Enjoy the tranquillity and serenity of the waterways as you travel along the Great West Way this summer. Rediscover the real essence of England while watching wildlife from a narrowboat or sipping cool beers in a river-side pub garden.
The Great West Way winds through the English countryside between Bristol and London, unhurriedly meandering between market towns, picturesque villages and open rolling hills. Through this bucolic landscape run two bright ribbons of water; the Kennet and Avon Canal connecting Bristol to Reading and the iconic River Thames running west from London into Berkshire and beyond. Follow these shining waterways to enjoy the culture, history and landscapes of the Great West Way.
The River Thames is the longest – and perhaps best known – river in England. It flows through nine English counties and winds its way through the eastern side of the Great West Way route, between London and Berkshire. This grand waterway is home to the Henley Regatta and the famous annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge. For walkers, the Thames Path National Trail follows the river for 184 miles, passing peaceful water meadows, historic towns and some of London's most famous landmarks. You couldn’t ask for a better setting for a sunny English afternoon; think straw hats and picnics of strawberries and cream on the banks, as swans and pleasure boats sail dreamily past.
And if you need another dose of traditional English charm, turn to The Kennet and Avon Canal - a tranquil haven from everyday life stretching between Reading and Bristol. Originally dating from the 18th century, the canal was once a thriving route for transporting goods in and out of Bath and Bristol, but it fell into disrepair in the 1950s. Luckily, the so-called “K&A” was restored, repaired and brought back to life at the end of the 20th century, and was officially reopened by the Queen in 1990. Today, the canal is looked after by the Canal & River Trust and is busy with both locals and visitors who come to walk and cycle along the towpath, watch for wildlife, or travel the waters by narrowboat, canoe or Stand-Up Paddleboard.
Between the River Thames and the Kennet and Avon Canal, you can travel the whole of the Great West Way by water, or alongside it if you prefer. The Great West Way touring route travels between London and Bristol, following 500 miles of routes through idyllic English countryside, quaint villages and elegant towns. It’s for slow travellers interested in the journey, looking to find hidden gems alongside famous sites - and there are plenty to be found along the waterways.
You can follow the canal and river along the Great West Way by foot, bike, boat, car or train, discovering some of England’s prettiest landscapes as you go. Use the Great West Way’s Kennet & Avon Canal map to plan your route, which will lead you through vibrant Bristol, genteel Bath, riverside-villages and stunning countryside. There are charming little towns like Hungerford - packed with antique shops - or bustling Newbury to while away a day or two, and attractions from castles to wildlife parks.
If you want to get active, following the waterways is easy (not only is it nice and flat but it is very difficult to get lost) and will introduce you to a world of hushed tranquillity. Cycle along the towpath in the early morning as mist and woodsmoke mingle above the water, and the birds begin to sing. Stride alongside the Thames, keeping a look out for that all-important pub lunch stop, or the perfect place to picnic. Or take it easy and float lazily downstream aboard a traditional narrowboat, with sunshine glinting off water all around you. Whichever way you choose to travel, getting here shouldn’t be a problem; Bristol Airport offers easy access to the west and the Great Western Railway runs along the whole length of the touring route. A Great West Way Discoverer pass gives you freedom and flexibility to hop on and off the trains as you go, with options to buy a one-day or week-long pass.
For the fully authentic experience, spend your Great West Way holiday aboard a narrowboat. With transport and accommodation all taken care of, and a top speed of around 4 miles an hour, you can expect an exceptionally laidback trip. Simply moor up at a canal-side pub when you fancy a break from pottering along. Providers like Sally Narrowboats in Bradford on Avon provide week-long boat hire, which includes a lesson on how to steer your new home.
If you prefer to keep your feet on dry ground, there are self-catering cottages, B&Bs, glamping sites and hotels to choose from along the length of the route. Choosing a new place to stay each night will give you the freedom to discover some of the Great West Way’s hidden gems. For a taste of real luxury, the Royal Crescent Hotel has sumptuous suites, private gardens, a spa and a pool in one of Bath's most exclusive locations, while Roseate Hotels dish out more luxury at their splendid offerings in Bath, Reading and London.
As the Thames winds its way West out of London, it passes some incredible locations, each crying out to be visited. There is Tudor treasure Hampton Court Palace, with over a thousand rooms and many acres of gardens. Then historic Windsor, with the thousand-year-old castle presiding over the town. This is where the Queen likes to spend her weekends, and where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got married in 2018. At pretty Henley-on-Thames you can find out more about the Thames at the River & Rowing Museum. Later on, the river reaches Reading, where you can visit the ruins of an Abbey founded by King Henry I, which celebrates its 900th anniversary in 2021. At the other end of the Great West Way, the Kennet & Avon canal passes by the beautiful World Heritage city of Bath – famous for its stately architecture, impressively preserved Roman Baths, and connections to Jane Austen.
While travelling the Great West Way, why not take a short detour away from the waterways to visit two more World Heritage sites? Both Blenheim Palace (where Winston Churchill was born) and the world-famous standing stones at Stonehenge can be found just a hop, skip and a jump away from the main route. There are also plenty of charming National Trust properties to visit within easy reach; like grand Dyrham Park, an elegant 17th century mansion set within a dramatic deer park just outside Bath, or the chocolate box village of Lacock, familiar from appearances on screen in Pride and Prejudice, Downton Abbey and Harry Potter.
The Kennet & Avon canal opened for business in 1810 and was used to transport goods like coal and stone at the end of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the canal is a tranquil leisure-way, but many monuments along its length point to its industrial past and importance as a transport route. There are the sweeping aqueducts at Dundas and Avoncliff, the impressive working steam-powered engines used to top-up water levels in the canal at Crofton Beam Engines, and the cleverly engineered staircase of locks at Caen Hill. This flight of locks is one of the “wonders of the waterways” and allows the canal to flow up and over the steep hillside.
Wiltshire towns like Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Devizes and Corsham all benefited from the wealth that industry brought to this area; today these towns boast pretty streets of stone cottages, cosy tearooms and independent shops. Corsham takes its duty to be picture-perfect even further with its flock of roaming peacocks!
There are many other reminders of England’s industrial past to discover along the Great West Way. Bristol, at the western end of the route is steeped in maritime and industrial history. Visitors to the city can see two landmark achievements from famous 19th century engineer Isambard Brunel; the sweeping Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Avon, and the great steam liner SS Great Britain. Meanwhile Aerospace Bristol tells the story of Britain’s amazing aviation achievements, and is home to the last Concorde to ever take to the skies. In nearby Swindon, you can walk amongst the architecture of the industrial revolution; the Grade II listed buildings of the Great Western Railway Works have been beautifully renovated and now house McArthurGlen’s Swindon Designer Outlet - one of the largest covered designer outlets in Europe, perfect for a spot of retail therapy.
Ready to take to the water? There are boat trips to enjoy all along the length of the Great West Way, many offering the opportunity to enjoy a classic afternoon tea or a traditional supper of fish and chips as you bob along. Explore Bristol harbour with Bristol Community Ferry Boats or Bristol Packet Boats, or take a trip down the Thames with French Brothers, Hobbs of Henley, or Thames Rivercruise. You can also step aboard the Matthew of Bristol – a replica of the 500-year-old sailing ship that took John Cabot from Bristol to Newfoundland in the 15th century – docked in the harbour at Bristol.
For a tour with a difference, try out Windsor Duck Tours, which offer a sightseeing trip of the royal town of Windsor by both road and river, thanks to their amphibious vehicles. And if you want to get more hands-on, you can try your hand at canoeing, kayaking or Stand-Up Paddleboarding in both the River Thames and the Kennet & Avon Canal. For a combination of adventure and culture, Original Wild offer guided tours around Bath via kayak or paddleboard.
The waterways of the Great West Way pass through great swathes of classic English countryside, passing ancient woodland, pretty Berkshire villages, wildflower-speckled meadows and Wiltshire white horses. In the centre of the Great West Way, the North Wessex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty is popular with walkers, with rolling hills to climb and breathtaking vistas to admire. So its little wonder that these traditional English landscapes are the ideal place to find traditional English food! The fertile farmland here produces everything from creamy cheeses to fresh, sweet strawberries. Stop off at one of the many local farm shops to sample the delicacies on offer. Cobbs Farm Shop near Hungerford is a good choice, with an on-site café where you can enjoy that most English of experiences; afternoon tea.
If you feel the need to wet your whistle during your trip, you’ll be pleased to hear that beer, wine and gin are all produced along the Great West Way as well. Head to West Berkshire Brewery for a tour and a taste; look around the state-of-art brewery, learn about traditional brewing techniques and sample the finished product. Or discover why this part of the world is the perfect spot to produce crisp, sparkling white wine at Alder Ridge Vineyard, on the borders of West Berkshire between Hungerford and Marlborough. They’re part of a growing movement of English winegrowers who have sprung up recently, producing award-winning tipples.
Keep your eyes peeled as you travel along the Great West Way’s canal and rivers. Is that a deer picking its way along the bank in the early morning? Was that the splash of a trout jumping? Could that flash of blue be a kingfisher, darting into the water? There are herons, water voles, moorhens and more to spot – not to mention rare wildflowers and ancient woodland. To learn more, check out the Canal Cast podcast from the Canal & River Trust (who are responsible for looking after the Kenet & Avon Canal), the very first episode is all about the wildlife that lives amongst England’s canals, towpaths and riverbanks.
To discover more of the wildlife and nature of the Great West Way, take a walk through one of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves or explore the lakes at Cotswold Water Park. For a fun family day out, head slightly off the route to discover more exotic creatures at Longleat. That’s right – there are lions, rhinos and giraffes to be seen just a short distance from this slice of charming, peaceful, traditional England.
And that’s not the only surprise to be had as you travel the Great West Way; rooftop swims, horse-drawn carriage tours, inland surfing and tandem bike tours are just some of the exciting and unusual activities you could add to your tour of the Great West Way's waterways. It’s going to be a busy trip!
To book your Great West Way adventure, go to https://www.greatwestway.co.uk/EscapeTheEveryday
This article was created in partnership with Great West Way.