GREAT CENTRAL RAILWAY
In contrast to the ‘country branch line’ atmosphere of some heritage railways, the Great Central aims to re-create the feel of the main line that this route from Loughborough Central to Leicester North once formed part of. There are steam train services, plus a vintage diesel railcar, and a railway museum at Loughborough Central.
anywhere near the weir), then turn right into the mouth of the Soar just before the railway bridge. Half a mile of meandering channel overlooked by a hillside with outcrops of red sandstone (hence its name, the Red Hill) brings the river to Redhill Lock, with accompanying boatyard, and here is the first sign of the changes to the river. Since the 1980s the lock has been retained only as a flood-lock, with the gates normally open at both ends, and the next length of river has been dredged deeper from there to Ratcliffe Lock. Where you can see over its high banks, the view is of the impressive cooling towers of the nearby Ratcliffe Power Station - but probably not for much longer as (like all coal-fired stations) its days are numbered.
Ratcliffe Lock, the first ‘normal’ lock on the river, leads to another winding rural length leading to Kegworth, where there’s further evidence of the 1980s-90s changes. There are moorings by Kegworth Shallow Lock (which, like Redhill, is now usually open at both ends, although you may find it in use in winter months) to visit the town, some distance to the west.
At the next lock, Kegworth Deep Lock, look out for the remains of the original lock chamber, bypassed and filled in during the 1980s, complete with its almost-buried lock gates. A broad length of river with sweeping bends then leads southwards past a riverside pub to reach the next lock cut at Zouch. (Is this the only place on our waterways beginning with a ‘Z’?) Returning to the natural river channel once more, there are emergency flood moorings as we enter an attractive reach running past the waterside Normanton on Soar Church - and another riverside pub.
After another mile we leave the river on the approach to Bishop Meadow Lock - and we don’t see the river again for some miles. We’re now approaching Loughborough, with an industrial area on our right signalling our arrival in the town. Nearing the town centre, you’ll see a junction with towpath bridge on your left: this is a relic of the route’s history as two separate navigations. Straight ahead for a short dead-end which terminates amid some rather garish (or jolly, depending on your view) brightly coloured modern buildings, this being the original terminus of the Loughborough Navigation at the town wharf (and convenient for visiting the town); or turn left through the towpath bridge to continue our cruise on what was originally the Leicester Navigation.
Opened in 1794, this extended navigation up the Soar for a further 16 miles with nine locks (plus a flood-lock, and with another lock added later) to reach Leicester. That’s the route which we’re
following in this cruise guide, but it actually also had a second, little-known line. Known as the ‘Forest Line’ as opposed to the ‘River Line’ (and sometimes referred to as the Charnwood Forest Canal) this was a curious part-canal, part-tramroad route which led eastwards from the coalfields near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, its horse-drawn coal trains finally reaching the end of the last tramway section at Loughborough Wharf. Or at least, that was the theory: in practice it was a failure (possibly because it couldn’t compete with other routes for the coal trade), virtually no coal was ever carried, its reservoir was damaged twice by floods, and it lasted less than a decade. But some remains survive, and in recent years there have been moves to set up a ‘friends’ group for the canal.
Back on the main line, the lengthy canal section continues, cutting a curving route through the north of Loughborough and passing close to the Great Central Railway’s station where steam trains depart for Leicester North (see inset). Soon the town is left behind, and after a mile of rural cruising Pillings Flood Lock (usually in operation during the winter months but open at both ends in summer) indicates where the long canal section finally comes to an end, and we rejoin the River Soar.
Barrow-upon-Soar is a useful village with shops and a selection of pubs, which the navigation skirts as it passes through Barrow Deep Lock. A meandering length then leads under an impressive red-brick railway viaduct prominently dated 1860. Trains no longer cross it: the bridge is used today by a conveyor belt which has replaced the earlier railway branch line as the means of carrying stone from the nearby quarry to the Midland Main Line. This is followed by Mountsorrel Lock, its lockside pub making it a popular spot in summer, with the village shops a short walk away to the west.
Another couple of miles of rural wanderings, with the villages prudently keeping back from the flood plain, take us past Sileby and Cossington locks and their attendant mills to reach Junction Lock. This name is a clue to the existence of another long-lost navigation: we’re approaching the former junction with the River Wreake or Melton Mowbray Navigation. In fact we’ve actually been cruising a very short length of the Wreake, a tributary of the Soar, for a few hundred yards from Cossington Lock, but it was once navigable for another 15 miles to Melton Mowbray, where the Oakham
Canal continued for a similar distance to Oakham. Today it would make a really attractive cruising route, but sadly the canal closed to make way for a railway as long ago as 1846, and the river navigation lasted barely 30 years more. The Melton & Oakham Waterways Society has hopes of restoring the route: encouragingly, a bridge with navigable headroom was built a few years ago to carry the towpath over the junction, where the River Wreake carries on ahead while our own route bears round to the right to meet the Soar again at Thurmaston.
Cruising past Ratcliffe on Soar
Kegworth Shallow Lock, open at both ends as usual since the 1980s-90s flood control modifications
Bishop Meadow Lock, just north of Loughborough
Loughborough basin’s striking surroundings
Large craft use the river, as seen at Normanton