Article - Hall of Fame

The River Kennet

By Chris, added on 06/02/2009

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I'd like to nominate my local river - the Kennet for the Hall of Fame. As one of the UK's most important chalk streams I'm sure it is deserving of such recognition! And at 45 miles long it is the largest tributary of the Thames to which it sometimes contributes up to half its flow in the summer.

Like many chalk streams pinpointing the source of the Kennet is problematical - and changes from year to year depending on the height of the aquifer in the chalk of the Marlborough downs. In a good year a Winterbourne rises near the hamlet of Uffcott heads south across the downs sometimes being joined by lesser Bournes before it skirts around the village of Avebury. It then takes a left near Silbury Hill (the largest man-made Neolithic mound in Europe) and starts the rivers Eastward journey. The more traditional source however is where this water course takes its Eastward turn - legend has it that the river rises on New Years day from Swallowhead Springs close to Silbury Hill. In drought years, however, the watercourse may still be dry for some miles until it gets below East Kennet and might still be little more than a trickle down to Marlborough.

What is undeniable is that the river has its source in a landscape simply stuffed with Neolithic monuments from Man's prehistoric past, taking in as does, Avebury, Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow within the first few miles of it young life. Also, The Ridgeway, a 5000+ year old route crosses the fledgling river at East Kennet. However, and somewhat strangely you might think, the rivers designation as an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) starts at the college town of Marlborough (and continues as an SSSI all the way downstream to the village of Woolhampton on the lower reaches). This designation is an attempt to protect the diverse and fragile ecosystems that are unique to chalk-stream habitat.

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Marlborough College offers (amongst many others) Fly Fishing courses in the summer which is very apt as the Kennet here is at the start of some fantastic trout fishing. Marlborough also sees a minor tributary, the River Og, join the Kennet. The first of 6 tributaries the river will 'collect' en route to Reading. Next village downstream is the settlement which probably gave the river its name. Mildenhall is the site of the Roman town of Cunetio from which the word Cunnit - an earlier name for the river is probably derived. One can probably discount an etymology from local historian Michael Dames - who has published books on Silbury Hill and Avebury. He claims this earlier name for the river is related to the word cunt!

Continuing on our journey downstream we come to the village of Axford. Axford is the controversial site for a Thames Water bore hole - pumping out drinking water to be piped over the Downs to Swindon. Many claim this is serving up a double whammy on the Kennet - in lowering the aquifer and hence flow rates on the river - and by pumping the water out of the catchment area it is lost for ever from the Kennet 'system'.

We are down in prime brown trout and grayling territory as we head for Ramsbury who's famous old Oak died and had to be replaced in the 1980's. Chilton Foliat and Littlecote house are next on our itinerary as we make our way to Eddington Bridge at Hungerford. Eddington Bridge marks a somewhat artificial division in the river. The Environment Agency divide the Kennet into Upper/Middle/Lower (Imaginative nomenclature, eh?) The upper reach is the source to Eddington Bridge, middle reach is from here to the A34 Newbury bypass near Speen, and lower from there until it enters the Thames at Reading.

Man has always had a significant impact in trying to control and harness the Kennet. Ramsbury alone had 3 mills and water used to be used for the brewing and tanning industries in Marlborough, Ramsbury and Newbury. Today much of the Kennet in its upper and middle reaches is remodelled to suit the needs of the game fisher. Many of these large estates on the Kennet have dug carriers and streams off the main river to magnify the amount of fishing on offer. The middle reach is characterised by a whole series of such estates with some famous beats like Avington, The Wilderness and Barton Court offering excellent fly fishing. The River Dun joins the system at Hungerford and the Dundas Stream at Kintbury. Kintbury also see the start of another, less welcome, (to many) intervention. The Kennet and Avon canal first tangles with the river here.

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The river from now on can never shake off the canal's influence and since it was reopened to leisure-boat traffic in the early 1990's it has been blamed for increasing turbidity in the river and hence decreasing weed growth - particularly that of the chalk stream staple - the characteristic ranunculus. Today it is certainly true that the Kennet downstream of Kintbury is often clearer in the winter when there is little boat traffic than in the height of summer - when there is lots.

Coarse fish are now more prevalent in the middle reaches - and are thankfully encouraged by many of the river keepers who look after these beats. Any angler lucky enough to get access to fish for them (almost always in the winter) may get the chance to fish for specimen, Roach, Dace, Chub, Perch and Pike. Another more recent interference to the river has been the construction of salmon ladders all the way upstream from Reading - with the last one at Marsh Benham. The river upstream of here has been identified as being potentially suitable ground for Salmon redds. The EA have been stocking Salmon parr - and more recently Smolts - for a number of years though have yet to see much evidence of Salmon successfully returning to the river. The ladders have had an unexpected consequence however - barbel appear to be using them to travel upstream and they are now turning up in the middle river for the first time.

We are now at Newbury and barbel take over from trout as the king of the river - at least in the eyes of many an angler. The river was made navigable from the Thames up to Newbury as early as 1723. The canal between Reading and Newbury - whilst referred to today as the Kennet and Avon, should still strictly speaking be called the Kennet Navigation as the Kennet & Avon canal proper, linking Newbury to Bath wasn't started until 1794 and completed 16 years later. The Kennet & Avon had a brief heyday before falling into disuse due to competition from the Great Western Railway which opened up the rail link form London to Bristol a little over 30 years after the canal's completion.

Newbury also sees another addition to the water-course, the delightful River Lambourn joins the Kennet a mile or so downstream of the town centre. Not only does it empty lovely clear chalk stream water into a now often turbid river - but also gives up some of its grayling. The Kennet at Hambridge is probably the 'lowest' downstream that you can still realistically expect to catch the lady of the stream from the river. Two further tributaries join the Kennet before the river reaches the Thames. The River Enbourne joins forces at Aldermaston and the much smaller Foudry Brook empties into the river just south of Reading. (Incidentally - I often hear the stream mistakenly called FouNdry Brook.)

The lower river is the domain of the coarse angler and still offers some excellent angling. To get good access however one needs to join one of the numerous clubs with rights to the fishing. Aldermaston Mill is the only Day Ticket venue on the lower river. There are many clubs with excellent river beats however and the two clubs with the most fishing are probably Newbury AA (NAA) and Reading and District AA (RDAA). NAA's influence starts at Speen (though they have quite a bit of K&A canal further upstream too) down to the top of Padworth Mill where RDAA take over and have a substantial mileage of bank under their control down to Reading. Other clubs with excellent fishing include Red Spinners and Wasing Estate (for those with deeper pockets), Thatcham AA, Civil Service AS, British Airways, CALPAC, Feltham Piscatorials, CEMEX and one or two small syndicates.

We're nearly at the end of our journey down the Kennet - but before we get to Reading the river splits off into 2 streams which had a big impact on my angling. The first starts at the bottom of Lower Benyons at Theale. Part of the river runs off into a delightful little weir and the stream makes off across the fields in the direction of Theale station. On maps this stream is called the Osier Bed Stream - though as teenagers living in Theale at the time, we called it Cumbers Meadow - after the local farmer. The weir-pool I called The Little Penlocks - a name passed down to me from my Great Grandfather - to distinguish it no doubt from the much larger weir at the top of the Lower Benyons beat which he called - of course, The Big Penlocks!

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The Little Penlocks was my childhood Mecca - it was the part of the river I made for as soon as I was allowed out on my own. I caught my first barbel in it, my first ever decent perch (over 1b), my first ever 3lb+ chub. The place was a bit of an aquarium - you'd never know quite what would turn up next - I even had a 1lb6oz grayling from it once - a fish that would appear to have been a long way from home! For many years - and by the end just for nostalgic reasons - I always used to start my season there.

The second stream splits off the river shortly after the Osier Bed Stream rejoins it. The Holybrook leaves the Kennet at The Arrowhead - just below Theale (now very close to the M4). It is so named as it fed 2 mills owned by Reading Abbey - Calcot Mill (in Calcot, unsurprisingly!) & Abbey Mill in Reading itself. For 15 years I lived within sight of the Holybrook, and for much of that time I could see from my bedroom window the swim where I caught my first ever 2lb roach. The Holybrook was (and probably still is) an excellent chub fishery but my most unusual capture from it was a huge brown trout of 4┬╝lb from Calcot Mill weir pool. Not particularly unusual you might think except this fish was almost completely jet black in colour! An old warrior no doubt, it stood as a PB for a number of years. Even today, I miss not having the Holybrook within 100m of my front door!

The Kennet ends its journey at Reading - a town that owes it very existence to the Kennet as it was formed around an ancient crossing point on the river. In fact one of the suggested etymologies for the town's name comes from

Rhydd-Inge, Celtic for a 'Ford on the River'. So, 45 miles in length and 5000 years in time The Kennet connects the ancient with the modern and whilst its source is still revered today its end point couldn't be more inconspicuous. The river empties into the Thames just east of Kings Meadow - behind a Tescos car park!

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