Walking the Kennet and Avon canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon

If the canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon had its own theme tune it would consist of bicycle bells and whirring tyres; to say it’s a popular cycling route is an understatement. Indeed, if you’ve arrived here from my UK bucket list link you’re probably expecting to read about our cycle ride beside the canal. But, for various reasons, we ended up walking instead; read on to find out how we got on.

Bath to Bathwick

We joined the Kennet and Avon canal path immediately behind Bath railway station. Connecting Bristol to Reading, the canal opened in 1810 but fell into disuse and dereliction following the opening of the railway in 1841. Restored and fully reopened in 1990 it’s now a popular amenity for locals and visitors.

The first mile or so winds through the city; past locks, under bridges and opposite mansions with their honeyed stone and pristine gardens. Two hundred years ago the canal would have been busy carrying coal into Bath and stone out. Several features along the route hark back to those days, including the pumphouse chimney. This was built in an ornate style as the local wealthy residents didn’t want to look out on to an industrial structure!

Kennet and Avon canal, Bath
Kennet and Avon canal, Bath

At Darlington Wharf we came across a floating market. Narrow boat businesses were moored alongside the path offering, amongst others, a sweet shop, wooden crafts and clothing. A little further on we spotted a boat with a Polling Station sign; not sure if it really was or whether the sign had been relocated from elsewhere!

On a warm spring weekend the canal towpath was busy with dog walkers, weekend joggers and cyclists. Ah yes, the cyclists. I’m far from anti-cyclist but when they whoosh past at great speed or cycle in groups across the entire path it’s hard to have a positive view. Of course there were plenty of considerate people too but given that we rarely walked more than 100m without meeting cyclists it only took a few to spoil our enjoyment.

Tunnel near Bathwick, Kennet and Avon canal
Tunnel near Bathwick, Kennet and Avon canal

Bathampton

At Bathampton we couldn’t resist a stop at the Cafe on the Barge, a tiny café in a narrow boat. Primarily offering drinks and cakes, I highly recommend the carrot cake. We sat on the small open deck, completely forgetting we were on a boat until another craft came by and rocked the waters. There are seats on the canal towpath too as there’s not much room on the boat itself.

Walking on we enjoyed watching the variety of canal users. A mix of holiday barges, day rentals, homes and (further on) a defunct lifeboat chug up the canal and line the moorings. It’s easy to tell the difference. Those belonging to long term residents are often laden with bikes, wood, pot plants and Buddha statues. The hire boats were usually more pristine, with traditional decoration aside from the holiday company logos.

Claverton

We heard the swimmers and picnickers at Warleigh Weir, near Claverton, way before we saw them. This beauty spot on the river (not the canal) can be reached by a short walk downhill and across the railway line. I’ve no idea what it’s normally like but on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday the field beside the river was packed with people. Rather like Bournemouth beach on a sunny day.

Kennet and Avon canal near Claverton
Kennet and Avon canal near Claverton

Elsewhere in Claverton there’s a pumping station which was built to transport water from the River Avon to the canal. Fully restored it operates on selected dates (advertised on the canal noticeboards). It was closed during our walk but reviews suggest it’s worth a visit when it’s open.

Leaving Claverton behind we walked a rural stretch of the canal. The bees and butterflies were out  and everything looked a vibrant green in the spring sunshine. A little further on there’s a small wooded area beside the path where the garlic smell hits you before you see the white carpet of ramsons.

Dundas Aqueduct

Dundas Aqueduct
Dundas Aqueduct

One of the highlights of this walk are the two aqueducts built to carry the canal over the River Avon.

Completed in 1805, Dundas Aqueduct is 137 metres long with three arches. We walked across it and down the steps to the river bank for the best view. It’s a grand imposing structure but has had its problems over the years. It spent much of the 1960s and 1970s drained dry due to leaks and has now been lined with polythene and concrete. Materials not available to the original builders!

Kennet and Avon canal near Avoncliff
Kennet and Avon canal near Avoncliff

Avoncliff Aqueduct

It was another three miles to Avoncliff aqueduct. Three more miles of cyclists. Three very warm miles with empty water bottles. You can hardly blame us for another cafe stop. This time at the No 10 Tea Gardens, handily located alongside the aqueduct. I smiled inwardly as I watched a couple of teens revising for their GCSEs in the tea garden; well, their books were open but I think they were on a break.

View from Avoncliff Aqueduct
View from Avoncliff Aqueduct

Avoncliff Aqueduct was designed by John Rennie (who also designed Dundas Aqueduct). Not bad for a first attempt at an aqueduct, albeit the central span sagged soon after completion and had to be repaired several times. Where were the Romans when you need them?

I had a navigation ‘moment’ after leaving the tea room. Seriously, how can anyone get lost following a canal? Er, it’s quite easy if you end up on the road because you can’t find the canal path! (Hint, walk under the aqueduct). Navigation error aside the last couple of miles passed uneventfully. Still plenty of cyclists but this time along a broad track so plenty of room for all.

The very last section took us through Barton Farm Country Park. Not quite Bournemouth beach busy this time but it appeared very popular with family groups.

Bradford-on-Avon

We reached Bradford-on-Avon late afternoon. I’ve only driven through the town before so thought we’d do a spot of sightseeing before taking the train back to Bath. But our cafe studded walk meant we arrived later than planned. And everywhere appeared shut. And we were hot and tired. So after a celebratory ice cream we headed straight to the railway station. Next time…

Bradford-on-Avon
Bradford-on-Avon

If you’re looking for an alternative route in Bath (without cyclists) head over to my Bath Skyline walk report.

More info:

  • The route from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon is approximately 10 miles. For further details on the Kennet and Avon Canal pop over to the Canal & River Trust website.
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10 ideas for family Boxing Day walks in southern England

Boxing Day is the obvious day for a family walk over the Christmas period. It’s a great opportunity to get outdoors, blow the cobwebs away and walk off some of the excesses of the previous day.

We’ve walked all of the routes below with the children, most are 5 miles or less and linked to the relevant blog post. I’ve indicated below places that will be open on Boxing Day but it’s always safest to fill up your flasks and pack some turkey sandwiches just in case.

Lastly, excuse my fluid interpretation of ‘southern England’. It covers central southern England, with a nod to the counties on either side (Somerset and East Sussex). London somehow made it into the definition too!

1. Avebury stone circle and West Kennett, Wiltshire

Avebury
Avebury

Arguably one of the finest prehistoric walks in the country. A 5 mile AA route discovering the stone circle at Avebury, West Kennett Long Barrow and The Sanctuary. The stone circle is always open from dawn to dusk but the associated National Trust visitor centre and cafe will be closed on Boxing Day.

2. A walk from Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock, London

View along Regent's Canal
View along Regent’s Canal

A short gentle city stroll along Regent’s Canal, suitable for all ages. Wander past expensive houses, see the aviary at London Zoo and wonder what it would be like to live on a houseboat.

3. Lepe Loop, Hampshire

Lepe seafront
Lepe seafront

I’ve found a cafe that’s open on Boxing Day! The Lepe Country Park cafe will be open from 10am-4pm and is a great place to start your walk along the south coast. We followed the Lepe Loop which includes a lovely stretch along the shorefront.

4. Bath skyline walk, Somerset

Bath skyline trail
Bath Skyline trail

A varied walk around the outskirts of Bath passing the National Trust Prior Park Landscape Garden (open on Boxing Day). Elsewhere on the walk you can play on the Family Discovery Trail on Claverton Down and enjoy Bathampton Wood.

5. Imber village, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

Imber village, Salisbury Plain
Imber village, Salisbury Plain

Looking for something completely different? St Giles Church in the military training village of Imber is open to the public from Wednesday 27th December to Monday 1st January 2017 inclusive. Opening times are 11am to 4pm each day; after visiting the church take a walk around the village.

6. Winchcombe to Belas Knap, Gloucestershire

Winchcombe walk
Winchcombe walk

There are many walks to choose from around Winchombe, as befits its ‘Walkers Welcome’ status. The walk up to Belas Knap is a great option for first time visitors with lovely views and a hill to get your heart rate going!

7. Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford, East Sussex

From the top of the Seven Sisters
From the top of the Seven Sisters

Definitely a walk to blow away cobwebs. Best for older children as there are steep hills and cliff edges. Park at the Visitor Centre and walk the South Downs Way over the Seven Sisters cliffs. It’s likely to be very busy, but there’s a good reason for its popularity – the views are stunning!

8. White Horse Hill and The Ridgeway, Oxfordshire

Our favourite local walk. Park in the National Trust car park and head up to the chalk figure on White Horse Hill. From here walk past Uffington Castle (grass mounds only) on to the Ridgeway and turn right. You can either follow a circular route back to the car or, if you want a longer walk, carry on along the Ridgeway to Waylands Smithy, a Neolithic burial long barrow.

9. Great Bedwyn and Wilton windmill walk, Wiltshire

Wilton Windmill
Wilton Windmill

An easy 5 mile walk along the Kennet and Avon canal, past Crofton Pumping Station and Wilton windmill. The windmill itself won’t be open but you can visit the outside at any time and use the picnic benches.

10. Hurst Castle, Hampshire

Hurst Point Lighthouse
Hurst Point Lighthouse

A bracing walk along a shingle spit to Hurst Castle, a coastal fortress built by Henry VIII.

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Imber and Copehill Down; the ghost villages of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

There aren’t many places in this country where you can visit two empty villages just a few miles from each other. Yet Salisbury Plain is home to two military training villages. Usually closed to the public we took advantage of an open day at Imber church and combined it with a walk across the Plain to a fake German village.

Imber village

Imber stands in the centre of Salisbury Plain, a huge expanse of grassland that the army uses as a military training area.

Until 1943 it was a small agricultural village. The MoD requisitioned Imber for military training and gave the villagers 47 days notice to evacuate. Most villagers agreed readily as they saw it as part of the war effort.  They always assumed they’d be able to return but the army eventually decided to keep the village for military use, despite the protests of locals. It’s still off limits to the public although the MoD allows access for a few days each year, usually around Christmas, Easter and August.

Salisbury Plain warning signs
Salisbury Plain warning signs

Driving along the A360 Salisbury to Devizes road we initially missed the turn off for Imber village, sidetracked by the excitement of seeing road signs with tank pictures on. The road to Imber, which is usually closed to civilian traffic, isn’t signposted but there are plenty of clues to let you know you’re driving in the right direction. These include warnings every few hundred metres about the danger of unexploded military debris if you leave the road.

Entering Imber we drove past the shells of buildings that stand either side of the road, punctuated by more warning signs. It’s only a small village and before long we’d driven out the other side. I turned the car around in the deserted road whilst the kids excitedly pointed out a rusting tank on the hillside above us.

Imber church
St Giles church, Imber

St Giles church, Imber

Heading back in we parked in the small field next to St Giles church. Unlike the rest of Imber the church remains outside of army ownership and is the main destination for visitors. Surrounded by high wire fencing and an out of bounds sign it’s maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Inside we read information boards about the eviction. Volunteers provided refreshments; the bottled water and camping stove a reminder that this village has no utilities or concessions to visitors.

Outside I took a walk around the graveyard. Much of it has been reclaimed by nature with huge thistles attracting lots of butterflies. Some of the headstones are dated after the 1943 evacuation, including that of the village blacksmith, Albert Nash. Albert’s wife believes he died of a broken heart just a few weeks after the eviction.

Imber village, Salisbury Plain
Imber village, Salisbury Plain

After visiting the church we walked along the main road to see the other buildings. In addition to the original village buildings, most of which are in a poor state of repair, there are a number of newer house type structures built in the 1970s. These were to help soldiers prepare for the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Despite the many Keep Out warning signs I saw one man taking his young son up onto the first floor of the house shown above. The area is still used for live firing and it seemed mad to ignore the warnings.

Tilshead Down ,Salisbury Plain
Tilshead Down, Salisbury Plain

Copehill Down walk

From Imber we drove a short distance to the nearby village of Tilshead. Imber isn’t the only ghost village on Salisbury Plain and we were about to discover another one, this time purpose built by the military.

We set off on the 6 mile walk across the Plain towards the village on Copehill Down. From Tilshead Down we followed a path through an avenue of trees. These are noted for their tree graffiti, carved by soldiers in the Second World War. The kids tried to decipher some of the initials but most were unreadable as the trunks have grown and morphed the shapes of the letters.

Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down
Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down

Just off of the avenue we came across a small clearing with a sign warning us not to dig. What was there? Prehistoric skeletons or landmines? I didn’t want to find out!

FIBUA (Fighting in a Built-Up area), Copehill Down village

Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

Our second empty village of the day lay ahead of us. This village was built as an MoD training facility in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. Originally created as an East German village it has been updated to include an Iraqi section but this wasn’t visible from outside.

East German village, Salisbury Plain
East German village, Salisbury Plain

It’s not possible to enter the village but the track runs close to the entrances so it’s easy to look in at the houses and crashed cars. Although there weren’t any training activities taking place we spotted lots of empty blank cartridges strewn across the ground.

Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain
Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain

Salisbury Plain

After leaving we walked up onto Copehill Down and followed a stretch of the Imber Range Perimeter Path. This 30 mile long distance walk skirts the edge of the military training firing area.

Although used by the military Copehill Down is undeveloped and hasn’t been farmed in many years. This is great news for wildlife as Salisbury Plain is now the largest area of chalk grassland in north west Europe. The whole area was full of flowers, insects, butterflies and birds. So different to intensively farmed fields.

Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

On the brow of the down my partner was incredibly excited to see a great bustard in the grasslands. This large bird was reintroduced to Britain in 2004 after becoming nationally extinct in 1832. I had been looking in the opposite direction and, annoyingly, by the time I looked the bird had disappeared into the long grass.

Just outside of Tilshead we passed White Barrow, a Neolithic long barrow in National Trust ownership. It’s one of more than 2000 archaeological sites on Salisbury Plain, many of which lay within the military area. We didn’t visit as time was against us and we were keen to get started on our return journey. Although we did have to make time to pop into the garage for some much needed ice creams and drinks!

If you get the opportunity do visit Imber and Copehill Down. The combination of military usage, environment and prehistoric sites makes for a unique day out.

More info:

  • St Giles church and Imber village can only be visited on specific open days. These usually occur at Christmas, Easter and mid-late August but check the website for up to date information. It is not possible or safe to travel to Imber outside of these dates as it is used for military operations.
  • We followed the Discovering Britain Military Environmentalism walk from Tilshead to visit the mock village on Copehill Down. This walk is always open, even when military exercises are happening in the village. There is no access to the village.
  • The St Giles church volunteers offer tea and coffee for £1, squash for 50p, both come with a biscuit. There are a couple of basic Portaloo type toilets in one of the car parking lay-bys.
  • The garage at Tilshead has a small mini-mart and toilets.
  • There is no mobile phone reception in Imber.
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Great Bedwyn and Wilton windmill walk, Wiltshire

This AA circular walk from Great Bedwyn is full of variety and at just over 5 miles is perfect for families. Encompassing a canalside walk, the option to visit two industrial heritage attractions and finishing with a woodland trail there’s plenty to keep kids occupied.

Great Bedwyn Post Office and shop
Great Bedwyn Post Office and shop

Our walk started from the village of Great Bedwyn. We passed the village Post Office, intriguingly adorned with stone plaques and monuments. They’re a legacy of Lloyd’s stonemasons who once operated in the village. My son couldn’t resist pressing the ‘Operate’ button on a pineapple shaped fountain; fortunately for him there was no water in it.

Footpath past St Mary's church, Great Bedwyn
Footpath past St Mary’s church, Great Bedwyn

Walking past the church we found even more stonework as the path was made of headstones! We crossed over the railway track (used by high speed trains so cross carefully) to reach the canal.

Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn
Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn

Kennet and Avon canal

Our route took us alongside the canal for 1.5 miles. There weren’t many boats around but we did stop to watch one going through the locks. I often fancy hiring a canal boat for the weekend but I think I’d be a little nervous about crashing it.

Butterbur - not a rare orchid!
Butterbur – not a rare orchid!

The flower above lined the ditch beside the canal path. I’d never seen one before so hoped it was something rare. However my mum immediately identified it as butterbur, not rare at all. The plant has many herbal medicine uses and its leaves were once used to wrap butter, hence the name.

Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn
Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn

The Crofton pumping station marked the turning off point of our canal walk. Crofton Beam Engines were built around 200 years ago to help supply water to the upper stretches of the Avon and Kennet canal. The engines still work and are generally open for steaming weekends once a month.

Crofton Pumping station
Crofton Pumping station

From Crofton we walked into the village of Wilton. Wilton has the most pristine duck pond I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by picture postcard thatched cottages, one of the gardens had a small rowing boat temptingly moored next to it. My daughter has decided she’s going to live in the village when she’s older; I daren’t tell her how much it’s likely to cost!

Wilton Windmill
Wilton Windmill

Wilton windmill

It’s a relatively short, but uphill, walk to the nearby Wilton windmill. Wilton windmill was built in 1821 and was in use for 100 years before falling into disuse. The mill was subsequently restored and is once again used for making flour. We could only look from the outside as we hadn’t managed to co-ordinate our visit with its opening hours.

'Stick' fighting, Bedwyn Brail
‘Stick’ fighting, Bedwyn Brail

The last part of the trail took us back through the woods. Although we were never in serious danger of getting lost there were a few points where I wondered whether we were going the right way. Quite a few areas had been felled recently creating new clearings, which meant the walk instructions were harder to follow.

We knew we were on the right path when the village of Great Bedwyn came into view. A final downhill stretch, a short walk along the canal and we were back at the car having enjoyed a great afternoon walk.

If you enjoyed this you might also like to read about our walk up and down the Caen locks or our Cold War walk on Greenham Common. Alternatively if you fancy more of a challenge how about cycling along the Kennet and Avon Canal or an overnight backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way.

More info

  • Check the Crofton Beam Engines website for details of opening hours and dates. Adults cost £4.50 for static open days or £8 when the engines are in steam; children are free.
  • Wilton windmill is open 3-5pm on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays between Easter and the end of September. Adult tickets are £4 each, children are free. Even if the windmill itself is closed you can still walk around the site, view from the outside and use the picnic benches.
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