Friday, 11 April 2014

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 7 Pewsey to Devizes

Getting Underway at Pewsey
The whole winter has passed without us being able to return to the Kennet and Avon Canal.  The extremely wet weather coupled with conflicting diaries meant that we hadn’t managed to meet up with our friend Christine since October.  Ironically when the opportunity finally came it was when we least expected it as with only a couple of days notice everything fell into place and we managed to get together once again.

Towpath Toad
It was perhaps the most perfect day of the whole of March with bright sunshine predicted for the whole day and spring well and truly underway.  We did the car swap over thing before finally getting underway at Pewsey Wharf, where we left off back in October.  All was quiet on this Sunday morning and as we got underway we speculated about the marital bliss of the chef who had got married on the day we were last here.

Canal Catkins
All the talk at the beginning of our walk was how many bridges and locks we might see on our trip today. We all felt fairly confident of quite a lot for this would be the longest section yet attempted.  Our walk over to Devizes would be slightly more than 10 miles, quite a tall order for our seven year old daughter.  As we got going it was clear that many of the canal folk had re-emerged from winter slumbers too.  Boats were being opened up after a lengthy break and being restocked.  It all made for an interesting beginning…

Pickled Hill
All around us signs of spring too with daffodils coming out and leaves starting to sprout.  We also passed a few discarded eggshells, presumably from newly hatched ducklings.  What was more of a surprise though was seeing a large toad sitting on the riverbank.  He looked a bit docile, probably because it wasn’t very warm yet.  The first mile or so was through some very attractive woodland and judging by the numbers of boats moored here it was clearly a popular part of the canal.

Lady's Bridge
We moved through Stowell Park and caught glimpses of the landscaped park and rather grand looking house beyond.  A slightly flimsy looking suspension bridge crossed the canal here and it turns out that it is the last of its style left.  The bridge carries a footpath across the canal but to be honest it would only surely be of use to the bravest of walkers.

Deepest Wiltshire
As we continued it seemed that our prediction of bridges (20) was woefully short and locks (15) was wildly over estimated.  In fact we quickly realised from looking at the map that we wouldn’t see any locks at all.  Most of the bridges were of the same type of brick design that we have seen in so many places but when we got to Lady’s Bridge we found something altogether more special.  The story goes that the local landowner did not want the canal across her land but was appeased by a healthy £500 donation and the building of a fine ornate bridge.  It certainly was a cut above some of the others that we have seen.

The Barge Inn
Beyond this the countryside opened out and we could see the chalk hills of the Wiltshire Downs.  The names amused us, especially the small lump known as Pickled Hill… By now our little party was beginning to stretch out and so at the next bridge we all waited for each other.  Thank goodness for mobile phones!  Texting ahead made life so much easier.

Alton Barnes White Horse
It wasn’t much further on that we found the perfect tonic for small legs when we happened upon a pub at canalside in Honey Street.  The Barge Inn has had quite the history, being variously a bakehouse, a slaughterhouse, a brewery and a grocer’s shop over the years.  It seems pretty well established as a favoured pub by boaters and the locals alike and when we called by it was absolutely rammed.  We were fortunate to find the last table outside to have some drink and a snack while we enjoyed the ambience of a warm spring day.  The view across to the Downs from here included a very good view of the White Horse of Alton Barnes, one of 13 such figures cut into the chalk downs in Wiltshire!  The horse itself is 200 years old, first having appeared in 1812 on the orders of the local landowner.  It looks pretty well looked after and I imagine it had a bit of a spruce up on the occasion of its bicentennial.

Power Source
Feeling fortified by a pint of real ale (only for me and not the girls!) we marched on towards Devizes.  It didn’t take long for us to be spread out again but the walking was relatively easy and we were in no desperate hurry.  Walking in little separate groups did allow us the opportunity to see perhaps more stuff than we would otherwise have done and possibly the highlight of the day was seeing a grass snake.  I was rather astonished to see one so early in the year but a couple in a nearby boat told us that they were common along this stretch of the canal and can often be seen swimming in the water.

A highlight for the girls soon came along in the shape of a rope swing and it was hard to get them to move along after they had discovered it!  To be fair I think I would have been as excited as them at their age and so I indulged them for a period of time until they had exhausted its entertainment value.  By now the number of boats had decreased but there were a few canoeists paddling furiously along.  I wondered whether they might be in training for this year’s Devizes to Westminster kayak race, a famous endurance event that uses a combination of the canal and the River Thames.

Awaiting a Bridge Opening
After a couple of miles further we decided to regroup and have another refreshment stop.  We lingered in the warm sunshine for quite a while to allow little legs to recuperate and this seemed to have the desired effect.  Oldest daughter decided she was going to stride off ahead and I followed along behind at a safe distance to allow her some space without letting her get out of my sight.  Meanwhile younger daughter walked along with the two women of the group.  This revolutionised our walk as up to this point we had worried that we had bitten off more than we could chew.  Far from it – older daughter completed the remaining three miles in not much more than an hour and younger daughter was only 10 minutes or so behind us at the end.

Catching the Sun
The remaining part of the walk was very tranquil and the towpath pretty quiet.  I was rather amused by the fact that one of the narrow boats failed to pass us even though it had been following us for some time.  Even without any locks along this section of canal that demonstrated to me that this means of travel is very slow.

Idyllic Spot
We passed by another busy looking pub that appeared to be a mecca for narrow boats but didn’t stop this time as the sun was starting to get low in the sky and daughter ahead of me was clearly not in the mood for stopping!  Eventually we reached the Devizes marina where we had swapped cars earlier.  To our annoyance we discovered that the towpath was on the wrong side of the canal for where we wanted to be and there was no bridge across.  This necessitated a further half a mile walk down to the next bridge and a walk back of similar distance.  Luckily the daughters were good sports about it, but I think we will remember that for next time we are down here.

Lonely Walker
This was a tranquil and pleasant section with some very pretty countryside and made for easy and surprisingly dry walking.  I have to say though that it was somewhat rescued by the beautiful weather conditions as compared with other sections of the canal it was a bit short on interesting features.  The Barge Inn definitely makes up for some of those deficiencies though – it was a good spot for lunchtime refreshments.  Just be careful not to eat or drink too much or you won’t want to continue your day’s walking!

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