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Wilts and Berks Canal Grove Locks

A flight of locks on a derelict canal in the Oxfordshire countryside.

The Wilts & Berks Canal once connected the Thames at Abingdon with the Kennet & Avon Canal at Semington near Melksham, providing a link from Oxford and the Midlands via the Oxford Canal to Bristol and the Somerset coalfield. It was opened in 1810 after nearly two decades of construction and flourished briefly before being eclipsed in the later 19th century by the GWR main line that closely followed much of its course. Its decline was swifter than many of Britain's other canals due to a lack of any industry to support it on its mostly rural route and when in 1901 a severe breach caused its closure it was never repaired for reopening. It was formally abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1914 and since then it has reverted to nature or been reclaimed as farmland by the surrounding landowners.

This page deals with the flight of locks that took the canal as it descends from the edge of Wantage past Grove towards the river Ock floodplain and Abingdon. It is still a work in progress and I'm not very proud of some of these photographs as they were taken in failing light, future visits should deliver better photography.

The canal in this area is surprisingly intact after a hundred years of disuse. Some of it has been built upon in Grove and Wantage but once in the countryside in most places it remains visibly an overgrown canal without water.

Grove Top lock and Lime Kiln lock lie close together just outside the Wantage bypass. The chambers themselves are infilled, but dams have been built from concrete blocks in the spaces once occupied by the lower gate of Grove Top lock and the upper gate of Lime Kiln lock, allowing the pound between them to be filled with water and restored to resemble an intact canal. 

Grove Common lock lies in woodland to the east of the A338 just before the Grove traffic lights. Its walls are in a state of disrepair but its chamber is not infilled and is dry enough to be accessible for all of its length. At the eastern end of this lock is a handsome bridge that carries a public footpath across the canal bed.

Looking back along the lock chamber the effect of time on the brickwork becomes apparent. The gates are long gone but the space into which they once fitted can still be clearly seen.

Smallmarch lock is a short walk from Grove Common lock. The canal bed immediately above it has been infilled and planted with trees, while the lock chamber itself has been filled for most of its length with rubbish.

Spirit lock is the next in the flight, and is almost completely concealed by undergrowth and bypassed by a drainage ditch with only the top of its chamber walls showing above the infill. The first time I passed by I missed it, on a later visit I knew what to look for and where to expect it.

Grove Bottom lock, a quarter mile away, is in much better shape. Not only is it largely free of debris but it has a small amount of water flowing through it and the stonework of the chamber sides and rear cill are intact, as are the appetures at the side of the channel where the lock paddles once sat at the rear of the lock chamber. There has been some undermining from nearly a century of water erosion but in this lock you can see the original workings much more clearly.

This lock stands in thick undergrowth with more than one crab apple tree so the ground was carpeted with fallen fruit. As I climbed up the bank I disturbed a muntjac deer, this is a secluded spot that has returned to nature far more than most other places featured on this web site.

On a later visit it had rained heavily the day before, leaving a substantial amount of water flowing through the chamber.

Access to the Wilts & Berks Canal is straightforward enough, most of the structures are close to public footpaths. Hazards are the dilapidated state of the stonework and the thick undergrowth, plus a minor risk of falling into a lock chamber.

The path of the Wilts & Berks on this lock flight crosses the A338 at Grove here:

After heavy rain, you could almost convince yourself that parts of the canal were still in water and a hundred years abandonment had barely touched it.