CRUISE GUIDE: GU LE­ICES­TER ARM

Canal Boat - - This Month - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY DEREK PRATT

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

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