Goodness but I feel great after a good night’s sleep! Not something I often get to experience sadly, but I’m working on it. It seems that spending the whole day walking does the trick.
The walk from Seend to Pewsey was just as enjoyable as that from Bath to Seend, but very different. For one thing it was Monday not Sunday. Not many other people around. Also the towpath becomes narrower and not made up beyond Devizes, so not so easily cycled or negotiated with pushchairs or wheelchairs.
The walk included the amazing Caen Hill locks – 16 locks forming the steepest lock flight in the world – and all built before 1810. They are part of a longer flight of locks leading up to Devizes – 29 in all. Apparently, when this part of the canal was first opened for trade on 1801 there was a gap between Devizes and Foxhangers (at the bottom of the hill), and goods had to be unloaded onto carts and pulled up a horse-drawn railway, then reloaded onto the canal boats.
You can get a sense of the lock flight from the cover of the(excellent) map I bought at the K and A Canal Trust cafe in Devizes (great bacon butty there too! almost as good as the lemon drizzle cake from their Bradford-on-Avon cafe that fuelled me the previous evening when I was too tired to go out to eat in the pub as planned).
Nowadays the water is pumped up to the top of the locks using solar power.
I was constantly fascinated by the history I was walking through. The canal was finished and fully opened in 1810. It was built by ‘navigators’ (hence the current word ‘navvies’), and the work must have been incredibly hard. You can see that the materials used change along the way – stone bridges around the Bath and Bradford-on-Avon area give way to brick bridges from Devizes onwards.
Then there is the more recent history – all along the line of the canal is a string of pillboxes and concrete bollards, built in 1940 as part of the 2nd World War defences against a possible invasion.
It wasn’t long after the full opening of the canal that they were overtaken speedwise and therefore financially by the railways. In fact the Great Western Railway, which opened its railway from London to Bristol in 1841, bought the canal in 1851. Although it was a condition of the purchase that the canal must be kept open, GWR put no maintenance or management plans in place and, not surprisingly, the canal fell into disrepair and decline. The last boats disappeared in 1952.
When I first encountered the canal in the early 1970s, it was through volunteering with the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust: the visionary organisation that eventually achieved its restoration to what it is now. Malcolm and I remember walking from Bath to Bradford on Avon along the bed of the canal, mostly grass and certainly not containing water, in about 1977. The K and A Canal Trust began in 1951, and didn’t give up – fundraising, lobbying, restoring, and generally pursuing their vision of restoring the canal.
And the result? A fully working canal, which has created employment and leisure facilities all the way through from Bath to Reading.
A lesson there maybe for us all about the power of having and following a dream, and about our past not having to define our future.