CRUISE GUIDE: GU LEICESTER ARM
Join us on a route that features fascinating reminders of history – and miles of fine scenery
Turn off the Grand Union Main Line at Norton Junction and head north along a route that features fascinating reminders of a complicated history – and mile after mile of fine scenery
The Leicester Line of what is now the Grand Union, 41 miles of canal linking the GU Main Line at Norton Junction to the River Soar in Leicester, is actually an amalgamation of two canals. The Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal, later known as the Old Union, started from Leicester as a continuation of the River Soar, aiming for the Nene at Northampton. After various changes of plan, it finally reached Market Harborough in 1809 where the money ran out and it went no further.
A new canal was built from the (then) Grand Junction main line at Norton Junction to link up with the Old Union at Foxton. This 22-mile canal (which rather confusingly was the original Grand Union Canal) opened in 1814, with two tunnels and a flight of locks at either end. Eventually both canals were sold to the Grand Junction Canal Company in 1894 and, by the early 1930s, all of them (along with the River Soar) became part of the later Grand Union amalgamation.
Our journey begins at Norton Junction a few yards to the west of Buckby Top Lock on the Grand Union Main Line. Heading north from the junction, the canal soon passes a boatyard and marina before reaching Watford Locks, a flight of seven with four of them grouped together in a staircase. A lock-keeper should be on hand to help.
The locks are pleasantly situated but the noise from the nearby M1 motorway and its attendant service station doesn’t encourage boaters to hang around too long. However, once through the locks there are many miles of peaceful countryside waiting to be explored.
Soon after the start of the beautiful summit level, boaters negotiate Crick Tunnel which is almost a mile in length. It has no towpath, so walkers will need to find their way over the top via footpaths and roads. At the end of the tunnel, there are boatyards and the marina that stages the annual Crick Boat Show at the end of May. Crick village with its handy shops and pubs is a short walk to the west.
Consider a walk to the top of Crack’s Hill which overlooks Crick Marina and provides fine views over the surrounding countryside. Yelvertoft, a mile or so further on, is set back some distance from the canal – but for boaters heading north, it may well be worth the half-mile walk to stock up with provisions, as the next shops will be around ten miles away at Husbands Bosworth or at Welford.
The Leicester summit twists and winds through beautiful countryside, passing wooded hillsides and open fields. There are no locks and the noisy A14 trunk road is the only intrusion in the pastoral delight. Do try to find time for a diversion along the Welford Arm, just over a mile long with one lock, a marina and a good pub at the terminus wharf. The Arm follows the line of the infant River Avon which eventually finds fame and fortune at Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon.
Waterways pioneer LTC Rolt in his classic book
Narrow Boat was unimpressed with what he saw at North Kilworth: “Untrimmed hedgerows, choked ditches and gates drunkenly leaning. The husbandman has abandoned his heritage for the get-richquick lure of the industrial towns of the Midlands”. But today it’s a pleasant village with a useful boatyard before the canal reaches Husbands Bosworth Tunnel.
The tunnel is 1166 yards long and, like Crick, has no towpath, but this time walkers have a pleasant trek over the top, partly along a disused railway line. For boaters, Husbands Bosworth village is best reached from Bridge 46 at the northern end of the tunnel.
As well as a useful shop and pub, Husbands Bosworth has a rather grim story from the past: in July 1616, nine women from were taken from hte town to Leicester gaol and executed for witchcraft, probably the last ones in England to suffer this fate.
Take your time over the next five miles, flanked by the beautiful Laughton Hills. Author P Bonthron in his book My Holidays on Inland Waterways, published as long ago as 1916, described this summit section as being “in the perfect solitude and stillness which is the charm of canal life”. He would be pleased to note that little has changed in a century. An occasional glimpse of a farmhouse is the only sign of habitation you will see until you reach Foxton where there is a dramatic change of scenery and human occupation.
Ten narrow gauge locks are arranged in two staircases of five, each with side ponds, and a passing place between the staircases, as the canal descends steeply
‘An occasional glimpse of a farmhouse is the only sign
of habitation you will see until Foxton where there is
a dramatic change...’
from the summit. During the 19th Century these locks became a serious bottleneck for working boats, so an inclined plane boat lift was designed to overcome delays. It opened in 1900 but was never a commercial success due to mechanical problems and the high cost of keeping the boilers in steam just in case a boat arrived.
It was closed by 1911 and eventually sold for scrap. Now the Foxton Inclined Plane Trust has completely cleared the overgrown plane, restored the upper and lower approach canal arms and created a museum in the rebuilt engine house (see inset).
The museum is just one attraction for the thousands of visitors who come to look at the locks. There is a choice of pubs, a café, shop and boat trips. A waymarked path with information boards allows visitors to learn about the locks and inclined plane.
Turn right below the locks for the Market Harborough Arm, part of which was originally intended as the main line of the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Canal, heading for Northampton. It passes Foxton village and close by Gartree Prison before winding its way across open country to Market Harborough. This was the location for the first National Rally of Boats organised by the Inland Waterways Association in 1950. Much of the canal basin has been redeveloped but it still remains a pleasant spot to stay for a few hours while exploring the town with its many shops, restaurants and pubs.
Back at Foxton Junction, the through route continues northwards to Debdale Wharf where there is a large marina and boatyard. Next comes Saddington Tunnel which at 880 yards is the shortest of the three Leicester Line tunnels. Once again it has no towpath, but for walkers there’s an easy to follow path over the top.
After the hurly burly of Foxton, the canal has returned to the remote countryside so typical of the Leicester Line. Supplies can be difficult to find, so consider a walk to the shops at Fleckney from Bridge 73.
Kibworth Top Lock is the first of five wide-beam locks that marks a gradual descent into the River Sence Valley. The only disturbance to a peaceful landscape is the nearby railway. At Bridge 78 consider a walk to Wistow Rural Centre which has a model village, shops, cafés, a garden centre and a maze.
More locks follow at Newton Harcourt, all in pleasant surroundings. After the delightfully named Bumblebee Lock comes Kilby Bridge with its wharf and pub next to a busy main road, while Kilby Bridge Yard has a full range of boaters’ facilities.
You are still following the valley of the River Sence with hills and open countryside to the south. However, Leicester’s suburbs are beginning to encroach on the north side of the canal and the surroundings become increasingly built up as the canal reaches Glen Parva and Blaby. Glen Parva Manor, reached from Bridge 94, is a 15th Century manor house now converted to a pub and restaurant. Look
for the ancient moat between the pub and the River Sence.
The canal now swings sharply to the north-east to join the valley of the River Soar and heads towards Aylestone. The wooded riverside park is a lovely green way to approach the centre of Leicester. Stop to admire the ancient Packhorse Bridge close to the beautifully situated Kings Lock, which has a tearoom open Thursday to Sunday. More woodland at Aylestone Meadows provides a pleasant backdrop to Aylestone Mill Lock.
The greenery ends at the next lock as the canal enters the impressive Mile Straight leading into the centre of the city. West Bridge marks the end of the Straight, with visitor moorings next to the public gardens.
It’s a good place to stop and visit the city centre shopping areas, covered market and cathedral, and it also marks the end of the Leicester Line. Beyond West Bridge, the waterway becomes the River Soar Navigation, which we will look at in the next issue.
The wharf at the end of the Welford Arm
Horseboating recalled at Foxton
Market Harborough basin with ( below) canalside artwork
Pleasant surroundings of Newton Harcourt locks
Remote countryside near Smeeton Westerby
Moorings near Leicester’s Straight Mile