KENNET AND AVON CANAL PATH
Stage 5: Hungerford to Thatcham
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
The sun was shining brightly when I returned to Hungerford Wharf (picture 1) after a couple of days off the trail. The Kennet and Avon Canal Path heads under Hungerford Bridge and follows the towpath past a large brick building and a wooden footbridge to reach a wooden gate (picture 2).
Beyond moorings and a second gate, the Canal Path reaches Dun Mill Lock (picture 3) and crosses the canal via the adjoining brick-faced bridge. The winding course of the River Kennet comes up beside the canal for the first time here (picture 4) and parallels it most of the way along to Wire Lock before looping away again.
From Wire Lock, a tarmac lane runs alongside the canal for a hundred metres before the towpath resumes and follows a gentle right-hand curve under the Great Western Railway. A few minutes walk later, the canal goes through Brunsden Lock, where the obsolete bridge is grassed over (picture 5), like several of the more isolated bridges over the canal.
The next stretch of the path is sandwiched between the canal and the railway line. After about a kilometre the path crosses a footbridge over a man-made channel that feeds water from the River Kennet into the canal opposite the village of Kintbury (picture 6).
The towpath heads under a bridge and up to Kintbury Lock (picture 7). Just beyond the next bridge the Dundas Arms stands opposite the towpath on the large lock island (picture 8). The pub is named after Charles Dundas, the first chairman of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, for whom the Dundas Aqueduct (passed on Day 2) was also named.
A short distance further, a footbridge crosses another channel that allows excess water from the canal to flow back into the River Kennet. Leaving Kintbury behind, the canal closely shadows the Kennet for the next kilometre to the lonely Shepherd's Bridge and onward past the first of several World War II pillboxes on the day's walk (picture 9). Some of the old pillboxes now provide homes for bats.
After another kilometre, a footbridge crosses Dreweatt's Weir onto the lock island of Dreweatt's Lock (picture 10). It's a slightly shorter gap, passing another pillbox, to reach the shaded Copse Lock (picture 11). Just below Copse Lock, a long wooden footbridge crosses the junction where the canal merges into the natural course of the River Kennet (picture 12).
Three hundred metres later the canal and the river diverge again, this time with the river on the far side of the canal. The canal soon passes through Hamstead Lock then bends right to pass a long brick building at Benham Marsh Farm (picture 13).
The Kennet rejoins the canal after a little less than a kilometre, but it's a brief encounter as the river soon drops over a weir that the towpath crosses on a footbridge guarded by another pillbox. About 700 metres later I passed a family of swans foraging in the pool between Benham Lock and Benham Bridge (picture 14).
A little further on, the canal bends left to pass under a railway bridge (picture 15), then back to the right to pass by Higgs' Lock and under the noisy dual carriageway of the A34. A plaque under the bridge says that it received an award from the Concrete Society in the year 2000.
About 500 metres later, the Canal Path switches sides of the canal via a bridge attached to Guyer's Lock (picture 16).
Now on the right-hand side of the canal, the path passes three large fields to reach houses at West Fields (picture 17), a suburb of the large town of Newbury. Opposite the houses, the main channel of the River Kennet joins the canal again before flowing under the large wooden Monkey Bridge. From this point, the remainder of the Kennet and Avon Canal uses the Kennet Navigation, which was opened in the 1720s to make the River Kennet navigable from Newbury down to the Thames at Reading.
The towpath passes a large block of allotment gardens before joining a sealed path in front of houses opposite a foliage-covered former mill building (picture 18). The sealed path soon becomes a lane that leads to a swing bridge opposite a tall former granary building, now converted to apartments (picture 19). The Canal Path crosses the swing bridge onto the lock island of Newbury Lock, which is about 200 metres ahead along the towpath. The 15th-century St Nicolas Church stands a short distance over to the right of the lock (picture 20), while a paved area to the left of the lock shows the outline of the former lock-keeper's cottage, which burned down in 1989, 31 years after the last lock-keeper departed.
Beyond the lock a footbridge crosses from the end of the lock island to the Lock, Stock & Barrel pub, where the path is forced to turn away from the canal and follow an alley around the left side of the building to cross Bridge Street in Newbury's bustling town centre.
I left the path here to have a look around the town. To the left, Bridge Street becomes Northbrook Street then eventually The Broadway, at the top of which stands the Clock Tower (picture 21), built in 1929. In the opposite direction, Bridge Street crosses the canal on Town Bridge to reach the pedestrianised Market Place, where the Town Hall (picture 22) stands on the right and the Victorian Corn Exchange (picture 23) stands a bit further down on the left. At the bottom of the Market Place, I stopped for lunch at the Catherine Wheel pub. On my way back to rejoin the Canal Path, I made a short diversion for a closer look at St Nicholas Church (picture 24).
From Bridge Street, a path leads back down to the canal, where flocks of swans and ducks were looking expectantly at passers-by (picture 25). The canal goes around a fairly sharp right-hand bend to pass under a road bridge and arrive at Victoria Park, a large municipal park that includes a boating lake (picture 26). Opposite the park is Newbury Wharf, where barges plying the Kennet Navigation were loaded and unloaded until the railway took over most of the town's freight business in the mid-1800s.
After going under the A339, the towpath passes opposite the long, narrow Newbury Marina (picture 27) and then alongside another large plot of allotment gardens and the small Greenham Lock Marina to reach Greenham Lock (picture 28).
From the lock-side, the path crosses a footbridge over the entrance of the marina and continues down the left-hand side of the canal for 300 metres to the unnamed Bridge 53. The Canal Path crosses the bridge and follows the tree-lined towpath down the right-hand side of the canal, passing opposite the Newbury Boat Company Marina (picture 30) just before heading past Ham Lock and up to Ham Bridge.
The bridge is crossed to return to the left side of the canal, where the towpath runs for almost a kilometre to Bull's Lock and under the Great Western Railway. Beyond the railway bridge, the canal runs through the Thatcham Read Beds (picture 31), a nature reserve where several large gravel pits have been flooded to form ponds, though these are mostly hidden from view by the trees that line the towpath here.
About a kilometre into the reserve, the River Kennet splits from the far bank of the Kennet Navigation, the latter passing through Widmead Lock, from which a straight stretch of canal runs for around one and a half kilometres to Monkey Marsh Lock (picture 32), the first of only two turf-sided locks left on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Originally all of the locks built around 1720 on the Kennet Navigation between Newbury and Reading were turf-sided, with sloping turf banks instead of brick or stone walls.
About 300 metres beyond the lock, the towpath reaches a bridge carrying Chamberhouse Mill Lane and swaps sides of the canal yet again. However, rather than cross the bridge, I chose to leave the Canal Path here, having covered 20.3 kilometres from Hungerford. Thatcham Railway Station is less than a minute's walk to the left, while the town of Thatcham lies on the far side of the tracks.