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
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 Today, almost all of the surrounding warehouses have been replaced by new apartments and a hotel.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