Walking in the Cotswold Water Park: Thames and Severn Canal

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

This familiar quip about the month of March actually seems quite logical. After all, the beginning is still winter, with the spring equinox arriving at the tail end of the month. Which is, I admit, no guarantee of good weather, but this year it proved to be more accurate than anticipated. Early March saw Storm Gareth tear across the UK, bringing with it high winds and rain. Then it was grey. No rain, no wind, just grey and overcast day after day.

So when sun and blue skies appeared, I did everything in my power to carpe tempestas: I went on a mini-adventure around my own community, I did a spot of gardening, and, after ignoring the Cotswold Water Park for over a decade, I managed to fit in two visits in the space of one week.

As I was never quite sure we were on the right path during our initial walk, this time around I stuck to a defined trail published by the Cotswold Water Park Trust called “From Bulrushes to Bow Wow”. I wasn’t sure what Bow Wow was referring to, but the bulrushes were clear enough. The trail begins on the towpath of the now-defunct Thames and Severn Canal that once connected London and Bristol through the titular great rivers.

Walking in the Cotswold Water Park: Thames and Severn Canal

Canals like this once crisscrossed the country connecting waterways and were the primary form of transportation for goods being produced as part of the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, canal boats laden with products would be able to get to their destination more economically and reliably than overland road routes (the “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” phenomena in the UK has been around for a while!).

However, in 1829 engineers George and Robert Stephenson unintentionally signed the death warrant for the canal, at least in its industrial form. Their innovative locomotive and the burgeoning railway network soon saw the country covered with hundreds of miles of railroad tracks, and goods could now be shuttled across the nation in the span of hours. The age of the canal had passed: they entered a period of gradual decline until the second half of the 20th century when these arterial networks were given a new lease of life by an unexpected source: the leisure industry.

From day-trippers and holidaymakers to a thriving community of those who chose to live on canal boats, canals began to be seen as a recreational pursuit. Once derelict, some, like the incredible Caen Hill Locks near Devizes, were fully restored to working order. Others, like the one I found myself walking alongside, have been given over to nature, at least for the time being.*

Within minutes, both MrElaineous and I had fallen in love with the trail. Lined with trees and dappled with sunlight, it felt like a world away from the busy town we had just left. The sound of cars cruising along a nearby motorway faded into the background, to be replaced with the louder, sharper notes of birdsong. Territorial robins in particular made it clear who was boss! The canal was also home to other wildlife—mallards, moorhens, and wagtails—and as we walked further, the nearby lakes came into view, complete with resident swans. 

From the towpath trail we turned on to a quiet road that was bordered by the River Churn on one side and a mill race—the channel of water that turns a mill wheel—on the other. We hadn’t walked very far when lovely stone houses began to come into view, each one seemingly more elaborate than the last. The delightful architecture continued along the length of the road and we discovered as we reached the end that this was the Bow Wow: a quaint Cotswold street whose name I have not been able to track down the origin of (if you have any information, please let me know!).

This was the apex of the circular walk we were following, and the return route took us through the village of South Cerney, past fishing lakes, and along an old drover’s route poetically called Wildmoorway Lane, which I have been advised is pronounced as the shorter but less poetic “Wilmer”. We were joined by a pair of mallards for part of the walk and tracks of deer were visible in the mud as we rejoined the original canal path for the last leg of the journey.

I don’t usually write immediate travel sequels, but if all of the walking trails are like this, I have a suspicion that the Cotswold Water Park may inspire an entire series … especially if this month’s April showers bring the promised May flowers.

Visiting Cotswold Water Park: A Walk on Bow Wow, South Cerney, Gloucestershire
Visiting Cotswold Water Park: A Walk on Bow Wow, South Cerney, Gloucestershire
Visiting Cotswold Water Park: A Walk in South Cerney, Gloucestershire

Volunteers are planning to restore this canal too; check out the Cotswold Canals Trust for more information about their ongoing activities.

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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