Walking is the number one national leisure activity in the UK, with over 9 million people reporting regular outings. However, “walking” doesn’t really capture the complete spectrum of what’s on offer. At the more extreme end are hill walkers, those who relish the ups and downs of the landscape. They typically own several sets of waterproofs, carry flasks of tea or coffee (and plenty of sandwiches), and are prepared for anything the British weather can throw at them. Some combine this with the thrill of “collecting” peaks, such as Munros. These Scottish mountains are over 3000 feet high and ticking them off the list has given rise to the sport of Munro bagging.
Other people head for more level trails, such as railway and industrial archaeology enthusiasts who can explore thousands miles of disused railway lines around the country. Or, stepping further back into the history of the UK, there are numerous walks along the network of canals that once formed the arterial lifeblood of British transport. These canal paths are often full of families with pushchairs and dog walkers taking advantage of the pleasant scenery and smooth, flat pathways.
Where do MrElaineous and I fit in? We’re fair weather walkers and photographers. This tends to mean that we don’t decide to go for a walk until we actually see the weather on the day, and it will probably take us twice as long as someone else to do the route because of the constant stopping and snapping away at whatever catches our eye.
Which is how we found ourselves in the historic town of Bradford on Avon this past weekend. Despite our Amazon Echo calling for intermittent clouds all day, we woke up to blue skies and sun so decided to head out for a short 3-mile jaunt in this local beauty spot. We felt comfortable with BoA; it was a place we knew fairly well from MrElaineous’s time performing at the 14th-century tithe barn and the occasional visit to a local tea room. We had even looked at flats in Bradford on Avon before settling in Chippenham. As a walking venue, I can’t imagine many better: it blends traditional architecture with a canal, river, and railroad in one compact location.
Based on the map, we were expecting a straightforward (and level) walk along the canal to Avoncliff and back, and that’s certainly how the walk starts. You venture past the tithe barn, then are on a path that threads between the (upper) canal and (lower) eponymous Avon river. It’s a bit a disconcerting at first to look up a hill and see narrowboats above you, but it’s a pleasant enough way to start things. However, the guide we were following soon told us to start crossing fields and climbing hillsides. We were to go “diagonal left across a field and through a gate stile”. As we climbed in the direction we thought was correct, we discovered not one but two gates, neither of which looked very much like a stile. We picked one at random and continued on, following a signposted path. We began to realise that we had somehow gone the wrong way when the path took us through someone’s back garden.
Finally, we seemed to hit the right road that would take us back down to the canal and rejoin the mapped route. As we began to descend, a little white dog, all curly hair and wagging tail, trotted up the path, his owner a little ways behind him. We smiled and said hello as we passed each other; there were many dogs and their people out enjoying a walk on such a lovely day and everyone was in a pleasant mood. “Come on, Kitty,” the owner called out. That’s a funny a name for a dog, I thought, continuing down the road. Then I realised that she was not addressing the dog, but rather the fluffy grey and orange cat that was ambling along behind her.
This is not the most unusual animal I’ve seen taken for a walk. Nearly a decade ago while out enjoying bluebells near Bristol, we stumbled across someone out exercising his pet pig. This was not a micro-pig or pot-bellied pig, but rather a full grown pig that one is more accustomed to seeing in farmyards than narrow forest paths. Clearly the British are adept at combining their love of pets and love of walking!
As we returned to the canal from our unexpected diversion, we came to the Avoncliff aqueduct, a remarkable feat of engineering from the turn of the 19th century. As the name implies, the aqueduct carries water … in fact, it carries the Kennet and Avon Canal OVER the river and railway line. In essence, it is a bridge for boats. At the foot of the aqueduct is a well-placed tea room, and even novice walkers such as ourselves recognised that this was a good opportunity to fuel up.
The return journey was much smoother: straight along the canal until hitting Bradford on Avon. This was a nice opportunity to take in the narrowboats that line the canal. Some are simply for holidays, allowing people to get away from it all for a short period of time. Others are the ultimate mobile home, permanent accommodation for those who prefer a different pace and style of living.
BoA itself is a higgledy-piggledy mix of shops, cafés, and tea rooms, and fits almost every stereotype when imagining ye olde England. The only thing that is perhaps a bit unexpected from this mental vision? How gorgeous it all looks in the sunshine.