GREAT CANAL WALKS: READ­ING

Come with us on a ram­ble through ru­ral Berk­shire and Read­ing be­fore reach­ing the Thames

Canal Boat - - This Month - TEXT AND PIC­TURES BY MARTIN LUDGATE

The vil­lage of Theale lies some six miles west of Read­ing on the River Kennet Nav­i­ga­tion, and con­ve­niently for a one-way walk, the two are also linked by a rail­way line. We’re start­ing at Theale and head­ing east – partly be­cause for those ar­riv­ing by road, it’s eas­ier to park there.

But there’s no rea­son why you can’t do the walk in the op­po­site di­rec­tion; es­pe­cially if you fancy end­ing with some­thing to drink – Theale used to have so many pubs that it was sug­gested the name was de­rived from ‘the ale’, and sev­eral of them are still in busi­ness. Theale and its hostel­ries are to the north from the rail­way sta­tion, but our walk be­gins by head­ing south, to meet the nav­i­ga­tion at a swing­bridge. Turn left onto the tow­path, and just around the bend is Sh­effield Lock.

Al­though mainly of in­ter­est to boaters, walk­ers will also find the locks along this stretch worth paus­ing to look at, if only for the va­ri­ety of shapes and sizes. This one’s rather larger than most, dating from when large Thames sail­ing barges used the wa­ter­way, and has cu­ri­ous scal­loped edges. And half a mile fur­ther on, you’ll pass Garston Lock, a rare sur­viv­ing turf-sided struc­ture. Dis­ap­pear­ing into the un­der­growth on ei­ther side are two World War II con­crete pill-boxes, re­call­ing the days when the Kennet was seen as a pos­si­ble line of de­fence in the event of in­va­sion.

It’s hard to imag­ine this quiet wa­ter­way be­ing the site of fierce fight­ing, but the peace is dis­turbed a lit­tle by the M4 mo­tor­way as our walk con­tin­ues be­tween wa­ter-mead­ows and lakes (formed from old gravel quar­ries) to­wards Burgh­field. By con­trast to the canal-like first mile, we’re now on what’s clearly a nat­u­ral river, with some tight bends to chal­lenge the boat steerer, if not the walker. Our walk­ing sur­face has also changed, from a ‘proper’ tow­path to a rough foot­path run­ning through river­side mead­ows – so boots are a good idea in win­ter.

Burgh­field Lock (a mod­ern steel-piled cham­ber with some re­mains of the old turf­sided lock vis­i­ble be­yond) is

‘We’re now only three miles from the cen­tre of Read­ing, but the ten­dency of the river to flood has helped keep de­vel­op­ment at bay’

fol­lowed by Burgh­field Bridge, with a handy water­side pub and a hand­ful of build­ings, be­fore the nav­i­ga­tion re­turns to the coun­try­side ac­com­pa­nied by more flooded gravel pits. We’re now only three miles from the cen­tre of Read­ing, but the ten­dency of the river to flood has helped keep ur­ban de­vel­op­ment at bay.

We be­gin to see more signs of the town’s ap­proach at Fob­ney Lock (an­other big Thames barge-sized one), which is ac­com­pa­nied by Read­ing’s main water­works on one side, its sewage works and re­cy­cling sta­tion on the other, and fol­lowed by a bridge car­ry­ing main road the A33 into the town from the south, ac­com­pa­nied by re­tail and busi­ness parks. But for all that, the nar­row­ing river and the tow­path (which crosses the tail bridge at Fob­ney Lock and then ducks be­hind a pump­ing sta­tion build­ing) man­age to re­tain a semi-ru­ral ap­pear­ance thanks to trees lin­ing the route on both sides.

Turn­ing to head north­wards, our walk fi­nally en­ters ur­ban Read­ing prop­erly, with a long line of Vic­to­rian town houses back­ing onto it from our right, many of the gar­dens ter­raced steeply down to the wa­ter, sev­eral with boats moored.

Bear Free Wharf moor­ings are sand­wiched be­tween two main road bridges, the sec­ond of which (A329) also dou­bles up as a tow­path cross­ing, (the foot­bridge which used to run across County Weir to County Lock hav­ing dis­ap­peared). But this needn’t mat­ter to us, as walk­ers can con­tinue on the left-hand side of the river.

An un­usual set of boat traf­fic lights guards the en­trance to what was once a nar­row, twist­ing and fast-flow­ing length with no tow­path known as Brew­ery Gut. Not any more: this area has been re­born as the Or­a­cle shop­ping cen­tre, and that’s an­other rea­son for walk­ing the route in this di­rec­tion at this time of year – you might just want to check out the Jan­uary sales near the end of your walk.

You’ll need to cross one of the three foot­bridges in the Or­a­cle Cen­tre to end up on the right-hand side of the river, which passes un­der the old, stone-built and not very aptly-named High Bridge to reach an area known as Kennet Side.

From High Bridge, it’s only a few

‘Kennet Side is a pleas­ant ur­ban water­side walk­way which passes two river­side pubs and Blake’s Lock, the last on the River Kennet’

min­utes’ walk to Read­ing Sta­tion – but if you have time, carry on a lit­tle way yet.

Kennet Side is a pleas­ant ur­ban water­side walk­way which passes two river­side pubs and Blake’s Lock, the last on the River Kennet and op­er­ated as part of the Thames by the En­vi­ron­ment Agency. (Not that it af­fects walk­ers, but if you’re fa­mil­iar with the man­ual locks above Ox­ford, you’ll see sim­i­lar­i­ties.) There’s also the small River­side Mu­seum to visit: it’s the far side of the weir stream be­side the lock, so to reach it, you’ll need to ei­ther cross the foot­bridge be­low the lock or the last road bridge above it.

Pass­ing the sec­ond of the pubs, the Kennet comes to a rather ig­no­min­ious end amid rail­way bridges and a gas­om­e­ter as it joins the Thames. Cross the foot­bridge which is at­tached to the last of the rail­way bridges, and fol­low the Thames up-river. A wooded length masks a river­side su­per­mar­ket and new hous­ing, then the path cuts across King’s Meadow to reach Caver­sham Lock.

Not far be­yond is Read­ing Bridge: carry on un­der it, then af­ter about 100 yards turn left to leave the river­side via a foot­path / cy­cle­way. This leads to a main road: just to your right is a pedes­trian cross­ing. Cross this and straight ahead of you is the north en­trance to the rail­way sta­tion, with a reg­u­lar half-hourly train ser­vice back to Theale.

Sh­effield Lock near Theale – note the scal­loped edges

Nat­u­ral river and field path near Theale

Houses back onto the river as it en­ters Read­ing

A more canal-like length at Fob­ney

Pass­ing Burgh­field

County Weir and Lock, Read­ing

THE ROUTE

We rec­om­mend the Ord­nance Sur­vey’s Lan­dranger map 175 Read­ing & Wind­sor to ac­com­pany this walk.

Caver­sham Lock on the Thames

Blake’s Lock, last on the Kennet

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