Bath was a popular place in the 1700s, attracting thousands of fashionable and wealthy visitors including members of the Royal Family. They came to ‘take the waters’ at the spa and to enjoy the social activities taking place in the city at the Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms and the theatres and music halls.
Huge loads of coal came into Bath via the canal to heat the spacious Georgian mansions for these visitors.
Built as a commercial transport route between 1794 and 1810, the Kennet & Avon Canal transformed Bath, providing safe and efficient travel between London and Bath, and via the River Avon, to Bristol.
Before the canal, the journey to London involved a difficult overland route or a perilous sea journey via the Bristol Channel and around the south coast. The canal shortened the journey, offered a safe and efficient route and created new opportunities for trade and transport. Bath stone could be delivered easily to London and other cities, and tons of coal, food and other goods essential for Bath’s profitable tourist industry could be brought into the city.
Building the canal
The methods and equipment used to construct canals in 1794 were relatively basic, and although steam powered equipment could sometimes be used, in the main picks and shovels were used for digging and wooden wheelbarrows for moving earth and rocks.
Clay lined the channel to make it watertight, and brick and stone was used to build structures such as bridges and locks.
Timber was the material for creating lock gates and swing bridges, and both cast and wrought iron for constructing pumps, ornamental bridges and various other metal components that were used in the construction process.
At this period metallurgy was still in its infancy and the production of steel was as yet not possible
It was however a period of rapid change and innovation, and canal engineers were at the forefront of this.Where this was concerned, John Rennie for example, is credited with being the first man to use cast iron ball races to enable swing bridges to pivot more easily.
Steam operated beam engines were utilised for powering pumps and two engines of this type were installed at Crofton, near Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire.
A reservoir had been created at Wilton Water by damming a number of small streams, and the Crofton pumps took water from there and pumped it to the summit pound.
A good supply of water was necessary at the summit point of all canals so that an initial water supply was available in both directions.
Another form of pump, this time powered by a water wheel operating in the River Avon, was used at Claverton to pump water from the river to the nine-mile pound heading east between Bath and Bradford on Avon.
Kingfishers nest in burrows, usually in soft riverbanks. The nest tunnels can be up to 140cm long, ending in a nesting chamber, and can take many days to create.
Changes in level on the Kennet and Avon were achieved by the use of pound locks.
These consist of a chamber on the line of the canal which is closed at each end by mitred gates and has a facility for filling and emptying the chamber by means of sluices (paddles).
Boats that enter this chamber are thus raised or lowered as water is let in or drained out of the chamber.
The canal company and its contractors also employed labourers who were known as navigators or navvies (hence the term in use today).
These men were usually agricultural labourers who found canal building work more financially rewarding than that associated with farming.
Closure and restoration
After a century of decline, in the 1960s the canal eventually fell into disrepair and parts of it were closed to boats. The future of the K&A looked bleak.
However, waterway enthusiasts and local people flocked to the cause. The Kennet & Avon Canal Trust was formed and, with hard work and dedication, these volunteers gradually restored the canal to its former glory.
In 1990 the Queen officially reopened the K&A, and since then the canal has gone from strength to strength with the help of a £25m Heritage Lottery Fund grant. Substantial restoration works have been matched by the development of canalside resources, including wildlife habitats and moorings.