Saturday, May 10, 2014

Paddling the Kennet and Avon Canal - Canal Visitor Centre to Avoncliff Return

Trip summary:

Cost: < £10 with own canoe; £24 if you need to rent the canoe
Canoeing with kids
Morgan paddling.
Time: 3 hours leisurely paddle, including breaks
Distance: 6.2 mile (10 km) paddle
Start/end point: Canal Visitor Centre, Monkton Combe
Equipment: Canoe, paddles, personal flotation device (PFD)
Bring: Snacks, water, camera, hats and sun cream, a dry bag if you have it to put valuables you don't want to risk getting wet, and a dip net or other activity for kids when they get bored of paddling
Special notes: You need a licence to paddle the Kennet and Avon Canal. We're  members of Canoe England and this membership includes the licence. If you aren't members you should contact the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust.


As we came out into a wider stretch of the canal there was a moment of peace. There were no cyclists going by and our six year old was being uncharacteristically quiet. The only sounds were of a nearby kingfisher, the bow of our canoe cutting through the water and the drips off the ends of our paddles as we brought them forward for another stroke. It was blissful.

A few weeks ago we bought a used Canadian canoe. Shelby and I each grew up paddling the rivers and lakes of Ontario,Canada and canoeing was an important part of our childhood. So, when the opportunity to buy one came up, we simply couldn't resist. Much like maple syrup, a canoe should be every Canadian's birth right! Other than paddling around Bristol floating harbour in the rain on the day we got it, this was to be our first adventure in our new toy.

With families, there always needs to be a plan B

Our plan was to leave from the Canal Visitor Centre at Monkton Combe, just five miles from Bath City Centre. From there we would paddle out of the Somerset Coal Canal and up the Kennet and Avon Canal towards Bradford-On-Avon. We would then pull the boat out of the canal at Avoncliff and put it into the Avon River, which we would then follow back to where the canal crosses over the river not far from the starting place.
Canoe on car
Shelby securing our new Canadian-style canoe
to the roof of our car.

By 8:30 am we were in the car with the canoe strapped to the roof rack, paddles, snacks and drinks packed, hats and sun cream on and camera at the ready. We would realise when we were half way between our home (Bristol) and Bath that we had forgotten to bring the PFDs!

We pulled into the Canal Visitor Centre parking lot 40 minutes later and decided that it was quiet enough that we could drive the car up from the parking lot to the canal (we didn't see the sign that says no vehicles past this point until after...really). We unloaded the canoe and gear and parked the car in the parking lot. It was a bank holiday Monday so parking was £4.50 for the day.
The Angelfish Restaurant at Monkton Combe
The Canal Visitor Centre where we put in our canoe.
There's boat hire and The Angelfish Restaurant - two great
reasons to visit.

If you don't have your own canoe, you can hire one from the Bath & Dundas Canal Co at the Visitor Centre. It would be £22.00 to hire a canoe for three hours. Check here for their latest prices.

We were on the water and paddling by 9:30am. The coal canal leading away from the visitor centre is very narrow. We had to pull to the side to let a couple of the narrow canal boats pass by us.

Then we were out onto the main canal and crossing over the Avon River on a bridge - the famous Dundas Aqueduct. It was officially the first time I've ever paddled across a bridge.
Paddling in the canals
Leaving the coal canal - things get a little

From there it was a gentle paddle against a slowly meandering current. I caught a glimpse of some red ears in a nearby field and sure enough it was a mother fox with her kits. We stopped and watched while the many cyclists using the path whizzed by. There are some advantages to being a bit slower.
It was just under 5 km to Avoncliff and our anticipated pull out. Right away it looked like it was going to be a challenge to pull the boat out as the water level was about four feet below the road level and there was a chain link fence as well. Shelby got out to assess the path down to the Avon River. When he got back he suggested I have a look.

As far as I could see, if and when we got the canoe out of the canal, we would have to carry the canoe past a lovely little teahouse, under a bridge over another fence and
then clamber down a rather high gradient slope and launch it into the river over some rocks. I just looked at Shelby and laughed. Our boat is plastic, so we weren't too worried about the rocks, but it also makes it a bit of a beast to haul.
Mother fox and kits along Kennet and Avon Canal
A mother fox watches out while her
kits play in the grass around her. 

Add to this the fact that we knew we would encounter a six foot weir on the river with no idea whether we could get around it...AND the fact that we had forgotten the PFDs, and the decision was clear. We would paddle back down the canal, retracing our steps instead of going down the river.

We stopped on the way back to check out the weir for the next trip and it looks like it shouldn't be too much trouble so long as the water isn't too high.

The route:

Canoe route from Canal Visitor Centre to Avoncliff Aqueduct
We put in at the Canal Visitor Centre, paddled to the Avoncliff Aqueduct and back.
The route was just under 10 km and was a leisurely three hours.


Places to eat near the Avoncliff Aqueduct.
No.10 Tea Gardens near the Avoncliff Aqueduct.
If you use the Avoncliff aqueduct as your halfway point as we did and you're looking to get back onto land for a meal there are a couple of places to eat. There's the Cross Guns Restaurant and No.10 Tea Gardens. We didn't stop at either so can't speak to the food or service. We opted for some snacks and a thermos of hot chocolate that we brought along instead.

We had, however, planned on having lunch at The Angelfish Restaurant back at the Canal Visitor Centre when we got back. We've been there a few times and have had great lunches, but time simply didn't allow it this trip.

Notes for the kids:

Keeping children busy in a canoe
Morgan rescuing insects with his dip net.
At one point Morgan started to get restless and so he got out and ran along the path running beside the canal while we paddled along. He skipped and sang and collected wild garlic and it was a good break for him to get out of the boat. It was also important (regardless of how frustrating it can be) to let him have a turn paddling so that canoeing isn't just about sitting in the boat. When he got bored of paddling we had a net to hand so he could dip it in the water. He spent a great deal of time rescuing insects out of the water with his net; this meant we frequently had to pull over to let the bugs out onto the grass, but it was worth it to see the pleasure he took in his task.

Trip highlights:

Birds along the Kennet and Avon Canal
This grey heron didn't move
as we approached it.
As well as enjoying the canal boats and quaint little houses along the route, we also got to see mallard ducks, moorhens, a grey heron at very close range, and a female fox with her kits frolicking in a field nearby. Morgan's highlight was watching for fish jumping and rising to the surface in the canal.

What we'd do better next time:

We would have brought the PFDs for starters! We were also a little disappointed about not being better prepared to do the river part of the trip. However, we're happy to consider this our reconnaissance trip for next time! Shelby says he would have also brought one of our better cameras had he known that we would be so close to the foxes and heron. 

Additional photos:

Paddling over the Avoncliff Aqueduct
Crossing the Avoncliff Aqueduct.
Canoeing at Avoncliff
The Kennet and Avon Canal just after crossing the
Avoncliff Aqueduct.
Avon River and Kennet and Avon Canal
The famous Dundas Aqueduct carries the Kennet and Avon
Canal over the Avon River.
Canoeing through narrow canals
Coming out of the Somerset Coal Canal we had to tuck
in to let a couple of narrow canal boats pass.
quaint UK houses along canals
One of the beautiful properties along the canal.
Paddling with children
Morgan enjoying hot chocolate and shortbread
while we paddle.
Canoeing with kids
Morgan takes an opportunity to stretch his legs and
runs along a path next to the canal while Shelby and I
continue paddling.

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