First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A blustery afternoon with a driving sky and reports of trees down across Berkshire. It was a day just like this, according to an anonymous poet of the school of William McGonagall, when the old church tower at Kintbury blew down;
‘Fate had decreed, come down he must,
And Boreas then gave him an extra gust,
And down he went with a crashing fall,
Clocks, birds, bats, the green ivy and all.’
The church bell, often cursed by the villagers for its loudness, rolled into the River Kennet, and tolls there still – according to legend. But all we heard as we set out was the ting-ting of the level crossing bell, and the rattle of the London-bound train.
It’s a very long time since the Kennet & Avon Canal provided ‘logistics solutions’ to the broad green countryside of the Kennet Valley. We walked its muddy towpath by still waters through a tangle of willows, reeds and marshy ground. A fisherman had hooked a rainbow trout, but it got away with a mighty splashing as he drew it to the bank. ‘That’s the trickiest bit,’ he sighed ruefully, ‘when they catch sight of the net!’
At Hamstead Lock we cross the humpy canal bridge and entered the green spaces of Hamstead Park. Fine specimen oaks and chestnuts, some very old and storm-blasted, raised skeletal limbs to the racing clouds. A pair of red kites hung on their elbow crooks and bounced in the wind over our heads, craning their heads to assess us from on high.
We came up from the pools and lakes along the Kennet and followed a path beside an ash coppice where ripe sloes hung from blackthorn twigs. They looked so tempting and felt so plump I just had to pop one in my mouth. Ugh! Bitter aloes and blotting paper, as ever.
A tedious stretch of road through Hamstead Marshall led to rutted fields around Barr’s Farm where Friesian heifers came cantering up to check us out. The silvery light of a stormy winter’s evening streaked the west as we turned away from the long line of the Berkshire Downs and dropped back down to Shepherd’s Bridge and the homeward path along the old canal.
Start: Kintbury Station, Berkshire, RG17 9UT (OS ref SU 386672)
Getting there: Rail to Kintbury
Road: Kintbury is signed off A4 between Hungerford and Newbury. Use Dundas Arms car park opposite station (ticket from pub).
Walk (7½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 158. Detailed directions recommended – download them with online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Left (east) along north bank of canal for 2½ miles to Hamstead Lock (423670). Cross canal; on right bend of road, left (kissing gate) into Hamstead Park.
Ahead (yellow arrow/YA), following tarmac drive. Pass lake (428667) and curve right; in another 500m, at right bend into The Mews (428661), keep ahead off drive, through kissing gate (YA). Ahead up hedge; in 100m, ahead across grassland to drive (428659). Left; at left bend by memorial, right through gate (431657, YA). Aim a little right to find gate into trees (429656, YA). Follow path and YAs for ¾ mile to road (421651). Right along road through Hamstead Marshall (take care!).
In ¾ mile, right (412657, ‘Marsh Benham’). In 250m on right bend, left (411659, stile, YA), aiming half left across field to farm track (407659). Right/north up track for 700m to lane (406665). Left to pass Peartree Cottage; in another 100m at junction, right (403665, stile, YA). Aim for middle tree of three; same direction to far left corner of field by conifer plantation (401668). Join grassy track; keep ahead along it. In 150m on left bend, right over stile (400670); descend field to cross Shepherd’s Bridge (398672). Left to Kintbury Station.
Conditions: Take care on road through Hamstead Marshall!
Lunch/Accommodation: Dundas Arms, Kintbury RG17 9UT (01488-658263, dundasarms.co.uk) – warm, stylish stopover