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The Kennet and Avon Canal is a canal in southern England.
The name may be used to refer to the route of the original Kennet and Avon Canal Company, which linked the River Kennet at Newbury to the River Avon at Bath, or to the entire navigation between the River Thames at Reading and the Floating Harbour at Bristol.
In the latter case, the earlier improved river navigations of the River Kennet (between Reading and Newbury) and River Avon (between Bath and Bristol) are included.
The River Kennet was made navigable to Newbury in 1723, and the River Avon to Bath followed suit in 1727. The canal between Newbury and Bath was opened in 1810 and is 57 miles (92 km) long. Taken together, the two earlier river navigations and the later canal total 87 miles (140 km) in length.
In the later 19th and early 20th centuries the canal fell into disuse following competition from the Great Western Railway who owned the canal.
In the latter half of the 20th century the canal was restored, largely by volunteers, and today is a popular heritage tourism destination, for boating, canoeing, fishing, walking and cycling. The canal is also important for wildlife conservation.
The section from Bristol to Bath is the course of the River Avon which flows through a wide valley, but has been made navigable by a series of locks and weirs. In Bath the canal separates from the river but follows its valley as far as Bradford on Avon. The ornate Bath locks lead to a stretch through Limpley Stoke valley with few locks. The spectacular flights of locks at Devizes and Crofton raise the canal to its highest level, the long 'summit pound' which includes the Bruce Tunnel. Pumping stations are used to supply the canal with water. The canal continues through the rural landscape of Wiltshire and Berkshire to Newbury where it joins the River Kennet and becomes a navigable river to Reading where it flows into the River Thames.
The idea of an east-west waterway link across southern England was first mooted in Elizabethan times based on the fact that the Avon and Thames are only 3 miles (4.8 km) apart at one point. The sea route between Bristol and London was hazardous during the 18th and early 19th centuries, because Atlantic storms and the rugged coast line took their toll on the small coastal sailing ships of the day, and also because a succession of conflicts with France and her allies, frequently made British cargo ships navigating the English channel, the prey of both privateers and warships of the French navy.
Although plans had been discussed for a canal, no action was taken until the early 18th century when the Avon navigation from Bristol to Bath and the Kennet navigation through Reading were built to meet local needs, independently of each other, but both under the supervision of surveyor-engineer John Hoare.
In 1788 the so-called "Western Canal" was proposed to improve trade and communication links to towns such as Hungerford, Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham and Melksham along its proposed route, although even at that time there were doubts about the adequacy of the water supply.
In 1793 a further survey was conducted by John Rennie and the route changed to a more southerly course encompassing Great Bedwyn, Devizes, Trowbridge and Newbury. This was accepted, by the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, chaired by Charles Dundas, and on 17 April 1794 the Kennet and Avon Canal Act received Royal assent and construction began.
The canal opened in 1810 after 16 years of construction, including the building of a number of aqueducts (including Dundas and Avoncliff), locks and pumping stations. The pumping stations, at Claverton and Crofton, were needed to overcome water supply problems.
The final, and perhaps most impressive engineering feat being the completion of the Caen Hill locks at Devizes.
The opening of the Great Western Railway in 1841 relieved the canal of much of its traffic, and in 1852 the railway company took over its running, levying high tolls until the canal was hardly used.
The Somerset Coal Canal and Wilts and Berks Canal which supplied some of the trade from the Somerset coalfield to the Kennet and Avon closed in 1904 and 1906 respectively.
During World War II a large number of concrete bunkers known as pillboxes were built as part of the GHQ Line to defend against an expected German invasion, and many of these are still visible today.
By the 1950s large portions of the canal were closed because of poor lock maintenance.
In 1956 the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust successfully petitioned against its legal closure.
In 1963 the newly formed British Waterways took over the canal and began restoration work.
The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust was formed in the 1960s to restore the then-closed Kennet & Avon Canal from Reading to Bristol as a "through" navigation and as a public amenity. Since then, in partnership with British Waterways and the riparian local authorities, the Trust has continued to work to safeguard the navigation.
In 1990 Queen Elizabeth II reopened the canal.
In 1996 the ongoing problem of water shortage was resolved when new backpumps were installed at the flight of 29 Caen Hill locks in Devizes at a cost of UK£1 million. The pumps raise water 235 feet (72 m) at a rate of 300,000 imperial gallons per hour (380 L/s).
The Kennet & Avon Canal Partnership attracted the largest single National Lottery grant ever to be awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund - UK£25 million towards a UK£29 million project, to complete the restoration and to make it operational, sustainable and accessible for the enjoyment of future generations.
The completion of restoration was celebrated in May 2003 with a visit from HRH Prince Charles. The canal today is a heritage tourism destination. Boating, with both narrowboats and cruisers, is popular, particularly in the summer months, with privately owned craft and hire boats from the range of marinas being much in evidence, and there are numerous canoe clubs along the its length. The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon is held annually starting from Devizes Wharf, the site of the Kennet & Avon Canal Museum, at first light on Good Friday each year and the competitors have to negotiate 75 locks in the 125-mile route between Devizes and the finish at Westminster. The winning time is usually around 17½ hours.
Cycling is permitted along the length of the canal towpath except for a short 600-metre (656 yard) section near Woolhampton. Some sections of the canal towpath have been improved to provide a wider path which is more suitable for cyclists and disabled users. Under a partnership arrangement involving British Waterways, Sustrans and the riparian Local Authorities, two main sections of the canal have been improved, and, with a few short diversions, run from Reading to Marsh Benham and from Devizes to Bath as part of the National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 4.
Fishing for bream, tench, roach, rudd, perch, gudgeon, pike and carp is permitted throughout the year from the towpath of the canal, but almost the whole length of the canal is leased to Angling Associations or Fishing Clubs.
There are a variety of riverside pubs, shops and tea rooms. The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust also operates shops and tearooms at; Aldermaston Lock, Newbury Wharf, Crofton Pumping Station, Devizes and Bradford on Avon.
The canal is also important for wildlife conservation, with a variety of birds including Herons and Kingfishers, small vertebrate and invertebrate animals and reeds and other plant life along the edges of the canal. Over 100 different species of bird have been recorded in surveys over the length of the canal. Of these 38 could be classified as specialist waterway birds with 14 species confirmed as breeding including Sand Martins (Riparia riparia) which nest in the drain-pipes in the brick walls of the canal in the centre of Reading. The rare Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) is found at various places along the canal. Wilton Water by Crofton locks and the Kennet Valley gravel pits provide habitats for breeding and wintering waterfowl. The Red Kite (Milvus milvus) has also been seen in Great Bedwyn. Several Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which exhibit great bio-diversity are situated along the canal. Key sites which are home to several rare species include the Aldermaston Gravel Pits, Woolhampton and Thatcham Reed Beds and Freeman's Marsh, Hungerford. There are also many non-statutory nature reserves throughout the length of the canal. Several species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) have also been identified. Measures to preserve and create Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius or A. terrestrisis) habitat have had considerable impact on the restoration of the canal and new techniques of bank protection have been developed which are ‘vole friendly’.
The Floating Harbour in Bristol, is a 70 acre (0.28 km²) harbour was created by installing lock gates on a tidal stretch of the River Avon in the centre of the city, giving it the name Floating Harbour as it is not affected by the tides. The harbour branches from the navigable River Avon at Netham Lock in east Bristol. The first mile of the harbour is the artificial Feeder Canal, the River following its original route. Beside Bristol Temple Meads railway station the harbour rejoins the original route of the Avon and meanders through, Bristol city centre, Canon's Marsh and Hotwells, where it rejoins the river and flows into the Avon Gorge. Between Temple Meads and Hotwells, at a distance never more than one kilometre south of the harbour, the Avon flows through the artificial New Cut, reducing currents and silting in the harbour and preventing flooding.
East of Netham Lock is the Avon Navigation, which continues upstream for 12 miles (19.31 km) as far as Bath. The river Avon had been navigable from Bristol to Bath during the early years of the 13th century but construction of mills on the river forced its closure. The first cargo of 'Deal boards, Pig-Lead and Meal' arrived in Bath in December 1727. The stretch is made navigable by the use of locks and weirs at Hanham, Keynsham, Swineford, Saltford, Kelston and Weston, which together overcome a rise of 30 feet (9.15 m). The Avon is continuously navigable from its mouth at Avonmouth as far as Pulteney weir in the centre of the city of Bath.
The Kennet and Avon Canal connects with the Avon just below this weir and Bath Locks. Together with the Kennet Navigation and the River Thames it provides a through route for canal boats from Bristol to London.
Several areas along this stretch have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, including; Bickley Wood, Cleeve Wood, Hanham, Stidham Farm near Keynsham, and Newton Saint Loe (for geological reasons as it represents the only remaining known exposure of fossiliferous Pleistocene gravels along the River Avon).
Bath locks mark the divergence of the river Avon and the canal, 600 m south of Pulteney Bridge. Alongside the bottom lock is a side pound and pumping station which pumps water up the locks to replace that used each time the lock is opened. The next stage of Bath deep lock is numbered 8/9 as two locks were combined when the canal was restored in 1976. The new chamber has a depth of 19 feet 5 inches (5.92 m), making it Britain's deepest canal lock. Just above the 'deep lock' is an area of water enabling the lock to refill and above this is Wash House lock, followed by Abbey View lock, by which there is another pumping station and, in quick succession, Pultney lock and Bath top lock.
Above the top lock the canal passes through Sydney Gardens including two short tunnels and under two cast iron footbridges dating from 1800. Cleveland tunnel is 173 feet (52.73 m) long and runs under Cleveland House, the former headquarters of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company. A trap-door in the tunnel roof was employed to exchange paperwork between clerks above and bargees below. This is now a grade II* listed building. Many of the bridges over the canal are also listed buildings.
Dundas Aqueduct, built in 1805, lies between Bradford on Avon and Bath. Here the canal crosses high above the River Avon and the railway line.
In the Avon valley to the east of Bath, the classic geographical example of a valley with all four forms of ground transport is found: road, rail, river, and the canal. The canal passes Claverton Pumping Station, which was used to pump water from the river Avon into the canal, and then crosses over the river and railway at Dundas Aqueduct and back over them again at the Avoncliff Aqueduct.
At the western end of the Dundas Aqueduct the canal is joined by the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal, of which a short stretch has been restored to form the Brass Knocker basin.
It was in Bradford on Avon that the first sod was cut for the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1794 and soon afterwards there were wharves above and below Bradford lock. Next to the canal, a little way west of the lock, is a huge 14th century tithe barn. Further east are swing bridges, the Semington locks in the little village of Semington, where the Wilts and Berks Canal joined, and Seend. This section of the canal passes through agricultural land with occasional woodlands.
Several sites on, or very close to, the canal have been designated by English Nature as Sites of Special Scientific Interest including; Brown's Folly, Gripwood Quarry and Inwood, Warleigh.
Caen Hill locks, at Devizes, provide a spectacular vision of the engineering needed to build and maintain the canal. The main flight of 16 locks forms part of a longer series of 29 locks. The total rise is 237 feet in just 2 miles (72 m in 3.2 km) or a 1 in 30 gradient, making Caen Hill the steepest flight of locks in the world.
The locks come in three groups: seven at Foxhangers, sixteen at Caen Hill and six at the town end of the flight. Whilst the locks were under construction in the early 1800s a tramroad provided a link between Foxhangers, at the bottom of the flight, and Devizes at the top, the remains of which can be seen in the towpath arches in the road bridges over the canal.
Because a large volume of water is needed for the locks to operate a back pump was installed at Foxhangers in 1996, capable of returning 32 million litres (7 million UK gallons) of water per day to the top of the flight which is equivalent to one lockful every eleven minutes.
They were the last part of the 87 mile route of the canal to be completed. Because of the steepness of the terrain there was not the space to use the normal arrangement of water pounds between the locks. As a result, the 16 locks utilise unusually large side ponds to store the water needed to operate. In the early 19th century, 1829–43, the flight was lit by gas lights. The locks take 5–6 hours to travel in a boat and lock 41 is the narrowest on the canal.
Beyond Devizes the canal passes through Wiltshire countryside and a series of locks and swing bridges before another flight at Crofton.
Between Wootton top lock and Crofton is the summit pound of the canal at 450 feet (137 m) above sea level, which stretches for about 2 miles (3.21 km)and includes the Bruce Tunnel which is 502 yards (459 m) long. The nine locks at Crofton achieve a total rise/fall of 61 feet (18.59 m). Water is pumped to the summit at the western end of the locks, from Wilton Water, by the restored Crofton Pumping Station. The original steam powered pumping station is preserved and still operates on selected weekends; it contains one of the oldest operational Watt style beam engines in the world, dating from 1812, although for day to day operation, the pumping station now uses electric pumps, automatically controlled by the water level in the summit pound.
Near Crofton is Savernake Forest and the remains of a railway bridge which carried the Midland and South Western Junction Railway over the canal. This section of the canal passes through agricultural land with occasional woodlands.
Several sites on or very close to the canal have been dsignated by English Nature as Sites of Special Scientific Interest including; Jones's Mill, Freeman's Marsh, Kennet and Lambourn Floodplain, Kennet Valley Alderwoods, Irish Hill Copse and the River Kennet SSSI.
The River Kennet is navigable from Newbury downstream to the junction with the River Thames at Kennet Mouth, in Reading. The stretch from Newbury to High Bridge in Reading is an improved river navigation known as the Kennet Navigation, which was opened in 1723. Throughout this navigation, stretches of natural riverbed alternate with 11 miles (17.70 km) of artificially created lock cuts and a series of locks that together overcome a fall of 130 feet (39.63 m).
Below Colthrop Lock in Thatcham, the river leaves behind the built up area of Newbury and runs in generally rural surroundings. The village of Woolhampton and the canal settlement of Aldermaston Wharf are the only significant settlements encountered until the river starts entering the built-up area of Reading at Sheffield Lock in Theale.
Even after this, the river is isolated from Reading's suburbs by a wide flood plain surrounding the river, and the surrounding town is far from obvious. In this stretch Garston Lock, the last remaining turf sided lock on the navigation, is passed. Shortly after passing Fobney Lock and the associated water treatment works, the Kennet flood plain narrows and the river enters a narrow steep-sided gap in the hills forming the southern flank of the Thames flood plain. At County Lock, the river enters the centre of Reading, where the river formerly flowed through the centre of a large brewery. The narrow and twisting stretch of the river here became known as Brewery Gut and, because of the poor visibility and difficulty of boats passing in this stretch, boat traffic has long been controlled by a set of maritime traffic lights.
Today the Brewery Gut forms a major feature of The Oracle shopping centre. Immediately after The Oracle, the river flows under the historic arched High Bridge, which forms a historical and administrative divide on the river. The last mile of the River Kennet in Reading below the bridge has been navigable since at least the thirteenth century. It was the absence of a floodplain on this stretch of the Kennet that enabled the development of wharves and led to Reading's importance as a river port in the middle ages.
Originally this short stretch of river, which includes Blake's Lock, was under the control of Reading Abbey, but today it is administered by the Environment Agency as if it were part of the River Thames.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest on the stretch between Newbury and Reading include; reed beds at Thatcham and Woolhampton and Aldermaston Gravel Pits.