CRUISE GUIDE: GRAND UNION PART ONE

In the first part of our two-part guide to the back­bone of south­ern Eng­land’s canal sys­tem, fol­low the Grand Union as it climbs from the Thames over the Chilterns, then me­an­ders through Mil­ton Keynes to reach the canal vil­lage of Braun­ston

Canal Boat - - Contents - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY DEREK PRATT

Come with us on a two-part ex­plo­ration of the GU. In part one we leave Lon­don and climb over the Chilterns to reach Stoke Bruerne

Un­til the early 19th Cen­tury wa­ter­borne traf­fic from the Mid­lands to Lon­don used the wind­ing Ox­ford Canal to Ox­ford for the long jour­ney along the then un­re­li­able Thames to the cap­i­tal. All that changed in 1805 when the Grand Junc­tion Canal opened up a shorter, more di­rect route be­tween Braun­ston and Brent­ford, cut­ting over 60 miles from the jour­ney. The new canal’s 14ft wide locks gave it an ad­van­tage over the Ox­ford; some trade could use wide­beam craft, or two nar­row­boats could fit a lock side by side.

In 1929, it amal­ga­mated with sev­eral neigh­bour­ing wa­ter­ways and be­came the Grand Union Canal, run­ning through to Birm­ing­ham and the East Mid­lands. The work­ing boat­men called it ‘The Lon­don Road’ and the Grand Union re­mained an im­por­tant com­mer­cial car­ry­ing wa­ter­way right up to the 1960s – ac­cord­ing to a Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways pub­li­ca­tion for 1957, it was still car­ry­ing al­most a mil­lion tonnes a year.

But im­proved roads and the se­vere win­ter of 1962- 63 ef­fec­tively ended com­mer­cial car­ry­ing, leav­ing us with to­day’s pop­u­lar leisure wa­ter­way.

The Grand Union Canal be­gins its jour­ney from the River Thames at Brent Creek op­po­site Kew Gar­dens. The first lock is con­trolled by a lock-keeper and is sub­ject to the state of the tide. On some high tides, the length above is also tidal (watch your head­room un­der the High Street bridge), lead­ing to Brent­ford Gaug­ing Locks which are boater op­er­ated. These lead into the for­mer Brent­ford De­pot, a hive of in­dus­try right up un­til the 1970s, al­though by then most of the wa­ter­borne trade orig­i­nated from the Thames. To­day, al­most all of the sur­round­ing ware­houses have been re­placed by new apart­ments and a ho­tel.

The canalised River Brent forms the first two miles of the canal un­til they part com­pany at Han­well Bot­tom Lock. Be­fore tack­ling the six locks, visit the Lit­tle Fox Tea Barn be­hind the Fox pub, or walk along the river to Brent Lodge Park An­i­mal Cen­tre (see in­set).

Two more locks at Nor­wood con­tinue the climb to Bulls Bridge Junc­tion where the Padding­ton Arm leaves on a 13-mile jour­ney to Lit­tle Venice and the Re­gent’s Canal. Bulls Bridge was once a canal com­pany de­pot and later a Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways yard; these days there’s a

24-hour su­per­mar­ket with moor­ings.

The canal passes through in­dus­trial Hayes and Stock­ley Park to Cow­ley Peachey. Here, by a large ma­rina, the Slough Arm leaves on a five-mile jour­ney to end not far from Slough town cen­tre.

Cow­ley Lock has an at­trac­tive set­ting with a pub and restau­rant next to the bridge, and a tea­room in an old toll house. Af­ter more water­side pubs at Uxbridge, the canal shakes off Lon­don’s sub­ur­bia and heads into open coun­try. Den­ham Coun­try Park has some lovely wood­land walks and at Den­ham Deep Lock, Fran’s Tea Gar­den serves ex­cel­lent cakes. A se­ries of lakes formed from old gravel pits, used for nu­mer­ous leisure pur­poses, ac­com­pany the canal to Rick­mansworth. It’s a beau­ti­ful length, and at times dif­fi­cult to be­lieve you are still only a few miles from Lon­don.

Pass­ing Rick­mansworth’s Canal Cen­tre, the canal runs through Crox­ley Green to Cas­sio Bridge with its lock and boat­yard. Iron­bridge Lock, beau­ti­fully sit­u­ated be­tween Cas­siobury Park and Whip­pen­dell Wood, is fol­lowed by the for­mer es­tate of the Earls of Claren­don who al­lowed the canal through their land pro­vid­ing that the canal com­pany built the fine balustraded Grove Park Bridge in keep­ing with its sur­round­ings.

A heav­ily locked sec­tion climbs through King’s Lan­g­ley, where the Oval­tine fac­tory once ran its own fleet of boats. At Nash Mills and Ap­s­ley, the Dickinson pa­per mills re­lied on boats bring­ing coal from the Mid­lands. The mills have been re­placed by hous­ing, and a mod­ern steel foot­bridge now links a new ma­rina and pub across the canal. Locks come reg­u­larly as the canal passes Hemel Hemp­stead. Water­side pubs are a con­so­la­tion for the hard work, in­clud­ing one by a swing bridge.

Berkham­sted fea­tures three canal­side pubs, plus a handy su­per­mar­ket and rail­way sta­tion. A totem pole marks the site of a tim­ber yard that im­ported wood from Canada, while the ru­ins of Berkham­sted Cas­tle can be seen nearby.

The long climb even­tu­ally ends at Cowroast Lock. The name comes from ‘cow rest’: in me­dieval times cat­tle be­ing driven to Lon­don would graze overnight. We’re now on the Tring Sum­mit Level, whose deep wooded cut­ting runs for two miles to Bul­bourne work­shops, where

lock gates were made un­til 2003. The Wen­dover Arm, cur­rently un­der restora­tion, branches off to the left, as the seven Mar­sworth Locks be­gin the de­scent along­side a se­ries of reser­voirs – with an­other café at the bot­tom lock.

An im­por­tant stop­ping place for the work­ing boat­men (who called it ‘Maf­fers’), Mar­sworth is the junc­tion of the six-mile long Ayles­bury Arm with 16 nar­row locks lead­ing to the town’s basin.

The canal heads out into open coun­try­side, with views across dis­tant hills topped by Iv­inghoe Bea­con. Pit­stone Wharf has a boat­yard in the shadow of the main line rail­way, near the lo­ca­tion of the Great Train Rob­bery in 1963. Locks are well spaced out at Seabrook, Iv­inghoe and Slap­ton, and the only water­side pub is the epony­mous one at Grove Lock. Civil­i­sa­tion re­turns at Leighton Buz­zard with a water­side su­per­mar­ket, a boat­yard with hire fleet, and a pic­turesque pub at Linslade.

A me­an­der­ing length fol­low­ing the River Ouzel was known by work­ing boat­men as ‘The Jack­daw Pound’, and leads to Soul­bury, where three locks in quick suc­ces­sion are over­looked by an­other pub. Then, af­ter Stoke Ham­mond Lock and the shal­low Fenny Strat­ford lock, we fi­nally get a rest with 11 level miles through Mil­ton Keynes.

As the new town’s pop­u­la­tion has ex­panded, in­cor­po­rat­ing ex­ist­ing water­side vil­lages and towns such as Wolver­ton and Bletch­ley, the canal­side has be­come a lin­ear park through Mil­ton Keynes. At first it fol­lows the River Ouzel val­ley and then the River Great Ouse, which it crosses on the Iron Trunk Aqueduct just north of Wolver­ton. Many

for­mer vil­lages have re­tained much of their orig­i­nal char­ac­ter, and at Peartree Bridge there is a ma­rina and water­side pub. There are water­side parks at New­lands and Great Lin­ford, and you might con­sider treat­ing the kids to a visit to Gul­liver’s Land which has nu­mer­ous rides and at­trac­tions. At New Brad­well the canal crosses a dual-car­riage­way on a 1991 aqueduct, over­looked by an old wind­mill.

The long level ends at Cos­grove, a vil­lage with sev­eral canal fea­tures: an un­usual horse-tun­nel un­der the canal, the or­na­men­tal Solo­man’s Bridge, and the junc­tion of the for­mer Old Strat­ford and Buck­ing­ham Arm. The first sec­tion of this is used for moor­ings, and restora­tion of the rest is un­der way.

Five lock-free miles pass through open coun­try­side with only one road cross­ing, be­fore seven locks then lift the canal to Stoke Bruerne. Here you will find the Canal Mu­seum, two water­side pubs, and a row of old ter­raced cot­tages. A pas­sen­ger trip boat takes vis­i­tors the short dis­tance to the south­ern por­tal of Blis­worth Tun­nel, at 3,057 yards, the third long­est nav­i­ga­ble canal tun­nel in Bri­tain.

There is no tow­path so walk­ers fol­low the old horse path over the top, while in horse­boat­ing days, boats were ‘legged’ through. In the 19th Cen­tury, pro­fes­sional leg­gers in­cluded the leg­endary ‘Ben the Leg­ger’, re­puted to have spent over 40 years on his back in the dark push­ing boats for a fee. To­day’s boaters will be re­lieved that they can use their en­gines, and that the tun­nel is broad enough for two seven-foot-wide craft to pass inside (wide boats need ad­vance book­ing).

The canal emerges into a wooded cut­ting be­fore en­ter­ing Blis­worth vil­lage,

‘Pro­fes­sional leg­gers in­cluded the leg­endary “Ben the leg­ger”, re­puted to have spent over 40 years on his back in the dark’

whose in­dus­trial past is re­called by mill build­ings and a wharf, now a boat­yard.

Gay­ton Junc­tion pro­vides the soli­tary link be­tween Eng­land’s canal sys­tem and the ex­ten­sive Fenland nav­i­ga­tions, with a long flight of locks car­ry­ing the canal’s Northamp­ton Arm down to the Nene.

A wind­ing seven miles lead to Wee­don, pass­ing un­du­lat­ing coun­try­side with vil­lages in­clud­ing Bug­brooke and Nether Hey­ford. Water­side pubs and a ma­rina pro­vide for boaters’ needs, while Stowe Hill is some­thing of a boat­ing cen­tre.

Wee­don bar­racks had its own short canal arm built in 1803, but the link to the canal main line has been filled in.

Af­ter Wee­don comes a pleas­ant wooded sec­tion through Brock­hall Spin­ney. The long lock-free level from Stoke Bruerne ends at Buckby or Whilton Locks, where a large ma­rina be­low the bot­tom lock is squeezed be­tween the M1 mo­tor­way and the main line rail­way. Look for the Buckby Cans in the An­chor Cot­tage Gift Shop at Buckby Wharf which spe­cialises in canal­ware. The flight of seven locks ends by the busy A5 road, with a pop­u­lar lock­side pub.

At Nor­ton Junc­tion, the Grand Union’s Le­ices­ter Line bears right, head­ing north to Fox­ton Locks and the River Soar in Le­ices­ter. We keep straight ahead on the Main Line, with two pleas­ant, peace­ful miles lead­ing to an­other long tun­nel at Braun­ston. Again, walk­ers must go over the top and wide boats must book ahead.

At the far end, six locks lead down into Braun­ston. A his­toric canal vil­lage and boat­ing cen­tre at the heart of the south­ern wa­ter­ways, it’s an fine place to pause be­fore con­tin­u­ing our jour­ney along the Grand Union in the next is­sue.

Mod­ern hous­ing sur­rounds Brent­ford Gaug­ing Locks Climb­ing the Han­well flight of six locks Fol­low the route with our map show­ing dis­tances, locks and pubs

A strik­ing mod­ern steel foot­bridge links Ap­s­ley’s new ma­rina and canal­side pub

The Padding­ton Arm joins at Bulls Bridge

Or­nate Grove Bridge, built to ap­pease the Earl

Cow­ley Lock’s at­trac­tive sur­round­ings

Head­ing south from Gay­ton Junc­tion

The western por­tal of Braun­ston Tun­nel

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