By Kathryn Wilkinson

London - The best way to experience the gentle beauty of the English countryside is to take a slow barge trip along one of the many canals and waterways of the UK. My husband and I recently returned from a week-long meander along the Avon and Kennet Canal, passing through the soft greenness of Somerset and Wiltshire.

I had never realised that the overcrowded island of Great Britain had so much peaceful open space. As we slowly made our way from Bath along the canal, we passed endless green rolling hills, hedgerows, fields filled with grazing farm animals and a vast array of birds, geese, ducks and swans. The occasional farm building and small village reminded us that civilisation was just behind the tall hedgerows.

From the canal one catches only an occasional glimpse of roads, and traffic jams were limited to waiting for a barge to pass on a particularly narrow stretch of water. As long as you are in no hurry (the barge goes at the same pace as a brisk walker, and cyclists and joggers are faster), this has to be one of the most relaxing ways to tour rural England.

We began our adventure in Bath and after a brief explanation on how to open and close locks and swing-bridges we were off. Our first stop was the quaint hamlet of Bathhampton, supposedly the burial place of Jack the Ripper. After mooring our 65-foot barge opposite a small primary school, we wasted no time in finding the local pub. Virtually every English village, no matter how small, has a pub, all with beautiful hanging floral baskets and bright pub signs spelling out names with interesting origins.

Pub signs can be traced back to Roman times. In 1393 pub signage became obligatory when King Richard II introduced a law whereby all alehouses had to exhibit a sign outside their premises so that they were easily identified for tax and trade-control purposes. Many pub names are derived from the crown, as is the case with The George in Bathhampton. We learnt that the last duel in England had been fought here. Other pubs we encountered were named after wildlife, like the homely Three Magpies in the village of Seend, or for location, like the obvious Barge Inn in Bradford on Avon.

The following day we set off slowly along the canal. A brightly coloured kingfisher darted ahead of the boat as if guiding us gracefully along. After passing the small village of Dundas, we went over our first aqueduct, the Dundas Aqueduct, which is built from Bath stone and has three arches. This first aqueduct was followed shortly by a second – the approach to Avon Cliff is via an aqueduct that leads the canal across the Avon River below.

Avon Cliff is home to The Cross Guns Pub, perched picturesquely above the river. Outside seating cascades down on terraced levels to the Avon River below. You can sit above the swiftly flowing river, enjoying views of the aqueduct and sipping bizarrely named drinks, like a beer called “Piston Broke” and a cider that goes by the name “Cor Blimey”.

Just outside Bradford on Avon, we encountered our first lock, one we later discovered is one of England’s deepest. Locks function as a form of staircase, carrying canals – and barges – up and over hills. In Britain most are operated by the bargees.

The next morning we enjoyed exploring this old market town, which is perfectly situated on a bend of the Avon River. At the picture-perfect Bridge Tearoom and Restaurant, a 17th century historic blacksmith’s cottage, you can enjoy traditional cream teas served by uniformed waitresses in Victorian bonnets and aprons. Other historic places of interest include a 14th century, 51m-long tithe barn, a 13th century medieval bridge, complete with its own town jail dating back to the 1600s, and a seventh century Saxon church.

The stretch of canal between Bradford on Avon and Devizes has a high concentration of locks as the canal slowly ascends towards Bristol. As we stopped to work the locks, we chatted to fellow bargees. We discovered that a lot of people choose to live permanently on their barges, and some bragged of being iced in over winter. They ranged from 40-something Sue and her Lancastrian partner, to an older woman living with her middle-aged son, and a young couple with their three-month-old daughter, Martha.

Although we enjoyed working the locks and became quite proficient at it, the 29 locks that make up the steep Caen Hill Flight just outside Devizes did not look like fun. We decided to leave the barge at the bottom of the flight and to walk into Devizes, another lovely old market town.

Caen Hill is a steep hill, and 16 of the locks in the flight are built in a straight line, one after the other. With their symmetrical black beams and white footbridges, the flight looks extremely impressive when viewed from the foot of the hill.

There is plenty to see in Devizes, and having skipped the locks we had time to explore. The wharf is colourful, with many brightly painted and decorated barges. The old town dates back to medieval times. The market place is dominated by the 1857 Corn Exchange, complete with a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of harvest. The town also boasts a castle, and the Wadworth Brewery. The latter offers daily tours and tastings.

At Devizes we needed to turn back towards Bath to return the barge in time. One of the advantages of barging is that you can visit bigger towns without having to worry about parking. We moored our barge and followed a 1km footpath to the city centre.

As the name indicates, Bath was a Roman spa town, and today it is a beautiful city with rows of Georgian terraced houses of honey-coloured Bath stone – the same stone that faces our City Hall in Cape Town. Our last day was spent in the relative sophistication of shops and amenities, after having spent the previous few days very much off the beaten track.

If You Go...

l The Wilkinsons used AngloWelsh (www anglowelsh.co.uk), one of the UK’s largest narrowboat holiday companies. They have boats and barges in a variety of sizes, which can be hired for a weekend, three days, or for a week or more. You can begin your week on any day of the week.

l Wilkinsons paid £1 000 (about R14 000) for a six-berth barge for a week, which included the diesel. This might sound steep, but it represents accommodation and travel for six people for a week.

See also Hoseasons www.hoseasons.co.uk/boat-holidays - Weekend Argus