I woke at first light beneath a sombre sky. It was half past six and another day had begun. Propping my head on my pack, I gazed out into the distance, westward where the land folded and the river tumbled down through wooded hills to Bath.
At Caen Hill the surveyors following the gentle gradient from Reading to Devizes finally ran out of luck. The Vale of Pewsey ends in a sharp step down to the flood plain of the Avon, and there is no easy way to bypass it. They chose to confront this natural obstacle head on, constructing a flight of locks. They fall in a long cascade down into the lowlands, and they marked for me the last stage of my journey.
I suddenly realised, as I left the downs behind and began to cross the level fields, that since Reading I had hardly seen a single narrow boat. The canal is closed off and parts are drained each winter to allow essential maintenance to take place. The barges are penned in short discontinuous sections, draped with protective tarpaulins to shield them from the harsh weather. A few hardy characters whose boat is their home stay on board; but most owners abandon their craft until the start of the new season, which is normally around Easter time. That day they were out on the water in large numbers. Some were making a leisurely traverse to the Thames. I asked one family how long it would take them to get there. A few days, they replied, taking it easy. They would then follow the river to Oxford, rolling ponderously in the spring waters surging down from the hills.
The soles of my feet were painful that morning. The trip was starting to take its toll on a body sadly out of condition. My boots felt as if they were full of gravel. Several toes were blistered, held together with strips of plaster which would not stay stuck. I pushed onwards, trying to think of something inspiring. I was very tired now. I passed Seend and Semington and Trowbridge. I recall little of Bradford-on-Avon; it was just another place on the map, although had I known that in a few months I would be living there I might have given it more consideration. I remember watching an enthusiastic amateur crew navigating their first lock. I somehow managed to miss the old medieval tithe-barn, though it lies next to the canal. I have fleeting recollections of stone cottages clustering on the hillside that hangs over the river, and people strolling in the park. A holiday boat drifted past, with two little girls perched up at the front. They waved. "Hello, walking man", they cried. It seemed a rather dynamic adjective to describe the physical wreck tottering along the towpath, but I smiled and waved back.
At Avoncliff I reached the edge of my last map. The canal here is carried over the river by an aqueduct, following the eastern bank as far as Dundas where it crosses back for the final loop down to Bath. This is perhaps the prettiest section of the Kennet and Avon. I walked through woodland lightly touched with the fresh colours of spring. The clear call of birds echoed among the trees. I passed a cottage deep in the woods, where plump geese waddled on the lawn, necks craning. Fish rose heavily, touching the surface with parted lips before sinking back exhausted into the darkness. The distant clash of church bells was borne on the breeze, ringing out across the valley, blending with the music of lambs. It was Easter Sunday, and the towpath that morning was crowded with walkers, joggers and cyclists taking the air. Near the pumping station at Claverton I met a marvellously eccentric character who told me that he was a white wizard called the Giggly Devil. We talked for a while, then wishing me a pleasant walk, he mounted a rusty old bicycle with no brakes and pedalled off in the direction of the city.
Without a map I did not know how much further I had to go. The way turned and turned again, and around every corner I expected to see Bath. I was going slowly now. I trudged past Bathford and Batheaston. Then abruptly the canal plunged into the heart of the city, and I was there. While trying to get my bearings I managed to come off the towpath in the wrong place. Disorientated for a moment, I slumped onto a bench by some pleasant gardens and looked up. All around me were wide streets, churches and elegant buildings of warm stone. I pulled off my boots and socks; the cool air on my tortured feet felt wonderful. A little old Scottish lady, trotting briskly along, asked me if I was all right. Smiling bravely, for one has an image to maintain, I replied that I was. She pointed out the way to the town centre.
Much later, I sat in a bar, rucksack propped against my chair. I was grubby and tired; the muscles in my legs ached, and my feet were finished. I didn't really care though. There is always a sense of satisfaction in reaching the end of a walk. I felt that I had achieved something. I had come seventy-five miles in three days, which wasn't bad, and I had travelled on foot without the need for transport or accommodation. It had not always been a comfortable experience. But I was glad I had done it.
Then, heaving up my pack for the last time, I walked out through the bustle of the town to the railway station. I fell asleep in the train coming home.