Wednesday, April 05, 2006

West Mills - the historical heart of Newbury

It's not easy trying to dodge the showers on an April Sunday walk, but we managed it. The Kennet & Avon canal is the picturesque heart of Newbury and we really should do more to enhance it, but a swift stroll along its banks makes you realise that it is already one of the town's greatest assets.

We started at Victoria park, and threaded our way through the town in the direction of West Mills, which has the power to transport you back in time, as the cottages that stand by the banks of the canal are from an age when the industrial use of the waterway was at its height. On the way, we passed the backs of the restaurants and pubs which fill one side of Newbury's cafe quarter, the Market Place. The council has great plans for this, effectively turning it into a continental piazza, free from traffic and able to be enjoyed by residents and vistors alike.

After this, we passed the bridge that has become the symbol of Newbury, a narrow stone arch that separates the northern shopping area of Northbrook Street, with its high street names, from the independent traders of Bartholomew Street in the south. The path disappears through a small tunnel next to the Lock, Stock and Barrel pub and here the wall is grooved from the tow-ropes of the barges which plied the canal. The vista opens up after the dark of the tunnel, and the gem that is Newbury lock appears before you, with its wooden gates only just able to hold the pressure of the upstream water. One of the forthcoming 'Town Trail' sculptures is sited here, a granite bowl that fills and empties along with the lock: it is not that exciting to look at, but you have to admire the physics.

The southern view here is dominated by St Nicolas church, a stone ediface paid for by one of the town's benefactors, Jack O'Newbury, who made his fortune in the cloth trade, which was the major industry of the town in Tudor times. There is a real sense of peace and tranquility here, even when there is activity around the lock in the height of summer. The main action on this day was a canoe race, with soggy punters carrying their craft around the obstructions and leaping back into them before paddling off to the finish line, which we had passed back near the start of our walk.
The tow-path leads up to the swing-bridge, which the canoeists aren't able to get under, and we saw a couple of narrow-boat pilots operate the mechanics to open up their passage along the canal, to the advantage of one pair of race participants, who came along whilst the bridge was swung. This bridge gives access to some canal-side houses and cottages, one of which, the Newbury Granary, is a strange four storey high, but narrow-boat-thin tower. It is divided into separate apartments, and looks like it should blow over in the slightest wind, as it doesn't look thick enough to withstand the force.
Aside from the traditional buildings there is a wonderful extension (that is larger than the building it ajoins) fashioned in wood and glass, and with a silvered roof. It looks like a Swedish sauna, but it makes a welcome distraction from too much twee canal-side architecture. Again, a very broad-minded planning officer must have okayed it, as it is definitely not in keeping with the surrounding area, but challenges it and stands on its own.
We turned around at this point, and headed back past the church, through the lanes, and over the emblematic bridge. Our journey back in time was at an end.

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