The Kennet and Avon was built as the industrial highway of its day to transport coal, iron ore, tobacco and all sorts of agricultural products between towns and villages stretching all the way from Bristol in the west to Reading in the east.
In the early part of the 18th Century the river Kennet at Reading and the River Avon at Bath were made navigable. The areas between these were crying out for a waterway link and in 1794, Scottish architect and engineer John Rennie was appointed to close the gap – which involved construction of the Caen Hill Flight of locks. As a highly respected engineer, Rennie had been responsible for building many bridges, canals and docks and was honoured, after his death, with being buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
For the next 16 years, navvies risked their lives cutting and digging almost 60 miles of canal, built 100 locks, 2 tunnels and almost 200 bridges, viaducts and aqueducts between Bath and here at Foxhangers! A double-track iron railway on wooden sleepers linked the canal with the town of Devizes until the Caen Hill Flight of locks was completed in 1810; it was then possible to navigate from London to Bristol.
With the advent of The Kennet and Avon Canal, The Somerset Coal Canal (at one time serving 80 Somersetshire collieries) now had access – from the Dundas Aqueduct – to previously unimaginable business opportunities offered by supplying London; not to mention the more local areas of Wiltshire and Berkshire where coal supplies had, until then, been very limited. The Kennet and Avon also linked with the Wilts and Berks Canal at Semington.
Many of the stone quarry owners in Bath saw the potential of the Kennet and Avon Canal and became some of its biggest shareholders; soon their stone was seen along the length of the canal being used by various developers in many new locations (including the Foxhanger Barn and Lock Keepers Cottages for example).
1804 Cargo Lists for the Kennet and Avon Canal
EAST (towards Reading & London)
- Bath building stone Chalk
- Hanham paving stone
- Limestone from Bristol and Bath Peat
- Tin Plate
- Iron from Wales
- Fruit from the Mediterranean
West (towards Bath & Bristol)
- Peat ash
- Grain & flour
- Timber and pitch from the Baltic’s
- Tea from the East Indies
- Fruit from the Mediterranean
- Grain & flour
- Sugar from the West Indies
However despite high expectations, trade never achieved what had been expected and when the Great Western Railway bought the Canal in 1852 there was a deliberate policy not to invest too much in maintenance. By the end of the First World War the number of boats using the canal was in decline.
During the Second World War, a large number of concrete bunkers known as pillboxes were built as part of the line to defend against an expected German invasion, and many of these are still visible.
In 1948 navigation effectively closed and the Government planned to close the canal completely but this rallied local canal enthusiasts determined not to let that happen, and in 1962 the Kennet and Avon Trust were formed with the aim of restoring the whole waterway.
After much hard work by the Trust and its volunteers, the Queen was invited to officially re-open the Kennet and Avon Canal and this happened at the top of the Caen Hill flight of locks on 8 August 1990. Restoration continued with the help of a £25m Lottery Grant – the biggest single grant ever given, with final completion of the project eventually taking place in 2003 when Prince Charles attended to help celebrate the event.
Harriett, a 72ft x 14ft Kennet barge built by Robbins Lane and Pinnegar of Honey Street in 1905 stuck fast in a lock at Foxhangers on her delivery voyage to Bristol Docks! Eventually released, “Harriett” worked on the tidal Avon and Kennet and Avon Canal, for Fred Ashmead & Sons who had her carry timber pulp. “Harriett” beached at Purton in 1964 where she can be seen today, registered as a National Historic Ship No 2347 and sponsored by descendants of the Ashmead family.
Since 1954, three generations of the Fletcher family have lived and run Lower Foxhangers Farm; diversifying into camping and farmhouse holidays since 1974 and canal boat hire since 1997.
Today Foxhangers Wharf still shows remnants of the way life used to be, having been along the route of the old Wilts Somerset and Weymouth Railway Branch Line between Holt and Patney and Chirton. The broad gauge railway was closed as part of the Beeching Axe during 1963.
Today, the Kennet and Avon Canal plays an important role in tourism and leisure as well as being a valuable asset to wildlife and conservation.
More can be learnt of the history of the canal by visiting the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust who have a Museum at the Wharf in Devizes.