Aldermaston Wharf, on the Kennet and Avon Canal between Newbury and Reading, was once a major trade centre. Two hundred years ago, goods were transported from here all over the world. Horse-drawn barges carried coal, timber, beer, malt and grain. Great Western Railway bought the Canal in 1851 and an extra spur was cut between Aldermaston Lock and the then swing bridge, leading to the railway sidings. Much of it remains, but the far end was filled in at the beginning of World War II and offices were built to house GWR staff evacuated from Paddington in London. The GWR still serves Aldermaston from Aldermaston Station. The A4 Bath Road is also close-by.
Aldermaston Lock was originally called Brewhouse Lock because Strange’s Brewery stood beside it. Francis Strange lived in the Brewery House and another member of the family in nearby Bridge House. The brewery was sold in 1952 and demolished, but a series of small brick arches belonging to the brewery can still be seen on the building next to the lock.
Aldermaston Lift Bridge, installed in 1984, is fully automatic and replaced a wooden swing bridge. Wharf Cottage and the Toll House, is now The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust Visitors’ Centre, providing a tea room, garden and information centre. Opposite Aldermaston Wharf is the old Malthouse, which was once a vital part of the trade from the Wharf. It has been converted into The Malthouse Cottages.
The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race starts from Devizes in Wiltshire and for the first 52 miles, competitors race along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading, where they join the River Thames for the remaining 73 miles, to the finish in Westminster opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. The race has been held annually on Easter Weekend since 1948. It is a test of skill and endurance. The canoes have to be carried 77 times to get past the locks. Some competitors race non-stop from Easter Saturday to Easter Sunday, completing the course often in under twenty hours, while others canoe over four days, from Good Friday to Easter Monday. In 2016, severe weather conditions caused the organisers to cancel the fourth day of the race.
Woolhampton is a small village, six miles from Newbury. The A4 London to Bath Road is the main street of the village. It is served by a railway station, which is known as Midgham, named after a local village which, in fact, is further away than Woolhampton. The railway arrived in 1847, but the station was renamed in 1873 to avoid confusion with the better known Wolverhampton station. The service is provided by Great Western Railway and London can be accessed via Reading. The Kennet and Avon Canal also passes through the village. There is a lock and swing bridge at Woolhampton.
Over the centuries, the village has served London to Bath travellers from several coaching inns. The Falmouth Arms closed in 2014 and has been converted to residential accommodation. On a board giving the history of the inn, mention was made of the death in 1940, of the landlord, Spencer Chaplin, cousin of Charlie Chaplin, the film star. As a result of a row with his wife, he shot and killed himself outside one of the bedrooms. The Angel Inn on the Bath Road is a very popular village pub, with a large restaurant.
On the banks of the River Kennet, next to the Swing Bridge, is the Rowbarge, which has extensive gardens. The building dates from 1815, when a cottage was built which was a beer shop called “William IV”. By the 1850s, it had become the Rowbarge. In 2012, it underwent major refurbishment and is popular with locals, as well as customers from Newbury and Reading.
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.