KENNET AND AVON CANAL PATH
Stage 2: Bath to Trowbridge
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
The morning sun shone brightly as I set out from Widcombe Lock (picture 1) for my second day on the Kennet and Avon Canal Path. Widcombe Lock (number 7) is the first of a series of locks that allow the canal to climb through the suburb of Dolemeads. Collectively these are known as the Bath Locks.
The towpath heads past a pool that holds water to feed the lock and then under two road bridges. Under the second bridge the path climbs steps beside the tall gates of Bath Deep Lock (picture 2) to emerge on the grassy lockside (picture 3). This was originally two locks (numbers 8 and 9), but these were combined when this part of the canal was restored in the 1970's. It is now the second deepest canal lock in Britain, raising the canal by 5.92 metres.
The towpath uses the road bridge to swap sides of the canal, which swings left immediately after Bath Deep Lock and reaches Washouse Lock (picture 4) within a few dozen paces.
The canal widens into a basin, broad enough for a canal-boat to turn around, before narrowing again to pass under Horseshoe Bridge (number 190) and through Horseshoe Bridge Lock. There's no room under the bridge for the towpath, so the Canal Path crosses at road level to reach the lockside (picture 5). When cargo barges were towed by horses, it must have been very slow to negotiate the climb out of Bath, having to untether the horses to get past several of the bridges.
Beside the lock is a little wooden hut named The Pump Shed and a rather ornately decorated stone chimney dating from 1833. These were part of the coal-fired system that pumped water uphill from the River Avon to replace the water lost each time the locks were used. The scheme was short-lived, and by 1855 the pumping station had been dismantled (except for the chimney) after a dispute with mill owners on the River Avon, who were very protective of their water supply. As part of the canal's restoration, electric pumps were installed to do the same job as the old pumping stations.
The towpath bends left again past another holding pool before passing Pultenay Gardens Lock (picture 7) and Bath Top Lock in quick succession. Beside the latter stands an attractive stone lock-keeper's cottage (picture 8). This is the end of the flight of locks, which raise the canal about twenty metres above the level of the Avon. These are the last locks for quite a while, as the pound above Bath Top Lock is almost fifteen kilometres long.
Now in the suburb of Bathwick, the tree-lined towpath passes moorings opposite the back gardens of terrace houses (picture 9) before reaching a bridge that carries Bathwick Hill over the canal. The bridge is used to swap sides of the canal again, the Canal Path heading down a cobbled path opposite Sydney Wharf (picture 10).
Beyond the wharf, a shady stretch of towpath (picture 11) leads up to the entrance of the Cleveland House Tunnel, which goes under the former headquarters of the company that built the canal. The towpath runs down the opposite side of the tunnel, so one must cross the canal in front of the house and loop back around (picture 12) to enter the tunnel.
It's fairly unusual for a canal tunnel to include a towpath. It was far more common for the bargeman to have to lay on top of his barge and "walk" along the tunnel roof to push the barge through the tunnel.
The 53 metre long tunnel is just tall enough to walk upright (picture 13). Originally the tunnel roof had a trapdoor to allow clerks in the offices above to exchange paperwork with the barges passing through the tunnel.
Emerging back into the light, the canal passes through Sydney Gardens (picture 14), a large area of parkland laid out in 1790. The gardens were cut into three sections by the construction of this stretch of the canal in 1800 and forty years later by the Great Western Railway, which runs less than 100 metres to the left of the canal here.
After passing under a couple of fancy wrought-iron footbridges built at the same time as the canal, the towpath leaves Sydney Gardens via another tunnel, this time with some ornamental stonework above the portal (picture 15). This tunnel leads to Darlington Wharf (picture 16).
Beyond Darlington Wharf, the canal bends right (picture 17), now immediately beside the Great Western Railway, but several metres above it. This was a busy stretch of the towpath, popular with joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. Finally leaving Bath's suburbs behind, a relatively straight stretch of the canal runs along the side of the Avon Valley for almost two kilometres to the village of Bathampton (picture 18), where Plasticine was invented in 1897 and manufactured until 1983.
Most of the village is over on the south side of the canal, but the cozy George Inn (picture 19) is right by the towpath and made an excellent lunch stop. The pub started its life in the 13th century as a monastery. Just beyond the bridge that joins the two parts of the village, further refreshment can be found on the Raft Cafe Boat (picture 20).
The canal turns right opposite Bathampton's playing fields, now heading southwards up the Avon Valley, which falls away towards the railway line and the river to the left of the path. This long stretch of the canal, now much quieter than before, passes a wooden swing bridge and the unnamed bridge 181 before reaching Ferry Lane Bridge (picture 21), which connects the village of Claverton on the right side of the canal with it's old pumping station across the railway to the left. The pumping station, which was powered by a waterwheel, raised water fourteen metres from the Avon to supply the canal.
The tree-lined canal continues to snake its way up the valley, eventually passing bridge 178 (picture 22), which is typical of the wooden swing bridges along the canal. Despite appearing to be quite heavy, they can be operated by one person.
A few gaps in the trees give views across the Avon Valley (picture 23) before the towpath swaps sides of the canal via Horse Bridge (picture 24).
The path heads along Dundas Wharf (picture 25), where the canal turns left to cross the railway and the River Avon on the Dundas Aqueduct (picture 26). At the end of the wharf, the path crosses a small lifting bridge over the junction with the Somerset Coal Canal (picture 27) to head onto the aqueduct. From here there is an attractive view back to the restored wharf with its toll-house and crane (picture 28).
The Somerset Coal Canal was open from 1801 to 1898 and connected the North Somerset Coalfields near Paulton and Radstock to the Kennet and Avon and thus to Bristol, Bath and London. The Coal Canal was narrow, with a maximum boat beam (width) of 2.1 metres compared to the Kennet and Avon's 4.1 metres. The first 400 metre stretch of the canal was restored in the late 1980's to provide extra moorings for the wharf. Most of the remaining seventeen kilometres of the waterway remains derelict but a larger restoration project began in 2014.
The Canal Path runs across the right-hand side of the aqueduct (picture 29), crossing the county border from Somerset into Wiltshire, which runs down the middle of the Avon here. The impressive 137 metre long structure, named after Charles Dundas, the first chairman of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, was built of Bath Stone in 1800 and is both a scheduled ancient monument and a Grade I listed building. It was designed by John Rennie, Chief Engineer for the canal, who was also responsible for the many of the road and footbridges on the canal. In 1857, an extra arch was added to the aqueduct by the Great Western Railway to allow their new Bath to Westbury line to pass under the canal.
Beyond moorings near the Wiltshire end of the aqueduct, the canal turns right to head along the edge of Conkwell Wood (picture 30), once again running parallel to the Avon. Shortly beyond the far end of the wood, the towpath passes under the stone bridge 175 before the canal swings left (picture 31) near the villages of Limpley Stoke and Freshford, which lie just across the Avon. Further on, the path passes opposite an outlying house of the village of Winsley (picture 32) just before the canal kinks right then left to approach the Avoncliff Aqueduct.
Once again the path uses the downstream side of the aqueduct (picture 33) to cross the railway line and the Avon (picture 34). On the other side, the path loops down to the right, past the Number 10 Tea Garden and under the aqueduct (picture 35). Turning sharp right in front of the Cross Guns pub (picture 36) leads back up to the towpath at the end of the aqueduct. (Crossing the upstream side of the aqueduct would lead to the quiet Avoncliff Railway Station.)
The Avoncliff Aqueduct was built at the same time as the Dundas Aqueduct. It is slightly shorter, at just over 100 metres. The lower half is built in alternating layers of two types of stone, giving it a banded appearance.
The next stretch of the canal runs along the edge of Barton Farm Country Park (picture 37), a long strip of land separating the canal from the Avon between Avoncliff and the town of Bradford-on-Avon. The first building on the edge of the town is a Grade I listed 14th-century Tithe Barn (picture 38) The fifty-one by ten metre barn was built for the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey to store the tithes given by local tenant-farmers. Inside, a medieval timber frame supports around 100 tonnes of roof slates. After the Dissolution, the barn became part of a farm. Behind the barn is a granary dating from 1400 (picture 39).
After looking around the barn and granary, I went for a wander into the town centre, which lies about 600 metres walk north from the tithe barn. By the time I rejoined the Canal Path the weather had turned overcast and would stay that way for the rest of the day.
The path soon crosses over the B3109 and along the left-hand side of Bradford-on-Avon Lock (picture 40), the first lock since leaving Bath. At the height of the canal's commercial life, the wharves just beyond the lock were among the busiest on the entire canal.
Beyond the wharves, both sides of the canal are lined with homes until it goes under a road bridge and swings left along the southern edge of Bradford, passing a World War II pillbox (picture 41). Just after a second bridge, the path passes opposite the large Bradford-on-Avon Marina (picture 42), which houses around 100 narrowboats.
The path is now back out in the countryside, with a large wood next to the towpath and open fields across the canal. After almost two kilometres the canal crosses over the River Biss, a minor tributary of the Avon, on the short Biss Aqueduct (picture 43) and then crosses the Bath to Westbury railway line again to arrive at Bridge 168 (picture 44) on the edge of Trowbridge, the county town of Wiltshire.
I left the canal here, having covered 19.2km of the Canal Path. After crossing over the bridge, a signposted path leads alongside the railway line to Trowbridge Station, just under two kilometres away.
I still had a couple of hours until sunset, so before catching a train back to my accommodation in Bristol, I went for a wander around the town centre, which lies immediately east of the station. The town centre has some grand buildings, most notably the 1889 Town Hall (picture 45) and the large church of St James (picture 46). On the south-eastern edge of the town centre is the large Town Park (picture 47), where the River Biss flows across one corner. On the way back to the station I passed the Wiltshire County Hall (picture 48), which opened in 1940.