First Impressions of the Kennet and Avon Canal

We left Pangbourne early in the morning. The aim is to get off the River Thames and onto the Kennet and Avon Canal at Reading.sounds simple enough. Once on the canal we can see about mooring just after the town centre for lunch and then go on for a while longer to get into the countryside. Do you think this is likely to be what occurred?

Early morning cruising. Early enough that the first lock on the river was not yet manned and we would have to work it ourselves. No problem. There was instructions. Alan loosely ties the front of the boat so it can lower in the lock safely while I hold the rope at the back to keep us in place. All goes well and I collect Alan at the lay-by below when he is finished closing the lock. The rest of the locks had keepers there when we arrived so the mechanics of the locks were safe from our fiddling.

Nothing dramatic happened at all. We had watched a video of someone doing the traffic lights at Reading so had heard that the canal entrance was not easy to see. This was an understatement. It was not visible until you were on top of it. Luckily knowing it was awkward w were prepared with Alan on the front and Google maps on his phone. We managed the turn without issue.

We came up to our first lock on the canal. The first mile of canal is run by the Environment Agency just like the Thames so there is a lock keeper in charge of the lock. We pull up to the landing and Alan looks for the keeper. No one in sight. He checks the building. No one there but the keeper’s jacket is hanging over a chair. We decide to work the lock ourselves. It is a bit different but Alan sussed out the workings. The water is set to level out for us to go in when the keeper turns up. He never did say where he was….toilet maybe?

The keeper took over and we were off into Reading. We didn’t expect to get lucky enough to find a mooring before the town centre but were surprised that there was NO moorings before the town centre. We pushed on for about 15-20 min tops when got to the traffic lights with a river cruiser ahead of us. They pressed the button and the light went green. We had 12 minutes to get through the centre.

The centre is set up like this as when they regenerated the town centre they narrowed the canal and it is no longer wide enough to manoeuvre boats in both directions. Would be particularly bad if you had a couple widebeam boats in opposite directions as the waterway is only barely wide enough for one. If you were going slow and careful you could probably manage opposing narrowboats but it would at best be a dance.

We got through the centre in no time at all. I was worried about going too slow and someone coming the other way so went through so fast I felt like a race car driver. We were through fast enough that when the cruiser in front of us turned around to cruise back through the centre they had to wait about 5 more minutes to get a green light.

Now that we were through the centre we would see about mooring and having some lunch except there was nowhere to moor. The side of the canal were so overgrown you couldn’t tell where there was land and where just plants sticking out of the water. You couldn’t get within about four feet of the towpath. We just kept going and hoping we would find someplace when we came to Fobney Lock.

Oh my, this lock has a weir and a sluice that between them make landing a mission in itself. Alan released the water from the gates above and it sucked the boat in violently. The bow was right up against the gates. I had never had that happen before. Normally when the locks drain the pressure of the water gushing in pushes you away a bit but not here. Alan came and helped get the boat back under control as I was not strong enough to manage these undercurrents. What I hadn’t fully understood until after this lock was that the Kennet and Avon canal is mostly river with canal stretches here and there. At this point we were on strong river.

We got into the lock and got the next surprise. As the water entered the lock above it sucked the boat forward again. We had seen in a video that this lock was rough but I held the rope for all I was worth and the best I could do was slow the movement enough to prevent everything in our cupboards crashing down. It wasn’t until the lock was almost entirely full that the boat came back into my control. My arms were feeling seriously strained.

After that lock we decided to moor up as there were plenty of boats around. We go to pull over only to find a no mooring sign. The water treatment works had a sluice across. We went farther down and found another spot. At this point we were exhausted and hungry. We had intended to head back off after lunch but instead stayed put for a couple nights. It did have parking and we were planning to go to the Crick Boat show the next day so it made sense.

So what was our first impression of the Kennet and Avon Canal? Poor to be honest. Reading was completely unfriendly to boaters! That was very disappointing. They seemed determined to not have boaters in town so happy to leave it. As for the canal itself, difficult! The sides are so overgrown that mooring is challenging. The sides are also often too shallow in many spots. The mooring options are largely wild. The locks are large and rough. The approaches to the locks usually have weirs and/or sluices causing the currents to do odd things. I will try to keep my mind open and give the canal more time.

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