The Kennet & Avon Canal is one of our most well-loved waterways. The 87 mile long canal links London with the Bristol Channel, and passes through some spectacular landscapes including West Berkshire and the rolling Cotswolds. But this haven in southern England faced closure in the last century and was only brought back to life thanks to the tireless dedication of volunteers.
Today, thousands of visitors enjoy boating, walking and cycling along the peaceful towpaths of the Kennet & Avon Canal, fondly known as the K&A. A waterside walk along any stretch of towpath is an enjoyable experience.
For family day's out, the Crofton Pumping Station, Caen Hill Flight, Avoncliff Aqueduct, Claverton Pumping Station and the historic city of Bath are just some of the canal’s many highlights. But just a few decades ago we came very close to losing this national treasure, forever.
What we know as the Kennet & Avon Canal is actually made up of three historic waterways, the Kennet Navigation, the Avon Navigation and the Kennet & Avon Canal.
In 1724 the River Kennet was made navigable from Reading to Newbury, and by 1727 boats could reach as far as Bath. For hundreds of years before this people had talked about linking the River Kennet with the River Avon, but it was not until 1794 that a route was fixed via Devizes and an Act was passed. The resulting canal was completed in 1810.
Water supply up to the summit soon became a problem, so in 1812 a steam engine was installed at Crofton to pump water from Wilton Water (amazingly this Boulton & Watt engine is still working today). Three years later a companion Harvey’s engine was also installed.
Despite the impressive length of the K&A, through traffic never accounted for more than 6% of the total and the waterway was never prosperous.
The situation worsened for the Kennet & Avon Canal when the Great Western Railway opened in 1841. Suddenly income halved and it seemed likely that the canal would be converted into a railway. Thankfully, however, this Bill was not passed and instead, the K&A was sold to the Great Western Railway in 1852.
Although the canal was loss-making, the Great Western Railway was legally obliged to keep it open as long as there was some traffic on it. This it did, though there were many complaints about the level of maintenance. Nevertheless, in 1897 the Boulton & Watt engine had major repairs and a few years later, its companion 1845 engine was rebuilt.
After a century of decline, in the 1960s the canal eventually fell into disrepair and parts of it were closed to boats. The future of the K&A, along with that of many canals, looked bleak.
However, waterway enthusiasts and local people flocked to the cause. The Kennet & Avon Canal Trust was formed and, with hard work and dedication, these volunteers gradually restored the canal to its former glory.
In 1990 the Queen officially reopened the K&A, and since then the canal has gone from strength to strength with the help of a £25m Heritage Lottery Fund grant. Substantial restoration works have been matched by the development of canalside resources, including wildlife habitats and moorings.
This beautiful waterway is a favourite weekend escape for locals and a pleasure to discover for visitors from further afield. Whether on foot, by boat or on two wheels, we know that the K&A delights you all. From end to end it is dotted with destinations which make for perfect family days out. You can download our free guides to Caen Hill, Aldermaston Wharf, Bradford-on-Avon and many more must-see spots from our Places to Visit page.