Monday, 15 December 2008

2. The Kennet at Thatcham


This section can be paddled in two or three different ways; as a self-contained circular route, as an independent run requiring a shuttle or drop-off/pick-up, or as part of a longer run from either Thatcham or Newbury, and straight on through onto Section 3.

Circular route/Thatcham put-in

Park at the Thatcham train station car park closest to the level crossing [SU 527 663], there are coin and credit card pay-and-display parking meters here.

Go straight across the road (watch for traffic over the road bridge left and level crossing right) to the canal towpath.

Access to the river is via the canal.

Alternatively, it is possible to park, unload and turn here, but return your car to the station car park after. You could seal launch from here, but there’s not much point as you’d be getting out again after about 1 minute. Lift boats over the vehicle barrier and walk about 150m to where a channel from the river re-enters on the far side of the canal at SU 525 662.

Put-in/take-out point on the canal bank, looking south to the river access channel.

This is also the take out point (unless you are continuing straight on down the river for either of the optional routes described for Section 3) with some shallow gravel scrapes on the canal bank making for easy egress. Walk another 75m past Monkey Marsh Lock and get in.Paddle west up the canal for approx. 1.9km (ducking at Monkey Marsh swing bridge and portaging around Widmead Lock) until reaching the point on your left where the river separates from the canal [SU 505 662].

Newbury put-in

If you can’t face paddling up a long straight canal, you can get in from the eastern edge of Newbury. Take the signs for the Hambridge and Bone Lane Industrial Estates from the A339 or A4 and follow Hambridge Lane east as far as the end of the industrial units. Park at the road side [SU 496 667], opposite the vehicle testing centre, just before a small turning that leads over a canal swing bridge to your left (if you go through the single file tunnel under the railway you’ve gone too far).

Parking location at the edge of Hambridge Lane industrial estate.

Carry you kayak over the canal swing bridge, turn right, and walk along the footpath between the River Kennet on your left and the canal on your right. It's possible to get on the river immediately after passing the fenced NDAA land, but it’s easier to continue past Bulls Lock, and once over the footbridge turn left along the footpath to the bank of the Kennet [SU 498 667]. The bank is a 5ft slope to the water, but its thigh deep here, and so possible to slide in over the tree roots, or simply walk a few meters further to a more gentle slope in from the bank.

Easy put-in on the River Kennet near Bulls Lock.

Paddle down stream, under the footbridge, and turn left below the lock (OK, so you’re back on a canal, but at least it has a reasonable flow here with the combined river current). It's now about 700m to where the river separates again, this time on your right.

The River Kennet run

Approaching the river detour which is just to the left of the weir warning signs.

Enter from the canal over a very low and partially disintegrated weir which runs in a straight line across the river – nothing that will normally retain you (apart from a bit of debris in the centre dividing the flow slightly; you may have to push/bounce yourself over, or head around the edges in lower water).

The start of the river detour. The canal flows from right to left in the foreground of this image.

The weir top can be seen between the log and the bushes on the 'islands' at low water (end May '09). A new rock embankment and eddy can be seen in the background, presumably added to stop the soil bank erosion, but conveniently configured to give you a chance to look around the next bend before being swept there by the flow.

Just above the weir in low water (May '09). The best route around was to the left; whilst also possible past the long tree trunk to the far right in this image this side is more likely to take you into trees overgrowing from the bank. There is a mown fishermans track along the bank river right on this section, although it is not always readily accessed from the river (unless you like steep banks and nettles).

Below the weir, looking back upstream the river left route to the side of the short thick trunk is visible.

From a little further down but still looking back upstream the shallow water is evidenced by the football parked here.

Almost immediately after the weir the river sweeps 90 degrees left,...

Erosion protection for the bank at the bend in the river.

...and, in May 2008, straight into trees that almost met from each bank at neck height. These have now been cleared. After a few hundred meters more there’s a small island supporting some trees, and again, in May 2008 the left route was densely impassible, with the river flowing beneath what was a potentiially nasty entrapment. To the right it was possible to pull yourself over and between the branches, but again, in different water levels this could have been problematic. By May 2009 clearance work had removed these blockages giving a clear run. Trees overhang the banks and river at several other points downstream, but are easily avoidable.

Looking back upstream just after the first bend...

...and, looking on downstream, the river is shallow on the right, and deeper and faster flowing on the left.
It's not spectacular scenery, but it's pastorally attractive with the steep wooded hills of the Kennet Valley escarpment rising towards the Greenham plateau to the south, and extremely peaceful by comparison to the canal. After initial left-right-left-right bends, the river gently winds and turns in a broad smiling curve back towards Thatcham.

In the first few hundred meters, there are intermittant shallow gravel edges and river-wide bars (knee deep), with a few small eddies where the bank has been cut away, and some deeper holes that you can’t stand in.

Looking downstream from the right bank, an eddy is cutting into the bank below the post, and is large enough to park 2 or 3 kayaks easily,...

...whilst from a few meters further downstream and looking back upstream, a gravel and sand spit can be seen just before where the eddy is located. My wife found what she tells me were Swan Mussels here in 2008.

The island, at which point the river left was blocked in May 2008, had been cut back by May 2009, but the wider passage is still to the right.

Note that once on the river, it is entirely bordered by private land, predominantly belonging to Chamberhouse Farm. Should you need to exit the river section the only place with a public footpath across is at the concrete vehicle access bridge to the farm [SU 519 655]. You’d probably still have to cross private property to get out and you’d then have a tedious walk out to either Monkey Marsh Bridge or, worse, up the hill to the back of Greenham Common at Bury Bank Road. There is a vehicular access road connected from just south of the bridge going east to the main road down to the station, but this is private.

You pass under the bridge to Chamberhouse Farm after about 1.9km on the river.

Upstream from the bridge at Chamberhouse Farm...

...and downstream from the bridge at Chamberhouse Farm.

There is a smaller, rusty, low metal foot bridge (duck) at about 2.5km. Once you see houses and gardens (Waterside Farm - 250m further down on your left) it’s time to start looking left for the channel that cuts back across to the canal (200m) and the take-out (unless you plan on making the long portage around Chamberhouse Mill on carrying on down the river).

A boathouse and treehouse at Waterside Farm, river right.

Looking back towards Waterside Farm from the channel that links the river to the canal...

...and looking ahead to the canal.
When paddled in May ’08 there were leaping fish, kingfishers, mute swans and some Canada geese on the river. Buzzards nest in the woods to the south and can be seen on the thermals later in the year. Very quiet and peaceful, with not a soul spotted in May (until nearly at the end, where a lady was hanging out her Saturday morning washing – she didn’t seem overly friendly to the greeting of a strange bloke on his lonesome on what she might normally consider a quiet private backwater, but, as I’d already spotted a couple of canoes and kayaks in the gardens there, I guess the idea of paddling here wasn’t totally anathema).

American Signal Crayfish in the River Kennet

Despite being trapped here in enormous quantities, there are a lot of American Signal Crayfish in this section of the Kennet (as witnessed by their presence on local specialist restaurant menus, and the fact that local anglers report that they are now catching only 'large' species of fish that can feed on the crayfish rather than being their prey). If you take a swim, be aware that they can cut through gloves (and if you've seen Guy Ritchie's film "RocknRolla" you'll get the idea).

More importantly, if planning to paddle elsewhere in the UK after paddling on the Kennet, boats and kit should be disinfected and dried before to avoid carrying crayfish plague spores up to protected but increasingly rare indigenous white-clawed crayfish colonies.

Male American Signal Crayfish trapped on the Kennet near Chamberhouse Farm.