Cycle the Kennet and Avon Canal
Ah, the romance of cycling along canals, wind in your hair, sun on your face, and birds swooping around! You’ll smile and exchange pleasantries with boaters as you pass each other by along the Kennet and Avon Canal cycle route.
Canal cycling is gorgeous, usually flat, incredibly scenic, and a wonderful introduction to cycle touring and the Kennet And Avon Canal cycle route is a great canal route. Built between 1718 and 1723, the Kennet and Avon Canal canal links Bristol to Reading over the 87 miles of waterway. The cycle route, however, is longer and is just shy of 100 miles in length, and is part of National Cycle Network Route 4 (NCN 4).
The Kennet And Avon Canal Cycle Route
The name of the Kennet and Avon Canal ride is slightly misleading, because the route doesn’t absolutely stick to the canal tow path. This explains why the cycle route is longer than the canal itself. For example, from Bristol to Bath, the route follows the Bristol & Bath Railway Path. That crosses the river Avon several times, but you won’t go near the edge of the water until you get to Bath.
Between Bath and Devizes, you will be following the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath, but between Devizes and Newbury you’ll mainly be cycling on quiet country lanes You will criss-cross the Kennet and Avon Canal many times. This is to bypass those sections of towpath that are in shockingly poor condition.
Not Just One Canal
The Kennet and Avon Canal isn’t quite a single canal. In places, it’s simply the river Kennet, or the river Avon. In other places, there’s a canal running alongside the river. As a waterway, it was originally constructed to carry goods between London and Bristol (from Reading, the link is via the river Thames).
The landscape through which the canal runs is exquisitely beautiful. I think the fact that the Kennet and Avon Cycle route diverts from the canal, along quiet country lanes, is a good thing, as it allows you to visit villages and hamlets you would otherwise have missed.
What To Expect When Cycling Kennet And Avon Canal Route
If you’ve ever cycled along canal towpaths, you’ll know they vary enormously in quality! Some are smooth tar, and wide. Others are a bramble-overgrown, rough, technical single-track, right on the edge of the canal. Still more parts are somewhere in between. The serenity of towpath cycling, and the stunning views you’ll get more than make up for any of the challenging bits. Certainly, cycling the Kennet and Avon Canal is no different.
The surrounding countryside is stunning, and you will have views ranging from stunning architecture to the ingenious Caen hill locks, plus plenty more. The Avon valley is beautiful, as is the course of the Kennet.
What bicycle should you take?
Technically it’s possible to take a road bike, but doing so will be a mistake. Instead, take a mountain bike, a gravel bike, a tourer or a hybrid with chunky tyres. The path surface in places can be horrendous, and if it had been raining, near Reading you should expect large pools of mud and water through which you must ride.
Obstacles along the Kennet and Avon Canal cycle route
Expect steps from time to time, kissing-gates and other obstacles. Sadly, canal routes are generally not disabled-friendly. As a rule of thumb, where the towpath is good, it’s because it’s a popular area. This means you’ll be going slow, due to all the people (remember, pedestrians have priority). Where the towpath is poor, there will be far fewer people, but the worse condition of the towpath will still mean you’d going slow. And yet, canal-side cycling remains a wonderful adventure that I highly recommend. As long as you’re clear from the start about exactly what you’re getting into, I expect you’ll love it too.
I strongly suggest you go read this write-up of cycling the Kennet And Avon Canal first. In terms of speed, on towpaths, expect to average around 7mph or less. Canal cycling is slow cycling, and cycling the Kennet and Avon Canal is no different here.
Far from a detriment, this simply offers you more time to absorb the landscape through which you’re cycling. On rural lanes, your average speed could be significantly faster. I’d suggest taking a minimum of at least three days to do the 100 mile ride, stretching to four days if you can, for a more leisurely experience and easy cycling.
Why buy a Kennet and Avon Canal route guide?
The Kennet and Avon Canal route in my guide follows the Sustrans National Cycle Network route 4 (NCN 4 for short). The route is well-known, and you can get a digital route file, in GPX format, for free. If a simple GPX is all you’re after, then by all means, go download it for free from somewhere.
However, my route guides are FAR more! For starters, you will receive a 20-page PDF document, which you can print off and take along. Doing so will ensure you have instructions, and even maps, for the more tricky parts, to help keep you on track. You will also receive a plain GPX file, but that’s not all.
The route guide includes a TCX file, which is brim-full of additional information. The TCX guide does more than point you in the right direction – it also tells you about the landscape you’re cycling though.
At only £7, you get all this for less than the price of 2 coffees and a croissant! What a bargain!
What if things go wrong?
The TCX file also clearly tells you where your escape points along the Kennet and Avon Canal cycle route are. In a perfect world, nothing will ever go wrong. We don’t live in a perfect world, so you’ll be reassured to know that the guide explicitly tells you about the multiple places you can leave the route to take the train instead.
It could be unexpected bad weather, or a mechanical failure that cuts an adventure short. It’s good to have the additional peace of mind, especially if this will be your first cycle tour. Some parts of the Kennet and Avon Canal cycle route are challenging, due to mud, poor surface as well as vegetation.
The guide allows you to identify where those segments are. I also suggest you read my Bikes On Trains comprehensive guide, before cycling the Kennet And Avon Canal route.