The Kennet and Avon Canal Canal Walks with Julia Bradbury


The Kennet and Avon Canal

Julia Bradbury walks along a 20km stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal and tells how it was restored after being awarded a big lottery heritage grant.


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'Navigating highland glens,

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'rolling countryside, river valleys and city sprawl,

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'Britain's canals cut a sedate path through some of the country's finest scenery.

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'Canals were the transport arteries in a booming industrial age.

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'A network of locks, tunnels and aqueducts helped carry goods to every corner of the land

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'and beyond,

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'transforming 19th-century Britain into an economic superpower.

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'Today over 2,000 miles of restored canals offer a gateway into a different world.

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'For me and many others, the towpaths alongside them offer the perfect way to explore on foot.'

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Hello and welcome to the World Heritage City of Bath in Somerset.

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The Georgians turned this into a luxury spa resort, quite literally fit for a king.

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But today I'm here to explore its other water attraction.

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'This grand river is the Avon and it's just a short walk to an inconspicuous entrance

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'and one of Britain's greatest waterways.'

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It was a canal superhighway, linking two of our most important ports - Bristol and London.

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My walk today is a tale of two halves. There's the rise, fall and rise again of this grand canal

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and then there's the story of how it almost became the last line of defence against the Nazis.

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'This is an intriguing story of restoration, resistance and renaissance.

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'With no reliable roads at the time, only mud tracks, the Kennet and Avon Canal was opened in 1810

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'to provide a valuable trade link between Bristol and London.

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'This was by way of a 57-mile link between my starting point by the River Avon and Bath

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'and the River Kennet at Newbury.

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'My walk today will follow what is arguably the most picturesque part

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'as it curves its way around the Avon Valley.

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'It runs shoulder to shoulder with the river, which is unnavigable here because of the varying depth.

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'After Bradford-on-Avon, the course straightens out as it heads towards Devizes,

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'finishing at the top of the Caen Hill flight of locks,

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'arguably the greatest engineering achievement on this section,

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'one of the seven listed wonders of British waterways.

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'This restored pumping station at the beginning of my walk is a clue to the first engineering challenge

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'which the canal builders faced 200 years ago.

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'They had to keep the canal supplied with water as it climbed up the steep Avon Valley ahead.

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'For me, this means an uphill walk, going along a succession of six beautifully-restored locks

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'rising 65 feet to the rooftops of Bath.

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'Here you can't help but notice the buildings make use of a distinctive honey-coloured stone.

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'This unmistakable building material was formed over 135 million years ago

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'when Bath was under a shallow sea.

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'It wasn't until the 18th century that it took off as a spa resort,

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'leaving this legacy of exemplary Georgian architecture.

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'So Bath provided a very glamorous backdrop for the start of the canal.

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'Its arrival also crucially provided a shortcut route for trade.

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'Ships no longer had to navigate the treacherous south coast to transport their goods to London.

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'Today this waterway might provide city centre escapism, but it nearly went to rack and ruin.

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'I'm meeting Mike Rodd from the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust,

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'the charity which tirelessly fought to bring the canal back from extinction.'

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Mike, it's a very beautiful spot, but it hasn't always been that way.

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It's lovely now. 200 years ago, this was a hub of industrialisation.

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-This was part of the Industrial Revolution throughout the UK. Then the railways...

-Changed everything.

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Absolutely. The railway lines slowly started to eat into the traffic on the canal.

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And the canal fell into disuse. By 1950, this canal was not operating.

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-This was a very different picture.

-Total desolation.

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It was a question of what happened. Right throughout the country round about that time

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there was a move to get canals open again and the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust was formed

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specifically to do that, 60, 70 years ago.

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-Vision is one thing, money and funding is another. How did you get the cash for it all?!

-Well...

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During the '50s, up until the '90s, it was really on the back of volunteers who did a phenomenal job.

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They got their picks and shovels out. The Trust, with British Waterways and the local authorities

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went after a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, which they got. £25 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

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The biggest ever awarded, probably the biggest that ever will be.

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And that £25 million got the canal to a point where, 8 or 9 years ago, it was in a fabulous condition.

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-This canal's got history, people, communities. It's a real survivor.

-It's quite amazing.

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Of course, now it is a major, major leisure industry.

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It supports at least 7 million people a year who visit the canal.

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-I look forward to all my encounters.

-Thank you.

-Lovely to meet you. Bye!

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'The mission of the Kennet and Avon Trust is to preserve the canal for generations to come.

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'The same could not be said of the original owners. Their interests were wealth and power.

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'When this route got the go ahead from Parliament, it was 1793

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'and canal mania was at its height.

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'20 other new canals also had the go ahead, expanding across the country.

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'Canals crucially fuelled the spread of industrialisation.

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'As manufacturing grew, so did the need for materials.

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'The canal companies saw a wealth of goods needed transporting,

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'everything from stone, coal, timber, straw, manure

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'and even farm produce to feed the growing towns and cities along this route.

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'My next marker is an unmistakable building that straddles the canal.'

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That must be Cleveland House, which is KAC HQ.

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'This was the former headquarters of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company,

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'a 24-strong management committee, which controlled the 57-mile route

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'from this resplendent position.

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'I've read about a little secret spot in the roof of this tunnel

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'that reveals a bit more about how canal trade was controlled and profits made from levying tolls.'

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I've walked under a fair few bridges and one tunnel's much like the next.

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You'd be forgiven for thinking that was a mistake in the masonry. It's not.

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It's a clever little hatch from Cleveland House,

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so the boatmen could leave money and paperwork and clerks collected them.

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Ingenious.

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'But the pursuit of wealth and power also carried a price tag for the canal company.

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'This next stage needed to forge a path through one of the most exclusive areas of Bath.

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'To get permission to go through, they needed to pay the owners a whopping £2,000.

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'And the deal also demanded that they built these ornate bridges.

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'Sydney Gardens is also the city's oldest park, a popular resort of leisure for 19th-century gentry,

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'frequently visited by royalty.

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'It's so evocative of the period, you almost feel like you're in a Jane Austen novel,

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'which isn't surprising as it was an old haunt of this romantic writer during the years she lived here.

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'Sydney Gardens ends my city walk

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'and the contrast between one end of this tunnel and the other couldn't be starker.'

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Cor!

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What a lovely, verdant surprise when you pop out of that tunnel!

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'It's rather like being spat out into an entirely different world,

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'going from a manicured suburban corridor into lush rolling countryside.

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'Here river, road, rail and canal lie shoulder to shoulder along the valley corridor,

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'a visible reminder of four ages of travel.

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'This extraordinary confluence of travel is a lasting testament to the early canal engineers.

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'They provided a blueprint for generations to come by finding the simplest way through the landscape.

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'I'm just over a mile out of Bath and now I'm in rural Somerset, but the canal is buzzing with life.

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'You can't help but take a peek inside the many moored boats,

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'which seem as much a feature as any of the locks, bridges and tunnels.'

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Look at this.

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That's a very unusual vessel.

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It's like a stealth barge!

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You'd expect to find that on the Congo, wouldn't you? Not the Kennet and Avon Canal.

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'It doesn't look like anyone's home today, but clearly this canal attracts creative types.'

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There's a really different feel to this canal. There are quirky works of art dotted along it.

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And things like this. It says here, "I love you to sit on me,

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"but please don't leave rubbish." Presumably, it's made by this man.

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I'd like one of these in my garden.

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'This canal certainly seems to draw people to it.

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'I've arranged to meet the Leek family, who have made the canal their home.'

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We've got Theo and Lawrie. Hello. Do you like living on a boat?

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Yeah, I really like... I really love it.

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-Why? What's so cool about living on a boat?

-Well, I really like the outdoors.

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That's cool. We all like the outdoors. Good.

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-How long have you lived on the canal?

-Six years. We got a loan and found a beautiful boat.

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-And that was it?

-Yeah.

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I suppose what you've got is a real freedom

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-right on the edge of the canal. With all your lovely community people as well. Hello!

-Hi!

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-That's what I've noticed. It's so friendly.

-Really friendly.

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There's a really big feeling of community. We all watch out for each other's kids,

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we all share lifts to school.

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-It's a lovely way to live.

-What do you do, Johnny?

-I build boats, mostly!

-How very handy!

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-What do you do?

-I'm a seamstress. I make clothes and corsets.

-Ah!

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You mentioned school for these guys. How far away is the school?

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School is in Bathampton, which, depending on where we're moored... At the moment, it's easy.

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The school is right next to the canal. They promote boatees.

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The headmaster's amazing. He loves the kids, loves the diversity of the families.

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You get the posh families, the boatee families. Shove them all together.

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-Where were these two born?

-Theo was born right on the boat.

-No!

-Yeah.

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-Is that what you wanted?

-Exactly.

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-With Dad on hand?

-Dad, two midwives. It was beautiful, yeah.

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What a place to be born! Where were you born? Do you know?

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I was born...on the boat.

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You were born on THIS boat.

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-Yeah.

-That is so cool.

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-See you! Bye!

-By-y-ye!

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'I'm almost in Wiltshire and for the first time I get a clear view of the broad valley

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'which the canal engineers had to cut a path through.

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'The natural shape of this valley meant the route was predetermined.

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'The canal had to hug its contours.

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'But the real draw were the business opportunities which beckoned.

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'The Canal Company forged ahead to secure the route

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'as they knew there was a ready-made market keen to trade along it.

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'Dundas Wharf was originally built to serve the nearby Conkwell quarries,

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'enabling the distinctive local stone to be transported by boat.

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'It was also a trade junction of another kind.

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'Here, the Kennet and Avon Canal is joined by the Somerset Coal Canal.

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'It served nearly 30 different collieries before its final closure some 100 years later.

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'Today, a short section has been restored for permanent moorings.

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'Here, the canal builders also faced a problem.

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'To keep the route running on the same level and avoid expensive locks,

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'it would have to cross the River Avon. A bridge was needed.

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'For this, the Canal Company brought in John Rennie, an emerging star of civil engineering

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'and someone who, at the turn of the 19th century,

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'was making a name for himself in the world of bridge building.

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'Rennie might not have achieved the fame of his contemporaries

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'like James Brindley and Thomas Telford,

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'but the Dundas Aqueduct is considered his crowning achievement,

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'as well as a masterpiece of 18th century classical style architecture.

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'It was completed in 1805 and named after Charles Dundas,

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'the first chairman of the Canal Company.

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'Not only is it a listed building,

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'but in 1951 it became the first canal structure to be designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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'But the fragile nature of the stone led to erosion.

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'The aqueduct developed leaks and by the '50s was unusable.

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'For a brief period in the '70s, you could even walk along the dry canal bed of the aqueduct.

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'It's since been re-lined, restored and then reopened in 1984.

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'This isn't the only aspect of canal life here to have seen a renaissance.

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'The goods might well have changed, but today, trading still goes on right next to the water.'

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Lovely-jubbly. That's what you want on a walk. Very civilised.

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-Is business good today?

-There you go. It's not too bad today. Enjoy it.

-Thank you.

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Oh, lovely.

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"Wax truckles of cheese..." Hello. I wasn't going to have any, but have you got any nice tangy Cheddar?

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-We certainly have.

-I haven't even had a lick of my ice cream, so let's have a taste.

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-Extra mature Cheddar, really zingy.

-Where's it from?

-Snowdonia.

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That's lovely. I'll have a truckle. Thank you.

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-There you go.

-Thank you.

-Enjoy your cheese.

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He's very young in charge of a boat!

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It's such a busy canal.

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And it has a very special atmosphere.

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Especially on a day like today. The sun is shining. Everyone's quite happy.

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But every single boat that's gone past so far, a little wave.

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'But this canal hasn't been without its problems. As I approach the halfway point of my walk,

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'I've also reached the section which was notoriously problematic

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'before its restoration with leakage and breaches.

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'Much of the £25 million Lottery grant went into reinforcing this stretch of the canal.'

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Although this bit of the canal looks as flat as the rest of it, we're on quite a slope here

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and this section of the waterway needed significant reinforcement

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to stop it slipping all the way down there into the River Avon.

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'It's now only a short walk to Rennie's next creation - the Avoncliff Aqueduct,

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'where he had to cross the River Avon for a second time.

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'It's certainly a good-looking structure by most standards,

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'but in engineering circles, this is perhaps an aqueduct he might have wanted to keep quiet about.

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'Straight after completion in 1801, its central arch immediately sagged

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'and it had to be repaired many times.

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'The porous Bath stone was again his undoing and Rennie is said to have regretted ever using it.'

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You couldn't really start this walk in a more picturesque place, Bath,

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then you burst through into rural Wiltshire and there's so much life along this canal.

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And not one but two beauteous aqueducts.

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'The next mile is probably the most bustling stretch of towpath I've seen so far.

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'Ten miles from the start, the walk leads to Bradford-on-Avon, a kind of mini-Bath

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'where the older buildings are made from the same Jurassic sandstone.'

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Another bit of bustle along the walk. In fact, not so little.

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Bradford-on-Avon is a seriously busy spot and it always has been.

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'By the 19th century, business on the canal was flourishing.

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'This wharf was a busy distribution centre where goods were loaded

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'and dispatched by boat for delivery around the world.'

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-Enjoy it.

-You too.

-See you.

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'The Kennet and Avon Canal was profitable for some 40 years,

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'but the rise of the Great Western Railway network was to seal its fate.

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'Ironically, it was the railway that took over the canal in 1852.

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'By hiking tolls and imposing a restrictive four-miles-per-hour speed limit,

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'they squeezed business out until the canal was no longer viable and the trains took over.

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'Although the rail company had a statutory obligation to keep the canal navigable,

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'over the following decades and into the 20th century, it fell into disrepair.

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'Activity on the canal had all but ground to a halt.

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'That was until the summer of 1940

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'when Allied code breakers intercepted a message from Nazi headquarters

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'that placed the nation in jeopardy.

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'Hitler had given his directive to invade Britain and this stretch of the canal played a crucial role

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'in responding to the nation's fear

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'of a possible invasion from the south by creating a second line of defence.

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'The canal was a ready-made boundary because advancing troops couldn't easily cross the water,

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'so it formed a defensive barrier known as the GHQ Line.'

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I've walked sections of the K and A Canal before

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and I know that there is something lurking through the brambles.

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Now come with me.

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Dotted all along the canal are pillboxes like this one.

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'I'm going to meet local historian Hugh Pihlens who can explain how the canal found a new purpose

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'as Britain's potential last line of defence.'

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What were they doing here? What ARE they doing here?

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They date from the Second World War and they were built as one of our key defences.

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-Think back to May 1940.

-Hmm.

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France had been overrun in just six weeks

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and Hitler was standing on the English Channel, thinking, "Could we invade England?"

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The huge threat was there and our response

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was to set up a coastal crust of defences around the sea,

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but also to have a wonderful series of lines of defence

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along rivers and along canals,

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but one of the most important was here on the Kennet and Avon Canal through Wiltshire and Berkshire.

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A huge number of these pillboxes were built all the way along it.

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-How many pillboxes in total?

-There were 18,000 that were built.

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They were built between the very end of May in 1940 and September.

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18,000 in all. About 6,000 remain.

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-Shall we go and have a look at the others?

-Let's.

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The canal then was unused, really.

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Some of the lock gates were damaged and weren't holding water.

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-So it was a very sad scene?

-It was a sad scene, but it definitely did play its part

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because they could use the canal where there was water

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to carry materials for these pillboxes and for all the other defences built along the canal.

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-So it flourished a little again?

-It flourished a little for 1940, definitely.

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-Who was going to man them?

-They were going to be manned by Local Defence Volunteers.

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And do you know, Local Defence Volunteers,

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in just six weeks through June and the first two weeks of July,

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there were one and a half million volunteers.

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That, of course, became known as the Home Guard.

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-Churchill called them the Home Guard in a speech to the BBC.

-Dad's Army.

-Dad's Army.

-That's what they were.

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They were men who were too frail or too old to join the armed forces,

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but my goodness me, they rallied to the call!

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And here's one more, Julia.

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And you know, there are 6,000 remaining,

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there are 18,000 originally

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and they're here as testament to all the work that was done in 1940.

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'These pillboxes never saw active service, but they're a lasting monument to the Devizes Dad's Army

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'who were ready and willing to play their part.

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'So this brings us full-circle.

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'There's been boom and bust, restoration and now renaissance.

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'What an amazing journey this canal has had!'

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I'm almost at the end of my walk

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and where I'm heading now symbolises the restoration of this canal.

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This flight of 16 locks raises the canal 235 feet.

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It's listed as one of the Seven Wonders, not of the world, but of British Waterways.

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'This was a list drawn up by Robert Aickman,

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'the founding father of the Inland Waterways Association over 50 years ago.

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'This extraordinary spectacle is the steepest climb on the whole of the 57-mile route.

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'It takes four or five hours to negotiate this flight by boat

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'and these sidearm reservoirs make sure the locks are kept topped up

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'because every time they open, they lose a whopping 40,000 gallons.

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'Even these reservoirs have now created a life of their own

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'with rare animals and plants making a home here.

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'This is how the canal looked 40 years ago.

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'Weeds filled the side ponds and the locks were completely derelict.

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'In the following years,

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'the passion with which the public became engaged in its restoration was unprecedented.

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'And after years of campaigning, fund-raising and back-breaking volunteer work,

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'the canal was officially reopened by the Queen in 1990.

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'The Caen Hill flight of locks was the final icing on the cake.

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'It was the last part to be built when the canal first opened in 1810

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'and the last part to be restored 180 years later.

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'This canal has certainly been full of surprising history.

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'It's been a 19th century super highway, a derelict ditch,

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'a last line of defence for a nation under possible attack

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'and now a leisure park that is also home to people seeking an alternative way of life.'

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For over two centuries, this beautiful waterway has rolled on the waves of varying fortunes

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and continues to do so.

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The Kennet and Avon Canal is a real story of our time, a true story of survival.

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Long may it continue.

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Look at that!

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Subtitles by Subtext for Red Bee Media Ltd 2011

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Email [email protected]

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Seasoned stomper Julia Bradbury dons her walking boots once again to explore her own British backyard, travelling along the country's network of canals and their accompanying towpath trails. This sees her navigating Highland glens, rolling countryside and river valleys, as well as our industrial heartlands, following these magical waterways as they cut a sedate path through some of the country's finest scenery.

Julia starts this walk in the beautiful world heritage city of Bath, where the Kennet and Avon Canal provided a 19th-century 'canal superhighway' between the country's two most important ports, Bristol and London. But only forty years later the trade along the canal was usurped by rail travel, leaving the once great waterway neglected and derelict. Julia's 20-mile walk along what is arguably the most picturesque stretch of the canal tells the story of how the waterway was restored to its former glory after it was awarded the biggest ever lottery heritage grant. The walk ends at the spectacular Caen Hill flight of locks, listed as one of the seven wonders of British waterways.


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