CRUISE GUIDE: GRAND UNION PART TWO
In the second part of our Grand Union exploration we’ll take you past historic Warwick and Leamington before heading into Birmingham
In the second part of our guide to the backbone of southern England’s canal system, we follow the Grand Union as it descends into the Avon Valley, passes historic Warwick and Leamington, then climbs towards Birmingham
As you travel along the Grand Union you will see mileposts giving the distance to Braunston. Those unfamiliar with inland waterway locations often ask where Braunston is. Geographically, it’s a small village on a hill near the town of Daventry in Northamptonshire. But from an inland waterways perspective, it is the hub of the canal system south of Birmingham, where the Grand Union and Oxford canals meet.
Leading canal carrying companies like Fellows, Morton & Clayton and Samuel Barlow set up their boatyards and businesses here, and so the village became a centre for the working boats.
It’s also where we ended the first part of our journey north along the Grand Union last month. After leaving the long Braunston Tunnel, a wooded cutting leads to the first of six locks, which drop the canal down into the village. The old cargo-carrying boats may have gone, but Braunston still remains a busy canal centre with a number of boatyards and a large marina with an elegant Horseley Ironworks towpath bridge spanning the entrance. Its importance is reflected by an annual event attracting historic boats from all over the country.
Up on the hill, the village’s single street is lined with shops and houses, while the lofty spire of All Saints Church overlooks the final resting place for many working boatpeople. There are pubs in the village and two by the canal.
The five mile section from Braunston to Napton Junction passes through remote countryside, with hills to the south. Historically this is an interesting stretch because when the Grand Union
Canal was established in 1929 as an amalgamation to operate the route from London to Birmingham, there was a gap between the former Grand Junction Canal at Braunston and the former Warwick & Napton Canal at Napton. The two canals were connected by five miles of the Oxford Canal, which allowed the Grand Union to share its waterway – at a price. The Oxford company continued to extract heavy tolls for through Grand Union trade until nationalisation in 1948.
The Grand Union and Oxford Canals part company at Napton Junction, a place known to the working boatmen as Wigram’s Turn. A large marina opposite the junction has adopted the name.
Turn right onto what was the Warwick & Napton Canal, whose narrow locks were rebuilt to broad gauge after the amalgamation. The first three at Calcutt are accompanied by more marinas. Then after two miles of open country, the hard work begins with a flight of eight. You can still see the remains of the old narrow locks, used as overflow weirs.
The Blue Lias pub at the bottom of the locks takes its name from the blue lias
limestone prevalent in this area. Fossils and remains of prehistoric animals are often found in blue lias, which explains the dinosaur adorning the pub sign.
Kaye’s Arm, once the site of a large cement company, is now a boatyard with a collection of ex-working boats. At Long Itchington, two pubs face each other across the canal; then come the four locks at Bascote, the top two forming a staircase. The canal continues through open country; occasional locks dropping to Radford, the start of the level pound through Leamington and Warwick.
The canal passes through a once intensely industrial area of Leamington, filled with foundries and a gas works which used the canal for transporting coal. Much of the industry has been replaced with housing, but there is little hint of the beautiful Regency Spa town just along the road from Bridge 40 (see inset). Leamington Spa and Warwick are separated by the River Avon, which the
canal crosses on a three-arched aqueduct before passing through the north side of central Warwick.
Cape Locks are accompanied by the Cape of Good Hope pub, and soon the old Warwick & Napton Canal ends at Budbrooke Junction. We’re now entering the final link in the chain of canals that form the Grand Union Main Line: the former Birmingham & Warwick Canal.
To our right at the junction, the canal leads on towards Birmingham; while to the left the Saltisford Arm, the original Warwick terminus of the canal, is now used for moorings. This is the best place
Leaving the north end of Braunston Tunnel Braunston hosts an annual historic working boat rally Follow the route with our map showing distances, locks and pubs
On the rural five-mile length shared with the Oxford Canal
The impressive view up Stockton Locks
Quiet countryside near Bascote