Saturday, 27 June 2015

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 9 Semington to Avoncliff

Leaving Semington

The forecast for our second day of walking was terrible but we discovered that if we left early enough we would be able to complete the day's walking before the arrival of the forecast rain.  Being a Sunday we had the added complication of no bus service from Trowbridge, meaning that our only option was to take a taxi for the last stretch of the trip.  In order to fit as much walking as possible in before the arrival of rain we headed down to Semington once again and parked close to where we had finished our walk the day before.
Morning Horse Ride

Almost as soon as we started my eyes were drawn to a sign that described the former Wilts and Berks canal that joined the Kennet and Avon just here.  This canal once took a wandering route across these two counties to Oxford, cutting off a significant dog leg if taking the journey via Reading.  Sadly this canal was not profitable and always struggled for water supply, not helped by the fact that leakages were commonplace.  The canal finally closed in 1901 although it had barely functioned for years.  Despite its closure there is a Trust that has been set up with the intention of restoring the 52 mile long canal.  At this end the sign details how the canal trust are going to deal with the problem of the route being obliterated.  It seems that an entirely new parallel channel is going to be dug between here and Melksham, although construction has yet to begin.

Semington is clearly a popular place to moor if you are a boat owner.  It took us some time to pass the line of boats but when we finally left the last one behind our onward journey initially picked up very much where it left off with wide open spaces and empty looking fields on either side of us.  There were some suggestions that a major fishing match had taken place along this stretch had taken place the day before for some of the signage was left behind.  In one of the fields we came upon a tepee and fire - not sure these were among the fishing crowd? I was rather glad that we weren't there on the day as our chatter along the towpath would not have been welcome I am sure.

In contrast to yesterday our children seemed to have a spring in their step as they raced ahead of us all the way to Trowbridge.  I think the overcast conditions actually suited them as they weren't getting too overheated.  One of the things we had remarked on the previous evening was how few birds we had seen the day before.  It was ironic then to come across a chiffchaff on the opposite bank giving it what for.  It's song certainly made us stop and listen before it flew off out of earshot.  Not long after we came across a duck with at least 12 babies in tow - what a clutch!  She is really going to have her work cut out to make sure they reach motherhood themselves.  This was a scene that we would see a lot along the towpath although I think this was the biggest set of ducklings that we saw on the whole walk.

Hilperton Marina Bridge
Boats soon started appearing alongside the towpath once more - our clue that we were reaching another settlement; in this case Trowbridge.  We would really only flirt with the town though as the canal passes its northern flank.  We did come across a strange little marina though - this seemed to be only a boat park rather than any kind of commercial yard.  Surrounding it was a housing estate of fairly recent vintage - I imagine the houses are quite sought after considering their view.  We paused for a moment on top of the arch bridge that is used to take the towpath over the entrance.  In fact this was the only 'hill' of the whole day!

After seeing the huge brood of ducklings earlier the next stretch brought us a sighting of a huge brood of cygnets - at least 8 in the family this time!  I am not sure I have ever seen so many in one place.  They were fascinating to watch and we all stood and watched for some time before moving on.  A sprinkle of rain was largely to blame!  We crossed the railway just beyond - I hadn't appreciated from the map that we would actually go over the top rather than underneath.  Looking down at the track it was easy to see that the line would have been built for Brunel's broad gauge, such was the wide expanse of the trackbed.  It was a line that we would be travelling later.

Rescue Boat
The way ahead was heavily populated with boats and not all of them were typical canal boats.  As well as cruising boats there were plenty of 'projects' and also a couple of lifeboats and even an emergency boat from some kind of merchant ship complete with canopy.  It didn't look the most well appointed vessel it has to be said.  The scenery had changed too - gone were the wide open fields and our route into Bradford-on-Avon was now heavily wooded on either side which changed the character of the canal considerably.  With all the fresh new leaves on the trees the canal felt a lot more closed in and intimate.

Bradford Wharf
Soon we reached the wharf at Bradford-on-Avon.  By now it was mid-morning and we stopped for a welcome drink at the small cafe here and boat and people watched for a while.  The cafe is to be recommended - the breakfasts looked good and the cakes definitely looked good - well worth a stop I would say!

Tithe Barn
Feeling fortified we pressed on and passing the first lock of the day which was in use.  The way ahead was blocked by the main road and we had the rather annoying wait for a gap in the traffic to be able to cross - there appears to be no easy way to do this by the bridge.  On the other side we had to pass down the side of a pub to regain the towpath.  As we did so we passed a whole load of ladies all wearing pink shirts and appearing to be on some kind of sponsored walk I guess for a breast cancer charity judging by their outfits.  They did brighten up a grey day that is for sure!
Avoncliff Aqueduct

A little way further on we passed the Tithe Barn.  This remarkable structure wasn't originally built as a barn but became one for a good many decades until 1974 when it was transferred to the nation for preservation.  Apparently it was originally part of a Grange that was part of the Shaftesbury Abbey estate.  When dissolved in 1539 during the reformation the Grange than became a farm - the barn is all that is left from this time.

The last section of walk from Bradford to Avoncliff can only be described as delightful and was certainly very popular with walkers and cyclists.  I imagine many people come here from Bath and walk or cycle back since the two town are connected easily by rail.  Our final destination though was Avoncliff, a hamlet just about two miles from Bradford.  This is where the canal crosses the River Avon via a very impressive looking aqueduct built by John Rennie and completed in 1801.  Just the other side of the aqueduct is the tiny Avoncliff station where we would be getting the train back to Trowbridge and from there back to Semington by cab.  The transport arrangements eventually worked beautifully but only after a lengthy wait for the train.  This was softened by the cafe on the opposite bank of the canal where we had a very enjoyable cuppa while we waited.  We did get a short burst of rain while we were there but that was all we saw all day despite the poor forecast!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 8 Devizes to Semington

Setting Off
We have finally made an opportunity to finish this walk after a few false dawns.  Ultimately we wanted to finish on the basis that we want to find a new project but also because the children kept asking when we were going to go again.  We have passed the section where public transport was a problem and although we really wanted to include our friend Christine we could not find a time that we were all free and so had to pursue this section alone.

Devizes Wharf
We headed out from Worthing a little later than we wanted to but we managed to reach the bus stop in Semington in time for the bus into Devizes.  Luckily the bus heads on further to Swindon and so we were able to go to the point that we had left off last time without making an extra walk out from the town centre.  The early part of the canal heads through the suburbs of Devizes in a cutting where many of the houses have manicured gardens with landing stages at the back.  Not too many had canal boats to go with the landing stages however.
Top of Caen Hill
Just before heading under the main road the canal took a 90 degree turn.  This sort of feature is surprisingly common on the canal and I assume was on the basis that roads were easier to be bridged if the canal passes underneath at 90 degrees rather than on a diagonal basis.  The next section of path was being improved for cycling use, which made for slightly tricky walking.  Just beyond the next bridge is the old wharf for Devizes.  Our lunch was already feeling very heavy in the rucsac and so we took the opportunity to scoff it down by the visitor centre.  We also had a drink in the cafe here and although we were tempted by the museum we decided that we couldn't spare the time as we had a long way still to go.  It is a most interesting place though and the feel of its former use is as apparent as the look of it.  The centre was also quite busy with plenty of people dropping by to have a look and water activities also taking place on the canal itself.

Caen Hill Pools
This part of the canal is also the only one truly hemmed in by housing on  both sides.  Not far past the wharf we came to the top lock of Caen Hill Locks.  Over the next couple of miles the canal would drop down the side of a hill so that we could regain the same level that we left in Reading.  There are twenty nine locks ion total on this section including the staircase of sixteen that form the most famous part of the descent.  Overall it takes 5-6 hours to traverse all the locks - practically a day's activity!  As we headed down through the staircase we passed a crew half way up that looked very fed up with the whole process.  The towpath was naturally very busy with lots of visitors eager to see this most famous of canal features. We had perfect weather too with sunshine and puffy white clouds being the order of the day.
Round in Circles
At the bottom of the staircase of locks the path and canal settled for a short section before heading down another flight of six locks known as Foxhangers.  The weather was by now very still and the heat was building.  In the canal itself were some fantastic reflections as well as swans and there families effortlessly gliding along through the water.  It was scenes like this that reminded us why we love this walk so much.
Bottom of the Lock Staircase

At the bottom Foxhangers Lock we passed the remnants of the old railway bridge that would once have passed over.  This is the remains of the old railway to Devizes to Bath, closed in 1966 as part of the Beeching Cuts and unlikely to be reinstated dyue to the obliteration of much of the line and buildings along it.  The canal almost went the same way, closing in the immediate aftermath of World War II but seeing a renaissance which started with preservation back in the 1960s, ironically just as the railway was closing.  Just by the bridge parapet were a couple of interesting features; the first being a solar powered pump that helps keep the lock system in water and the second a large boatyard also known as Foxhangers.  From here a fleet of holiday rentals looked ready to depart at any time.  All were named after fox-related things including a flying fox, foxterrier, foxglove and many others. I have to say that going on one of these holidays looks so tempting...
From Foxhanger the onward route was rather less exciting as the canal once again returns to pastoral West Country beauty.  The weather was glorious although occasionally the clouds threatened a bit only to blow over.  The canal seemed a lot straighter through this section too - there was no pretence of having to follow the contours - the height was largely dealt with by locks which continued to come along periodically.  At Seend we passed by a very popular looking pub on the other side of the water.  We thought better of visiting ourselves as a quick reckoning suggested that we would struggle for a seat.
A Sheep That Doesn't Belong
Outside was a large boat called Diana - we would see this several more times along the way.  It is adapted for use by disabled people although at this point there was no-one in evidence apart from several crew getting the boat ready for the next set of passengers. They had obviously found the equivalent of a disabled parking bay for I could not otherwise see how they had got so lucky with their berth when the side of the canal was choked with boats for several hundred metres either side of the pub.
Surprisingly we had covered a lot further distance than we thought by now - passing by so many locks certainly made the mileage go a lot quicker.  The heat was starting to get to us a bit but it was also responsible for ensuring that the air was heavy with the scent of spring flowering, mostly May blossom but also cow parsley the chief culprits.  Other flowers much in evidence along the banks were yellow flags, comfrey and wild roses.  It all added up to a very colourful scene.

Semington Wharf
Our pace slowed considerably for the last couple of miles as the children tired.  They didn't complain but I think that a long week of school had caught up with them.  This was also marginally the longest of the three days that we had scheduled to be here and it showed.  Nevertheless walking at such a slow pace was a good thing for it provided the opportunity to really take in our surroundings - something we don't always do when we walk much faster.  Eventually we reached the village of Semington, which was to be our final destination for the day.  We had been looking forward to our arrival for we knew that there was a pub there and a large glass of ice cold lemonade was just what the doctor ordered on this very hot day.  It felt good to have another 9 miles under our belt - the finishing line is now in sight!  We picked the perfect day to undertake this section of the walk and the lock staircase at Caen Hill did not disappoint.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Slaugham and Warninglid

Slaugham Village
This walk was not the one we intended to do as we had chosen one that started from Warninglid but such was the lack of parking in that village that we had to choose this as an alternative.  We parked at Slaugham Common a mile or so away instead and wandered down into the village from there.  Slaugham is one of those picture postcard Wealden villages that Sussex is so famous for.  The walk from the car park the half mile or so down into the village wasn't so pleasant and we were relieved when we reached the church.

Slaugham Church
When we left the road we headed through the churchyard. This was quite a change of scenery as the cemetery is quite enclosed and a peaceful world away from the rest of the village.  Beyond this enclosed world the fields outside were full of cows all congregated together in the sunniest part of the field.  This is the vicinity of the former Slaugham Place, an old Elizabethan Manor that once stood here and was owned by the local MP.  Interestingly, the house seems to have been abandoned about 150 years later and was left to rack and ruin.  The oak staircase inside was removed and taken to Lewes Town Hall but the rest of the house deteriorated over time until there is very little left now.

Slaugham Pond
At the end of the churchyard the path continues through a fairly confined space between hedges lined with wildflowers.  We also came upon the end of Slaugham Pond and wandered around the perimeter for a short way.  The view across the lake was superb - the low early evening light really showed off the place at its very best.  For me this was perhaps the highlight of the whole walk :)

Distorted Barn
After walking down approximately half the length of the south shore we headed off across fields and through the strangely derelict Old Park Farm.  The path passed by a barn that had been reduced only to its metal frame and the frame was quite distorted looking.  There is obviously quite a story behind this but we could only guess what had happened.  As we crossed the fields we enjoyed the extensive views across this part of The Weald before eventually reaching Warninglid.  We took the opportunity to stop at the local pub which had a very pleasant beer garden out back where we supped our drinks in the warm sun.  Looking at the menu it looked like a good spot for a midpoint meal if you are looking for that kind of thing.

Half Moon in Warninglid
Feeling refreshed we wandered down through the impossibly pretty village of Warninglid until we found a path off to the left that initially took us past some well managed looking allotments and then past a couple of woodland sections.  We crossed a small road and then passed through some fields with sheep and a couple of horses separated by a fence.  The horse on our side of the fence was obviously quite lonely for it came bowling over to us looking for love or food, not sure which.  Whatever it was he was quite insistent and we really struggled to leave the field without him tagging along behind us.  We ended up going one at a time and even resorted to climbing over the gate!

Over Friendly Horse
An annoying feature of a very different nature was to follow as we came across a very busy road that we had to follow for a short stretch until we could find an onward path opposite.  This was much better with a lovely outlook from the field initially.  This gave way to woodland still carpeted by bluebells which was a treat to see.  Not far into the wood we also came upon a fallen tree that looked like it had been nailed by a bolt of lightning.  This was quite fascinating for the girls who did a little detective work and deduced that it had happened last autumn based on the state of the leaves.  We thought that was pretty observant :)

Wealden Views
After dropping down through the woods we crossed several wild flower meadows and passed by yet another pond.  In fact it is quite surprising how many ponds there are in this part of Sussex - the countryside is littered with them.  Must be great for amphibian life!  From a couple of small ponds we moved on to the large pond that we had walked around earlier and then returned through the churchyard.  To save my girls walking back along the road they had a good nose around the churchyard while I retrieved the car.  This was a pleasant walk but the section of road walking was less than pleasant.  I guess trying trying to park in Slaugham village is as impossible as parking in Warninglid so parking at Furnace Pond is probably the only option.