The Kennet and Avon canal, which passes through Avoncliff is one of the most splendid lengths of artificial waterway in Britain and is a fitting memorial to the canal age as a whole. John Rennie (1761 – 1821) is famous, among other things, for building Waterloo Bridge, London Bridge (now transported and re-built stone by stone in the Arizona desert USA), Dublin Docks, the Bell Rock Lighthouse, the Lancaster Canal and the Kennet and Avon Canal. John Rennie was also famous for perfecting the use of ball bearings – he used them to reduce friction between moving parts on his canal swing bridges.
Work began on the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1790 (when Rennie was 29 years old) and it was completed in 1810; Rennie, who was both engineer and architect, received £350 for his efforts. The canal links the River Avon at Bath with the River Kennet at Reading and provides a navigable link between London and Bristol. The early residents of Avoncliff would have witnessed the canal being dug out of the Wiltshire countryside by the labourers nicknamed ÔNavigators’ (this is where the nick-name ÔNavvie’ for building labourers comes from).
Work started on the canal at Bradford-on-Avon in October 1794. The Avoncliff aqueduct was originally planned to be placed above the Avon Mills but by an Act of 1796 its position was changed to its present site. Work commenced on the Avoncliff site in March 1796 and was completed in 1798. The aqueduct carries the canal over the River Avon and dominates the hamlet; unfortunately, its central arch sagged immediately after construction and John Rennie is said to have regretted using stone. The aqueduct consists of three arches and is 110 yards long. A stone at the top of the parapet in the bay on the railway halt side of the aqueduct bears the inscribed date of 1797. (There were vandals two hundred years ago!). The aqueduct has a central elliptical arch of 60ft span with two side arches each semicircular and 34ft across, all with V-jointed arch stones. The spandrel and wing walls are built in alternate courses of ashlar masonry, and rock-faced blocks. The cutwaters are continued up as graceful splay-sided buttresses, and across the top is drawn a Corinthian entablature, not a slavish copy of some Roman original, but a simplified version, Rennie’s own design. The abutment walls have the attractive concave batter and are terminated by square buttresses and wing walls. The marks of the stone masons who have worked on the aqueduct over more than 200 years can be clearly seen; the ancient alongside the modern.
The canal flourished until the coming of the railway – in fact it benefited for a time, when the railway was being built, for much of the material needed was carried on the canal. Unfortunately, traffic on the canal was never as heavy as the promoters had expected, and so the canal declined steadily through the 19th century. It also suffered from early railway competition as the Great Western Railway duplicated its route and undercut its tariffs. On March 18th 1851 the Company offered the canal to the G.W.R. and the transfer of the canal was authorised by the G.W.R. Act no. 1. which received the Royal Assent on June 30th 1852, when the canal became the property of the G.W.R.. Maintenance standards on the canal slipped and this, combined with a rapidly declining traffic, meant that, by the end of the1914 – 1918 war, navigation became difficult in places. As the railway prospered, so the canal declined and in October 1926 the G.W.R. proposed to apply to the Minister of Transport to close it. Owing to pressure from County Councils, Parish Councils and landowners the plan to close the canal was abandoned in April 1928.
Mr. Ted Powell remembers the canal between the two world wars. His father, Mr. Thomas Powell, had two beautifully decorated barges. each with two bunks and a stove, working on the canal. Mr Powell worked for his father, taking grain from Avonmouth to Devizes. Each sack contained 2 cwts. of grain and, when loading the barges, men carried two sacks at once. there being no cranes. There were two men to each barge – one leading the horse and the other steering the barge. Quite often one horse pulled two barges, each with a load of 25 tons. There were two pleasure boats running between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon at this time, the “Margarita” and the”Koronora’. Mr. Ted Powell also worked on these boats, with a friend. The boats stopped for passengers at Avoncliff. Elbow Cottage, the house in the field beside the canal, at Winsley Bridge, was a public house for bargees.
Commercial traffic gradually decreased until it ceased completely, but there was the occasional pleasure launch. The last regular traffic left the canal in the 1930s but still it remained open. By 1940 there were no traders operating on the canal and the chief income at the Bradford-on-Avon toll office was from the sale of permits to cyclists for use of the tow-paths. One recorded source of income isÑ”Paid one shilling for carrying a corpse across the aqueduct at Avoncliff”. However, great interest in the canal resulted in the formation of a Canal Association shortly after the 1939 Ð 1945 war to fight for restoration. Although many difficulties would be encountered, the canal was still navigable on 1st January 1948, when the Railway Executive took control.
The last pre-restoration through-passage was made in 1951 by the narrowboat ÔQueen’ with the West Country artist P Balance on board. Numerous attempts were made to close the canal, until, in 1954, a leak occurred between Winsley Bridge and Avoncliff aqueduct. British Railways were then concerned that the canal bank might give way, endangering lives of passengers travelling on the railway, which is below canal level, and the remaining water was drained from the canal. In December 1954 the Daily Telegraph reported the intention of the British Transport Commission (B.T.C.) to abandon the canal. This proposal brought a storm of protest. A “Fighting Fund” was launched and a petition, carrying 20,000 signatures, was sent to the Queen. Despite all efforts, in April 1956, the B.T.C. was allowed to suspend its obligation to keep the canal open to navigation until 1960, when the suspension was extended to 1963.
In 1962 control of the canal was vested in the British Waterways Board and efforts to re-open the canal were revived; the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust was formed out of the Association and practical steps towards restoration were under way. Experiments began to find a way to re-open the canal from Limpley Stoke to Avoncliff. Repuddling proved to be too slow and laborious and in August 1966 B.W.B. and the Trust looked for other methods. An experiment using heavy gauge polythene, covered by concrete was abandoned in 1967 but in 1976 work commenced at Avoncliff, using this method and the canal was lined as far as Limpley Stoke. The work was largely carried out by young men employed under “The Job Creation Scheme” and was completed in 1978. The aqueduct was lined with a concrete “cradle” and made water-tight in 1980. Using volunteers to raise funds from all sources, and with steadily increasing inputs from British Waterways, the Trust catalysed the re-opening of the entire navigation as a through route from Reading to Bristol. This achievement was commemorated on 8th August 1990 with HM Queen Elizabeth II navigating through one of the locks at Caen Hill, Devizes (the lock now bears her name).
However, these restoration works were a beginning and not an end, and work has continued through the year 2000 to provide water supplies, repair leaks and maintain lock workings and bridges. Unfortunately, the aqueduct at Avoncliff was one of those structures requiring considerable repair work. It had been built with faulty stone which was obtained from the Canal company’s own quarry midway between Limpley Stoke and Avoncliff and it has not stood the test of time well. However, with the aid of grants from English Heritage and the National Lottery, British Waterways commenced replacement of the faulty stone in 1998 and the work should be completed in the year 2000; it is gratifying to note that the craft of Stonemasonry is still alive in the year 2000.