Avon Towpath, Bristol

The path along the Bristol side of the River Avon is an SNCI about 17 kilometres long, and in places only a metre or so wide.

It is a designated pathway from Bristol to Bath, and most of it is the old towpath used by horses pulling barges, as the river was canalised to Bath in 1715, and then extended to London by the Kennet and Avon Canal completed in 1810. Until Brunel’s railway opened in 1844 all heavy freight between Bristol and London travelled this way. I joined it at Conham and walked up towards Hanham Lock. The river is bounded on either side by vertical mud banks six foot high, and these are maintained by the fact that the big tides sweep over Netham Weir and run upstream all the way to Hanham. Luckily these tidal surges do not contain any salt water this far from the sea, so that ordinary fresh water plants line the banks. There are Willows and Alders and the occasional Oak, which grow in a dwarfed and twisting form in the woods above. Bird song was continuous- Blackbirds, Song Thrush, Robins, Wrens, Blackcaps, Great Tits, and Woodpigeons making a wonderful post-dawn chorus.  There was the occasional strange thumping call of the Stock Dove, which nests in holes in trees. We have a large part of the world population of this species which used to be much commoner than it now is. The far bank becomes a sheer wood-clad cliff, and a vast native Wild Cherry was in glorious flower. Further up there were the unfamiliar harsh cries and beak clackings of the Heronry. I counted 17 nests, though it was not clear whether all were occupied. Birds were arriving and greeting each other, and looking clumsy and ridiculous perched on branches.

On the ground the first Lady’s Smock, often called Cuckoo flower, had opened and in one area the strange greenish white cones of butterbur had everywhere emerged, well before the huge leaves that will dominate the area through the summer. The first white star shaped flowers of Ramsons, often called Garlic, which vie with Bluebells for domination of our woodlands, were just opening, as were the first Bluebells. The woods above were full of Sweet Violets and Wood Anemone.

The joy of this stretch is that it is a long way from the car-park, and inaccessible except by bike or on foot, and of course to the oarsmen who sweep magnificently by on the placid river below.