GREAT CEN­TRAL RAIL­WAY

Canal Boat - - CRUISE GUIDE -

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

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