|Activity at Bedwyn Wharf|
A whole season has gone by since our last outing on the Kennet and Avon Canal and we had been itching to get back for some time. What had been bothering us though was the practicalities of getting from one end to the other. Curiously, although Bedwyn and the next station Pewsey are both near to the canal and are only 9 miles apart there is no direct train between them. Beyond Pewsey the railway line and canal diverge and there is no train service at all! We had tinkered with the idea of using bikes or weathering the lengthy journey via Newbury when a rather unlikely solution came in the shape of a seldom seen friend in Staffordshire who wanted to join us for our walk. That meant that we could park a car at each end of the walk and have a ready made transport plan!
We rendezvoused in Pewsey and headed over to Bedwyn together. It was a pretty unpromising day, with a lot of cloud around and damp conditions everywhere. Summer seemed a very long time ago! At Great Bedwyn there seemed to be a lot of activity, far more than we remember on the lazy summer Sunday we were here last. We did well to find a parking spot in the car park at Bedwyn wharf in among all the activity and were very pleased to be getting underway.
|Beech Grove Bridge|
Although the weather was decidedly autumnal the surroundings did not really suggest that winter was on its way with much of the foliage still on the trees and in most cases still very green. The activity at Bedwyn soon died away as we headed westwards and all we heard for a while was the rumble of one of the suburban trains as it turned to head back towards London. Little did we know but that was the last train we heard all day, suggesting that the line was closed for engineering works.
The bridges and locks came at a fairly regular pace along this section of the canal, although it has to be said that not all of them looked in very good repair. Beech Grove Bridge in particular looked in very poor shape and the tank traps stationed on top suggested that it hadn’t been used by any vehicular transport since at least World War II. In fact I rather doubt that it would be strong enough now to cope with anything more than a single walker, such was its state of dilapidation.
|Crofton Pumping Station|
At the next lock we saw the first boat of the day heading westwards. As is her way my 6 year old daughter waved and struck up a conversation with the boat owners, much to their amusement. She was particularly taken with their small dogs on board, who seemed to be itching for a swim, much to the chagrin of their owners.
|Former Railway Crossing|
A little further ahead and we came upon Crofton pumping station. This is allegedly the oldest working steam engine in the world and would have made for an excellent place for us to take a look around except that alas we missed its summer opening by three weeks L. The access to the pumping station if we had been able to visit was not so obvious; it was actually via a bridge we had already passed rather than from directly opposite. The purpose of the pumping station was to help provide some of the water for the canal, for we were now nearing the summit level and water is scarce here. Opposite is Wilton Water, a small lake also used to help balance water levels. On this rather quiet and damp Saturday it was rather difficult to believe that such an industrial undertaking was necessary to keep this tranquil canal going.
Just past the pumping station and we passed the remains of a couple of old railway bridges. A glance at the map suggested a rather complex former railway feature, most of which is now defunct. This was the crossing of the old line from Southampton to Swindon via Andover and Marlborough, one that was deeply unpopular with its rival company the Great Western Railway, which otherwise ran most of the lines in these parts. A form of railway mania in this unlikely setting of Savernake Forest took over, meaning that there were duplicate lines running into the small town of Marlborough a few miles to the north of this point. Duplication was loathed by British Railways when they took over, and all the lines north and south eventually succumbed to closure, leaving only the east-west route intact. All the remaining earthworks are now slowly receding into nature, yet another long lost scheme that will be forgotten over time.
This also marked the summit level of the canal and a little further on we reached the obstacle of Bruce Tunnel, surprisingly the first that we had encountered on our journey from Reading and the only sizeable one on the whole canal. The tunnel was named in honour of Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Aylesbury. He allowed progress of the canal across his land, but only if the tunnel were built rather than a deep cutting. For us walkers though we would have to part with the canal for a bit as the tunnel is not equipped with a towpath. The original boatmen had to relay on pulling themselves through the tunnel using chains that were fitted to the walls.
High above the tunnel are a scattering of houses, one of which really caught my eye on account of its patterned brick work. The railway took advantage of the presence of the tunnel, cutting across to take the south bank rather than the north. Above the tunnel was the last of the railway junctions that formed the Savernake network, this time a branch line that joined the main GWR line to a branch running to Marlborough and is now defunct along with all the others.
By now tummies were rumbling and we searched desperately for somewhere to sit. Despite meeting back with the canal once again no seating existed, even by the nearby Burbage wharf. The wharf itself was an interesting find for it has the last remaining wooden crane alongside. This old thing was first built in 1831 although the one that is there now is a reproduction.
|Approaching Wootton Rivers|
Feeling thwarted by the lack of seating we did the only reasonable thing shortly after – we resorted to our coats on the rather wet canal bank. The gobbling down of food though did improve the mood considerably and we were soon on the march westwards once again. It wasn’t just our moods that improved – after a mile or so more walking the weather cheered up too, revealing some sunshine and completely changing the mood of the day. Strangely the change in weather seemed to have an effect on the number of people we saw too. Soon there were a number of canoeists passing us as well as boaters. Across the other side of the canal we wandered past a murder of crows (isn’t that a great collective noun?) harassing a bird of prey and encouraging it to leave. Closer to home and we passed a stealthy heron checking out the water for a tasty snack. Yet despite all the activity on the water we seemed to be the only walkers on the route.
|Royal Oak at Wootton Rivers|
At Wootton Rivers we decided that a refreshment stop would go down well with everyone and so we wandered into the village. We were at once surprised by how picturesque it was. Our reason for the diversion was one of convenience rather than sightseeing but we were glad that we had picked this particular village for it was lovely. The main street was full of impossibly pretty houses, many of them with thatched roofs. The Royal Oak made for a very enjoyable stop and I particularly enjoyed my 6X, something I hadn’t had in a very long time.
|Mooring at Pewsey|
When we resumed back on the canal, our sunshine didn’t last too much longer. As we reached the Wiltshire Downs the clouds came rolling in once again and very soon we were dealing with a very heavy rain shower and cowering under the trees. Fortunately it didn’t last too long and after a couple of miles of unremarkable but rather pleasant towpath walking we soon came to the line of boats that suggested that we were approaching an overnight mooring spot. So it proved, with some more sunshine heading our way too. At Pewsey Wharf we faced the disappointment of both pubs being closed. The more convenient one on our side of the canal was closed for a wedding, with a rather special horse and cart lined up to transport the bride and groom. The pub on the north side doesn’t open in the afternoon at all.
|Getting Married at Pewsey Wharf|
This marked the end of our walk and thanks to Christine this was a particularly difficult stretch logistically that we no longer had to worry about. It was lovely to catch up with her and we vowed to do the next sections together as well. Now that we have arrived at Pewsey, onward transport looks even more difficult without this option. The only problem now is to find a weekend both parties can manage!