Sunday, 2 June 2013

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 1 Reading to Theale

Meeting the Thames

Personal walking projects are becoming more difficult to fit in so this year we have decided to do something different to get more walking – we are all going!  Over the last year or so we have managed to get the girls walking more and more and now we felt confident enough to try out a long distance walk with them.  I hit upon the idea of a canal walk some time ago as I had looked at a couple myself and thought that they might fit the bill for the family.  My children are fascinated by history and nature and canals have both in abundance!  As we had tried out a short one in Derbyshire a couple of years ago to a degree of success it seemed the natural choice.

Caversham Bridge
A problem for us tucked down in the South East though is that there aren’t too many canals in our part of the world so we picked the Kennet and Avon as one we would like to start with.  Being 87 miles long it should provide quite a few weekends away since my children still have little legs and so distances have to be quite modest.  In fact our first day was 8 miles, further than they had ever walked before!  We took the train from Theale into Reading to begin our odyssey. 
Feeding the Geese

After fighting our way out of the incredibly busy railway station at Reading we headed down to the bank of the River Thames to begin our journey.  Immediately we were confonted with the sight of narrowboats, our constant companions for our journey!  We headed under the graceful road bridge at Caversham and on to the lock of the same name, where we watched our first boat negotiating the gates.  A little further on and we stopped to have our picnic to relieve us of much of the weight in the rucsac!
Swan Preening Area

Watching river life while we ate our lunch was a most pleasing activity – almost like watching TV!  Inevitably the girls wanted to save some of their crusts to feed the local birdlife.  Not necessarily the best idea for their health so we made sure not to give each individual bird too much.  The geese that end up being the recipients were clearly used to getting fed as they actively sought what we had.

Food Patrol
Not much farther on and we saw birdlife of a different kind – at the junction of the Thames and River Kennet we came across a swan preening area.  There were approximately 20 birds all tending to their feathers leaving a carpet of spent ones all over the bank.  The girls stood and watched for a while, transfixed.  We crossed to the other bank and took our leave of the River Thames at this point, heading westwards along the Kennet.

Heading through Reding
Our route for the next mile or so was through the built up area of Reading, quite a contrast to the rural feel of the Thames.  Much of the bank of the Kennet was still in the process of regeneration, a process that clearly wasn’t yet finished.  Although some gentrification had happened there were also some grungy old buildings along the way too.  What really caught our eye along the beginning of this stretch were the number of swans we passed – a group of more than 30 were hanging out waiting to be fed.  As soon as one party moved off they came over to us to see what we had.  They soon dispersed when they realised we had nothing for them.
The Oracle Shopping Centre

As we moved through the built up area it was quite stressful trying to keep the kids away from the dozens of cyclists using the towpath.  I suppose this is possibly the best way of seeing more of the canal (as I did a couple of years back when I visited the Basingstoke Canal.  Eventually though pedestrians won out as we got to the Oracle Shopping Centre – there were just too many people wandering about for bikes to get a look in.  It was amazing walking along the canal through such a big shopping centre – most unexpected.  This area had once hosted the Courage Brewery among other things, but took its name from the workhouse that once stood here.

Heading out of Reading
After passing by all the fancy restaurants, bouncy castles and other entertainment paraphernalia we were soon out into proper canal territory once again with weirs and locks punctuating the scene, while above us were huge ribbons of concrete that now carry our transport needs.  It would be fantastic to be transported back in time to see what these canals would have looked like back in the day.  They must have been more in keeping with their surroundings back then.  In the urban landscape they are more like unwanted elderly relatives at times.

Floral walls
We had a moment’s excitement at the next bridge we reached.  A small child had got her head stuck in the railings.  I actually thought this was something that only happened in stories but for a moment I thought that we were going to have to call the emergency services to come along and free her.  Luckily her Gran was quick thinking and realised that her head was malleable enough to squish it through.  I’m not sure Mum would have done that!  Anyhow, despite looking a bit shocked and tearful the girl looked utterly relieved.  As for us, that was the catalyst to us going wrong and heading along the wrong side of the towpath for a bit.  We ended up having to walk through an area of housing before finally getting back on track.
Fobney Lock

The last stretch of canal through Reading was a fitting end.  On the opposite bank were old traditional houses with well tended gardens obviously lived in by people that really appreciated their good fortune living with the waterway running alongside.  A couple of properties even had boats of their own – must be a fantastic thing to be able to do whenever you like.
Grey Lag Family

The town of Reading was left behind surprisingly quickly and the canal took a very rural feeling route westwards.  Initially the path was tarmac, obviously good for the huge number of bikes heading this way but a bit hard on the feet.  The air was full of mayflies buzzing around for the very short time that they remain as adults.  In fact we saw a few that had already copped it, while others were just going straight down the hungry mouths of the local gull population.  It was all rather curious and a bit grizzly if I’m honest.  Never witnessed such insect carnage before!
Fobney Weir

By now our path was fringed by cow parsley, a sight that would be familiar for the next couple of days.  The air was thick with the aroma of may blossom at last, at least three weeks later than it should be.  No matter, for the air was warming up finally and summer did feel like it was on its way at last.  We soon reached Fobney Lock, where we switched sides.  Here we saw a different kind of nature – a group of Grey Lag Geese complete with their little family of goslings.  They kept a close watch on us from their protected spot on the other side of the lock.  This onward stretch of canal appeared to be much favoured by geese rearing their young – we saw several family groups of grey lags and Canada geese along the way.

Southcot Mill
The weir a little further on caused some fascination – it was shaped like a comb with triangular shaped waterfalls leading off.  I guess this is to dissipate the energy of the water and lessen the erosion downstream?  The canalisation of the original river was becoming more obvious by this stage – with meander loops being cut off and weirs helping to rebalance the levels of the water.  We crossed via the milkmaids bridge and stopped for a rest and refreshment at Southcot Mill.  The rural nature of this stretch is difficult to imagine considering that we are only a hair’s breadth away from the built up area of Greater Reading.
Burghfield Moorings

After recharging our batteries we walked along a very long straight stretch which took us to Burghfield Bridge.  This stretch is obviously a very popular mooring spot since there were dozens of boats all lined up along the opposite shore.  These were a fascinating mixture of different types – not just narrow boats and not all traditionally painted.  My particular favourite was Petra, a lovely looking old thing that looked more like a river boat than a canal boat.

We passed by a very well frequented pub at Burghfield Bridge, presumably the destination for many of the boaters that had parked up.  Yet all too quickly the waterway became quiet again and by the time we got to Swans Bridge, only a few hundred metres away the canal was completely deserted.  The bridge was an enormous affair, with great big ramps on either side presumably to help the cyclists.  Hidden on the other side behind the bridge pier was a pillbox, the first I had noticed on this canal.  They would become a common sight from here on as this canal, much like the Basingstoke Canal was used as a defensive line should this country ever have become invaded.

A little further on and we came to lock 103, also known as Burghfield Lock.  By now we realised that we were counting down in numbers but the locks themselves were already becoming less fascinating as so many of them had little going on by them.  Just past the lock though and the canal felt less constrained by the wall of trees alongside as it passed through open countryside that seemed to be almost completely yellow!  In fact the fields were almost completely covered with buttercups – a truly remarkable sight.  The cows grazing in the fields seemed none too bothered though either by the flora or the large numbers of walkers that seemed to have joined us out of nowhere.
Maintenance Boat

Soon enough we heard the roar of the M4 and were pleased when we went underneath it and left it behind.  It was surprising though how quickly we did just that and by the next lock at Garston the traffic noise had faded into the distance.  Not long after that lock we came upon the swing bridge at Theale, which would be our last sight on the canal for the day.  We were lucky enough to see it in action too, for one of the boats was passing through and one of the crew was operating the electric controls.  This seemed to be a fitting end to the day’s walk.  For the girls it was a fantastic achievement – the longest walk they had ever completed, some eight miles in total!

Theale Swing Bridge
I had not really expected much from this section of the canal – on paper it didn’t look that promising.  How wrong I was though!  It was delightful for almost its entire length and surprisingly rural too.  There was enough interest for all of us to not realise quite how far we had travelled.  A very promising start to our trip and surely it would only get better?


  1. I love canal walks and this looks a very good one indeed. Well done for convincing your kids to get out, I'll do anything to prize my 11yr old off his XBox, might even get him out for a night in the woods one day...

    1. Thanks Martin - so far this one has delivered everything we wanted. We've got 2-3 more easy days along here before it is likely to get a lot more difficult due to lack of transport. Luckily my two girls love the outdoors & at 9 and 6 they are still full of enthusiasm. Long may it last!