Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Keynsham to Stanton Drew

Mick has a hangover and doesn't feel like going out. "There are only two cures for a hangover," I tell him - "Time, and a jolly good walk." He opts for time and tries to go and lie down but I am having none of it. "A good walk will set you right, get up and get going."

Grumbling, he agrees, and we set off along the Chew valley.

We start by setting off on the familiar walk from Keynsham down the River Chew. By the time we get to Compon Dando he feels better and by the time we get to Pensford he is his normal self. "Told you so," I say smugly. We call in to the village shop at Pensford and buy locally made pasties which we eat on the footbridge underneath the imposing and wonderful Pensford viaduct. At 330 in length and with sixteen arches in all, it dominates the landscape.

The viaduct used to carry the Bristol and North Somerset Railway down to Radstock, Frome and the Somerset Coalfield. The railway mainly carried freight although pasenger trains ran until the fifties. It was closed altogether in 1968 after the Chew Valley flood (more here) when it was deemed to be unsafe. I can't help wondering whether it was simply an excuse to divert the freight onto the parallel A37 given this was the age of the great rail closures.It still looks pretty solid to me, but hey, what do I know? I have studied the line of the railway extensively on Google Earth, from the air the route can be easily picked out. It looks like a perfect project for a new cyclepath!

We follow the Two Rivers Way along the Chew to Stanton Drew. Approaching the village up the land by Church Farm, there is little to indicate that in fields on either side of us are prehistoric stone circles of national importance, the third largest collection of prehistoric standing stones in England. Stanton Drew doesn't make a big fuss like Stonehenge, there are no coaches or visitor centre. A little honesty box on the wall asking for a quid is the only indication that a hop over the stile into the field may be worthwhile. We wandered around the stones for a good while, the only other person we saw was the local farmer rounding up his stock.

Amazingly, until recently, the stones have attracted little attention. This is now changing, however, as recent surveys have shown the site to have been once part of a much bigger complex. It seems that Stanton Drew was a pretty important place four thousand years ago.

Coincidentally, another set of stones in the village happen to be sited right in the garden of the local pub. "I think I could force down a pint," said Mick with a grin. So we bought a pint of Butcombe each and sat in the pub garden admiring "The Cove", a set of three stones, two standing and one recumbent, in the back garden. Surveys here suggest that these stones could once have formed the entrance to a Neolithic burial chamber or long barrow.
I predict that one day Stanton Drew will be as famous as Stonehenge and Avebury and that some local farmer will be turning his field over to a carpark..

After our pint we headed across fields to another Stanton, Stanton Wick. At the back of the village the path went directly through someone's back garden; it felt slightly odd wandering across the lawn past the washing line and out through the opposite hedge. Still a footpath is a footpath...We emerged from the garden into - eureka - the carpark of another pub.

The Carpenter's Arms was quite a fancy inn with restaurant and accommodation but nicely done, and at least there was still a bar area. We had grown weary of going to country pubs which look lovely on the outside but inside the interior has been turned over to a restaurant with nowhere to sit and have a drink.

Across the fields we came across a rope swing in a field and couldn't resist having a go. Mick turned into the playground bully and pushed me so hard I nearly fell off.  Still it was good fun, although I felt a bit sick as we staggered down the footpath..
We crossed Lord's Wood. The woodland is known for butterflies and we saw plenty of them around the lake in the centre of the wood. A climb out and then back to Compton Dando and a retracing of our steps home.

"You were right, " said Mick when we wearily slumped onto the sofa. "It was a good hangover cure."
"Yes, I told you a walk would set you right."
"Oh it wasn't the walk," he said. "It was the two pints of beer that set me right."

Route is here

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Boating the K&A part two

"After you!"
I have rejoined the good ship John Damsell for a couple of days. I phoned the crew and asked where they were and was informed that they were "somewhere beyond Trowbridge". I pondered whether to cycle the Bristol-Bath path and the towpath yet again and decided I really couldn't be bothered. I was feeling lazy, despite the fact that it was a completely flat route, Instead I decided to go to Trowbridge by train and then cycle along from there. So I headed down to Keynsham station and asked the guy in the ticket booth for a single ticket to Trowbridge.

"A single ticket to Trowbridge?" he asked. "Are you sure? That's a place you want to return from!"

I laughed. "It's ok," I said, "I'm jumping on a boat to get out."

Whilst I was on the train the crew phoned to say they had just reached Semington, so at Trowbridge I jumped on the main road to Devizes and cycled along there awhile before turning down the lane to Semington village. The tarmac was faster  than the gravelly towpath, although the road was busy and noisy,  it was something of a relief to turn onto the quiet road down to the canal. Once on the towpath I had only travelled a mile or so when I saw them moored up next to a swingbridge. I could see Mick with his back to me, on his phone. Suddenly my phone rang in my pocket. I answered it, it was him of course.

"Are you far away?" he asked.

"Yes, miles, the train was late," I said. "Can you wait around for me?"

"Ok," he said glumly, then grinned as I rolled up alongside the boat. "Huh, very funny."

We slung my bike on the roof and the bags inside then set off along the canal passing through Wiltshire fields along the plain. Before long we reached Foxhangers and the start of the flight of locks which take the canal off the plain and up to the Vale of Pewsey.

There was a winding hole after seven locks so we decided to go up this far and moor up before heading back down in the morning. Winding holes are places where you can turn around. Unlike a car which can turn around pretty much anywhere, it's not so easy when your boat is 60 feet long and the canal is only about ten feet wide. So every now and again there are wide bits where, with a bit of luck, a dollop of bad language and not too much wind, you can turn around and head the other way. Sometimes it all goes wrong and then someone has to deploy a long pole to try and push the boat off the bank allthe while hoping that a boat doesn't come along a) because your boat is now wedged sideways blocking the channel and b) because you look and feel like idiots who don't know what they're doing.

So we headed up the seven locks and then went to look at Caen Hill flight proper. Caen Hill is one of the wonders of the waterways. It takes the canal from the flat plain of the Bristol Avon up to the Vale of Pewsey, the corridor between the chalk downs of Salisbury Plain and Marlborough Downs. It rises over 230 feet in two miles, which means a lot of locks. twenty nine of them in fact.

Caen Hill locks are in three sections: seven locks at Foxhangers, then the main flight of sixteen, then the remainder into Devizes. The middle sixteen rise in a dramatic and beautiful formation, one above the other in perfect formation. It is a staggering feat of engineering. The flight was the last section of the canal to be completed in 1810, and the last part of the canal to be reopened in 1990 when the Queen was the first to boat through the restored locks in the Rose of Hungerford.

The canal, including Caen Hill flight was designed by the Scottish engineer and architect John Rennie, who went on to design many other structures including Waterloo, Southwark and London Bridge. On Caen Hill he placed huge side ponds to ensure sufficient water supply through the flight. Now recently installed backpumps are capable of returning 32 million litres of water a day back up the flight.

After some food we walked up the towpath to Devizes. We had a couple of pints in the Wetherspoons pub where a feature on the wall put paid to Mick's theory that Caen Hill was so named after French prisoners brought here during the Napoleonic war.  In fact the hill is named after Roger de Caen, Bishop of Salisbury who built a castle in Devizes in the tenth century.
 We then trailed round the corner for a couple of pints in the Lamb. Whilst there we admired the huge Elizabethan oil painting although you have to lean sidewise and then look up to see it. Apparently it was a gift to the pub. As The Lamb is an ancient building the walls are only around six feet high and uneven. The only place to put it therefore, was on the ceiling. We all leaned sideways and looked up to admire it, making appropriate appreciative noises before heading out to sit in the little courtyard for an hour before heading back to the boat.

On the way back we admired the beautiful sunset for a while before turning in.

This is the bit I missed: here
Todays route: here
It's been a hard day's boating

Brassknocker Hill

I am meeting my sister at Keynsham for lunch so at ten I head off back down the canal towpath on my bike. I worked out this was the sixth time I had travelled this route in as many days, and I thought I would have a change from cycling the towpath. The road would be more direct and smoother after all. And maybe the hill and the traffic wouldn't be so bad. And so I made the fateful decision to cycle back via Brassknocker Hill and across the top of the hill rather than via the towpath to Bath. After all, I reasoned, once I'm up the hill it's a more direct route than the winding canal.

Brassknocker Hill. It's a lovely name isn't it? The hill isn't lovely though, at least not heading in the direction I was going. It's steep. Very steep. I immediately switched onto the granny wheel and began slowly pedalling up the hill. My Dawes is not the lightest of bikes and I was regretting having two pannier bags as well. I managed to get about a third of the way up the hill before pulling over, gasping, onto the verge at the side of the road, convinced I was about to have a heart attack. I leant over the handlebars, gasping and clutching at my heart. It was beating so fast.

After some minutes I felt reassured that I was not about to expire on the road and began to slowly push the bike up the hill, crossing the road on each sharp bend to try and reduce the liklihood of a car ploughing into me as it rounded the corner. Near the top I almost stumbled over a dead fawn lying by the side of the road. It had clearly not been there long, poor thing.

Once at the top of the hill, the going is pretty flat. The road goes across the top of Claverton Down and Combe Down south of Bath. Under Combe Down, but only just under (in places only a few feet), are miles of stone mines from which the famous Bath stone limestone was extracted during the 18th and 19th centuries. The stone was sought after for prestigious buildings, not only in Bath but across the country, including Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.

However the mines became increasingly unstable. People were getting up to discover that holes had appeared in their gardens overnight. Not good when you let the dog out for a pee and it falls down a blimmin' great hole. On one occasion a truck fell down a hole and was left there to provide a house foundation. (Presumably it was thought to be better to build the house on top of a lorry rather than on top of land which resembled Gruyère cheese.) In recent years a stabilisation project has been pumping foamed concrete into the mines. This was a massive project, over 400,000 square metres of concrete were pumped in altogether.

Foamed concrete is created by injecting air bubbles through the mass of the concrete. The density of foam concrete can vary from 200kg/cub.m to 1600kg/cub.m. The strength of the concrete is determined by the mix of cement and water and also is dependent on the type of foaming agent used, and whether it is protein or synthetic based. Foam concrete has a wide variety of applications.....Hey! Wake UP!

OK enough about foam concrete. Suffice to say that the mines are no longer falling down.

I cycled across the top of the plateau and then freewheeled the long coast down to Newton St Loe and with gritted teeth I put up with the A4 for a few miles until Saltford where I could turn back onto the lanes for the final few miles.

Made it in time for lunch. I think I may have to train a bit more before tackling Brassknocker Hill again though.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Boating on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Mick has invited his sister and her partner for a few days boating. He picked them up at Bath yesterday and they plan to boat to Devizes and back. I had a few things to do so I agreed to cycle and and meet them today. I headed up the Bristol to Bath cycle path then crossed Bath before picking up the canal towpath on the other side of the city. The towpath meaders to Bradford-on-Avon and its a bit bumpy but at least its flat. The alternative would have been to cycle over the hill to the south of Bath, a busy road and lots of traffic.

By the time I caught up with them, they were mooring up at Bradford-on-Avon, so no boating today, Damn!
"Never mind," said Mick, "You've arrived just in time for your favourite job."
"Oh no," I said, "that's not fair. None of it is mine!"
"Aw, come on Latrine Girl," he wheedled. "You know you want to."

Luckily Vince has, in the twenty-four hours that he has been boating, completely fallen in love with it and was keen to experience all the elements of life on the canal.

"I'll do it!" he said eagerly.

Mick and I stared at him in disbelief.

"Blimey, that's a first," said Mick eventually. "No one has ever offered before."

As Vince staggered off, laden with three full porta-potties on a pair of sacktrucks, Mick stared after him.

"I can't let him deal with all that shit on his own," he said. "I'd better give him a hand."

They went off to empty the toilets at the facilty which was above the lock. They were gone for ages.

"Maybe they went to the pub on the way back'" said Val. I thought this unlikely, after all they were trailing three smelly toilets with them.

When they finally got back we wandered into Bradford-on-Avon and bought fish and chips which we ate in the park next to the river. A swan was nesting on one of the struts under the bridge, we could see three grey fluffy cygnets peeping out from under her wings as she sat placidly, whilst her mate chased off unwelcome visitors. In the middle of the river a moorhen had set up nest on some reeds which had wedged mid-stream. We hoped that no heavy rain was due, or she may have found herself unexpectedly relocated to Bath.

This was narrowboat John Damsell's route today: here