Posted by: travelrat | June 17, 2021

Kennet and Avon Canal

In 1990, the Queen came to Devizes to officially re-open the recently-restored Caen Flight Locks. For the first time in many years, the Kennet and Avon Canal became navigable for its entire length, from Hungerford in the East to Bradford-on-Avon in the West. Because of the long period of disuse, they used to call this canal the Sleeping Beauty. Now, once more, she was awake.

However, in very dry weather, the awakened beauty does tend to nod off from time to time. Water shortages have plagued the Kennet & Avon ever since work started  on it in 1794. The problem was, and still is, that the summit level, near the southern edge of the Savernake Forest, is only about three and a half miles long, and fed from only one stream. That’s not a lot of water, to service a 57 mile long canal with no fewer than 79 locks!

Not far inside Wiltshire’s Eastern border, though, stand the Crofton Beam Engines. These are massive Boulton & Watt steam pumps, which were intended to lift water to the upper levels of the canal. When in steam, they can raise a ton of water 40 feet every five seconds.

It may have been noted, incidentally, that I’m using the present tense. Although electric pumps are nowadays used to raise the water, the Crofton Engines are still in working order, and are occasionally steamed for visitors. The Tourist Information Centre in Marlborough should be able to tell you when.

About a mile southward along a footpath, an unlikely spin-off from the canal can be found. The demand for water for the Kennet & Avon was so great that several nearby water-mills were unable to function. So, in 1821, the Wilton Windmill was built. It was one of the very few windmills in Wiltshire, and is now the only one in the County still working.

The water levels weren’t the engineers’ only problem. About 10 miles to the West, the ‘navigators’, as they were known, came upon a very formidable obstacle. This took the form of Susannah, Lady Wroughton, the lady of Wilcot Manor, through whose land the canal had, of necessity, to pass.

But, Lady Wroughton’s terms were easily satisfied. She wanted an ornamental lake! So, the canal was widened to form the Wilcot Wide Water. This is a feature believed to be unique on the British canal system, and is a great favourite with local anglers and bird-watchers.

The Lady’s Bridge crosses the canal at the western end of the Wilcot Wide Water. And, naturally, it’s not one of those nasty, vulgar brick bridges used on the rest of the canal! Although now rather dilapidated, it was once an extremely elegant neo-classical affair, in decorated white stone.

More essential engineering, though, was needed back near the Savernake Forest. Here, the Bruce Tunnel was cut through the actual summit of the hill to be negotiated. The boats, normally horse-drawn, had to be manually hauled through the tunnel by means of chains fixed to the walls.

The horses, meanwhile, had a nice stroll over the summit by means of a horse-path which can still be traced today. Until only a few years ago, I could have recommended the beer-garden at the Savernake Forest Hotel, which lay at the Western end of the horse-path. Sadly, it’s a beer-garden no more ………. and the hotel is a hotel no more.

So, let’s stroll along the tow-path to Wootton Rivers. A westbound canal boat would have had to ‘lock-up’ to the top level before entering the tunnel. At Wootton Rivers, it will need to ‘lock-down’. That’s why canal boating doesn’t really appeal to me. It’s the only outdoor pursuit that I know of where going downhill is just as strenuous as going uphill!

But, nevertheless, canals, especially the Kennet & Avon still have an irresistible attraction for me.  As a photographer, and I’m always on the lookout for colour and atmosphere. Canals have it in plenty.


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