Hungerford Wharf is a good place to start a walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath, which leads out of the town into the surrounding Wiltshire countryside. Hungerford is a market town, nine miles west of Newbury and only four miles from the M4 motorway. The name, Hungerford, originates from the Saxon name, “Hanging Wood Ford”. In the 1830s, Hungerford Wharf was a thriving wharf, with many industrial buildings. The Bath stone, from which St. Lawrence Church was built, was transported along the canal. From Hungerford Wharf, the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust operate “The Rose of Hungerford”, a 55 feet long passenger trip boat crewed by volunteers, on journeys to Wire Lock or Dun Mill. In August 1990, this boat carried HM The Queen, when she officially re-opened the Canal at Caen Hill. The Kennet and Avon Canal, from Hungerford Wharf to Kintbury, is very attractive, with four locks and six bridges and closely follows the River Kennet.
As you approach Kintbury, on the opposite bank of the canal, can be seen the Old Vicarage, a grade II Listed Building, dating from 1860. Whilst this is not the original building, Jane Austen had a close connection with the Vicarage. She described Kintbury as being famous for its apples. She wrote about her visits to the village and stays at the Old Vicarage. Her last recorded visit was in 1816, a year before her death. She also stayed at Croft Cottage in Kintbury, the home of Mrs. Dexter, who was the Vicar’s daughter. The Vicar at Kintbury, in the late 18th century, was the Rev. Thomas Fowle. His sons, Tom and Fulwar, were pupils of Jane Austen’s father at Steventon in Hampshire and became friends of the Austen family. Tom Fowle became engaged to Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra. Fulwar succeeded his father as Vicar of Kintbury.
The Dundas Arms is an 18th century pub, providing accommodation and has a lovely position on the Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Kennet, not far from the railway station. It once served the needs of the working boatmen. Between 1794 and 1798, the village was full of “navvies” (navigators), who were building the Kennet and Avon Canal. The pub is named after Charles Dundas, the first chairman of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, from 1788.
The Kennet Horse Boat Company provides pleasure trips on the horse drawn “Kennet Valley”, a 20 ton narrowboat which, in fact, is wider than the normal boat at 7 feet.
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.