Canal walks: go with the flow
With the recent launch of the Canal & River Trust – the successor to British Waterways – there’s never been a better time to explore Britain’s canals and towpaths. Ruth Somerville takes in some historic liquid assets…
Bristol – Reading, 92km/57 miles
When it was completed in 1810, the Kennet and Avon was at the forefront of design. Engineer John Rennie mixed exquisite Regency architecture with cutting-edge water and steam pump technology to forge the canal link between the Avon at Bristol and the Thames at Reading. With its coal-carrying trade pilfered by the Great Western Railway, the canal declined. In 1955 the owners applied to Parliament to close the route. Luckily for us, they failed, and after restoration work, the canal is very much alive.
Tow to toe: The majestic stretch up the Avon Valley from Bath to Bradford on Avon contains too many unmissable features to list. Just some include the ornate network of tunnels and cast-iron bridges that ease the canal out of Bath (the city’s abbey isn’t too shoddy either); the working, Grade II-listed Claverton Pumping Station and the elegant Dundas and Avon aqueducts. It’s the harmonious way Rennie’s elegant designs mix with this perfectly spaced valley that really stands out, though. If you stand exactly centre of the low balustraded and dentilled Avoncliff Aqueduct, you can watch canal, railway and river run a smooth relay through the Avon Valley to glide left somewhere unseen round its wall.
Inverness – Corpach, 99km/62 miles
In 1801, Thomas Telford surveyed the Great Glen fault line to design a canal that would link northern Scotland’s four great lochs, providing a passage between east and west coasts. The project ran massively over budget and opened more than 20 years later, on the cusp of the railway era that would make it (largely) redundant. Although it never fulfilled Telford’s trading hopes, the canal now draws 500,000 visitors a year (and one glance at Ben Nevis, above, and you can understand why).
Tow to toe: Corpach sets the scale of the Caledonian, when the route rears up on a vast aquatic staircase (the ‘Neptune’) that lifts the canal 20m/65ft skywards on eight hydraulic locks. Even this feature is dwarfed, however,
by the sweeping pine slopes and rearing mountains – including Ben Nevis – that flank the Caledonian’s wide course. The steep banks gradually give way to classic Highland scenery and, as the Spean river rolls into view, the canal squeezes through the Gairlochy Lochs to meet the shores of Loch Lochy.
North Warnborough – Weybridge, 51km/32 miles
Skirting heathland in the Thames Basin and surrounded by North Hampshire hills, this canal serves up a visual and ecological feast. Completed in 1794 to link Basingstoke with the Thames at Wey, the canal declined under debt and the expansion of rail. During World War II it found another use as a military defence against a potential German invasion. Now restored, the canal’s unpolluted waters host more than half of all species of UK aquatic plants, while the occasional horse-drawn narrow boat pays homage to its past.
Tow to toe: ‘MOD Property’ warns a sign by the towpath at Aldershot barracks, where you immediately become an interloper in a wilder world. Untouched woods, their feet in reed beds, flank the bank in such a dense confusion that you can only glimpse the private world they support through the birds gliding in and out of their watery roots. Heading west, the trees end and Eelmoor Flash begins in a buzzing mass of waterlogged heath and dragonflies. Beyond Fleet, the canal’s banks open out to rolling parkland and fields. Moss-bound World War II relics of dragons’ teeth and pillboxes mark the path to Greywell Tunnel, where a bat colony roosts and the remaining stretch to Basingstoke remains impassable.
For the full version of this article with ten top canal walks, pick up the Summer 2012 issue of walk from Cotswold Outdoor or why not join the Ramblers and get it delivered to your door four times a year?