On the morning after Boxing Day, the last of the festive visitors departed at early doors leaving me alone with sheets and towels, dusters and hoovers, leftover food, leftover rubbish and, unexpectedly, a leftover besom. I spoke to no-one all day and wandered no further abroad than the wheelie bins behind the shed. I felt deserted but relieved; sulky, yet content; tired and restless. By 7pm, I was looking for the next big thing. By 8pm, by I’d booked a billet handily located for re-joining the Kennet and Avon Canal the following morning somewhere close to where I’d last left it behind.
Here t’is. The amazing Westcourt Farm, built in1316. Outside my room was a beam bearing the mark of an Arabic carpenter. I couldn’t believe my luck – either in finding this place by serendipity too complicated to explain, or in staying with the owners, Rozzy and Jonny who invited me in for peppermint tea and Christmas cake.
Rozzy and Jonny had turkey at Christmas. Rozzy felt that this year’s swing towards geese was down to the storyline on The Archers. I knew I was going to fit in here for a couple of days. ‘How long can Rob carry on’, I asked her? ‘Not long, Helen’s not strong enough’.
(click on the picture and look at the map on the left)
Bruce and Moira have been holed up by the bridge at Great Bedwyn for three days due to inclement weather. They moored overnight with a view to spending Christmas Day aboard and were unable to leave due to the wind. I wanted to write that sentence without mentioning sprouts which have nothing to do with anything. Today, like me, they’re taking advantage of the wind dropping and a forecast that gives no more rain until Wednesday when Frank arrives.
Seven years ago, Bruce and Moira had their first canal holiday. They enjoyed it so much that they booked another straight away for the following year. But when they thought more about it, they felt a year was quite a long time to wait so they bought a barge of their own. Bill hasn’t cut his hair since. Now in his early sixties, he’s training to be a new age type.
The Great Western runs alongside the canal for a while. I shouldn’t applaud this fact as it was the Great Western that took control of this part of the Kennet and Avon in 1852 which very quickly led to the demise of the canal. Still, it’s interesting to see these two extremes of speed in close proximity and I may have need of a train in the not too distant future. After all, I last left the canal by means of a train from Pewsey so maybe I can catch one in the opposite direction later today. Or not.
Sooty’s back! Weasel readers might recall the mysterious appearance of Sooty a mile or so from Devizes on a previous hike. On that day, despite being in the middle of nowhere, he and his green tennis ball were accompanied by no-one. As I turn my gaze from the railway, I spy Sooty and his green ball once again. Surely not? Unlike our last meeting, there are boats to hand but Sooty doesn’t seem to belong to any of them. Actually, there are quite a lot of black and white dogs on this stretch. More of them later.
A couple of the early bridges have pill boxes on them. I’ve seen quite a sprinkling of pill boxes during my walks along the canal – they’re quite handy for lurking behind when caught short – but these are the first I’ve seen atop a bridge. They are part of something called the GHQ Line – Blue which was a defence system set up near waterways and railways during the Second World War in the face of an expected German invasion. Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring!
In the meantime, there’s the world famous Crofton Pumping Station to enjoy. It really is world famous as it contains the Crofton Beam Engines. I’ve given them capital letters because they are the oldest working steam engines IN THE WORLD.
Everywhere one looks, there are signs for the beam engines and I’d been informed by no end of folk that I should visit them, take tea in the marvellous café and perhaps purchase a meaningful souvenir from the gift shop. I was really looking forward to finding out more about the industrial heritage of the canal. The place was shut.
The weather is pleasing and the drift of wood smoke from the barges is delightfully evocative. The towpath, however, is a muddy affair on this late December morning and walking is not easy. No matter, I’m in no hurry. Mouth full of festive kit-kat, I rest awhile by Adopters’ Lock. The wooden bench is sodden and glazed in green slime as will I be by the end of today’s hike.
I perch on the very edge of the seat and watch a kettle of kites soaring above the meadow on the other side of the canal. A bit like boomerangs, kites are making a comeback and are quite easy to see in parts of Wiltshire. It seems unfitting to call something so beautiful a scavenger but they do eat a lot of roadkill which might be why they like living in this area: I can’t remember the last time I saw such an abundance of dead animals on tarmac.
Eventually, I reach my goal: the Bruce Tunnel which is 502 feet long and the only tunnel on the Kennet and Avon. It’s named after the first Earl of Ailesbury who insisted on its construction underneath the Savernake Forest as he didn’t want a visible cutting made through his deer park.
There’s no towpath through the tunnel; one has to walk over the top via this splendid stairway. It’s a bit steep. If I go over the top, I’ll have to walk to Pewsey and hope they’ll be a train that’s stopping at Bedwyn today. If I don’t push on, I’ll have to retrace my steps, which is a little dispiriting.
During this silent discussion with myself, a barge arrives with a view to entering the tunnel. There’s clearly not enough room for more than one boat at a time and I question the bargee on the dangers of entering. He informs me that he can see the other end of the tunnel and that there’s a boat flashing him forward. On and in he goes only to reverse out again moments later. I try to question him again but he informs me that he can’t hear what I’m saying above the noise of the engine.
I don’t, of course, believe him but he’s clearly involved in some sort of watery argy-bargy (ha!) with the mariners coming the other way through the tunnel. I watch the entertainment for a while but the newcomers comprise a raucous bunch who appear to be drunk. I turn tail and walk as quickly as I can. I’ve come here for a bit of peace and quiet and I know I can get to the first lock before they do. And I know it’ll take them ages to get through the lock if they decide to give it a go.
On the way back, I stop at another soaked bench to enjoy a seasonal sausage roll that I find at the bottom of my rucksack and have a chat with Jim. Jim’s boat is crammed with all sorts of unexpected paraphernalia that must make things tricky for those arranging his home and contents insurance.
‘It’s for my grandchildren’, Jim replies. Fair play, he could’ve told me to mind my own business I think. ‘I told them there were tigers in the field’, he continues. Jim looks pretty old to me. I reckon his grandchildren must be in their thirties at least.
Back at Crofton, I find Bill hammering mooring hooks in the ground. ‘You haven’t got very far’, I venture. Bill and Moira don’t like to travel too quickly. ‘So will you be here for two days now’, I enquire nosily.
‘Oh, more like two weeks’, says Bill dreamily. ‘We’ll be walking back to Bedwyn shortly to collect our car. Then we’ll be able to take things easy.’
I don’t know why I said Bill and Moira had only got as far as Crofton in such a dismissive tone, making it seem like a short cruise around one or two bends. It seems miles and miles to one who hasn’t engaged with any serious canal walking for months as I trudge back. In the car, I have to acclimatise for a while as I gather up the strength to get going. I’ve just walked nine miles on tricky terrain and haven’t yet reached the feeling smug stage. I look up and see car lights flashing at me and the occupants waving genially. ‘Who’s that’, I think? ‘I don’t know anyone round here’. Then I notice the flowing grey locks. It’s my new friends, Bill and Moira.