Bradford-on-Avon has many things going for it, but one of the best is the Lock Inn café. It's on the towpath not far from the tithe barn and there they serve up the mighty Boatman's Breakfast, guaranteed to get any walker to Bath or Devizes with energy to spare. You know you are in the right place when they go through the options. Tea or coffee? Brown toast or white? Chips or fried potatoes? Yes!
I sat outside on the terrace listening to the soothing sound of water trickling through the gates of the lock. It was out of season and not much was happening, but in summer the canal is lined with brightly-painted boats moored up for the night or waiting to pass through. The breakfast when it came was quite a challenge, but I had a dog with me so nothing was wasted. Finally, somewhat bloated, I set off along the towpath.
For the first mile the canal wanders as it passes round the edge of the town. Then it emerges into open country, bending away from the river in the direction of Trowbridge. Bradford-on-Avon sits on a spur of the Cotswolds, the last high ground before you reach the chalk at Devizes. The miles in between are not particularly interesting: there are occasional glimpses of Salisbury Plain to the south, and the slopes of the downs far ahead, but for the most part you are walking though flat farmland.
Three weeks had passed since I'd covered the previous stage and spring had finally arrived. It was still cold in the fresh breeze blowing over the fields, but buds were swelling on branches and birds were calling frantically. The sun filtering through the trees threw bands of light and shade over the muddy waters.
This section of the canal is the haunt of water voles, though you normally have to be out early in the morning to see them. At dawn in summer you may hear the tell-tale splash and glimpse the widening ripples as they slide through the water. Grey herons stalking the banks are more common, and sometimes the flash of a kingfisher falling from an overhanging branch. Approaching Trowbridge the canal skirts some warehouses and a waterside development, but in general the town remains well out of sight. In half a mile it has gone.
After passing a cottage where daffodils nodded in the breeze there followed an uneventful hour. There wasn't much to write about or recall. Near Melksham I came across a plaque marking the spot where the Wilts and Berks canal once joined the Kennet and Avon. This waterway ran north of the Marlborough Downs, linking up with the Thames at Abingdon. A few years ago there was some idea of reopening it, but sections have disappeared beneath the sprawl of Swindon and other towns so it seems unlikely ever to happen. That the K and A itself survives is remarkable. Perhaps fewer developing towns and consequent demand for building land along its length.
The next landmark was the Barge Inn at Seend - one of several so named along the canal. You'd think the owners would come up with something more original. (It would make a great selling point: "Only pub on the Kennet and Avon not called the Barge Inn...") It's not a bad establishment and there's an attractive garden if you want to pass an idle hour.
After Seend the landscape changes. The ground swells in a series of little hills. Beeeches grow on the summits, emblems of the chalk. The twists of the canal are more deliberate now, tracking the contours. And then, abruptly it seems, the bold face of the downs comes into view, looming over the fields.
Devizes lies on a low ridge at the base of the hills. From the lowlands the canal climbs a cataract of locks. There are twenty-nine in all, the second longest flight in Britain.
We had covered at least twelve miles by the time we approached the locks and the dog refused to go any further. He flopped down on the grass by the towpath and gave me a look which so obviously said "Are we there yet?" that I hadn't the heart to push him. So we sat for half an hour until he was ready to plod on. It was while we were resting that I noticed a sign pointing to a campsite. I've dossed down by the locks twice now, without realizing that there was a more civilized refuge close by. Something to remember if I ever walk the K and A again!
And then on, past lock after lock. The flight is a tremendous piece of engineering, a long line of gated pools meticulously carved in the hillside. As you ascend the land opens up. To the west are glimpses of the valley of the upper Avon, bounded by Salisbury Plain and the far Cotswolds. Ahead lies the magnificent sweep of downs bending north-east to Avebury and the Ridgeway. There's a sense of space, of light and air and the world unfolding.
At the top of the slope the canal enters Devizes. For the most part it runs in a cutting and you don't really feel you are in a town until you leave the towpath and emerge into streets of red brick. The centre of Devizes is a wide square with an old market cross. The banks and shops are here and the brewery is nearby. (If they are boiling hops you will know about it!) On one side of the square is The Bear, a coaching inn dating back to the days when journeys were more leisurely affairs. It still caters for thirsty wayfarers; one of several establishments where you may take your ease.
Devizes was for me both the end of a stage and the beginning of a new way of travelling. During the first two days of the journey I was close to home and it was easy to get to the start of each section by public transport. As I moved further east this became less of an option; so I decided that from then on I would carry a sleeping bag, allowing me to walk for several days at a time. The year was advancing and the nights, I thought, should be mild enough for sleeping out... shouldn't they? Well, more about that later.