Back to an old favourite walk. The canal side path between Bath and Bradford on Avon passes through some of the most gently beautiful scenery around. Nothing spectacular – no astounding gorges or towering peaks – just ten miles of quiet walking loveliness, with the added bonus of a station at each end for the return trip through the same valley but seen from a different angle.
This time I started halfway along at Brassknocker Basin, between Monkton Combe and Limpley Stoke (Who could resist?). There’s a café there, a boat place, a small exhibition and a canal that disappears into a cupboard.
OK, so I have seen what lies behind the doors but I can tell you that it’s nothing much. From here to its junction with the Kennet & Avon is what remains of the Somerset Coal Canal, less than half a mile long, but a popular spot for a stroll, not least because of what lies at the junction of the two waterways.
It’s an aqueduct – the Dundas Aqueduct (1797 – 1805) to be precise – and mighty fine it is too, even if it is impossible to photograph it in any way that conveys the strangeness of walking next to water many feet above the river flowing below. Last time I was here, I was emboldened by the excellent A and we clambered down the bank to take a look at it from below.
Then I spotted the mason’s marks. And once you see one, you cannot stop seeing them. They’re everywhere. As I understand it, these are the marks stonemasons used to identify their work so that they could be paid, but they were usually placed on the back of the block and thus hidden (I got this from http://www.masonslivery.org/supporting-our-craft/masons-marks/for work. It’s an interesting read, especially the initiative to encourage present day masons to register their marks) So why are they face on here? Could it be that these early 19th century masons recognised the nascent talent of John Rennie, the civil engineer in charge, and sought to associate their work with his? Or were they just an unruly bunch who wanted to do things their way? History does not relate. Either way, can you not imagine the elbowing aside and jockeying for position that must have been required for the man who got his stone into the prime spot in the centre of the parapet?
After the aqueduct, the canal clings to the side of the hill, with sharp drops to one side and steep wooded cliffs to the other. Protected from the wind, if nothing is moving along the canal, then the water returns to a mirror like calm.
Every now and then a view opens up
Or an interesting boat goes by. Or a dog walker stops to chat. Or the waft of wild garlic becomes impossible to resist (those flowers are STRONG – who knew?). There’s another aqueduct at Avoncliff, which somehow negotiates the presence of a (retrofitted) railway station, but basically there is very little going on here and that is its charm. The world can be put to rights or reveries sunk into without interruption.
And then just when you are beginning to run out of deep and meaningful thoughts, there is Bradford on Avon. It’s a pretty town with a flower bedecked station and I keep meaning to take a good look round. But this time I headed for the lock amidst the remnants of a canal basin and to the Canals and Rivers Trust café there, run by the most delightful of men and stocked with the products of the dabbest cake baking hand. It sits within a charming garden which, he told me, is all the work of a dedicated team of CRT volunteers. Every year we win Bradford in Bloom, so now no one else enters.
The Easter holidays and the unexpectedly bright sunshine had brought people out so it was a busy spot in which to drink tea and watch the world go by. Comparing notes with a chatty woman on a bike, we managed to cover a range of topics in short order – paid work, Year 7 maths, middle aged men, sugar, teenage girls, bosoms, cycling, the weather, and the trials of a big bottom – before she leapt onto the saddle and zoomed off, enjoined by me to look out for Jelly Bean.
I’m not a fan of linear walks so I’m always keen to hop onto a bus, a train or whatever for the return if there’s no circular option. So you can imagine how excited I was to hear that the excellent G has become the resident owner of a narrow boat which, being in need of a touch of remedial work, she was single handedly bringing down from London to a boatyard near Bristol. And would I like to jump aboard for a stretch?
Our rendezvous worked out perfectly other than for an unfortunate incident when I, eyes peeled for a (previously unseen) red boat, enthusiastically hailed a rather startled man who – to add to the confusion – thought I was trying to prevent him accessing the water point. Sorry, I mistook you for Jelly Bean was a line sure to be misinterpreted. Happily all was smoothed out as G came round the bend at the helm of the aforementioned vessel and he and she went down through the lock together, while I faffed about winding up things and opening gates (which is exactly where a big bottom comes in handy) and was swiftly relieved of my duties by an eager chap from a boat waiting to come up. Good.
Chugging back to where I had started took longer afloat than afoot, but there was much news to be caught up and regular pauses in which G leapt ashore with a rope to adroitly manoeuvre Jelly Bean out of the way of oncoming boat hirers with rabbit in the headlights expressions. (But then you should have seen my face when left alone on the boat, engine running, without a clue. B, the ship’s dog, was more use than me).
Back eventually to the Dundas Aqueduct where I hopped off and G, B and Jelly Bean carried on to Bath to moor up for the night. Tea and ice cream may have featured at this point. G could count it as part of her pre-marathon carb loading eating plan; I could make no such claim.
But it did make for a very lovely end to a very lovely day.