Department of Leisure and Tourist Service, Bath City Council, The Pump Room, Stall Street, Bath
From station go under railway and over the Avon – turn left into Claverton Street and left again. The first canal lock is off Spring Gardens Road
Map reference: ST755
2-mile urban and suburban canal walk with features of both industrial and natural history interest Illustrated trail brochure from tourist and city council offices (also a Heritage Trail); three carparks within easy walking distance It probably comes as some surprise to learn that the art of building canals and river navigations stretches back to Roman times. But it was not until the early 18th century that waterways began to make an economic impact on the transport of minerals, industrial goods and agricultural produce. It was in this first flush of the Canal Age that the waters of what was to become the Kennet and Avon Canal began to reach out towards one another across Wiltshire and Berkshire. The Kennet from Reading to Newbury was navigable in 1727 and, at the other end, the Avon river was opened up to Bath four years later. It was not until 1810 that these two rivers were actually joined by the
canal between the centre of Bath and Newbury. The complete length, which has over one hundred locks, is eighty-six miles, of which some are now navigable again after restoration by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust in conjunction with the British Waterways Board and other conservation groups. By the mid-Eighties, the whole canal will be opened to pleasure craft.
Along the first section of the artificial waterway completed by engineer John Rennie in 1804, Bath City Council has arranged a most unusual canalside nature trail which is also the route of a slightly shorter Heritage Trail. Starting from the point at which the navigation joins the Avon, the nature trail follows the tow-path for two miles to the village of Bathampton. You will find the start of the trail at Lock 7 in Spring Gardens Road, close to the main railway station.
The canal rises near Bath itself through a set of six locks (called the Widcombe Flight) in-terspersed with boat-loading basins and com-pensating ponds which provide the canal with water to make up the loss through the lock
gates. Road construction lead to the demolition of Lock 8 and the deepening of Lock 9 which you may notice as you continue up the flight past the little iron Stothert and Pitt bridge to the first of the more open waters at Long Pond. The allotments on the ground opposite the tow-path are known to date back before the canal was opened and have the unusual name of Terrafirma. Here in Long Pond, and in nearby Horseshoe Pond, you may see water lilies. Darting between and diving
under them are moorhens. This unusual bird will nest on the water, on the bank or even in trees and bushes along the tow-path.
Trees that make their appearance in hedges along the tow-path and at the water’s edge are the crack willow, ash, hawthorn, cherry, horse chestnut, silver birch and pear – quite a variety within a stone’s throw of a busy city centre. You may see two types of lily in the canal’s larger pools. The smaller yellow flowers of (sometimes called brandybottle) can appear as early as June, while the white bowls of appear in July and August. Behind Horseshoe Pond is a fine decorated stone chimney – the remains of a pumping station once used to lift river water up to the higher basins.
By Lock 13 the canal has risen some fifty feet above the level of the Avon and there is a long straight stretch with views of the city centre from the land next to the tow-path, which has been landscaped with ash, silver birch and maple trees. A former malting building, complete with its kiln, has been renovated on the opposite bank. Swans make their appearance at this point and the first pair you come across may well be in the reeds opposite a handy seat by the lengthsman’s cottage (he not only controlled the lock but also looked after the banks and tow-path of his ‘length’).
Before reaching one of Bath’s many parks at Sydney Gardens, the canal passes under Cleve-land House, former headquarters of the canal company, complete with a hole in the tunnel roof through which passing bargees could receive packages, letters and, no doubt, pay-Sydney Gardens features some superb trees, including an unusual hybrid plane which flakes off large quantities of bark. It is recorded that the former owners of the gardens charged the canal builders the small fortune of 2000 guineas for the right of way.
Increased boat traffic on the canal throughout this stretch is keeping both lilies arid other water weeds at bay but the plant colonies of the shallower bankside water are an ideal habitat for both fish and the insects and simple aquatic life that they feed on. The canal, which is stocked with fish in some of its reaches, has ilways been a favourite for anglers. Common plants to be found in this canal fringe are the floating duck-weeds, water plantain, water mint, which lightly scents the air on summer days, and the tall stems of yellow flag iris.
There are wild flowers by the tow-path, too – the short twisted stems of the white dead nettle are more common than the stinging variety, rosebay willowherb seed parachutes
sometimes float through the air and the three-foot stems of loosestrife shows its ragged purple clusters. Right at the edge in the wet no-man’s land are plants such as water forget-me-not.
Candy’s Bridge, and the trail is drawing to a close with a final natural curiosity – the Turkey Oak, of which there are several examples in the clump of trees beyond the bridge. A member of the family, it grows much faster and so tends to become more dominant than a natural oak. You will recognise it by the furry and stalkless acorn cups.
Bathampton is the end of this organised part of the walk – although of course the tow-path goes on to the heights of the canal at the twenty-nine Caen Hill locks and on to Newbury.
You can walk back to Bath across Bathamp-ton Meadows or take public transport. The city’s Department of Architecture publishes a series of historic Heritage Trails which take the visitor around the sights of the town. Major draws are, of course, the Pump Room and Roman Baths. Today’s building is on the site of a temple to the goddess of the waters, Sulis Minerva, and excavations completed in 1979, while tracking down the source of a waterborne disease, revealed a rich store of Roman objects devoted to her.
An attraction is the Regency terraces of the father-and-son design team, John Wood Elder and Younger. The thirty houses of the Royal Crescent, the thirty-three houses of the Circus sharing over 600 Doric and Ionic columns between them and the Hot Bath are among their many works.
Further west from Bath, the Kennet and Avon canal runs through Bradford on Avon, a community that benefited from the prosperity of the wool trade like Bath. The two towns form an axis around which there is a cluster of stately homes and manors to visit. Within ten miles are Claverton Manor, Great Chalfield Manor, Farleigh Castle and Westwood Manor. Claverton Manor, which houses the American Museum in Britain, is particularly interesting — Winston Churchill delivered his first-ever political speech there in 1897.
If you are an outdoor-living enthusiast, Bath has two campsites on its outskirts at Newbridge and Corston Fields. If you fancy a round of golf, there are two fine 18-hole courses at Sham Castle and Lansdown Park.
Outside the city, many walkers will aim for the Mendips and the scenic grandeur of Cheddar Gorge. Here, around the head of the gorge, are a number of way-marked country trails that are a splendid antidote to the natural history of Bath’s Kennet and Avon backwaters.