Canal boat holidays—Kennet & Avon Canal

Published: Wednesday, 19 January 2011

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THE Kennet & Avon is not really a raw holiday hirers' canal, it being heavily locked with 104 broad locks over its length to the tidal section at Hanham a distance of 93 miles.

It also has many swing bridges, some extremely difficult to operate. Yet it has some of the most unusual features of any waterway on the whole system, so is worth considering as a boating holiday.

By far the most difficult part to cruise is the section from the Thames at Reading, with County Lock being most troublesome for newcomers due to there sometimes being such a small difference between the water levels of the river. Others too on the Kennet are awkward caused by a rushing bywash from the  river that can be narrow and fast flowing.

At one particular lock, the incoming river means a member of the crew has to go forward to prepare both a swing bridge and the lock before the boat can proceed, there being no mooring stage.

For mile after mile the locks come fast and furious, with a swing bridge over the centre of one lock that must be opened then closed after use, which is extremely difficult to move. Many of the locks on this Eastern section have precarious landing stages if at all.

Yet this part of the Kennet & Avon has the only remaining turf sided lock on the system, listed as an ancient monument, with turf sides and timber framing, being most interesting to boaters and visitors alike. Another unusual lock is scalloped sided, giving it a most unusual appearance.

Mooring along this Eastern section is not too good, and virtually impossible on the river sections, yet it is a waterway that is very well worth cruising for the more experienced with a good crew.

After Bruce Tunnel there is the sheer relief of a 15 miles pound to Devizes without a single lock. This is a town that really should not be missed by the holiday hirer,  as it has some very interesting original streets and shops. It is at Devizes  that the hirer will meet the  famous Caen Hill Flight, which though hard work, where  the use of extra length windlasses are a must for the stiff paddles, somehow is a pleasure in its achievement, we having done it four times.

Much of the waterway into Bath has had a great deal of money spent on it, and it shows, with a plethora of moorings, though many near the city are taken up by resident moorers. But the many swing bridges  on the waterway from Devizes to Bath again can be a pain.

At Bath the waterway joins the Avon to Bristol, and after Hanham Lock is tidal.


Attractive waterway

Notwithstanding it being a very heavy broad locked canal, it has many features as well as it river sections, and can be very rewarding for a fairly active holiday crew.

The Kennet & Avon is a most attractive waterway with its rolling hills and wooded cuttings, and is rural for most of its length except for the occasional town, all of which have excellent shopping facilities, except for Reading that is anti-boater, with no access to its shopping precincts, as they are protected by a high wall topped with a fence with no facilities for mooring.

This waterway, though having few hire bases, mostly on the Western side, has nowhere near the traffic associated with its Northern counterparts, and queues at locks are very rare, though Caen Hill Flight is only open at specific times, but booking is not required. Marinas and boatyards are few and far between, in the eastern section, though towards Bath there are plenty of facilities for hire, including short breaks.

The paddles on Caen Hill Flight are unusual in that their spindles take an intermediate size, though the normal 'slopping' centre windlass will fit. Many of the locks have to be left empty after passing through, though there is usually a lock keeper in attendance.

This waterway is not recommended for new hirers, it is strenuous, though very rewarding. But for a get-away short break towards Bath it should be considered. The Kennet at the Eastern end can cause difficulties for the inexperienced, and boats need to be securely tied when locking up at many of the lower locks.

The canal is 95 miles long, has 104 locks, 25 mostly manual swing bridges, a tunnel, two impressive aqueducts and numerous swing bridges and a very impressive flight.

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The more black stars the better.