After enjoying a narrowboat holiday along the River Thames last year, we couldn’t wait to do it all over again, this time opting for a cruise along the Kennet & Avon canal between Devizes and Bath.
Our waterways adventure started one sunny September morning when we drove to the Foxhangers Wharf base at Rowde, close to Devizes in Wiltshire for a four night break.
After loading up with supplies in nearby Melksham, we arrived at the boatyard in the early afternoon where we were warmly welcomed by Sharon at the booking office. She suggested we temporarily park beside Darwin’s Fox, the 65 ft, 5 star Platinum class boat that we’d be calling home for the next few days so that we could load our belongings on board.
It was then time to meet Patrick who took us through the handover process. Although we’d handled canal boats before, they are all slightly different and it was useful to have a reminder about how to perform daily engine maintenance checks, the use of ropes and pegs, operating the hot water and heating system and re-filling the tank with fresh water.
This might seem daunting to first timers, but believe me it’s all straightforward and nowhere near as complicated as it may sound. For those new to boating and anyone wanting a refresher, Patrick or one of the other members of the handover team will guide you through your first lock and explain how to operate the sluice gates so that you can embark on your narrowboat holiday confidently and safely. Located on board each of their boats is a comprehensive handbook covering all aspects of the boat which is a useful reference guide.
About our boat:
Darwin’s Fox along with its sister boat Einstein’s Fox definitely sets the standard for luxury on the waterways. The spacious accommodation is set up to accommodate up to 7 guests with two double en-suite cabins at either end of the boat, one with the flexibility of being made up as three single beds. The dinette can also be converted into a double bed for bigger groups if needed.
The light and airy oak panelled interior was finished to a high standard with a solid wood floor, underfloor heating, three televisions (one in each cabin and the other in the living/dining area). The galley kitchen was a dream with its granite worktops, full size cooker, microwave oven and not one but two under counter fridges.
On opening one of them we found a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates from Foxhangers – a kind gesture and a treat for everyone setting off on one of their canal boat holidays. The kitchen cupboards were stocked with top quality tableware and cooking utensils with everything at hand for a relaxing trip.
The boats have been designed with lots of storage space from wardrobes to chests of drawers and cupboards, and even for families like ourselves who never travel lightly, there was ample room for everything. Do remember to pack everything in holdalls and bags as these can easily be stowed away unlike suitcases which would be too big and bulky on board.
Day 1: Foxhangers Wharf to the Barge Inn, Seend
It was 2.50 p.m. when we set off from Foxhangers Wharf heading in a westerly direction along the Kennet & Avon Canal. We soon got back into the swing of boating, and I just had to remind myself that you need to push the tiller in the opposite direction to the way you want the boat to go. Once you remember this, it’s all plain sailing. After the hustle and bustle of daily life it was so relaxing to be spending a few days chugging at a gentle 4 miles an hour through the picturesque Wiltshire countryside.
Swing bridges were a new occurrence for us as we hadn’t encountered them on the Thames. There was nothing to worry about as approaching the first one, Captain Mark (aka my elder son) moored just before the bridge whilst husband David jumped off to unhook the retaining chain and give the bridge a good push so that we could pass through. He then pushed the bridge back into its closed position, putting the retaining chain back on before getting back on board.
We reached The Barge Inn where we’d planned to eat that evening at 4.00 p.m. and although we could have moored outside the inn, we decided to make more progress and continue down the flight of locks, taking a further hour or so.
Passing through locks is one of the most exciting parts of a canal boat holiday and though it can be daunting for first timers, with tuition from the boatyard before navigating one on your own it’s not difficult at all. Locks on the Thames operate differently to those on the Kennet & Avon and it was a new experience for us to operate the lock gates and sluices manually.
By 6.00 p.m. we were securely moored for the night and after a short uphill walk we were tucking into traditional pub fare of beef and ale pies in the convivial surroundings of the canal side pub.
Day 2: Seend to The George Inn, Bathampton
After a comfortable night’s sleep on board Darwin’s Fox, I rustled up some tasty bacon rolls whilst David performed the daily engine checks. With two full size en-suite shower rooms and plenty of hot water, we were ready to depart at 8.50 a.m. Within 30 minutes of setting off we encountered two swing bridges that allow pedestrians to cross the canal.
We passed through them with ease and I then had 40 minutes to relax out on the foredeck before being called into action for lock keeping duties on a pair of locks that were close together. A further swing bridge and then we had a clear run through Hilperton arriving into the historic town of Bradford-on-Avon for lunch at 12.30 p.m.
Lunch on board and then a wander into the town centre just a short walk along the River Avon. It was our first visit to this attractive small town with its interesting small shops, restaurants and pubs.
Back on board we passed through Bradford-on-Avon lock at 2.00 p.m. As it’s a very deep lock and a busy place for boaters, there were two lock keepers on duty to open and close the sluice gates which helped enormously.
Half an hour later and we’d reached Avoncliffe Aqueduct where we topped up our water supply and then took a stroll across this impressive feat of engineering before navigating it. The aqueduct is over 100 metres in length and 18 metres wide and was built to carry the Kennet & Avon canal over the River Avon.
By 4.00 p.m. we’d travelled across a second aqueduct but decided to continue on our way and stop for a look on our return journey. We then just had one more swing bridge to negotiate before mooring for the night outside The George Inn at Bathampton. As it was a warm evening we enjoyed pre-dinner drinks out on deck chatting to family from Jersey who were moored next to us. One of the reasons that we find canal holidays so appealing is the camaraderie between boaters and the way everyone helps each other.
The George is obviously popular and was so busy when we arrived that I wished I’d phoned ahead to reserve a table but it all worked out well as they found one for us where we tucked into hearty plates of fish and chips.
Day 3: Bathampton onto Bath then to The Boathouse, Bradford-on-Avon marina
We were all up bright and early this morning and after breakfast on board I fed the ducks through the galley hatch. We then took a short stroll around Bathampton village and visited the church which contains the grave of Arthur Phillip, former Governor of New South Wales (1738-1814).
It was 9.20 a.m. by the time we had slipped out of our mooring on our way into the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bath. It was a delightful morning’s boating passing through Bath Valley from where we had splendid views of the surrounding hills and of Bath itself.
The journey into Bath took us through two short tunnels and before mooring we turned the boat round at a winding–hole (a large notch cut into the side of a canal) at Sydney wharf.
After tying the boat up we walked through Sydney Gardens to Pulteney Bridge admiring the Georgian crescents of Bath. There was also time to visit the beautiful Holburne Museum where scenes from Bridgerton were filmed.
Underway once more, we chugged along leisurely towards Claverton where we moored to take a look at the Pumping Station. The pump uses the power of the River Avon to drive a water wheel which lifts water up to refill the canal. It operated from 1813 until 1952 and is now run as a museum by volunteers (limited opening hours).
Our next stop was to the spectacular Dundas Aqueduct which carries the canal over the River Avon. The aqueduct forms the junction between the Kennet & Avon and the largely derelict short section of the Somerset Coal Canal now used for moorings, cycle hire and a cafe. Also worth seeing is the small toll house, warehouse and crane in Brassknocker Basin.
Aside from a short stop to refill our water tank, we made steady progress back to Bradford-on-Avon arriving after 5.00 p.m. and with no lock keepers still on duty we navigated the deep lock ourselves within 20 minutes.
It was just leaving 6.00 p.m. by the time we had reached our overnight mooring at The Boathouse overlooking Bradford-on-Avon marina.
This was another attractive canal side inn serving reasonably priced meals. Back on board we rounded off the evening with cups of coffee and a game of dominoes.
Day 4: Bradford-on-Avon marina to the foot of Caen Hill Locks
On our last full day of boating we had an early breakfast setting off at 8.15 a.m. as rules of the waterways don’t permit engines to be started before 8.00 a.m. It was 10.30 a.m. by the time we reached the bottom of the Seend flight of locks and with another boat already passing through, there was a slight delay as we needed to empty the lock before entering.
The boat travelling in front of us had kindly waited at the next lock for us to catch up meaning that we could save time and help each other up the flight as two boats can fit in the locks side by side.
After working the locks we moored at the top of the flight for some lunch time sandwiches then as it was only 3.00 p.m. we continued past the Foxhangers base and up the seven locks to the foot of the main staircase of the Caen Hill Locks.
This flight of locks is one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways and is a marvel of canal engineering raising boats 240ft in 29 locks over two miles.
There wasn’t time to continue further, but just being able to view this remarkable staircase from the perspective of the water was definitely worth the effort of continuing to this point. We turned the boat around one last time at the basin before the main flight and moored along the bank so that we just had seven locks to navigate on our final morning.
With no canal-side pub within walking distance we happily prepared our own dinner on board and then played Scrabble around the table in the cosy living area.
Day 5: Foot of Caen Hill Locks to Foxhangers Wharf
The sun was shining on our final morning and after gathering our belongings together we descended down the seven locks back to the Foxhangers Wharf base. We’d seen much bird life including cormorants, herons, ducks and geese over the last few days so it was fitting that a heron was sitting on the canal bank on our last morning.
We carefully moored Darwin’s Fox back into the marina just ahead of the allotted arrival time after our wonderful four night adventure along the Kennet & Avon Canal.