Newbury is an ideal start for a walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal. The walk along the towpath is very pretty. The town prospered from the canal transporting cloth from the various weaving houses and later, grain from the surrounding farms. Newbury Wharf, once a thriving industrial centre, has few of the buildings remaining. The Stone Building, which is a listed building, is used by the Newbury section of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust as an Information Centre. The cafe is operated by “Teashop by the Canal”, in the Stone Building, opposite the old Almshouses. The canal passes through Victoria Park, which has a boating lake and a traditional bandstand. Canal narrowboat trips can be enjoyed from the Wharf. The Granary Building is now used by the West Berkshire Museum. A short walk along the towpath, past Town Bridge, is The Lock Stock & Barrel pub, which has an outside gallery overlooking the canal and is regarded as one of the best pubs in Newbury. Newbury Lock, built in 1796, was the first lock on the canal to be built. West Mills Swing Bridge is the only means of crossing to the residential Lock Island from West Mills. The Granary at West Mills Wharf, has been converted to apartments, but at one time, it was the Hovis Factory where boats offloaded salt and flour for the factory.
The Monkey Bridge is the only crossing point on the River Kennet west of Newbury. The reason for the name is not known, but could relate to the original bridge’s steep steps which made it difficult for people to use. This 1935 bridge was built to carry the water supply pipe from the waterworks in Speen. By 2005, seven hundred people each day were using it and it was decided that it needed to be replaced with one that everyone could use. Work on the new bridge commenced in 2006 and finished in 2007.
The Great Western Railway reached Newbury in 1847 from Reading. Branch lines were built, including one to Lambourn in 1898. The Lambourn Valley Railway was closed to passengers in 1960 and the track to Lambourn removed in 1962. My Mother travelled on this line from London every summer throughout her childhood to stay with her grandmother in Lambourn. When Doctor Beeching closed the line, coal was no longer transported on the railway. The coal merchant, who was situated next to Lambourn Railway Station, needed to expand his yard and my Great Grandmother’s cottage was demolished.
The remains of the brick supports for the bridge which carried the line to Lambourn across the Kennet and Avon Canal, can be seen on the banks of the Canal in front of the West Fields housing estate. The bridge was built by the local Newbury firm, Plenty’s.
Soon Hamstead Bridge is reached, from where it is only a short walk to the village of Marsh Benham, which is approximately three miles west of Newbury. The village is renowned for the Red House, a traditional thatched pub with a popular restaurant and lovely garden.
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.