GUIDE TO THE RIVER AVON
(Malmesbury to Great Somerford)
NAME OF RIVER: Avon (Wiltshire/ Somerset).
WHERE IS IT?: The river Avon flows from above the ancient town of Malmesbury through Wiltshire and Somerset to the Severn Estuary and Avonmouth near Bristol.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: Malmesbury: At the roundabout on the A429 at the southern end of Malmesbury, turn towards Malmesbury town center. Immediately afterwards turn left into a small no through road, it is possible to park here and jump over the fence to the river nearby. Alternatively follow signs for the long stay car park from either the north or southern end of town. The river is at the back of the car park.
Great Somerford: Find a sensible place to park, Great Somerford is only a small village and the river is easy to find.
APPROX LENGTH: 9 km.
TIME NEEDED: 2 hours.
ACCESS HASSLES: In most cases there are no access problems with this river, apart from a couple of cases mentioned in the text below. The River Advisors are: Julie Simson, 35 Gooch Street, Swindon, Wilts. SN1 2BA from source to Bath; and Alan Gallop, 12 Broadcroft, Chew Magna, Bristol, BS18 8QC from Bath to Avonmouth.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: Take a look at some of the weirs on the section that you intend to do to get an indication of water level.
GRADING: Flat with weirs and occasional boulder dams and faster moving water.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: Weirs, and trees on the upper stretches.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: We used to paddle from Malmesbury all the way to Chippenham in one go, but that was years ago when everyone paddled fiberglass snipes and when the coolest move was being able to do a pop out without busting the nose off your boat. But nowadays we all paddle short flat bottomed boats with all the streamlining of a brick, so I have split the section from Malmesbury to Chippenham into three sections.
The get-in near to the roundabout is just above a little multi stepped weir which descends around a bend. Follow the current under the bridge past the town, another tributary enters from the left, which is where you would emerge from if you got in at the long stay car park. The Avon apparently has five sources so don't be surprised the number of tributaries meeting at Malmesbury. After leaving the town you reach a large vertical weir with a footbridge running over it. The foot bridge is handy for inspection, but you should be able to shoot it almost anywhere. Beneath the weir there is a boulder dam and then another one just around the corner, after the road bridge.
A couple of miles of flat water leads to Little Somerford Weir, which is a hole in the wall on your right. The majority of the river caries on around the bend and through a large sluice gate, which provides some fast moving water to play in when the river is high. The house and surrounding grounds here are owned by James Dyson, you know the guy who invented that bagless vacuum cleaner thing. Don't trespass on his land, or you could be well and truly sucked. Again another couple of miles of flat water with maybe a few small weirs or boulder dams and you reach Great Somerford. You can get out at the bridge or paddle the one hundred meters down to the weir and get out on the left immediately after the weir. This weir is a sloping jobby with two concrete vertical walls in it, which don't seem to serve any purpose at all. The weir can have a nasty stopper in high water so be careful. A group of three of our club members thought that this might be a good weir to play in one day when the water was high. Two of them swam and have to pulled out on a line, the third thought better of it. They lost a wet suit boot and had to wait several minutes for an RPM to come out of the stopper, and all because they were too lazy to drive to Hurley. That'll teach em.
From here you can carry on down past Great Somerford if you wish.
OTHER NOTES: A flat touring river which is better suited to canadians and novices than the white water canoeist. Some of the weirs are playable but most are just straight drops. The upper sections are best done after some rain otherwise they are a long slog. The section from Bradford on Avon to Bath makes a good summer or low water trip. It is probably possible to paddle above Malmesbury, but I have little knowledge of this part of the river.
CONTRIBUTED BY: Martin Harrall.
On 9 May 2016 12:03, Hugh wrote:
Hello Martin Harrall,
I'm in Bristol, and have been slowly exploring upriver. So far, I've got as far as Melksham. I've found your Avon Blog invaluable - though I'm a slow old bloke in an open, and tend to paddle in warmer months, so some of the information isn't quite right for me. So, I go on reconnaissance first. Yesterday I looked at the weirs between Malmesbury and Great Somerford.
The most important point, is that about 100m below the small weir in farmland above Great Somerford, someone's put a barbed-wire fence across the river. This is a single strand, but double towards the left bank. The strand was about 300mm above the water, with the river level at 0.33m (Great Somerford measuring station). I don't know how best to warn paddlers! I was not able to inspect the rest of the river in this area: I'm suspicious that there may be other similar fences.
For Cowbridge Weir at Malmesbury, I think things may have changed a bit. The mill site is now a big, and rather upmarket, housing development. The actual weir was totally dry, with the water level a couple of inches below the lip of it. Portage there would actually be quite difficult in low water, due to reed growth, steep banks, nettles, etc. I think it would be simpler to branch right along the mill leat; pull out left shortly before the new flat low-level footbridge; then a short carry along the lane which goes over the underfall sluices, to put in just below these. The river is almost choked by fallen trees and reed, just below the main road bridge.
For Little Somerford (Kingsmead Mill), I also can't see any way round it - except by portaging across the gardens a bit. Do you have any information about actually doing this, attitude of the present owners, etc? I see that it was sold a few years ago by that Dyson chap for £4.5million, and the current owners are probably the family who developed Lava Lamps....
For Dauntsey, I wasn't able to view the two weirs by Dauntsey Park House (not to be confused with Dauntseys, posh school near Devizes). I can see from photos etc that the upper weir, nearer the house, is easily portaged right. But the lower weir, with the leat going to the hydro-electric generator screw, looks as though it would be a long drop from the bank into the water - even for a seal launch, which of course I don't do. Do you have any more information about this?
On May 10, 2016 7:52 AM Martin Harrall wrote
Wow, sounds like things have changed a bit since I last checked out that far upstream.
For warning paddlers of hazards I would suggest that telling me is a good first step as I can pass the information on when asked. You could also post some updates to the river information on the ukriversguidebook website which is a popular resource.
Portaging around little somerford is likely to be a problem. The last known decent of that section was by a local club several years ago, I was told that the house owners response to a portage request was mixed. The gentleman they met was fairly relaxed about it but his wife wasn't. They were allowed through but asked to move on straight away. The left hand option is possible but very long winded especially with a solo open boat! I generally suggest that paddlers start their trip at Great somerford to avoid any hassle so I'm dismayed to learn of the barbed wire.
I wasn't aware of the various hydro developments but unfortunately these are springing up all over the Avon and its tributaries spoiling a lot of local paddling trips.
I'd like to update that blog but in all honesty I doubt I'll find the time for quite a while.
Unfortunately my tech skills are very limited, and I don't know how to put stuff on ukrivershandbook....
As to the fence, note that this is at the small weir a mile or so upstream of Great Somerford - so it shouldn't affect anyone starting at Great Somerford itself. I'm pretty sure the land ownership is different - the style of fencing etc is very different, as very 'professional' around GS, but very 'thrown-together' where this obstruction is. So, I think that a GS start, should still be good advice. What a shame we don't have military-level satellite survey equipment, or super drone-flying surveys, to check on this sort of thing...
All weirs easily portaged up to Little Somerford. The large Env. Agency Weir looked to be surrounded by private garden. There seem to be smaller weirs further down - we portaged via footpath on the left bank onto Mill Lane then magically flew with our boats until we landed in a ditch back onto the River.
Not sure if the weir is easily portaged without garden trampling - google satellite (which I've looked at afterwards) shows a couple houses, a series of low bridges/garden developments around the mill streams/river - looks like a garden feature rather than a paddling route... curses....
If anyone has successfully snuck around the weir and paddled through the gardeny bit - I'd love to hear about any encounters etc.