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Tales from the towpath: operating the size of the Kennet & Avon Canal | Operating holidays



From our knees down it’s nearly unattainable to inform the place our legs finish and our trainers start. A thick crust of oozing river mud is glued to our shins and smothers our footwear. Our pores and skin fizzes and tingles from the spiteful consideration of a whole bunch of nettles having fun with their final hurrah as winter approaches. However should you panned up from the battlefield of these middle-aged legs to the sweat-streaked faces above, you’d discover one thing you won’t count on: laughter, pleasure and a deranged look concerning the eyes.

My buddy Alan and I are just a few hours right into a self-supported, three-day journey to run the size of the historic Kennet & Avon Canal, probably the most southerly (and presumably most lovely) broadbeam waterway that traverses the width of England, permitting narrowboats to journey coast to coast, from Bristol to London. It was a route that was supposed to revolutionise 18th-century commerce. Fairly than having to cope with the rocky hazards and treacherous seas of the south coast and the Channel, to not point out pirates and the undesirable consideration of the French navy, retailers would merely be capable of drift alongside the canal, arriving safely at their vacation spot.

Best foot forward: the start of the route under the statue of Neptune in Bristol.
Greatest foot ahead: Martin and Alan at the beginning of the route beneath the statue of Neptune in Bristol

The canal was a monumental feat of civil development. The primary 18-mile part, from Newbury to Studying, turned navigable in 1723, simply over 300 years in the past, whereas the ultimate part was completed 90 years later, in 1810. The formidable engineer who oversaw a lot of the undertaking was the masterful John Rennie – he was to canals what Isambard Kingdom Brunel was to railways. All the enterprise value £1m – an enormous sum on the time, although Rennie himself was paid solely a modest £360 for his efforts. By the point the canal was completed, travelling all the way in which from Bristol’s Floating Harbour to probably the most easterly lock on Studying’s River Kennet the place it flows into the Thames, the waterway was 96 miles lengthy, comprising 107 locks (now right down to 105), 236 bridges, two steam-driven pumping stations, one mile-long tunnel and goodness is aware of what number of pubs.

Regardless of its vastly spectacular size, the Kennet & Avon was by no means affluent and fell into disuse – thanks principally to the opening of the Nice Western Railway, which adopted a parallel route, in order that items which may have been loaded on to barges discovered themselves on carriages, and the canal started its lengthy and inevitable decline, till the final craft lastly navigated it in 1952.

However all was not misplaced. Within the latter half of the twentieth century, a military of volunteers and fanatics started renovating it and in August 1990 it was reopened by Queen Elizabeth. It’s an exquisite irony that the canal, constructed within the identify of commerce, commerce and enterprise, is now a spectacular wildlife protect. It’s house to many species of birds and quite a few animals and fish, and it’s a spot of relaxation and leisure for walkers, kayakers, cyclists – and, in fact, just a few runners, like Alan and me.

Early morning mist at Caen Hill Locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Devizes, Wiltshire.DFN0XF Early morning mist at Caen Hill Locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Devizes, Wiltshire.
Triumph of engineering: Caen Hill locks in Wiltshire, the steepest flight of locks on the planet. {Photograph}: Anna Stowe/Alamy

The nice benefit of canal jogging is that it’s flat – hills are anathema to middle-aged plodders. It’s additionally fairly laborious to get misplaced, there are feeding stations (pubs) at common distances and, should you begin within the west, you is perhaps fortunate and have the afternoon solar and the prevailing wind at your again, gently nudging you alongside.

That was the plan, anyway. What we hadn’t factored in was that in November the solar doesn’t grasp round for lengthy, the low season pubs are principally closed, the afternoon darkness falls sooner than a dropped pint of Guinness and, oh sure, there was loads of mud…


We began early on a Saturday morning in Bristol, after a hearty breakfast overlooking the town’s fascinating Floating Harbour. The sky was blue, however weeks of heavy rain meant we frequently needed to wade as much as our knees in sludgy water in lots of locations alongside the towpath. It was gradual going. After a morning of slithering and sliding, we approached Tub, the river water so excessive that it was lapping the foundations of most of the metropolis’s elegant stone bridges. Cloaked in mud, we lurched into a reasonably Georgian sq. for lunch; vacationers gawked at us as if we have been prehistoric males dug up from an historical bathroom. We loaded up on pasta and lemonade earlier than heading again to the towpath and eastwards out of the Roman metropolis.

Glorious mud: the surroundings were picture-postcard beautiful, but the conditions underfoot less than ideal.
Superb mud: the environment have been picture-postcard lovely, however the situations underfoot lower than preferrred. The trail alongside the River Avon, between Bristol and Tub

After just a few extra muddy miles, we stopped at one of many jewels of this nice canal, the outrageously decorous Dundas aqueduct – a curving triple-arched development designed by John Rennie and accomplished in 1805 that lets the canal circulate excessive over the surging River Avon beneath.

We plodded on and on, although Bradford-upon-Avon, with its medieval barns and bridges after which, lastly, within the pitch darkish, we arrived at that temple of contemporary comfort – Melksham’s Travelodge. We seemed like extras from All Quiet on the Western Entrance as we fell into our room. I had a bathe, however Alan felt a shower was the one reply to the filth. When he acquired out of the bathtub it seemed like a swamp – there was a lot mud left behind that the plughole blocked. We confessed all to the jolly receptionist, who simply laughed and mentioned, “Oh, don’t fear in any respect, I’ve seen loads worse than that!”

Lock on: Blake’s Lock at Reading, near the end of the run.
Lock on: Blake’s Lock at Studying, close to the top of the run. {Photograph}: Dylan Garcia/Alamy

The following morning, stiff-legged and aching, we continued, ticking off the bridges and locks, in the direction of the undisputed spotlight of the canal – Caen Hill. Pronounced “cane”, it’s the steepest flight of locks on the planet – a complete of 29 locks with an increase of 150m. It was the final a part of the navigation to be accomplished. If you’re fortunate, and the lock gates are favourably in your path, it’ll take you between three and 5 hours to ascend the flight on a narrowboat– you actually sail uphill.

The velocity restrict for boats on the canal is 3mph and at occasions I don’t suppose we have been operating a lot sooner than that. However as we left our busy household lives behind, our racing minds slowed to match the regular cadence of our toes and it felt like precisely the proper tempo. Our random ideas and glad inane chatter unfurled with each step because the lazy ribbon of the canal unspooled forward of us. Hold shifting and also you’ll ultimately uncover an exquisite inside stillness.

‘Keep moving and you’ll eventually discover a wonderful inner stillness’: Martin (right) and Alan.
‘Hold shifting and also you’ll ultimately uncover an exquisite inside stillness’: Martin (proper) and Alan, with the canal behind them

We spent the second night time in Devizes, filling ourselves with meals and gas – onion rings and lasagne, 4 pints, why not? Two very muddy runners within the eating room of the much-loved Bear pub didn’t part the locals in any respect.

The third day, and the final 30 miles of the canal towpath, was a slog. Our toes had swollen and blistered with the fixed muddy moist – a number of toe nails have been hanging by a thread. The names of the passing narrowboats appeared to sum up our state of affairs: within the morning we noticed one referred to as “Isn’t This Nice” and that night we noticed one other referred to as “Absence of Motive”.

Eventually we hit the post-industrial hinterland of Studying. As we staggered in the direction of the top, the place the Kennet joins the Thames and boats can proceed downriver to London, we discovered our route was out of the blue blocked. The ultimate 200m-stretch of the towpath was closed for work on a retaining wall. We couldn’t consider it! All this fashion and we aren’t going to truly get to the end. We didn’t know whether or not to snicker or cry. We did a little bit of each. In some ways it was good – in spite of everything, nobody desires an incredible journey to finish.

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