the sun is behind you. We walked both times in the later afternoon. When walking from Bath to Dundas, we had the sun behind us, but when walking from Bradford on Avon to Avoncliff, we were walking right into the sun (on a hot day).
If doing the walk in the morning, take the train from Bath to Bradford on Avon (trains run frequently), then walk back to Bath. A possible stop for lunch would be either Dundas or Bathampton. If doing the walk in the afternoon, start in Bath and end up having afternoon tea in Bradford on Avon.
The path goes along the canal which runs parallel to the River Avon and the train tracks. Surprisingly, the River Avon is not as wide as the canal! On some parts of the walk, around Bathhampton, you are near a road and can hear some traffic, but most of the walk is peaceful and there are nice views out to the countryside. The path is wide and good for walking or biking (you can rent bikes in Bath or at the Dundas Aqueduct). Remember to walk on the left and step aside for bikes. You will see lots of narrowboats moored along the canal.
How to get to the Canal Path in Bath
The Kennet and Avon Canal is not heavily promoted as a tourist activity in Bath. The tourist office could not tell us how to get onto the canal, but we got out a map and did some exploring and figured it out.
From the Train Station
If you want to start your walk from the beginning of the canal, go to the train station in Bath (south of the Abbey and Roman Baths). Facing the train station, go through a tunnel on your left at the left side of the train building. This takes you under the tracks. On the other side, you will see on your left a footbridge over the River Avon. Cross this bridge, turn left to walk along the river a short bit and then you will see where the canal joins the river. There are two locks here.
From the Bathwick Hill
From the Bath Abbey, go to the Pulteney Bridge (the bridge that goes over the Avon and is lined with shops), follow Argyle Street to Laura Place and go straight on to Great Pulteney Street (lined with beautiful Georgian houses). At the end of Great Pulteney Street, go into the Sydney Gardens by the Holburne Museum. Go to the right around the museum (there is a nice tea shop on the right side) and across the yard behind to a gate into the park. Follow the path from the gate, slightly uphill and you come to a bridge over the canal (park ends just past the canal). There are paths down to the canal from here.
An alternate route is to follow the street called Bathwick Hill from Puteney Road. There is a bridge over the canal, with steps down to the canal path.
Towns along the path (with bus and train stops noted)
Note: There are four train stations along this part of the canal: Bath, Freshford, Avoncliff, Bradford on Avon. Freshford and Avoncliff are "request" train stops. If you are on the train, tell the conductor that you want to get off here. I am not sure how you request that the train stop here to pick you up - but there must be a system for it.
Bath: (Bus stop, train station - called "Bath Spa") The path starts in Bath and goes along the east side of the canal. There are two locks where the canal starts, behind the train station. Near Bathwick Hill, there are "... Stone road bridges, 1800 by John Rennie (who designed the canal), drilled to resemble tufa and carved with masks" and cast- and wrought-iron footbridges (from 1800) in the Sydney Gardens. (From Bath, Pevsner Architectural Guides, Michael Forsyth)
Bathampton: (Bus stop) A small town with a pub along the canal. There is a bus stop here (cross the canal to the west side and walk up to the main road for the bus stop).
Claverton and Warleigh: (Bus stop) From the path you only see a sign for the Claverton pumping station, you do not see a town. There is a bus stop here (cross the canal on a bridge to get to the other side and the road where the bus goes).
Dundas Aqueduct: (Bus stop) This is the halfway point on the walk (1.5 hours from Bath). At this point the path crosses the canal to the west side. You can divert here just before the aqueduct and walk another 5 minutes to the Brass Knocker Basin with the Angelfish Restaurant, boat and bike rentals, and a tourist office. There is another pub on the main road (Viaduct Inn).
You can get a bus back to Bath here. There is stop on the main road, beside the Aqueduct (off to your right, facing towards Bradford on Avon) or you can walk up to the main road from Brass Knocker Basin. It cost us £2.40 each for the bus one way from Dundas Aqueduct to Bath. Buy your tickets from the driver when you board the bus. We had a 45 minute wait for the bus (just missed one) standing at the edge of a busy highway (not fun). If we had started earlier in the day, we could have walked all the way to Bradford on Avon and taken the train back.
Limpley Stoke: (Bus stop) There is a pub here (Hope Pole Inn, on the main road) and a tea room (Fordside Tea Garden). There is a bus stop here. At the bridge, follow the road up to the main road.
Freshford: (Train station) You pass near this town, it is to the west of the canal. Follow the road from the bridge before the Avoncliff Aqueduct. It has a pub (Inn at Freshford) and train station ("request" stop). No bus stop here.
Avoncliff and Avoncliff Aqueduct: (Train station) There is a train station, the Mad Hatter Tea Room and The Cross Guns pub in Avoncliff. The train station is near the canal path, under the aqueduct ("request" stop). We were not sure how to get the train to stop for you, so we walked back to the station at Bradford on Avon (only a 20 minute walk).
Bradford on Avon: (Bus stop, train station) This is a good stopping point for the walk from Bath. From the canal you walk through Barton Farm Park to the town. Bradford on Avon is a beautiful town and is worth a visit. There are many good restaurants, tea shops and pubs. We loved The Old Bridge Tea Shop (right in the center) and had an excellent lunch there. They have won awards for their teas. You can also visit the medieval Tithe Barn (1341, in Barton Farm Park by the canal), the Saxon Church (the age of the church is under debate - between the 8th and 11th centuries), the Ancient Bridge (parts date to the 1200s), and the Weavers' Cottages (go over the bridge, turn left following signs to Saxon Church, then take the small lanes up the hill to the beautiful old row houses).
There are locks on the canal here (just past the town). You can take a bus or train back to Bath. The train station is near the canal.
The Old Bridge Tea Shop in Bradford on Avon (small building in center of photo)
Renting a Bike
You can rent bikes at Bath, near the train station, at the Angelfish Restaurant near the Dundas Aqueduct and at Bradford on Avon. I don't think you can rent in one place and drop off in another. We saw lots of bikers out on the canal path.
Locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal - The Devizes Flight
On the canal from Bath to Bradford on Avon, there are only two locks, where the canal starts in Bath. If you want to see a spectacular display of locks, drive to Devizes, a Wiltshire market town east of Bath. There is a public parking lot in the center of town, north of the main road at The Wharf (it is a Pay and Display lot). The parking lot is on the edge of the canal and you can get on the canal path there.
There are 29 locks in total on the canal starting from the western edge of Devizes and going west to the Foxhanger Wharf, but the most spectacular are the 16 in a row on Caen Hill (called the Devizes Flight). From the center of Devizes, walk west along the canal for about 15 minutes and you come to the top of the Caen Hill. Look down and you will see the line of 16 locks.
From the bottom of Caen Hill near Devizes looking at the 16 locks
This is the longest row of continuous locks in Britain. The water level raises 237 feet over a distance of 2.5 miles.
There are pubs along the canal here. We stopped for lunch at one between Devizes and the top of the Caen Hill (the Black Horse) where we had lunch sitting on picnic tables along the canal. Visit the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust Museum at The Wharf in Devizes (on the canal).
If you are traveling in southern England, try to find your way to a piece of the Kennet and Avon Canal. It is beautiful, interesting, exciting - and, if nothing else, a good walking area.
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of the walk along the canal from Bath to Bradford on Avon.
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of the Caen Hill locks in Devizes (Devizes Flight).
Map: Kennet & Avon Canal, GEO Projects - British Waterways, 4th Edition: Brochure from the tourist office £4.75. Detailed map of the canal and River Avon from Reading to Bristol.
www.katrust.org: Kennet and Avon Canal Trust.
www.britishwaterways.co.uk: British Waterways organization
www.waterscape.com: British Waterways - Waterscape, information on all waterways and canals. (They use the cottages4you database for holiday cottages on the site.)
www.canals.com: George's Canal Boating in the U.K. and Europe.
www.southernwalks.co.uk: Southern Walks. Phil did the complete three day walk from Reading to Bath on the Kennet and Avon Canal. "I had come seventy-five miles in three days, which wasn't bad, and I had travelled on foot without the need for transport or accommodation. It had not always been a comfortable experience. But I was glad I had done it."
www.keeping-up.co.uk/Canals/: Allan and Debbie's Canal Trips, personal accounts of traveling the canals in England.
www.heartofwessex.org.uk: Heart of Wessex Train Line and area information
www.wessextrains.co.uk : Heart of Wessex Rail Line (train stations in Bath, Avoncliff, Freshford, Bradford on Avon)
Bike and Narrowboat Rentals
Slow Travel UK - Travel Notes - Canal Boats: Vacationing on canal boats in England
www.thelockinn.co.uk: The Lock Inn, bike and boat rentals at Bradford on Avon
www.bathcanal.com: Bath and Dundas Canal Co. with boats, canoes, narrowboats, and bike rentals at the Brass Knocker Basin by the Dundas Aqueduct between Bath and Bradford on Avon
www.bath-narrowboats.co.uk : Bath Narrowboats in Bath, narrowboat rentals
www.visitbath.co.uk: Bath Tourist office
www.bradfordonavon.co.uk: Bradford on Avon Tourist office
www.visitwiltshire.co.uk: Wiltshire Tourist office
www.devizes.co.uk: Devizes town page
www.thisiswiltshire.co.uk/wiltshire/tourism/: This is Wiltshire Tourism, Wiltshire Times (newspaper)
www.britannia.com/church/saxchurch/bradford1.html: St. Laurence Church (Saxon) in Bradford on Avon
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