You know when you do something that you know you have to do but you don’t think it’s going to be all that great, and it turns out to be unexpectedly wonderful? well that was what this last section of the Kennet and Avon canal part of the walk was for me.
I thought it would be dominated by busy roads, urban sprawl, semi-derelict post industrial (not that there’s anything wrong with that), rather than quiet peaceful rural canal.
How wrong I was.
It was a short day walking, partly because I only had 12 more miles of the canal to left to walk but mainly because the train times and train fares meant that I couldn’t get to my starting point at Aldermaston Wharf until about 12.30.
I was surprised by how joyful I felt to reach the canal again, like a homecoming, and where I was meant to be.
I began the journey with a simple lunch at the gorgeous Kennel and Avon Canal Trust tea garden – a pretty place run by lovely people. On a warm sunny day like this, it was the perfect place to sit out, eat a sandwich, drink tea, knit, and map out my walk.
A mile or so into the walk I reached the point where the canal joins (and then for much of the way is) the River Kennet. If you look carefully in the picture below you may be able to see that the tall tree in the middle is right at the place where the two waterways meet.
The rest of the walk was a very watery one – the canal sometimes moving on the river, sometimes joining two ends of a bend as a ‘cut’. From Theale out towards Reading there were lakes on both sides, unfortunately firmly fenced off and seemingly with limited access, but beautiful nonetheless – plenty of water birds, trees, wild flowers, life of all kinds (apart from human – though of course this habitat is obviously carefully managed).
If you’ve ever been along the M4 around Reading then you will have seen these watery places. But you probably won’t have seen them like this.
The canal boats were bunched at points where there were either locks, or pubs and other services. Between these points were long stretches where I saw few boats, few people, and many birds. Several herons. Even another kingfisher. A cuckoo sang persistently (as they do). I saw three deer grazing in an adjoining field.
In the river sections I noticed that I seemed to have lost the chiff chaffs that I’d heard all along the way so far, and their place was taken with lots of gulls – the first I’ve seen on this walk.
It was a warm day, and there were lots of butterflies and dragonflies all along the way. The elderflower has changed from being tightly in bud, to just opening, to flat plates of open fragrant flowers. (A reminder to try to fit in making some elderflower cordial when I’m home again).
Then everything changed as I approached, went under, and left behind the M4. My goodness, the noise! I think I walked well over a mile beyond the M4 bridge before the traffic noise finally faded away. It made me think a lot about traffic, and what we mean when we talk and think about it. Another post for another day though.
Despite the noise, the walk remained very pretty – increasingly river-like; wonderful fields full of buttercups with animals grazing; a few boats moving slowly along to the next lock; the string of pillboxes; the occasional building (or remains) hinting at a more industrial history along the canal.
And then, at last, I reached Reading. The outskirts were very promising: seeing the backs of all those Victorian houses and the gardens coming down to the water’s edge reminded me of so many rail journeys. And I’m very partial to a good bit of brickwork, something the Victorians did so well and often so exuberantly.
And then the centre of Reading. Not sure what to say about this. It could have been so very good, it had all the makings. Both sides of the canal were pedestrianised and there were lots of people enjoying the late afternoon sun and warmth, sitting out eating.
But all I could see was corporate formula food: every single food outlet (no, not restaurants, not cafes: I choose my words carefully) was a chain, selling and serving food to a corporate formula, based no doubt on sound market research. You name the chain, they were there. And evidently serving a market.
Not serving me though. Definitely not my cup of tea, not my Yo Sushi, or my Giraffe or my Burrito or my anything else. Sorry if I sound a little bitter, but for me this epitomised everything that is wrong with our town and city centres, and our food (and health) as a country.
Anyway, let’s move on. As I did. My map told me that Reading was once known as biscuit town, for the manufacturers Huntley and Palmer, who had their factory there and were one of the most important employers in the town. Today their remaining factory building has been converted into flats (of course), but you can still see the ghost of their presence from the towpath.
And as I crossed the canal on the old horseshoe bridge, I saw this, and it seemed to say it all. I couldn’t agree more.