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Reclaiming humble heritage

On a sleepy stretch of the Kennet & Avon Canal sit two of the oldest buildings on our network. The ancient structures at Aldermaston Wharf, a cottage and an outbuilding, were built in the early 18th century, and pre-date the canal by several years. Unfortunately, after decades of neglect, the Grade II Listed outbuilding was on the brink of collapse. Thankfully, with our help, the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust saved this humble dwelling and preserved a vital piece of waterway heritage.

Two white buildings by the canal

It's thought the buildings nestled on the canalside near the quiet village of Aldermaston, were once part of a small farm. While there's some uncertainty as to the outbuilding's original purpose, what is clear is that once the Kennet & Avon Navigation was completed in 1723, the structure was hastily repurposed to accommodate boat traffic.

As our heritage and environment manager for the region Morgan Cowles explains: “Boatmen, carrying loads of coal, lime, timber and grain would pause here for a quick pitstop, a chance to refuel, get a hot meal and have a wash and a brush-up before heading on to Reading. It was a bit like an eighteenth-century motorway service station.”

These wash houses, also known as lengthman's huts or hovels, were once commonplace along our network, vital rest stops for the men and women that toiled on the canals. Unfortunately, few examples survive, demolished or simply given up to the elements as the age of canals passed.

An old brick-built building in disrepair

“Because these buildings are so humble, they tend to get easily lost,” Morgan says, “which is why we're so keen to conserve the few that remain, so we can shine a light on these past lives and discover a bit more about what it was really like to be a working boatman.”

The main cottage has been operated by Kennet & Avon Canal Trust as a popular tearoom for several years, providing refreshments for walkers, cyclists and boaters. The outbuilding, however, has been neglected for some time, and when Morgan first visited the site three years ago, the old wash house was in a sorry state of repair. “It was in a pretty poor condition,” he recalls, “The roof was damaged, the south gable had structural cracking and was leaning in, and the building wasn't weather proof.”

Thanks to funding they secured, Kennet & Avon Canal Society were able to begin repair works soon after, with Morgan and his team supporting the project and obtaining the Listed Building Consents that were needed. The building is Listed Grade II for its historic interest so special permissions were needed. Today, the old wash house is transformed. The brickwork has been repointed, the roof repaired, it's been fitted with electricity and had a fresh lick of paint.

“Kennet & Avon Canal Society have done a great job,” says Morgan, “they've saved the building, no doubt about that. These humble buildings are part of the unsung history of our network. They're not grand structures, like the Dundas Aqueduct, for example, but they do serve as a fascinating insight into the lives of the ordinary people that lived and worked on our waterways.”

A group of people standing by the canal

The wash house is opening to the public in the coming months and the Trust will be providing a number of historic items to help bring the golden age of canals to life.

One such item, set into the ground just outside the wash house, is a Great Western Railway way marker. The Great Western Railway owned the Kennet & Avon Canal for nearly a century and the distinctive cast-iron way markers that line the bank are an important part of the canal's heritage. But several years ago, one disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As it weighs in at over 1 cwt someone must have been quite determined to haul it away.

If it was not for an eagle-eyed volunteer, the marker may have been lost forever, but after trawling the internet, much to everyone's surprise and relief, the boundary marker was found up for auction on eBay. The plucky volunteer immediately contacted the authorities and thankfully, the marker was recovered. Today, it's back where it belongs, where visitors to the newly renovated wash house can admire it.

The restoration at Aldermaston Wharf is just a small part of a much larger mission. As guardians of the oldest working heritage network in the UK, we're passionate about restoring and reinvigorating historic structures along our canals and opening them up to the public. That's why we work so hard to protect our own heritage assets and partner with other local groups all over the country to preserve our past for future generations.

Last Edited: 13 September 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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