Travel: Gently, by still waters

FREEWHEELING 4: THE KENNET AND AVON CANAL ROUTE; The raw materials of the Industrial Revolution were hauled along the Avon canal. Now, says Martin Wright, it's peace itself
Click to follow
THE KENNET and Avon canal links England coast to coast, from the Avon at Bath to the Thames at Reading, a watery belt across the country's waist. Cycling is possible along much of its length, but the smoothest stretches are at the western end, between Bath and Devizes. Here the cycle- route charity, Sustrans, has worked on the towpath to make it an easy ride.

I headed out of Bath on a gorgeous blue morning. The Sunday streets were quiet, almost serene. It seemed the perfect start to a gentle ride beside still waters.

But I'd reckoned without the city's annual triathlon. Suddenly they were all around me, zipping through the sleeping streets like space invaders, perched on frighteningly high-tech bikes and wearing no clothes to speak of, apart from shreds of micro-Lycra stuck to intimidatingly taut bodies.

By contrast, I felt like something out of the steam age, in comfy cotton on a comfy bike. But as soon as I rolled on to the towpath, it all seemed quite appropriate. This, after all, was the art of slow travel. Narrowboats lay moored by the path, with people sitting drinking tea, or tinkering with boat-ish things, or just hanging out in the sun in a lazy Sunday sort of way.

All human life was there, cheek by jowl, or rather bow to stern. One boat was amiably scruffy, with peeling paint, rusting bicycles and a sunbathing cat on a pile of logs. Its amiably scruffy owners sat rolling their own on the roof. The next was prettified to the nth degree with the flowery motifs of "traditional" canal art, all gleaming paintwork and tiny pelmets behind the windows. The names were as varied: Jenny, The Fiddler, Jerusalem, Mendip Digger.

The path wound east through the charming hamlet of Bathampton, with its tiny cottages perched on the water's edge, the ivy-drenched walls of the George Inn, and an ancient stone bridge framing the canal as it led on through the fields. This bucolic scene is about to be shattered. A mega- bypass will slice down this stretch of the valley, smothering the occasional chug of a narrowboat with the heavy roar of commuter traffic. Construction work has already ripped out the side of Solsbury Hill, looming over Bath's eastern approaches. To see this stretch as it should be, go soon.

Beyond Bathampton, the canal loops south through strikingly pretty countryside, wooded hillsides rising above a gently winding valley, then crosses the Avon on the Dundas aqueduct. This is an impressive structure, built out of local limestone nearly 200 years ago by the canal's chief engineer, John Rennie. Although I knew it was coming up round the corner, it was still a strange feeling to emerge suddenly out of the woods into thin air; just a narrow strip of canal, a couple of parapets and me, and a heady drop to the river far below.

In its day, this was the cutting edge of the transport network state of the art infrastructure. The raw materials of the industrial revolution coal, iron, stone were hauled across here. But the canal's supremacy lasted just a single generation. It opened in 1810: 30 years later, the Great Western Railway chased it down the valley, taking much of its trade. A century later it was virtually derelict, but has since been gradually restored as a highway of leisure.

Beyond Dundas, the canal slides through a long tunnel of trees. Here and there, sunlight pierced the leaves, giving the surface of the water the look and apparent consistency of creamy toffee. The sunshine sparkled on the glistening backs of the mallards and, bouncing off the water, dappled the undersides of the lower branches. There was a grace and stateliness to the canal here, as it curved into the distance between its weathered stone banks. I sat on the grass, made notes, breathed deep. Looking far ahead felt like peering into an Impressionist painting, all blurred greens and greys under the soft September blue of the sky. This was it all right, the sweet art of slow travel.

A few miles further on, the canal crossed the river a second time, via the towering aqueduct at Avoncliff. The reason for the name became painfully apparent when, after losing the towpath, I found myself toiling up a frighteningly steep hill. This wasn't a lane to ride on, it was one to abseil down or be winched up. I soon lost heart, and so did my bike, 21 gears and all of them useless. I didn't need gears, I needed heavy lifting gear. And I certainly didn't need the sudden burst of horn blares from the family- packed Volvo behind me, nor the sickeningly cheery wave from Alice-Band Barbour-Jacket in the passenger seat.

I emerged, drenched in sweat, on to the plateau. By way of reward, there were huge views over the Avon valley as far as the White Horse of Pewsey, away to the east on the Wiltshire hills. Then an exhilarating run down to the chocolate-box prettiness of Bradford-on-Avon, and fish and chips in the sun-warmed yard of the Riverside Inn.

"So you made it? Well done! We all thought it looked like very hard work!" It was Alice-Band Barbour-Jacket and la toute famille Volvo, perched at the next table.

Breathe deeply, I told myself: remember, the art of slow travel. "Yes, well... thanks," I said.


British Waterways provides maps and information on the Kennet and Avon canal, and on cycling along canals in general. Contact British Waterways' Devizes office: 01380 722859.

Further information: The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, 01380 721279; Bath Tourist Office, 01225 462831. Bikes can be hired from Lock Inn Cottage, Bradford-on-Avon (01225 868068).

Bath is the nearest main-line railway station, connecting with local services to Bradford-on- Avon and Trowbridge. Cycles can generally be carried free of charge on local services, but on main-line routes you need to reserve a place in advance and pay a pounds 3 premium.

For information on Sustrans tel: 0117 926 8893 (this is the correct number; we inadvertantly published a wrong digit last week).