Sleepy setting for a summertime stroll

THERE could hardly be a more iconically English landscape than the Limpley Stoke valley.

This is a world of honeyed stone and chocolate-box villages, sleepy canalside pubs and bustling tea rooms, soaring aqueducts and busy locks where weekend strolls are punctuated by the smell of wild garlic and woodsmoke.

A lifetime ago, it was an evening pint in the glorious garden of the 16th-century Inn at Freshford which convinced me that it might be wise to leave a better-paid job in rain-soaked Glasgow and move to Bath, with its impressive Roman baths and Georgian architecture.

During a decade there, and in nearby Bathampton and Bradford on Avon, the Kennet & Avon canal provided a picturesque backdrop to my daughter’s childhood, so it seems fitting that we’re able to meet up here for a ramble on one of those most magical of summer days when the valley is at its best.

It’s a 10-mile walk from Bath to Bradford on Avon, but most locals have their favourite stretch for a less demanding afternoon stroll. and there’s also the option of taking the train out to Freshford or Avoncliff for a shorter circular or one-way trip, returning from one of the other stops on the route.

Our meander will take us from Bradford on Avon to Avoncliff, the outward journey on the canal towpath, the return route running alongside the river.

With the Avon at its heart, the Wiltshire town lies at the southern edge of the Cotswolds, surrounded by glorious countryside.

The Saxons drove their carts across the ‘broad ford’ that gave the town its name and the staple local industry for six centuries was wool and weaving, leaving a legacy of great riverside mills, with ranks of weavers’ cottages lining the hillsides, punctuated by the grand houses of wealthy clothiers.

A variety of canalside watering holes provide a good start or end point to any ramble, along with a reminder that this is part of an impressive 87-mile waterway linking the Bristol Channel with London.

More than 200 years ago horses would have plodded along towpaths like these carrying cargoes of stone and coal, but competition from the railways heralded the demise of the canal network, much of which later fell into disrepair and disuse.

When the canal opened in 1810, the wharf in Bradford would have been a busy place. Back then we might have seen boats loaded with coal from the Somerset coalfield, or goods like barley and local cheeses.

But its fate was sealed only three decades later when the Great Western Railway opened.

Thankfully a resurgence of interest from enthusiasts and volunteers helped to revitalise and restore the waterway, which was officially reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.

And today, as we make our way past one of the largest medieval barns in England, the towpath is positively bustling with activity.

Indeed, sections of the canal path can get a little too hectic at weekends, when there can be an occasional battle for dominance between the more assertive walkers and faster joggers and cyclists.

But if whirring tyres and tinkling bells can prove distracting at times, for the most part everyone’s here to savour the relaxed atmosphere and most are making a conscious effort to show consideration to others.

Out on the water there are a few day rentals and holidaymakers cheerily chugging up and down, while the longer-term residents are moored up along the towpath, their boats laden with bikes, pot plants and other personal paraphernalia.

There are plenty of wildfowl entertaining the passers-by here, including a particularly large family of ducklings, though a hungry-looking heron shows a little too much interest in these cute fluffy snacks until he’s chased away by an obliging spaniel.

We’re making good time on our 1.4-mile saunter towards the village of Avoncliff, home to one of a couple of impressive aqueducts between here and Bath built to carry the canal high over the River Avon and the railway.

Both were designed by the prolific Scottish civil engineer John Rennie, whose bridges, canals, docks and warehouses have stood the test of time, scattered all over the country.

The three arches of the aqueduct at Avoncliff offer a particularly pleasant outlook over the valley below, and the glorious riverside gardens of the Cross Guns inn.

It’s an idyllic location for a traditional pub meal on a summer’s evening like this, with equally spectacular views back towards Rennie’s aqueduct and little to disturb the peace other than the gentle murmur of a train stopping at the village’s tiny railway station.

Like many of the other villages scattered along the valley, this is a quintessentially English setting, and it’s easy to understand why the tourists love the area so much.

Avoncliff is the perfect starting point for rambles up or down the valley, with its succession of pretty villages with their Bath stone cottages, climbing roses and cottage gardens.

The Cross Guns itself is one of the oldest buildings, a Tudor residence extended in the early 1600s and originally known as The Carpenter’s Arms, providing respite for travellers and drovers using the ford across the river and later used by quarrymen, millworkers and travellers.

Business was booming by the turn of the 18th century when the canal arrived, bargees stabling their horses behind the old cellar and relaxing over a game of cards, smoke curling from their clay pipes as they shared tales stretching the length of the canal.

The name change to the Cross Guns stems from the late 18th century, in recognition of the formation of the local yeomanry in the shape of the 9th (Bradford on Avon) Battalion of the Wiltshire Rifle Volunteers.

Like other hostelries along the valley, the inn has seen its fair share of boom times, though trade was tough in the 1960s when the mills had become derelict and the canal was in disrepair.

Thankfully trade is healthy again now that the canal has been revitalised, whether that’s round a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night or like today, basking in the sun by the river tucking into hearty pub grub like fish and chips or a handmade pie.

It’s still warm, but time to start thinking about the homeward leg of our journey, this time taking a slight detour from the canal to follow the river back to Bradford.

Of course we could have jumped on the train to Freshford or Bath, taken time to explore the villages of Limpley Stoke, Bathampton or Claverton (home to the fascinating American Museum), or taken time just to watch the narrowboats negotiate the locks linking the canal to the River Avon in Bath.

But perhaps those are outings best left for another day. For now, the leisurely stroll back to Bradford is the perfect end to our nostalgic waterside walk through this most beautiful of valleys, carved out of the local limestone over millions of years.

Here, historic pubs and glorious views provide a perfect backdrop to the world of the gongoozler, or idle observer of life on the canal – and it’s hard to think if a nicer way of enjoying a lazy day in the sun.

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