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River Parrett and Canal

From Bridgwater walk out beside a river and back beside a canal.

Distance 5.2 miles (8.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Broad, made-up paths and a smaller riverside path, 3 stiles

Landscape Reed beds and tidal riverside, tree-lined tow path

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 140 Quantock Hills & Bridgwater

Start/finish ST 300370

Dog friendliness Off-lead on tow path and most of riverside; no fouling

Parking Pay-and-display in Dampier Street, near Blake Museum

Public toilets At library in Dampier Street, close to car park

1 Turn right out of the car park, passing the end of Blake Street with its museum, to the Rose & Crown. Here, turn left into St Mary's Street, but at once bear left into Old Taunton Road. At its end a dual carriageway bridge crosses the River Parrett. Turn right, into a riverside lane signed 'Colley Lane Industrial Estate'. After 350yds (320m), opposite a fire station, concrete steps lead up and over the flood barrier to a gravel path. Follow this along the riverside for ¾ mile (1.2km) to a railway bridge, the Somerset Bridge; this has a footbridge attached. Once across, turn left under a low arch, well-scratched by motor traffic. Continue upstream on a lane with the River Parrett now on your left. Reed beds and flooded ground are on the right: these are the excavations of the former Bridgwater Brick and Tile Works. The use of this brick and tile for all of the older buildings gives the town its orangy-brown colouring.

2 The track turns aside to the right, but continue ahead next to the river and under the motorway. After one open field, a stile leads into the Screech Owl Nature Reserve. The reed beds were once the haunt of the bittern, a bird rather like a small brown heron, that hides in the reeds by pointing its neck and beak vertically upwards, and that has a strange booming cry - but it has not yet returned to Bridgwater. However, you may well see the sudden blue flash of a passing kingfisher, and the sharp-eyed may spot otter slides running down the mud into the river. I'm told that during the night the otters commute through the town centre to another flooded brickworks at Chilton Trinity. In June and July bird experts will be listening out for the very rare Cetti's warbler.

3 The path leaves the reserve at a second stile, and continues beside the river on the embankment. It emerges through a broken gate on to a lane. Turn right, crossing the railway by a bridge. As the lane rises again towards a second bridge, this time over the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal, turn down to the right on to the tow path.

4 Head along the wide, smooth path: the canal should be on your left, with the Quantock Hills rising in the distance beyond it. Half-tame swans operate on this stretch, so if you do stop to admire the Quantocks you may get pestered for your sandwich crusts.

5 After ½ mile (800m) you reach the Boat and Anchor Inn. Its bricks and tiles have moved hardly a quarter-mile from their origin in the clay pits behind. Some 50ft (15m) above its chimneypots the traffic zooms past on the M5: damaging, but not managing to destroy, the tranquil canalside scene. As you actually pass below the road, the sudden perspective of 2,000ft (600m) of concrete bridge piers is, in its way, impressive.

6 About ¼ mile (400m) later a small swing bridge crosses the canal at the end of Marsh Lane. Continue with the canal on your right. The tow path passes under the handsome brick arch of Hamp Bridge. Now the river and canal converge, and you can see on the opposite side the sluice where surplus canal water drains into the Parrett. On the left-hand side is a pond with many waterfowl. The tow path passes under a bridge and, after 130yds (118m), a wider one carrying the A38. Fewer than 20 paces later turn left through a gap to cross beside Browne Pond to a street. Turn right, continuing around the pond to a tarred path. This rises to cross the canal on another little brick bridge. Where it forks, keep to the right, to arrive at a large crossroads with traffic lights. Cross the A39 on your left into Taunton Road. This leads back to the crossroads at the Rose & Crown, with the Blake Museum on the right.

You can contemplate the traffic arteries of three centuries. In the 1960s the M5 motorway cut journey times between Taunton and London in half. A century before, the railway had reduced the same journey from days to hours. But the coming of the canal, earlier still, had the greatest impact: a single horse could haul the loads of 800 pack-ponies. The 18th-century engineers who oversaw the canal system brought the Industrial Revolution to Bridgwater and carried away its products.

While you're there

The Blake Museum at the start of the walk, is housed in a delightful botched-together cottage dating from various centuries. Bridgwater was originally a seaport, the largest in the county, and the museum commemorates one of Somerset's famous admirals - Robert Blake commander of Oliver Cromwell's navy. There is also a display on the Battle of Sedgemoor

Where to eat and drink

The Boat & Anchor has outside dining (though the swans may demand a contribution) and a piano in the bar to counteract the rumble of the overhead motorway. Dogs, on leads indoors, and children are welcome.

What to look for

Beside the M5 just outside the town you may spot Humfrey the Camel (unless he's away doing charity work) - an escapee from a Young Farmers float in the 1982 Bridgwater Carnival. Held on the Friday after Guy Fawkes', the carnival blocks all Bridgwater's roads with the world's biggest illuminated procession.

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