By Michael McCarthy
Over the years, whenever I thought of going to England, I always had a vague impression of that country that dated back to Victorian days. Probably because all the stories I read as a kid dated from that same period. Everything seemed old fashioned. I had the idea that England was like some sort of large, open air museum. Then the first village I visited on my trip to Blighty looked exactly like what I imagined. Later on I learned that Bradford on Avon had been named as the “prettiest town in England” the same year I visited. I couldn’t agree more.
We had invested in a BritRail weekly pass for cities and towns in southern England. As we found out, the countryside was like Thomas the Tank Engine had come to life, an imagined toy world where spotless trains ran exactly on time, polite folks queued up to both board and sit on plush seats, and little pubs could be found lost in the forest on the banks of tranquil rivers. We couldn’t believe it was true, but it was.
The village of Bradford on Avon is found southeast of Bath, itself a perfect recreation of a Jane Austen book, on the route past Limpley Stoke, and just west of Wildbrook Wood. I think Winnie the Pooh lived in Wildbrook Wood. It’s a good thing the village is not an earthquake zone because some of the buildings were so old they looked like they would fall down if you slammed a door. We visited one ancient Saxon church that our guidebook said hearkened back to the 11th century. Strolling around the “downtown” core of the village, some of the inns were over 600 years old.
We picked up a detailed map at the tourist office and ambled about, peeking in windows. The Bridge Tea Room looked to be at least a thousand years old, but a plaque mentioned it had only been serving customers since 1625. At The Shambles Coffee Shop scrumptious fresh pastries crowded the windows. The Cottage Cooperative Café at 7 Weavers Walk somehow fit 3 little tables into the comfort of its deep granite walls. I kept looking to see any signs of Alice.
A kindly chap mentioned there was a nice walk in the woods we might like, over to the Crossed Guns pub, through the forest on foot, following a canal boat path to arrive at the River Avon. Scullers pulled on their oars, skittering down the river among white swans. I kept a sharp eye out for the White Rabbit, the Red Queen or the Mad Hatter to make an appearance.
Perhaps it was the white swans floating down the soft flowing emerald green Avon River. Or maybe the rustic wood and beam Crossed Guns pub serving pale ale on draft and Yorkshire pudding we discovered at the end of a long walk down the bucolic footpath through the ancient wood. Or it might have been the canal boats floating through the forest like phantom wisps. I was somewhat hoping for a Cheshire cat to appear in a tree and make a grin.
The Crossed Guns proved to be the quintessential British country pub, an elderly bartender with a white moustache and suspenders pulling frothy pints of pale ale by hand behind an ancient wooden bar. Sandwiches and ice creams were on offer along with cakes, scones, cream teas, freshly baked filled baguettes, and tossed salads. Tidy wooden picnic tables were scattered around a lush green lawn under the shade of a mighty willow tree by the river. Baby swans followed their mother along the shore looking for crumbs. On an ancient stone aqueduct high in the sky a canal boat drifted by, long and narrow, tooting its horn.
The “narrow boats,” as they are called locally, can be rented by the day in nearby Bath, to drift along the picturesque Kennet and Avon canal. They can accommodate up to 12 people depending on which one you hire, starting at 9.00 a.m. You can choose to book half day, full day, overnight for one, two days or as many as you like. The Kennet and Avon Canal is England’s southernmost link between the Severn and the Thames rivers. Completed during the Napoleonic Wars in 1810 it was welcomed by the traders and merchants of Bristol as a safe way of getting their goods to London. It’s nearly 100-kilometre mile route leads along the River Avon via the fashionable city of Bath and then onwards through the pristine downlands of Wiltshire and Berkshire before joining the Thames at Reading.
Wildlife such as roe deer, mink, kingfishers and a wide variety of birds can be seen along the 18-kilometre lock-free stretch from Bath to Bradford on Avon along with many interesting architectural features including two swing bridges, Claverton Pumping Station and the splendid Dundas and Avoncliff Aqueducts. The boats drift by tiny canalside villages such as Bathampton, Claverton and Avoncliff with their little shops and restaurants. The narrowboats come with a fully equipped galley, toilet, fridge and hob on board for any cooking and to keep your drinks cool.
In the book Alice in Wonderland, in the end it all turns out to be a dream. Alice wakes up, there is no white rabbit, time to go home, end of story. But the storybook fantasy that is the Bradford on Avon Valley is a dream that never ends. It’s very real. We could have stayed underneath the willow tree, sipping lemonade in the shade, watching the swans and scullers drift by, forever. But Britrail runs exactly on time, so it was off to the railway station to catch our connection back to Bath. We never did see any rabbits.
Michael McCarthy is a professional travel writer whose articles have appeared in numerous newspapers. More of his articles can be found at www.transformative-travel.ca.