Caen Hill Locks, on the Kennet and Avon Canal near Devizes in Wiltshire, provide an impressive sight. These 16 locks, taking the Canal up Caen Hill, create the steepest canal lock flight in the world, a rise or fall of 237 feet in two and a quarter miles. In total, there are 29 locks between Devizes and Rowde, which comprise the Devizes Lock Flight.
At the top of the Flight, beside the Sir Hugh Stockwell Lock, is the Caen Hill Cafe and Information Centre, which attracts many non-boating visitors. To ensure that there was enough water to operate the locks, long side ponds were built at each lock, but in 1996, a back-up pump was installed at Foxhangers to pump water at a rate of 300,000 gallons per hour from the bottom to the top of the Flight.
The Kennet and Avon Canal stretches for 87 miles, from its junction with the River Thames at Reading to the River Avon and Bristol in the west of England. The name is often used to refer to the whole length of the navigation, whereas strictly, it is only a canal in the central section from Bath to Newbury. From Bristol to Bath, the waterway follows the River Avon and from Newbury, the River Kennet. The canal section of 57 miles, was constructed between 1794 and 1810, which created an important east-west trade link from Bristol to London. The waterway incorporates 105 locks. The Kennet and Avon Canal was once a busy industrial canal, its main trade being coal from the Somerset coalfield, which was transported up the Somerset Coal Canal to Limpley Stoke, where it joined the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Canal traffic started to deteriorate when, in 1841, the Great Western Railway opened along much of the same route as the Canal. In 1851, the Great Western Railway bought the Canal, but it gradually fell into disrepair and by the early 1950s, only a few pleasure boats used it. The GWR had sought permission to close the Canal, but the Government resisted their request. During the Second World War, it had served as a defence against invasion and numerous pillboxes remain along the Canal.
In 1951, the Kennet and Avon Canal Association was formed to keep the Canal open and in 1962, it became the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, with the aim of restoring the Canal from Reading to Bristol. British Waterways became the statutory body for inland waterways and in partnership with the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, restoration of the derelict locks, crumbling bridges and canalside buildings began. Much of the work was carried out by volunteers. In August 1990, HM Queen Elizabeth II reopened the navigation.
It is now one of the most popular waterways in Britain, used for boating, canoeing, fishing, cycling and walking along the towpath. It passes through beautiful countryside, including West Berkshire, Wiltshire and the Cotswolds. The restoration has had the support of famous canal boat veterans, including the actors, Prunella Scales and Timothy West, who displayed their love of canals in their Channel 4 television programme, “Great Canal Journeys”. There are many marinas providing boats for hire. Visitors are well provided for from numerous attractive riverside pubs and tearooms. The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust operate shops and tearooms at Aldermaston Lock, Newbury Wharf, Crofton Pumping Station, Devizes and Bradford on Avon.