The idea of building the Kennet and Avon Canal was batted around for several centuries before the first turf was turned. It was a long held ambition, fuelled by the possibility of avoiding both treacherous seas and marauding privateers, to link the Bristol Channel in the west with the Thames in the east, creating an inland route across England. The two stretches of river at each end of the route were navigable from the early 18th century.
From the west the tidal River Avon flowed between the Bristol Channel and Keynsham, and continued via the River Avon Navigation from Keynsham to Bath. In the east, the River Thames to Reading was continued via the River Kennet from Reading to Newbury. The canal between Bath to Newbury, took another century to achieve.
A survey was conducted by Messrs Barnes, Simcock and Weston, and another two by John Rennie, before agreement was finally reached on the route the canal should take. The original route received Royal Assent, and the Kennet and Avon Canal Act was duly passed on the 17th April 1794. Nevertheless, just three months later, another engineer, William Jessop, persuaded the owners that the canal should be diverted via Devizes.
Building finally began in October 1794. In 1798 the section from Newbury to Hungerford was completed. This was extended westwards to Great Bedwyn the following year, and by 1801 the first narrowboats had started to carry goods along this easterly section of the canal. In the west, the section from Bath to Foxhangers, west of Devizes, was finished in 1804. Between Foxhangers and Devizes a steep hill remained an obstacle to the completion of the canal. For six long years goods had to be unloaded at Foxhangers wharf, transported up the hill towards Devizes by horse drawn railway, and reloaded into barges at the top. The flight of locks at Caen Hill were finally opened in 1810, linking Foxhangers to Devizes and completing the canal.
The full length of the canal was officially opened in December 1810 – a total of 16 years in the making. The overall length is 87 miles (140 km) of which 57 miles (92 km) is canal, and the remainder is navigable river.