Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Grand Tour is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Grand Union main line from the Thames to Birmingham.First published in Canal & Riverboat August 2002.
The Grand Tour
Our trip takes us from the city that has Little Venice to the city that has more miles of canals than Venice and like the Venetians we will be travelling our own Grand Canal - the Grand Union from London to Birmingham. Little Venice is at the end of the Grand Union Paddington Arm but our journey will start at Brentford, where the main line of the canal joins the River Thames.
Many boaters join the Grand Union here, having come down the five miles of tidal river from the upper Thames at Teddington. Coming up river from Limehouse more adventurous boaters brave the sixteen miles of tidal waters through London to arrive at Thames Locks, Brentford, the start of the GU main line. Thames Locks are manned by a lock keeper and can only be used at certain times depending on tides. The reach above the lock is semi-tidal up to the next locks, Brentford Gauging Locks, which like Thames Locks, are two locks side by side but these are boater operated electrically.
From here the locks are boater operated manual wide locks. Two single locks are followed by the six Hanwell Locks and two Norwood Locks then six miles from Brentford we arrive at Bulls Bridge Junction. Here the Paddington Branch joins from the right while on the left are the moorings of the large Tesco supermarket. Over three miles of housing and industry takes us to Cowley Peachy Junction where the five-mile Slough Arm branches off to the left. After Cowley Lock we arrive at Uxbridge where the Uxbridge Boat Centre has an excellent chandlery although you will probably have to double or treble moor to get to it.
The scene becomes more rural after Uxbridge Lock as the canal follows the Colne valley, often flanked by lakes formed from old sand or gravel workings. The main problem with the London end of the canal is the long lines of residential boats that border so much of our route, extending past Watford, demonstrating the need for more off-line moorings. As we approach Rickmansworth there is another canalside Tesco's before we get to Batchworth Lock, then two more locks bring us to Cassio Bridge Lock, about 11½ hours cruising from Brentford. A high railway bridge across the canal takes the Metropolitan Line trains into nearby Watford underground station. For the over a mile, and four locks, the canal passes through Cassiobury Park and although we are close to the centre of Watford we see nothing of the town.
Another feature of this end of the Grand Union is the way various rivers run in and out of the navigation, sometimes flowing quite fast. First we had the River Brent, then the Colne and now the Glade, which will accompany us to Hemel Hempstead. The locks now come at frequent intervals as we head past Kings Langley and increase as we approach Hemel Hempstead. There is another convenient supermarket here, Sainsbury's this time, just before Lock 66. At Winkwell we find one of the few swing bridges on the canal, this one stands beside the Three Horseshoes pub and is electrically operated. Two miles on and we have arrived at Berkhamsted where the moorings above the top lock are close to the town centre. It has taken us 24½ cruising hours to do the 32½ miles and 49 locks to here, which is about a quarter of our journey.
You may wonder why the hire boat company at Berkhamsted is called Bridgewater Boats. The Earls, and later Dukes, of Bridgewater lived near here at Ashridge, now a management college, and a huge column in Ashridge Forest is a memorial to the Canal Duke, who is buried in the family vault at the nearby Little Gaddesden Church. Seven Locks take us up to Cowroast and the three mile Tring Summit.
On the summit is British Waterways Bulbourne Workshops where lock gates are built. Opposite is the Grand Junction Arms, a pub that always has a good choice of curries. The Grand Junction is the original name for the canal from Brentford to Braunston, built by William Jessop and opened in 1805, which was the major part of the Grand Union when it was formed in 1929. Bulbourne Junction follows, with the Wendover Arm on the left and Marsworth Top Lock and dry-dock straight ahead.
On a sunny summer's day Marsworth has a charm all of its own. The seven locks meander down the hillside and beside the Marsworth Reservoir before arriving at the Bottom Lock by the White Lion pub and the Bluebell cafe, where boaters can buy an ice-cream while the lock is filling. A little way on is Marsworth Junction at the top of the Aylesbury Arm. Sixteen narrow locks lead down to the town, where the Aylesbury Canal Society extend a warm welcome to visiting boaters. The top four of these narrow locks are also known as the Marsworth locks, as are the next two wide locks on the main line. On the corner of the junction is the local BW yard and offices with boating facilities.
Leighton Buzzard is eight miles further on, through eleven locks spread over the route. On our way we pass a boatyard at Pitstone then come to another of those few Grand Union swing bridges, this one being manually operated. All this section, right up to the edges of the town, is open countryside. There are moorings by Tesco's but often not enough to meet demand, as this is the most convenient point for walking into the town centre. We pass the Wyvern Shipping Company hire base on the way to Leighton Lock and a short distance on is the photogenic Globe Inn. Another picturesque place is the Soulbury Three Locks, a compact flight with a canalside pub in the middle of the rural scene. A mile on brings us to Stoke Hammond Lock.
From here the navigation runs over twenty miles with only two locks. After passing Willowbridge Marina the outskirts of Bletchley soon appear. This Buckinghamshire town has, in recent years, become famous for its wartime code breakers but before that its claim to fame was an enigma. Fenny Stratford Lock, which has a drop of only a foot, was built as a temporary measure in 1802 because of leakage problems in the pound to the north. Like so many temporary structures it has lasted much longer than was envisaged. Fenny Stratford is a town that has merged into Bletchley, which in turn has become part Milton Keynes. If you want to visit Milton Keynes shopping centre the best place to moor is around bridge 82 at Newlands. From here you can walk, about three-quarters of a mile, through Campbell Park, all the way to the centre without crossing a road.
A couple of miles on are some moorings at Linford Manor, just past bridge 77, a short walk away from the enchanting village of Great Linford, with its 14th century church, almshouses, manor house and pub. One of the many preserved rural villages that are now part of Milton Keynes. The canal takes a detour through open fields before turning back into Milton Keynes and crossing a main road on a modern aqueduct. We now approach the last part of the new town, Wolverton, where there are moorings by the railway station which are handy for Tesco's, although there is not much else to recommend the town or the mooring. A better mooring is a mile on, at Old Wolverton.
A long straight stretch of canal carries us across the Great Ouse valley, crossing the river on an aqueduct built in 1811 as the result of another problem on the Grand Junction Canal. The first aqueduct collapsed in 1808 and traffic had to revert to flights of locks up and down to the river, which were used before the aqueduct was built. Cosgrove Lock ends the pound, and beyond the canalside village invites us to stop. From here 4½ miles of undulating farmland lure us towards the bottom of the seven Stoke Bruerne Locks.
Stoke Bruerne is one of our most famous canal villages, attracting visitors by road and water. The Waterways Museum here is not the largest but it is the oldest inland waterway museum, having been opened in 1963. There are interesting exhibits inside and out. Passing through the top lock here, surrounded by visitors to the museum, boaters may feel that they too are exhibits, demonstrating nineteenth century technology in action.
We are now in a lock free pound almost 15 miles long. Our trip from here to Blisworth is through the 1¾ mile Blisworth Tunnel, always wet whatever the weather. At Gayton Junction the Northampton Arm leads down to the River Nene, and provides a link to many other East Anglian navigations, but we must press on as there are still sixty more miles of the Grand Union to come. There is a lot of interest in this long pound as we pass Bugbrooke, Nether Heyford, and Weedon before arriving at Whilton Marina and Whilton bottom lock. The two Whilton locks are so closely followed by the five Buckby locks that most people regard them as one flight. After the top lock is Norton Junction where the Leicester Section joins the main line. The three-mile summit section includes over a mile through Braunston Tunnel after which it is ended by the six Braunston Locks.
Braunston grew as a canal village at the point where the Grand Junction Canal met the Oxford Canal. Today it is a centre of canal boating as it has been for the past 200 years. A short walk up the hill takes you into the centre of this golden sandstone village with its church spire that can be seen for miles around. At Braunston Junction our route is to the left, where two elegant iron bridges over the junction mark the start of the five miles of canal shared by the Oxford and Grand Union canals from here to Napton.
At Napton Junction we turn right on to a waterway that was once the narrow Warwick and Napton Canal. New wide locks replaced the narrow locks in the 1930's shortly after the Grand Union Canal was formed by the amalgamation of the Grand Junction Canal with several other companies. As a consequence the character of the canal changes here with the wide locks having the characteristic "candlestick" hydraulic paddle gear and the old narrow lock chambers serving as by-weirs at most of the locks.
There are 23 locks in the eleven miles to Leamington Spa, including the Stockton flight of eight and the only staircase lock on the main line, at Bascote. There are several good pubs on the way including the Blue Lias, at the bottom of the Stockton flight, and the Two Boats at Long Itchington. Bridge 40 is the closest place to visit Leamington and further on, by the Tiller Pin pub there is access to a nearby Sainsbury's supermarket.
Leamington is separated from Warwick by the River Avon which we cross on an aqueduct before passing a new Tesco's. Warwick and its castle make a good day out and can be reached either from Bridge 49, by Kate Boats, or from Bugbrooke Junction. It is here that the old Warwick and Birmingham Canal joined the Warwick and Napton. The Hatton flight of 21 locks take us up 146 feet and gives views of Warwick as we look back.
After five miles of lock free scenic cruising, including the short and wet Shrewley Tunnel, we arrive at Kingswood, the junction with the Stratford upon Avon Canal. For many this is the end of their GU cruising as the northern section of the Stratford offers an alternative route into the centre of Birmingham. However, the main line goes on for another 17 miles, and the same number of locks, to Salford Bridge Junction, where it meets the Tame Valley Canal and the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. Quite a lot of this journey is through attractive country, up the five Knowle Locks, which are the last wide locks on the main line as Camp Hill and Garrison locks, in Birmingham, are narrow. At the village of Catherine de Barnes there are good overnight moorings before entering Birmingham and the end of our journey.
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