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Devizes – Caen Hill Locks and more

The Easter weekend sunshine coaxed me out to finally make a visit to the Caen Hill Locks near Devizes that I’d been promising myself for ages. Plainly many others decided to do the same as the car park was busy on Easter Monday.

On arrival, I was delighted to find the Diamond Jubilee Wood funded by the Forestry Commission as part of a national scheme to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and full of native species which will in time create a rich habitat for wildlife.

The Locks themselves are undoubtedly impressive. It is one of the longest continuous flight of locks in the country, with a staircase of 16 locks the centre piece of a series of an incredible 29 locks in total. These were designed by John Rennie to solve the fact that the Canal has to negotiate a 273 ft drop within 2.5 miles as it travels through the Vale of Pewsey.

We talked to a party taking their boat through the locks. They thought it would take them at least 3 hours to complete. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted! This marvellous piece of engineering was created between 1794 and 1810, with the Caen Hill Flight the last stretch to be completed. The locks also have unique side pounds where boats would have waited as they traveled up and down the Canal. It’s heard to imagine this part of Wiltshire as a motorway of the 19th century carrying goods to and from London and Bristol along the Canal before trains and better roads meant that they had fallen out of use by the second half of the 20th century. The pounds are now havens of wildlife as they are not deep enough for boats to use now. The nesting swan close to the towpath would never have found a spot here in the heyday of the Canal.

I remember as a child in the 1970s being taken to somewhere along the route of the Kennet and Avon by my parents who were interested to find out more about the restoration of the canal which was then in its early days. I don’t know which stretch we visited but I do remember seeing the drained canal, the rubbish at the bottom of the channel and the people working hard to repair and clean up the canal so that it could become usable once more. Here I am in 2019 looking at the fruits of their labours.

We walked right into town to the Devizes Wharf where we watched as the MV Kenavon Venture set off to give visitors an experience of travelling along the Canal. This is yet another heritage attraction in Wiltshire dependent on the assistance of volunteers. Canal and River Trust volunteers at the floating visitor centre were friendly and knowledgeable and The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust run the Kenavon Venture and the small museum at Devizes Wharf. Their AGM is coming up soon and they have some volunteer vacancies if you would like to get involved.

A WWII pillbox tucked away near the Marina reminded us that the Canals were an important part of our infrastructure that needed to be protected in case of invasion by the German army.

Devizes is undoubtedly an excellent destination for visitors and one which is often overshadowed by the more famous destinations in Wiltshire such as Salisbury, Stonehenge or Stourhead. The Canal and its Museum, the Wiltshire Museum with its nationally significant archaeological collections, the Wadworth Brewery and Devizes market and independent shops mean that there is more than one day’s worth of things to do here. It’s close to the Avebury part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site and there are plenty of excellent walks to other sites such as Roundway Down or Adam’s Grave at Alton Barnes.

It also has a thriving cultural scene with its Arts Festival and annual Carnival, independent cinema and plenty of nice places to eat.

The volunteers were able to provide information for visitors on the history of the Canal and things to see and there were a selection of both free and paid-for publications available that were informative, attractive and easy to read. There were clear signposts and information boards to help orientate the visitor. The Canal is a wonderful place to relax, enjoy nature, wonder at the engineering skills of our Georgian ancestors and to give thanks for those volunteers who worked so hard to restore the infrastructure so that we can all enjoy it now. They have a nice cafe too! I’ll definitely be back.

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