Kennet and Avon Canal Path
The Kennet and Avon Canal was opened at the height of Britain's "canal mania", providing a navigable waterway between the city of Bristol and the River Thames at Reading. The new waterway opened up an important trade route between the south-west of England and the metropolis of London without the need to make the perilous journey around Land's End and to run the gauntlet of enemy warships and privateers in the English Channel.
The first steps towards the building of the canal were taken in the 1720's, when the River Avon was made navigable for the twenty-eight kilometres from Bristol to Bath and the River Kennet was made navigable for the thirty kilometres from its confluence with the River Thames on the outskirts of Reading up to the town of Newbury. Both of these navigations were achieved by constructing locks along the rivers to guarantee a sufficient depth of water at all times.
In 1794, construction began on the ninety-two kilometre canal across Wiltshire and Berkshire, linking the ends of the two navigations. After sixteen years of construction, the Kennet and Avon Canal finally opened to through-traffic in 1810. Barges plied the new canal, drawn by horses that walked the towpath and carrying freight that included coal from the Somerset Coalfields and high-quality building stone from quarries around Bath that was used in many of London's civic buildings.
Just a few decades later, with the opening of the Great Western Railway in 1841, canal traffic went into a long, slow decline and from 1878 the once-profitable canal was losing a significant sum of money every year. With steadily shrinking revenue, maintenance also wound down and by 1951 the canal had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it was no longer possible to make a through-journey. This changed when the canal was reopened by the Queen in 1990 after almost three decades of restoration work, mostly performed by volunteers.
The 151-kilometre Kennet and Avon Canal Path follows the towpath of the restored canal as closely as possible from Bristol to Reading, passing through interesting towns, long stretches of peaceful rural countryside, and unique wildlife habitats. Along the way the path passes more than 100 locks (numbered in ascending order from the Bristol end of the canal) and more than 200 bridges (numbered in descending order). The numbering of the locks and bridges gives a regular and useful measurement of one's progress along the path.
The other constant along the entire route is the multitude of narrowboats that chug slowly along the canal, having replaced the canal's original freight traffic. Some of these have been creatively modified and many have been creatively named. Along this walk, I probably put as much mental effort into checking out the names of the narrowboats as I put towards following the correct route.