Photo: Gillie Rhodes
The country is speckled with canals that were almost lost to the nation, having been filled with silt or mud, or allowed to deteriorate until tireless campaigning and painstaking restoration work brought them back to life. It’s hard to believe it now, but one of the most prominent of these was the Kennet & Avon Canal, one of the most popular waterways in the UK, which was only restored to full navigation in 1990.
The Kennet & Avon was always an ambitious undertaking, an attempt to link two great rivers – the Avon and Thames – via a canal. Opened in 1810 following 16 years of construction, the canal was on an epic scale and featured several major engineering and infrastructure landmarks such as the Dundas and Avoncliff aqueducts, the Bruce Tunnel, Caen Hill locks and pumping stations at Claverton and Crofton.
Trade was strong, with 300,000 tons of freight travelling on the canal by 1832, but this was dented by the arrival of the Great Western Railway – the railway company that purchased the canal and tried to close it in 1926. By the 1950s, maintenance has declined to such an extent that large sections were unnavigable. Even the mighty Avoncliff Aqueduct was facing destruction.
Salvation came via the Inland Waterways Association, who seized on the canal as a focal point for their national restoration campaign. A trust was formed to restore the route from Reading to Bristol and restoration work got underway in 1966, a collaboration between volunteers and staff from British Waterways, the body that later became the Canal & River Trust. A huge job began and was not completed until 1990, when the Queen reopened the canal by sailing between two locks on the Caen Hill flight. A vital £25m Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 1996 funded further major civil engineering works, restored the navigation channel and improved facilities for public access, finally bringing this magnificent waterway back to life.
Read more about the Kennet & Avon Canal on our website.
Each year, we hold a number of free Open Days for the public. We’re inviting you along to take a look behind the scenes and find out what it takes to keep our canals and rivers open to everyone. Find an Open Day near you.