Tales from the towpath: running the length of the Kennet & Avon Canal

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Birds, barges, beer and bridges … the glories of running all 96 miles of this stunning canal from Bristol to Reading

From our knees down it’s almost impossible to tell where our legs end and our trainers begin. A thick crust of oozing river mud is glued to our shins and smothers our shoes. Our skin fizzes and tingles from the spiteful attention of hundreds of nettles enjoying their last hurrah as winter approaches. But if you panned up from the battlefield of those middle-aged legs to the sweat-streaked faces above, you’d find something you might not expect: laughter, excitement and a deranged look about the eyes.

My friend Alan and I are a few hours into a self-supported, three-day adventure to run the length of the historic Kennet & Avon Canal, the most southerly (and possibly most beautiful) broadbeam waterway that traverses the width of England, allowing narrowboats to travel coast to coast, from Bristol to London. It was a route that was intended to revolutionise 18th-century trade. Rather than having to deal with the rocky hazards and treacherous seas of the south coast and the Channel, not to mention pirates and the unwanted attention of the French navy, merchants would simply be able to drift along the canal, arriving safely at their destination.

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