Bradford on Avon – Avoncliffe – Bradford on Avon practice walk
At some point on the journey from Poole to Trowbridge, I make two decisions: firstly, I’ll go to Bradford on Avon and undertake a practice walk in readiness for tomorrow’s hike. The weather is superb and sitting in a Silver Street Lane bungalow watching the childless ones cooing over a baby doesn’t readily present itself as an agreeable alternative. Secondly, I’ll do the thing properly and purchase a pedometer.
The only place left before my revised destination with any chance of a pedometer emporium is Warminster. It doesn’t bode well. Warminster has been shut for about fifty years although I’m pleasantly surprised to locate a sports shop which is both open and in possession of half price walking ephemera.
At Bradford on Avon, I emerge from a newly discovered car park which has been constructed at a position handy for the canal. Strangely, access is through a reasonably upmarket estate which must be irritating for residents. Still, I don’t live here so I’m not bothered. However, the estate has disorientated me a little so that even though I find myself at the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust shop and tearoom, I feel the need to seek reassurance regarding the appropriate direction to follow.
The last time I began walking the canal to Bath, it was after leaving my car in the railway station car park some way further on. I don’t want to inadvertently begin tomorrow’s hike. I choose a woman laden down with bright orange Sainsbury’s bags on the basis that she must be a local. She speaks no English or if she does she’s not letting on.
At Avoncliff, I try unsuccessfully to cross the aqueduct. This business with bridges is getting worse as I grow older. My grandma had a similar problem. The minute I step away from the edge, legs become jelly and I’m engulfed by panic. I have no idea how I managed when I did the walk to Bath last year at which point Avoncliff was a mere taster for the glorious Dundas Aqueduct a few miles on. I’ve given up smoking since then. It must have been the knowledge that I could have a fag previously that kept me going
The weather is unbelievable and I decide to treat myself to lunch in the garden of the Cross Guns. This, according to the blurb, is an idyllic sixteenth century riverside inn where I will enjoy panoramic views whilst eating sumptuous food. In the bar, a woman of indeterminate years with an extraordinarily coiffured mullet informs hungry walkers that there is no food due to ‘yesterday’. Yesterday was Easter Monday and presumably the joint was overrun by holidaymakers seeking a spot of sumptuousness. Bastards. I consider a sandwich but the price of said item reflects the location of the only pub for miles with nothing else to offer the starving. I opt for a packet of mini-cheddars which I devour with some vigour whilst enjoying the panoramic views.
This brilliant sunshine is excellent news, particularly for those of us with a pedometer to recharge. Sadly, the cut-price sale bargain seems to be of little use. It’s indicating that I’ve already walked thirteen miles. I think I’ll dispose of it and calculate distances according to the signposts.
Later, I go to Matalan to buy clothes that are more suitable for the heat.
Day Two: Bradford on Avon to Semington
I enjoy a hearty breakfast in the company of the Trowbridge contingent with whom I’d stayed overnight once their place became a baby-free zone. One of them is on a diet. It’s a very strange diet. Apparently, you can enjoy a Chinese take-away as long as rice isn’t involved. In the country park café, the regime allows bacon, sausage and egg but no toast. Afterwards, they drive me back to Bradford on Avon for Day One of the journey proper.
They are to accompany me for a short way along the tow path. The one who’s not on a diet has been poorly lately and managed to lose a stone in weight without trying, let alone giving up on bread. He thinks he might not be able to walk too far. As it happens, it’s such a glorious morning, filled to the brim with the goodness of warming sunshine, that they decide to continue beyond their planned stopping point. And once they get to the new destination, they carry on past there too. The poorly one hasn’t felt this good for months. We look over at Widbrook Woods which are relatively new and are currently boasting a spread of sheltered primroses. Then, overcome by the demands of their new roles as travelling companions, those two decide they’re in need of coffee.
As there are no welcoming or even unwelcoming hostelries to hand, they turn tail and head back to Bradford on Avon leaving me on a solitary path.
Shortly after, I look down to where the River Biss joins the River Avon. I hadn’t really noticed that I was high enough to look down on anything but my map indicates that the Biss and Ladydown aqueducts are approaching. I wonder how I will cope but, in fact, when I reach them, they’re barely noticeable. It’s true that I’m on considerably higher land than I’d imagined but the drop to what passes below isn’t fearful: a small amount of water, the Biss, piddles its way under the first, and the mainline railway from Bristol to somewhere else runs under the second.
Trowbridge looms but, luckily, it’s largely hidden behind a small industrial site. I’m able to bypass the town which is about the best thing that can be done with Trowbridge.
A rare signpost informs me that I’ve already come two miles. The new Hilperton Marina is just around the corner and I’m looking forward to coffee and the loo. When we were young, sixteen or seventeen, Jenny had a flat in Hilperton. We used to go there on a Sunday afternoon to watch old black and white films on the television and eat tinned fruit with ideal milk. I don’t know why. It must have been the thing to do. There’s never been much to choose between in the way of exciting activities in the Trowbridge environs. There’s no fruit, ideal milk or coffee at Hilperton today. Nothing. A posh new marina but not a solitary pub, café or hostelry of any description. I ask a man sitting on a bench if he knows anywhere I could purchase a cup of coffee. ‘Bradford on Avon’, he suggests helpfully.
I continue along the towpath and meet a woman cleaning her narrow boat. She’s one of those foreigners who are taking all the new houses in Trowbridge according to locals. Well, does anyone else want them? Anyway, she lives on a boat. It’s probably a boat that an English family should be living in. I ask the same question. She has thrilling news. Apparently, if I leave the canal at Hilperton Road Bridge, I will find a pub. Sure enough, there on the bridge is a sign advertising The Kings Arms.
The Kings Arms looks about as near to collapse as is possible for a still standing building. It has a sign attached to its façade informing me that I can rent it should I choose. I cross the road and purchase an election-ridden newspaper at the Co-op. I can read the paper whilst I enjoy my coffee. Although the Co-op has a petrol station, it doesn’t have an accompanying loo. Well, not one that I’m allowed to use. I ask the woman in this place that’s doing more than a passable impression of Royston Vasey if she thinks the pub is open. The sour faced woman peers through the window and says that it looks open enough to her. ‘Really’, I ask? I hate to think what it looks like when it’s shut, but she’s finished with me. I am dismissed. I retrace my steps back to the Kings Arms where I intend to thoroughly enjoy a cup of their best coffee whilst reading The Guardian. Except, of course, it’s shut. Shut down I feel. Back on the canal, I take the first gap in the hedge and pass an alfresco pee on the edge of a ploughed field before heading on to Semington.
It’s a pleasant enough stretch but it’s the continuation of seven miles without a coffee emporium. I consider a previous nine mile walk from Bradford on Avon to Bath. Along that stretch of the Kennet and Avon there’s the pub at Avoncliff and quite a good café past the Dundas Aqueduct. After that, it’s about five miles with nothing to drink until the George at Bathampton. Someone’s missing a trick here. I ask a family on a narrow boat heading in the opposite direction to me how far they think it is to anywhere. They were having quite a peaceful time of it up until this point. Individually and collectively they think the answer might be ‘some distance’. I am minded of the general Dorset answer to anything that might require a quantitative measurement – ‘quite a few’. At the fishmonger, ‘how many mussels do I need for five people?’ Quite a few. At a carnival committee meeting, ‘how many marshals will we need?’ Quite a few. However, having reached a consensus, the people on the boat now begin to argue with each other about how far ‘some distance’ might actually be. I wander away quietly.
Some time later, I come across two men in Canal Trust tee-shirts who are pushing what appears to be a motorised wheelbarrow along the towpath. Even though I know I’m probably causing trouble, I dare to ask about the potential for coffee. I helpfully point out that there’s been nowhere since Bradford on Avon, which is somewhere in the distant past both geographically and psychologically; a sort of aboriginal Wiltshire dreamtime. One of the men tells me that if I’m looking for solitude I’ve come to the right place. I feel obliged to remonstrate: ‘solitude is no problem to me my good man but caffeine might help me along life’s path’. His colleague kindly offers me a sip of his water but I have my own. It strikes me that I am wreaking emotional havoc along this section of the canal: I’ve already spoiled one family’s morning and now these representatives of the Canal Trust clearly feel they’ve been next to useless. In a last ditch attempt to redeem the situation, they suggest that if I leave the canal at the next bridge, cross two fields, turn right and walk along a main road for a while, I’ll come to Hilperton. The two of them debate how far this might be. Some distance, they agree. I wander away quietly.
It’s a truth that there’s no available refreshment between Bradford on Avon and Semington. There’s a short cut across the fields from Semington swing bridge to the Somerset Arms. However, the swing bridge is currently open for canal traffic and there seems little likelihood of it closing again this side of Whitsuntide. I pass on to Semington road bridge where there is unexpected but welcome information about this point where the Wilts and Berks canal once joined the Kennet and Avon. I am confused, particularly by the mention of Camilla who, it seems, once stuck a handy spade in the currently missing Wilts and Berks whilst trying to find interesting ways of filling in time waiting to become queen. I clamber up to the road bridge and hurry to the Somerset Arms which is to be my billet for the night.
The Somerset Arms describes itself as boasting luxury accommodation. It doesn’t. Following a few afternoon zs, I return to the canal hoping for a spot of action at Buckley’s Lock. An enormous unattractive man sporting a peaked cap with ‘captain’ embroidered upon, and clutching a large glass of wine in the hand not in contact with any part of his narrow boat, shouts instructions to a woman and child in charge of manipulating the lock gates. There’s a lot of this sort of thing on canals: the peaceful beauty of bygone travelling days is also a fine opportunity for the verbal and physical abuse of women and children that we so nostalgically remember. Mostly, however, these two take little notice of Captain Flab. From my viewpoint on a handy bench, I derive considerable satisfaction from watching him sink below the line of sight as the lock empties even though we can still hear him shouting. After he’s passed through and the slaves have been dispatched in search of a handy mooring, another crew arrives from the opposite direction. A new, potentially oppressed woman in charge of a number of battered children and a boisterous Springer Spaniel called Willow take their places at the lock. As the waters rise, so too another male head gradually appears above the parapet issuing orders to anyone with half a mind to listen.
If you want solitude, avoid the locks where the nouveau riche pass noisily by on their rustic hols. A pleasant man strides by in the evening sunshine and I look up from my note-book. ‘What more could you ask for’, he enquires genially? ‘A drink’, I respond. The face of the pleasant man drops like a stone. ‘Yes’, he replies despondently in the voice of one who has momentarily forgotten the existence of alcohol. He wanders away, sadly.
Day Three: Semington to Devizes.
At 9.25am, I’m sat on a bench dedicated to Olive and Harry Barrett who apparently loved this view. I’m barely surprised. It’s particularly lovely, especially in this morning’s sunshine which already seems even warmer than yesterday. The early Spring cardi has already been discarded. If I knew what the future/past tense looked like, should it exist, I would tell you that this stretch of the Kennet and Avon is/will be/was far more attractive than the previous. I’m already past Seend and having stopped to take a photo of the contradictory Fareham Towers – both spookily gothic and early-morning beautiful – I’m now looking over gentle slopes of dew-soaked pasture where one or two horses are munching contentedly.
At first, I think the graceful undulations must be the remains of ancient bronze aged earthworks. A study of my map informs me that these are the leftovers of Victorian ironworks.
Despite this being the longest stretch I will walk over these three days, I write few notes. Perhaps this is a reflection of the constant pleasure afforded by the gentle countryside: sheep and horses grazing at the edge of a canal and, unexpectedly peering through a warm haze, a field of alpaca. I see very few people during the early miles apart from a man heading purposely towards me carrying a lock handle. Yes, a man. Drifting downstream comes the narrow boat with his good lady at the helm. I tell her he’s the first man I’ve seen in three days about to open a lock and congratulate her achievement.
For me, the beauty of walking towpaths is that they’re flat. I’m not a fan of hills. However, the main reason for this particular jaunt is to see the Caen Hill Locks. And there’s the contradiction: hill. Caen Hill Locks comprise a scheduled ancient monument being, as they are, the steepest lock flight in the world.
By the time I reach the café at the top of the 237 feet climb, after seven miles of walking, every part of my body is complaining. There’s a certain smugness of accomplishment to enjoy though. My three day walk from Bradford on Avon, with its preamble, daily deviations and onward trip to Devizes Wharf, constituted around 18 miles. Before the end of the holiday, I’ll add another seven miles on a return day trip through Bath. None of it’s going to be recorded in the annals of great canal journeys but I loved it. Meanwhile, I sit on the grass canal-side in Devizes with a large slab of Victoria sponge and wait for the Trowbridge contingent to collect me.
Kennet and Avon Canal: Bathampton – Green Park – Bathampton
The April weather continues to be stunning. Folk are foreseeing wall to wall sunshine for the next three months at least but I’m due back at work on Tuesday. On Sunday evening, I make a last minute plan to drive up to Bath the following morning and enjoy the Kennet and Avon in Sydney Gardens. It won’t be a trek – more of a relaxing in-depth look at the canal in the city. On the day, however, it seems that events are conspiring against me: the A36 at Claverton Down is shut which means that I have to crawl through Bradford on Avon with the rest of the world and approach Bath from the ‘wrong’ side of town. Sick of the inside of a Ford Fiesta, I abandon my original plan, take a sneaky left turn onto the toll road that runs through Bathampton and leave the vehicle behind The George.
To begin again at the pub is probably a better plan. The last time I walked this way was in the final stages of a nine mile trek from Bradford on Avon. Then, I was in no state of body or mind to absorb and enjoy this gorgeous and largely unknown stretch of the Kennet and Avon. Well, clearly it’s known to waterside residents and those who frequent the area by narrow boat. When I say unknown, I mean to those many thousands of folk who travel to Bath for the culture and history, unaware of central waterways other than the weir at Pulteney Bridge
The pictures tell the story but it’s worth saying a bit about Sydney Gardens of which tourists straying from the city centre see little further than the Holburne Museum. The Kennet and Avon runs a secret course behind the gardens through two small tunnels which wealthy residents of another era decorated ornately to disguise the fact that they lived close to a working class transport system. The Kennet and Avon arrived here in 1810 to carry coal from Bristol. Unless one knows otherwise, it’s an almost fortuitous accident to take an unannounced exit from the towpath and find yourself in the only remaining eighteenth century pleasure gardens in the country; like wandering through an invisible wardrobe into an Austen-like Narnia where the 39 feet high replica of Minerva’s temple awaits along with Peter and his dog.
Peter has been up to the Royal United Hospital this morning for the first of his twice weekly treatments. He tells me a lot about his life including where he lived previously – Clapham and Dorset – and why he’ll be moving again shortly: second time round fatherhood has produced an unanticipated son who needs to be schooled in Warminster for reasons as unexplained as Peter’s frequent visits to the Royal. He tells me a lot of other stuff too: Minerva’s temple was located here for the Bath Historical Pageant which, a handy plaque confirms, ran from 19 – 24 July in 1909. It’s quite a wrench to leave Peter: we’d got along so well on a number of levels but I had previously unseen parts of the canal to cover and anyway, his dog was bored.
The canal continues onward past a small modern marina and down to Widcombe locks. The one is as different from the other as could be: canal tourism followed by the authenticity of bygone days. The only thing they have in common is their proximity to the rumours of a transport bound city, of which there is no obvious indication here. In the current general election, the number one concern of the residents and potential representatives of Bath is road congestion and the lack of a transport policy. It’s what political success hinges upon. You’d be hard pressed to work this out in the calm of Widcombe.
However, I have to leave the canal for a few confusing minutes to negotiate one of the troublesome roads. Trying to locate the continuation of the towpath amongst the fumes and horns of an eternal road traffic jam is an unpleasant experience but I’m soon back on track heading for the place where the River Avon joins the canal. The contrast is quite stunning and I am almost alone.
Widcombe Road Bridge used to be known as Ha’penny Bridge due to the crossing toll imposed. It’s relatively unsightly but dates and lines carved into one of the bridge’s supports attract my attention. A solitary person is wandering along the embankment towards me with his eyes glued on his mobile telephone. I ask him if the dates and lines indicate previous flood levels. This seems to be the obvious explanation but it’s difficult to believe the water could have risen so high. On the 15 November, 1894, for example, the river rose 19 feet above its normal level. That’s a lot of water. The man with the phone knows nothing other than what’s currently trending on Twitter. He’s been coming this way every lunchtime for eons and has never previously noticed the markings. When I get home, I research this area and am amazed to discover the history of Bath’s floods.
This was taken in December 1960 in Southgate Street
I walk on into the remnants of Bath’s industrial canal side and eventually leave the water at the Midland Road Bridge. I’m confused by the leftovers of Green Park Station which is doing its unsuccessful best to become a regenerated area of post-modernism. I once had an important boyfriend who lived in Green Park but it’s impossible to locate his place of abode if it still exists. Even harder to remember what went on there. Unplanned, I cross the city on foot and stop by a solitary fruit and vegetable stall to eat my sandwich.
Momentarily displaced by vegetables that remind me of the other country, I purchase 6 artichokes. After all, I think, the plan is to take a taxi back to Bathampton. As it happens, there’s a dearth of taxis in Bath today and, taking a detour along Pultney Bridge to look at the weir which has virtually eradicated the Avon floods, I pass by the Holburne Museum and back into Sydney Gardens. What might have been a maximum of two miles has turned into a much longer trip. Dylan Thomas made his famous Return Journey devoid of a rucksack full of artichokes. No stamina, these writer types.