Trails from the Rails 4: Bath to Avoncliff

  • Area: Somerset
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway, South West Trains
  • Length: About 12 miles
  • Points of Note: Bath, Kennet & Avon Canal, Avon Valley
  • OS maps – Mostly Explorer 155 (1:25,000); Landranger 172 (1:50,000). East end is on Explorer 142 and 156 orLandranger 173

This is a hilly version of a very simple walk. The easy way to do Bath to Avoncliff is to walk out of the station at Bath, pick up the Kennet & Avon Canal towpath and follow it to Avoncliff. At the outside this will take 3½ hours steady walking along the gravel towpath, which is shared with runners, cyclists, dog walkers and a variety of other people. Once clear of the Bath lock flight it is also completely level, barring a couple of bridges; the canal “pound” continues to the next lock at Bradford-on-Avon.

This route skips most of that and takes a looping route via three substantial hills and several pubs. Done in this direction, it gets the first hill in early as a leg-stretcher and finishes up by a pub with a large beer garden in a very attractive valley.

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Bath station has recently been slightly modernised, but generally retains the appearance it has had since the original station (with four lines and overall roof) was knocked down in the 19th Century.

Bath 1 JPG

Leave the station on the south (platform 1) side and cross the Avon using the footbridge provided. To the left can be seen the start of the independent Kennet & Avon Canal, vanishing under its first bridge into lock 7. Turn left at the end of the footbridge and drop down to join the canal. (For reasons of administrative convenience lock numbers 1 to 6 have been given to the locks between here and the start of the Feeder in Bristol. The bridges meanwhile are counted from the other end of the canal in Reading, at which point 192 bridges seems quite a small number.)

The first thing the canal towpath does is swap sides using the bridge over lock 8/9. It then follows the canal through its sweeping curve around the hillside into suburban Bath. What was once a blot on the landscape has now become an attractive feature amongst the allotments. (To avoid doubt, the reason why it is not in Northanger Abbey is not because it was unattractive but because Northanger‘s writing very slightly pre-dates construction.)

K&A Bath 1

Follow the canal for half a mile to the bridge over the lower mouth of lock 13 (the last lock on the flight). Cross this and strike up the alley up the hill. This crosses a road, rises some more, forks (keep right) and then opens out to run alongside fields. Turn right into the first field, cross it to the gate opposite (pausing to admire the view) and then angle left up the second field to the top corner. Pass up the gap to the road and turn right.

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Climb up this road (Bathwick Hill – and it is quite one) for about a third of a mile to North Lane. Turn left up this lane (it cuts off a corner) and turn left again at the top. This is North Road, which drops slightly down to the entrance to the University of Bath. Turn right up this entrance. Signs abound on the next bit warning that anyone not on the public right of way is trespassing – but this is the public right of way, so ignore them.

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When the roadway reaches the university buildings and car park it swings to the right. Follow the path which continues up behind the building and then curves around the top of the student accommodation.

For all of the University’s insistence that right-of-way users stick to the path and don’t stop to talk to the Big Bad Postgrad, the point where the public right of way actually leaves this path is very badly signposted. It is not the first (discrete) kissing gate which is passed opposite the first block of accommodation. A couple of hundred yards later a path swings off into the hedgerow with a well-hidden post ten feet into the bushes indicating a junction in the right of way. The bridlepath continues to follow the wall southwards, while the footpath cuts through the hedge and across the golf course.

Either will do, and both involve crossing the golf course eventually; the bridlepath takes the next left across the greens while the footpath crosses one part of the course and then follows an old stone wall gently around the top of the hill, offering views of the A46 escaping the Avon Valley up the opposite hill. Permanent-looking signage warns of golf in progress, thus avoiding any risk of legal action should some students come back from the pub at two o’clock one morning and decide to have a quick round.

The paths rejoin on the other side of the summit (with signpost, and after the footpath has gone through a scruffy patch used for silage storage rather than golfing) and drop down the hill to Bathampton. Maintain a fairly direct route down the hillside. The first field is still golf course; for the second, veer slightly to the right and past the back of a bench (picture below) to drop through a large hole in the hedge. Take left after the hole and gain a muddy path, which becomes a muddy lane that in turn becomes a surfaced byway. This then opens onto the A36 about two-thirds of the way down the hill.

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Cross the A36 (with care) and follow the onward suburban road down the hill. Turn right at the bottom and continue along the road to the canal at Bathampton. Here is a church and the first pub.

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Turn right after crossing the canal, but pick up the lane alongside the canal (Tyning Road) instead of the towpath. The two part company quite quickly and the lane then peters out beside a crossing of the railway. This is a secondary route headed for Trowbridge, Westbury and Salisbury (and Avoncliff) which also follows the Avon Valley southwards. The crossing is obligingly provided with white lights which, when lit, indicate a train is not approaching. Follow usual “stop, look, listen” guidance anyway. Once across, follow the footpath diagonally across the ensuing fields towards the mainline and its river crossing at Bathford.

The path clambers up the embankment side and demonstrates a benefit of Brunel’s broad gauge – its removal has left enough room for a footpath, hemmed in by a pallisade fence, to follow the railway over the Avon. To the south is a pleasing view down the valley. There are also several interesting buddleia to be observed here.

Drop down the other side to the road. An unfortunate feature of this walk is its tendency to hit roads where the traffic will not give quarter and this road is no exception. Unfortunately, because of the bad design of the bridge carrying the road over an adjacent stream it is necessary to cross it twice in a hundred yards at each end of a blind bend. On the other hand, here is the second pub.

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Take Ostlings Lane (to the right of the pub) and follow it up the hill, turning sharp left when it reaches the “Private” signs at the start of Church Lane. Stagger right at the top and continue climbing up past the church. Stagger right again up Mountain Wood, following the grassy sward to the right of the houses. Turn right into the field and climb diagonally across it to the stile into the wood. Stop and look back at the view.

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The wood is based around a Folly which this walk, thoughtlessly, does not detour to (although the detour is a simple enough out-and-back stroll along the ridge at the top). Along with the Folly there are interesting animals, elm trees and steep gradients. Dig into this one and follow the generally straight route up the hillside. It is periodically distracted by cross-paths, but resumes its course very quickly. The Folly comes into view briefly at one point to the left on the way up.

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At the top, turn right and undulate along the ridge beside the wall for a little under a mile. The path then falls, slowly at first but ever more steeply, past caves and through sweeping curves appearing to be maintained by mountain bikes, until it makes an awkward junction with the A363.

This is another road which gives no quarter. Stick to the thin gravelled verge as much as possible. It is not a long stretch of road walking, as the road quickly reaches a cottage and a public footpath sloping off to the left. This turns out to be a sort of slip-path onto a bridleway which passes under the road; turn right onto the bridleway, appreciate the subway it offers and then take the left turn to follow another wall through the wood. There is a short stretch alongside a field with views across the valley. Then the path swings round to the right and falls into a triangular junction with a narrow lane. Turn right and descend to Sheephouse Farm.

There are two entrances, the second of which is prominently signposted as “No public access to Warleigh Weirs” (which aren’t through the farm, and which this walk doesn’t go to) and less prominently signposted with a little green walker sign pointing along the drive into the farmyard. Before following this sign, admire the view of Claverton Manor.

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The path crosses the farmyard and then completes the descent down the hill, through several gates, to reach the riverbank. Steady progress across the first field brings a short bridge with a stile at each end. After this Dundas Aqueduct starts to come into view.

The aqueducts at Dundas and Avoncliff carry the canal over the Avon and back (there is a third example at Trowbridge in less impressive surroundings). This avoids a need to cross the Midford Brook and Frome valleys and provides a shorter route around the inside of the corner at Freshford. The Dundas aqueduct is a very proud thing in the standard style of the time, looking like a bridge in a Regency country estate (which it is really). Being east-west it is a bit of a pain to photograph from this side, but the views from the top, back up the valley, are excellent.

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The path heads through a corner of the field and up the embankment side to the canal. Turn right and cross the aqueduct. The canal then swings round to the right itself and a bridge is provided for the towpath to cross over. Cross this bridge, turn left and follow the path around the basin and across the entrance to the Somerset Coal Canal almost back to the aqueduct.

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The tempting-looking little gate by the aqueduct which appears to be the entrance to a sweet little footpath is in fact for engineers to access the railway. Instead use the larger gate just before it and drop down the cyclepath. If it’s open, it’s worth clambering almost straight back up again to the Coal Canal towpath and following this instead of the cyclepath below. It only lasts the few hundred yards to the visitor centre and then drops down again. Beyond the visitor centre and its cafe can be seen the walled-up bridge which took the Coal Canal beneath the A36 until the canal beyond was excavated to make way for the railway to Camerton.

The drop off the canal at this point finishes on the trackbed of the railway, which to the left makes an overgrown curve into the (south-facing) junction at Limpley Stoke and to the right has been made up into a road. Take this right turn and pass under the A36 to come out alongside the Monkton Combe sports ground. (It is the only flat land for miles.) A downside of the proliferation of trees here is that they completely hide the rather handsome viaduct that carries the A36 over the valley.

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This railway was an early closure and weeds had already been left to take hold by 1952. This proved quite handy when Ealing Studios turned up with a streamroller, a bus, several eclectic bits of railway stock and the locomotives Great Western/ British Rail No. 1401 and Liverpool & Manchester No. 57 Lion to film The Titfield Thunderbolt.

For all this cinematic history the next section of line has not come off that well, so signposts indicate that a diversion is required up the hillside alongside the classrooms of Monkton Senior School. Quotes applied to the windows for schoolchild inspiration can be read backwards while passing – “Hark! what light through yonder window breaks?” (“It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” etc.)

At the top of the path turn left along the roadway into Monkton Combe, which is dominated at this point by its rather institutional school. At the pub, turn left back down the hill along Mill Lane.

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The village lock-up is passed at the bottom of the school (there is no truth in the rumour that it is now used for detentions) and the old Monkton Combe station follows soon afterwards. This was Titfield station in the film. Aside from two gateposts, there is nothing much to admire. Press on down the footpath and cross the abandoned leat by the mill.

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The path then runs across the valley to the bridge over the brook. Turn left after the bridge and follow the footpath along the bank, up amongst the houses and into a lane. When this lane peaks and joins another lane coming in from the right, take the public footpath sign pointing up the hill into the woods.

This is a pleasing little wood, with the path clambering up a series of flights of steps to meander amongst the trees around the end of the hill (the top is never reached on this third and final slog) before it drops back down to the A36 at the top of Limpley Stoke village.

There are two ways through the village. One is to go straight on down and then turn right at the pub at the bottom; the other is to turn right along a lane running level below the climbing A36 and then take a bridleway dropping straight down the hill to the left. The former gets in another pub. (There was also a pub at the top of the hill by the A36, which has been lately flattened.)

Limpley is a pleasant village, despite its vertigo-inducing position.

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After the two routes have rejoined the lane, having undulated peacefully southwards through the village, shows a disconcerting inclination towards rising again to reach Freshford. To avoid this, take the left turn immediately after this hill has come into view – a small turning, discreetly marked as a public footpath, which promptly goes under the railway and emerges onto the river bank. Turn right and proceed through the fields. This is a very peaceful bit of walk, with no major road handy and both railway and canal fairly quiet. Most walking and cycling traffic here is following the canal in the trees to the left.

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A track works up the fields alongside the railway, but the map suggests the footpath stays lower. Certainly the stile in the second fence is a total red herring and passage should be made around the bottom of the sewage works (although admittedly the air is fresher above it). Beyond the footpath picks up a track which leads up to the railway at Freshford station. Use the station footbridge to cross the line. The walk can be finished here, although there are no real hills left and the scenery is worth the extra mile-and-a-half.

The station road leads up into Freshford itself, with views out across the valley much improved by the clearance of vegetation from the railway embankment.

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Turn left at the top of the road and drop down through the village (used as Titfield itself and a lovely place) to the pub. Around here the walk falls off the bottom of the principal map. Happily the rest is easy to follow without.

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Cross the river (the Frome) after the pub and take the path to the left across the fields. This passes the Avon/ Frome confluence and then runs into a patch of woodland where it has been deemed necessary to concrete the path (which is rather tight between hill and river). At the other end of the wood it runs through fields along the riverbank with lots of little gaps between the waterside bushes for stopping and dozing in.

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The bridge over the railway carries the canal to Avoncliff Aqueduct and marks the imminent end of the walk. Passage through a gate at the end of the fields and a walk along the ensuing lane comes once more to housing and a tearoom. This is Avoncliff. The aqueduct has always looked like that.

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Pass under the aqueduct and come up the other side for the pub, the onward towpath to Bradford-on-Avon and the railway station. The railway station is on the other side of the river, so cross over the aqueduct and (unless in a particular hurry) stop awhile to admire the river flowing over the weir, the industrial hints from the chimney, the enormous beer garden and the surrounding woods.

Avoncliff is a rather small station; although no longer a request stop, most trains do not call here. A broadly hourly service operates Mondays to Saturdays, reducing to around two-hourly on Sundays. But it’s a much more agreeable place to wait than Bath, and the tearoom (or pub, depending on taste) can act as a waiting room (on purchase of something) during longer service intervals. The wide track spacing is to get the lines around the central bridge pier that holds up the canal trough.

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Canals in London

The canal network of England has the peculiarity that it has almost completely fallen out of commercial use but nonetheless has several key routes in usable condition. The result is that the nation’s primary cities – Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, London and Bristol – are connected together by an entirely operational transport network, little of it much under 200 years old, that is not used for commercial transport.

Each city does something different with this landscape. Birmingham perhaps makes most of its waterways for promoting itself, with its happy arguments that it has more miles of waterway than Venice. (Philistines are given to observing that Birmingham is bigger than Venice.) Birmingham of course has little else to shout about in terms of obvious heritage and attractive features, although the Town Hall and Symphony Hall have their points.

Birmingham Canal Basin (s) JPGA canal basin in central Birmingham early one December Sunday morning with the Mailbox development in the background.

Yet London has the oddest relationship. It is home of “Little Venice” (not to be confused with the Italian city occasionally sarcastically nicknamed “Little Paddington”) where the Grand Junction Canal meets Regents Canal about quarter of a mile from Paddington station. Passengers can walk from the nation’s seventh busiest railway station to a quiet haven of London, centred on an island of trees and geese, where a different intercity network congregates.

Paddington 4 JPGSpot the difference – big Paddington station….

Paddington 5 JPG…and Little Paddington. Before the railway came to town, this was quite literally all fields. An engraving when the canals were new shows sweeping farmland, rolling hills and a patch of woodland. The canal infrastructure has changed little (although the island now has a protective wall round it that was lacking in the engraving, assuming that the artist didn’t leave it out for reasons of artistic integrity). The impressive canal loadings and horses towing the narrow boats have of course all been replaced by the motor lorry, sharing transport space with the general public’s living areas, as part of the spirit of progress.

Particularly odd about the relationship between London and its canals is that every other scrap of land in London, it sometimes seems, is made to work for its living. The canals, by contrast, feel quite underutilised. Of course, there are occasionally wharfs that look like they might be being used:

Old Oak wharf 1 JPGThe wharf at Old Oak on the Grand Junction canal, a couple of miles from central London and only a few years old.

Mostly, however, the canals are used as living space and linear parks – in both of which roles they are quite successful. The Regent’s Canal, from Paddington in the west to Limehouse in the east, provides space for people to live in Maida Vale inside what are little more than water-borne caravans. Except because water is attractive, the trees around the caravans are mature and the caravans are resting in a 200-year-old transport link they seem to be considered to enhance the value of the area. Perhaps the traveller population should take to living on canals.

(The travelling canal population has curiously disappeared from the scene, whereas the travelling road population is still highly noted – albeit mostly for not travelling.)Maida Vale 1 JPGMaida Vale. Looking down this stretch of water – separating Little Paddington, behind the camera, from the first tunnel along the route of the Regent’s Canal, in the distance – it is tempting to murmur things about the possibility that a boat parking permit here would cost more than rent for a fixed house in most other parts of the country.

The Regent’s Canal – which is quite fortunate to be here, as its convenient start and end points via most of North London resulted in proposals to turn it into a railway during the First Railway Mania – now loops through an ever-changing urban scene. In some ways its presence is a valuable way of helping social cohesion. A wander along the canal from Maida Vale passes through the regal Regent’s Park, chattering London Zoo and vibrant Camden Market before reaching Kings Cross – for connections to Cambridge, Paris, Brighton and Aberdeen plus the headquarters of the Guardian newspaper. (Whether Guardian columnists who live in Maida Vale cycle along the green-lined concrete towpath of the canal to get to their offices is another matter, but the Guardian‘s presence on the canal bank is rather appropriate. It’s a very Guardian sort of canal. It contrasts strongly with the more Torygraph-esque Kennet and Avon Canal that connects Reading with Bath and Bristol.)

Since a picture is worth a thousand words (even if it does require three thousand times the bandwidth), the remainder of this article will be covered with some pretty pictures of Things to be Seen on the western half of the Regent’s Canal:

Before I die 1 JPGSome of these things, of course, have an interesting interpretation on how to be artistic or thought-provoking – although the take-up for this one was quite impressive.

Regent's Canal 1 JPGSometimes the canal picks up a vaguely Continental air. The canal boat on the right proceeded to provide a kind demonstration of how to do a three-point-turn with a 60-foot narrow boat. Two centuries of landscaping, including the development of Regent’s Park on the right, has served to hide the deep cuttings that the canal scarred across the once-rural landscape.

Regent's Canal 2 JPGThe canal, being a Georgian creation, is notable for its very intricate bridges. The modern architecture on the left is more notable for its general absence of any intricacy at all. A couple of faint grey points sticking up above the further bridge mark the bird cage of the London Zoo. Some of the birds have got it into their heads that they’re advertising the Zoo to potential visitors and like to pout impressively on their side of the netting next to the canal towpath. Alternatively they’ve just learnt that if they stand there they get fed.

Camden 1 JPGWhile the canal passes through North London discretely on an east-west basis the West Coast Mainline makes its way through on a slightly more north-south basis. A Virgin Pendolino on the world’s first trunk railway slopes over a not much older suburban canal. Flats look over the strikingly green and peaceful scene that calls on passers-by to linger as electric trains canter lightly overhead – an absolute gift for the rail and canal lobbies – barely a mile north of the Euston Road (which, when canal and railway were built, marked the northern edge of the urban sprawl). A few yards away to the North is Camden Roundhouse, a celebrated concert venue and of course the railway’s original engine shed. 

Camden 2 JPGA direction post in the middle of Camden, London, indicates the ultimate destination of the Grand Union Canal. At a reasonable non-sadistic rate, taking locks into account, this represents about twenty days travelling time at standard canal speed (walking pace). 

Camden Lock 1 JPGThe market at Camden is a bustling affair, made more so by its cramped position between the ground-level canal and the elevated North London Line (which would have enhanced this picture more if the photographer had thought to wait for one of the externally-cheerful Overground trains to go past). The grassy banks of the towpath provide vital sitting space next to the cool water, overlooked by some more attractive properties, a couple of warehouses and a large array of elevated knitting. The fence adds additional colour to the splodgy green trees.

Camden Geese 1 JPGThe canal is relatively unpolluted for an urban waterway (at least in terms of crisp packets, sweet wrappers and plastic bottles) with the result that it provides a delightful home for an array of common waterlife. (Less common waterlife, including turtles, may occasionally be identified – particularly in the outer suburbs on the Grand Union Canal – by those who look carefully enough.)

St Pancras Lock 1 JPGThe Kings Cross St Pancras area has been seeing some rebuilding work in recent years, tidying up some of the more derelict buildings and rebuilding one of the gasholders as an innovative decorative sculpture for a new garden area (still under construction, on extreme right). Notable companies and organisations in or moving to the area include the University of Arts London (Central St Martins College), the aforementioned Guardian, Network Rail and Google.

Brighton 1 JPGWhen you get bored with the canal, why not hop on one of the four direct trains per hour from St Pancras and go to Brighton for the rest of the day? A more flamboyant style of Regency architecture than the canal’s is seen here in the form of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.