The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day One: Why did I let you talk me into this?

Mark calls me from his home in England and says, “I thought we might walk a stretch of canal when you get here. There’s one we can start from Bristol if you fancy a few days’ hike.” 

“Uh, okay,” I say. I have, after all, confessed to him my fondness for long walks on scenic trails. 

I arrive at Heathrow Airport after almost two full days of travel. Fortunately, passing through Passport Control and Customs/Immigration is a breeze compared to the last time I flew into England from the U.S. via Gatwick. From there a bus takes me to Woking where I catch a train to Axminster, where Mark is waiting for me. 

Three days later, rested and revived, we load up our backpacks in preparation for as many days as it takes to walk the 87 mile Kennet and Avon Canal. We ride to Bristol where Mark’s friends Paul and Karen have generously offered the use of their garage for parking. We chat briefly with Karen and meet their friendly Staffordshire Bull Terrier, beautiful blue-grey in color, named Jax who, after giving us a good sniff-over, retires to his stool conveniently located by the window where he can bask in the warm afternoon sun. After changing out of my riding gear I’m suddenly sleepy and think how nice it would be to join him. Of course that’s not an option; instead we catch a bus to the train station where we find a train to Bath. This lets us off a few hundred feet from the canal where we begin our walk. It’s 2:30 pm. 

By 7:00 we’ve walked just past the town of Bradford on Avon, a distance of about 11 miles.  We are each carrying a sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping pad as well as clothes, bits of food, water, and sundry personal items. Mark carries a small stove and I have an additional sleeping bag, as the other one I’m using isn’t warm enough on its own for fall camping. Overall I’m carrying more weight than I’d like, by which I mean more than I probably should (what I’d like is to be carrying no weight. Backpack-less camping, that’s my dream.) As it is I’m exhausted, my feet hurt, and I’m having flashbacks of my lower back going into spasms along the Camino de Santiago five years ago. I am frankly trepidatious about this adventure. Mark reminds me the canal parallels the railway and we can abort any time we want and catch a train back to Bristol. 

We plod on a bit farther looking for a suitable place to camp alongside the canal. This is a high traffic area in terms of narrow boats, both holiday rentals and permanent moorings, so we are hard pressed to find a spot not directly next to a boat. Twice we think we’ve located a decent patch of grass, and both times we’ve received disapproving stares from the nearby canal residents, and have moved on. While wild camping in England is, strictly speaking, against the law, it is generally tolerated as long as you are not bothering anyone, or otherwise drawing attention to yourself.

It’s almost dark now, and we are running out of time, when a woman riding her bicycle passes us and asks if we’re looking for a place to camp. When we say yes, she tells us there is a nice wide swath of grass just past her boat, and points it out to us in the distance. We thank her and walk in that direction. When we get there we are both so tired we plop our backpacks onto a nearby bench and just sit there for a moment before wordlessly setting up our tents and sleeping gear. Too tired to cook anything for dinner, we eat a couple of the hard boiled eggs I have brought with me along with two packets of potato chips and two beers that we picked up in Bradford on Avon, then crawl into our tents. 

I think I will fall asleep instantly, but as the night deepens and I lie there listening to the hum of boat engines, the occasional passer-by on foot or bicycle, the voices of nearby holiday makers, and eventually, the gentle pitter-patter of rain, I can feel only the ache of every muscle, the throbbing of hot, tender soles of my feet, and find I cannot sleep at all. I toss and turn, sliding around on my mat, wishing I had thought to buy pain relievers along with the antihistamine I picked up at the pharmacy in Bristol, massaging my legs and feet, and wrestling with the question of whether or not to get up and pee. Wobbly with fatigue, I fear, I’ll fall into the canal. I remain inside, reminding myself I’m a pro at holding it. A foot away from me the occasional snore emanates from Mark’s tent, and I know already he will be up with the sun, which means we’ll be on our way shortly thereafter. On this night, for a change, I am glad of it.

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