Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Grand Union Canal is actually not one single canal at all, but an amalgamation of ten that were brought together under one management in 1929.  The most important of these was the Grand Junction canal, built to facilitate the rapid movement of freight from the Midlands to London, as a direct rival to the Oxford Canal, (whose route was long and winding).  Once this new route was opened it was always busy, with branch arms being constructed off the main canal to some of the rapidly growing towns, like Aylesbury, Slough, Northampton and Buckingham.  The Grand Union canal was  - and is - a “wide beam” canal, with specially built locks which enabled two narrowboats at a time to rise and fall in the passage through the locks.  The section of the Grand Union which joins the Thames goes through the Brentford Locks, where canal boats and their cargoes were checked, tolls assessed and paid, based upon the weight and on the type of boat.

   
Above:  Brentford Marina - apartments and
moored boats - photo by J Briggs
Above: Brentford Dock - the lock gates,
moorings and apartments  - photo by JBriggs


The whole of Brentford grew up as a direct result of the construction of the Grand Union, with wharves, warehouses, freight sheds, workshops and so on.  This area fell into disuse and decay, with the decline in freight traffic on the canal.  However, in recent years it has been revitalized, with the construction of new houses and apartments.

Also since the 1960ies the great growth of the canal boat holiday “industry” has ensured the Grand
Union Canal is one of the most popular canals of all.  Canal Boaters came down the canal waiting for the tides to be “right” before venturing out on the Thames and travelling down through the centre of London to Limehouse Basin in non-tidal waters once again (Such journeys are now heavily restricted for safety reasons).

 

   
Above: The luxurious apartments that now
have views of the narrowboats on the Grand
Union Canal at Brentford - photo courtesy J Briggs

Above: Brentford Dock - A safe haven
for boats next to the River Thames


The lock staff at Brentford will help you to plan your journey.  Over 16 million people in the Greater London area visit the canals in Londonevery year!

There now a delightful safe haven for working boats and those taking a canal boat holiday at Brentford with facilities, such as water, electricity hook ups, rubbish disposal and pump out.  You are also moored within walking distance of shops in Brentford High Street for basic food essentials (No canal boat hire avaliable here).   

   

Above: Brentford locks to the River
Thames -  photo courtesy J Briggs

Above: Bottom lock on the Hanwell Flight

Canals boats that enter the Grand Union from the Thames leave Brentford and continue the great canal boat adventure to climb up the Hanwell Flight of locks on the borders of Ealing. 

This amazing feat of 18th century civil engineering was completed in 1794. The locks together raise the canal by 53ft, in less than half a mile. The Hanwell Flight is now listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument which should be inclused in your canal boat holiday "Bucket List".

NB: It takes about a day to navigate through all the locks on the Hanwell flight  and there are not many casual moorings between locks so be sure to leave enough time!  Some boaters keep a bicycle on their narrowboat to facilitate getting between each of the locks. 

   

 Above: Hanwell Flight - photos courtesy J Briggs

Above: Narrowboat between locks by JB

Once boaters have gained the topmost lock they continue westwards towards Southall. From the top of the Hanwell flight there is a long "pound" past the former Asylum (which used to be called St. Bernard's Hospital) and through  - it has to be said - some not very salubrious surroundings at Norwood and North Hythe, as far as Bulls Bridge Junction . Here the Grand Union is joined by the Paddington Arm.  A lot of canal boater turn right up this canal and navigate the length of the Paddington Arm to Little Venice and the junction there with the Regent’s Canal . You can read about this section by going back to the Canal Connection home page and then clicking on "The Paddington Arm".

At Bulls Bridge Junction there used to be a famous British Waterways Board yard engaged in maintenance of the canals, now occupied by a giant superstore, very handy for canal boaters who can moor alongside and obtain essential supplies.  The superstore people have restored the canal towpath, planted trees and benches and provided mooring rings.

   

Above:The Grand Union Canal at Bulls
Bridge Junction - photo by J Briggs

Above: Bulls Bridge Junction - narrowboaten route from Paddington Arm north up the Grand Union

From here on the main Grand Union Canal you can continue westwards in your canal boat, through Hayes, Harlington, West Drayton and Yiewsley. At Hayes you pass the huge Nestle factory. The views from the canal are industrial landscapes and housing estates, until Cowley Peachey junction. Here it starts its long journey north. Also along this stretch of the canal at Cowley Peachey junction an arm of the canal goes off to the left towards Slough.  The main canal reaches Cowley Lock ,the first lock for 27 miles after leaving the top of the Hanwell Flight or Camden Locks. There is a nice old canalside pub here called The Malt Shovel and The Dolphin at Dolphin Bridge over which passes the main road to Uxbridge. You next reach Uxbridge Lock - quite near the centre of the town of Uxbridge. It has a pleasant setting, with a lock cottage and gardens.  Leaving Uxbridge you pass under the main M40 through a wide variety of scenery, with gravel wharves, woods, flour mills, and large sewage works. Then you navigate through Denham Lockwhich at 11 feet deep makes it the deepest lock on the whole canal and is appropriately known as "Denham Deep"...

   

Above: Springwell Lock and fishermen
Photo By J Briggs

Above : The Grand Union near Springwell
with winding Bridge - photo by J Briggs

After Denham Lock towards Widewater Lock you will see golf courses and reservoirs in an almost unbroken scene, until you reach Springwell, Black Jack's and Coppermill locks on the outskirts of Rickmansworth.  Here you navigate through Stocker's Lock , located next to an interesting range of farm buildings.  It was here at Stockers Farm that the famous TV series "Black Beauty" was filmed.  Next along the canal are the Batchworth locks, are near to a very large superstore with moorings complete with bollards and a cafe which sells refreshments.

Leaving Rickmansworth your canal boat holiday journey has another steep climb steadily upwards through Lot Mead and Cassio Bridge locks until approaching the town of Watford.












 












Above The Grand Union near Batchworth
Lock by J Briggs

Above: The canal at Cassio Lock by J B

The route of the canal keeps well away from the town,  and continues to climb, until you reach the delightful Cassiobury Park. 

As mentioned earlier, the  canal dates from the late eighteenth century. The 4th Earl of Essex who owned Cassiobury Park was one of the noblemen on the board of the canal company; at his insistence the canal was widened and landscaped where it passed through his own property. The northward view from Iron Bridge (Canal Bridge No. 167) is picturesque. A plaque  on the Iron Bridge that was unveiled in 1987 commemorates 200 years of the canal's existence. (As you can see from the photo the bridge is a misnomer in that it is constructed entirely of brick...)  The canal here is next to the River Gade where you may hear delighted noises from children as they play in the shallow waters on hot summer days, watched by their adult supervisors (Hopefully watched over by). 

 

 

 Above: Narrowboats entering Iron Bridge Lock - photo by J Briggs

 Above: Narrowboat from under Iron Bridge - photo by J Briggs

On your left is an old mill called Grove Mill and the ornamental stone bridge that was
ordered by the Earl of Essex before he would allow the route of the canal to go through the grounds of his stately home. Here you find Cassiobury Park much photographed by those on a canal boat holiday and which is now publicly owned. 

 










 
 

Above: Boats negotiating Iron Bridge
Lock - by J Briggs

Above: The Lock at Iron Bridge
Lock - photo by J Briggs

You next reach a little canalside village of Hunton Bridge with a church with a high spire. Sadly this is one of those canalside villages that is now spoiled by the continuous noise from the adjacent A41 trunk road  and high speed trains on the viaduct just to the east of the canal.

After leaving Hunton Bridge you come to  Kings Langley (where there maybe canal boat trip and canal boat hire avaliable ) and Apsley where the canal begins to climb even more steeply as it takes a north westerly direction and skirts the modern town of Hemel Hempstead.  This is set back from the canal with parklands laid out between the town and canal. .

 











 
 

Above: The Fisheries Inn at Boxmoor - photo by SW

The town of Boxmoor appears and the old canalside pub called The Fisheries Inn.

Just beyond Boxmoor you come across one of my favourite canalside pubs - The Three Horseshoes at Winkwell. It has four inglenook fireplaces, stone setts on the floors of the bars, and a patio right next to the canal with moorings for canal boaters.  The food is scrumptious, well priced, and they have a selection of real ales - what more could a canal boater require?!

 














 

 Above: The Three Horseshoes pub at
 Winkwell - photo by J Briggs

Above: Narrowboat at swingbridge
by Winkwell -Photo by J Briggs

The pub is located right next to a swing bridge in a peaceful tranquil setting. It is good fun particularly just watching those new to canal boating and canal boat hire, operating the controls of the swing bridge stopping the cars that cross the canal at this point. It is well worth taking a canal boat holiday just for that experience.

Above: The Grand Union Canal at Berkhampstead - photo by J Briggs

As you leave Winkwell the outskirts of Berkhamstead appear, and you are conscious of the fact that the Chiltern Hills are crowding in all around you.  Berkhampstead is another one of those lovely old English towns that are full of history.  It comes with a wide selection of buildings in architectural styles that range from red brick Tudor, through Georgian and Regency, to Victorian. It even has the remains of a once-great Castle. This castle was much loved by some mediaeval Royals, like  John, and King Edward IV who gave it to his mother Dame Cicely Neville.  It was badly knocked about during the Civil War, and now only a huge castle mound remains, sited high above the canal,  to remind us of former glories. 

Berkhampstead is also full of old pubs on the canal, such as The Rising Sun, well placed to to attract canal boat holiday makers with its lunches and real ale and moorings. Others are The Boat and the Crystal Palace. The town is very convenient for supplies.

   

Above: The Boat pub by the canal at
Berkhampstead - photo by J Briggs

Above: Berkhamstead Castle - photo by J Briggs

As Berkhampstead now has a by-pass it is not spoiled by traffic noise, but you are aware of the frequency of high speed trains which run on the embankment above the town and canal.  At this point is a genuine Canadian totem pole, placed at the side of the canal.  It was the gift to the owners of the former wood mill and yard that was located here.

 

 

Above: Canandian Totem Pole Berkhampstead

As you leave Berkhampstead you are travelling in a north westerly direction almost continuously until you reach Norton Junction and Braunston in the Midlands. 

You pass Northchurch locks, just after Berkhampstead, and then reach Dudswell . You have to negotiate 7 locks in 2 miles..... You are also gently but continuously climbing upwards towards the summit pound at Cowroast near Tring. This is a most unusual name. Apparently in former centuries great herds of cows were driven to the cattle markets in London with cattlemen walking behind them. To get to London they first had to cross the high ridge of hills called the Chilterns, and they invariably stopped to rest at the summit of the track - hence - Cow Rest Summit.  This has become corrupted to "Cowroast Summit" over the years - or so the story goes.  It is one of those stories about the origins of names that you never can tell whether they are genuine or not!

Located here is the very large Cowroast Marina, which has a good chandlery shop including gas. Also worth knowing, the garage on the main road very near Cowroast Lock sells provisions, and you can buy honey from the little lock cottage here.

 

 

Above: Cowroast Marina - photo by J Briggs

Above: The former BWB workshops at
Bulbourne - photo by J Briggs

From Cowroast lock you see the summit pound which is 3 miles long. It is contained in a long cutting, with trees on both sides. Views across the Chilterns are thus impaired.

 

Above: Cowroast Lock - photo by B Briggs

At the northern end of the pound is the old British Waterways lock-gate workshops at Bulbourne, where the traditional lock gates were made and repaired by dedicated craftsmen.  The workshops were built in the early part of the 19th century and are very photogenic. They are now occipied by a light engineering firm. You might also like to see The Grand Junction Arms, a Victorian canalside pub here opposite the BWB workshops, which has moorings but not a good view of the canal.

Once past Bulbourne and the Wendover and Aylesbury arms, you reach Marsworth, where the first of a series of locks called the Marsworth flight appears.   Towards the halfway point of the Marsworth flight of locks is the quaintly named hamlet of Startops End, which boasts a wonderful tea rooms called The Bluebells. The tea and coffee here are really good, and they also sell home-made walnut and chocolate cakes, just right when you have been struggling with the lock all day. The Bluebells cafe is near the famous Tring reservoirs, which were constructed to hold the huge amounts of water which are very necessary to enable canal boats to pass up and down the Marsworth flight of locks.  They are serve as a nature reserve and popular fishing area.

At the bottom of the flight of locks there is an interesting double-arched bridge.  The flight enables a canal boat to descend from the Chiltern Hills into the valley below.  The Aylesbury Arm swings off to the west, but the main Grand Union canal now turns north east past Pitstone Wharf and was the base of a canal boat hire company (Grebe Canal Cruisers, now closed).

 

 

 

Above: The top lock of the Marsworth
Flight at Startops End - photo by J Briggs

Above: The Grand Union Canal at Pitstone
Wharf in sunset - photo courtesy Grebe Canal Cruises


You also can see the railway once again, and hear the thunderous roar of high speed trains as they pass so close to the canal.  Pitstone itself is set slightly away from the canal, but you can buy basic supplies from the little shop at the marina. After Pitstone the canal leaves the Chiltern Hills behind as a backdrop, and continues in a north-westerly direction through gentle unremarkable rural countryside, until it reaches the towns of Linslade and Leighton Buzzard.  The villages you see from the canal before Linslade are in the main set back from the canal, and there are lots of locks to navigate, as the level of the canal continues to drop towards Leighton Buzzard.  However, it is not all peace and rural tranquillity, as the frequent "whoosh" of high speed trains can be heard in the distance from the nearby West Coast Main Line from Euston to the Midlands, Manchester and Glasgow.

Linslade and Leighton Buzzard are both market rowns which sit on either side of the Grand Union Canal. Linslade is the smaller of the two and is now virtually a dormitory town to the much bigger Leighton Buzzard, but both towns owe a lot of their development to the Grand Union canal. Sand and gravel were extracted locally for major building projects in the Midlands and Greater London, and this was formerly all transported up and down the canal by horse-drawn barges. There is a lovely old pub on the canal bank called The Globe, two supermarkets located right by the canal and canal boat hire if you intend to have a canal boat holiday here.

 

 

Above: Soulbury Three Locks - photo by Peter Roberts and reproduced by kind pemrission

Leaving Linslade, you canal boat holiday journey continues north towards the little hamlet of Soulbury, where canal boaters will come across a set of locks called Soulbury Three Locks - very imaginative! These are located near the village of Stoke Hammond - pleasant enough with shops containing supplies and Also a lovely old pub The Three Locks. 

After Soulbury Three Locks you pass near the town of Bletchley and reach the outskirts of the major new town of Milton Keynes.  When I first travelled this way thirty years ago on the Grand Union in 1970 this huge conurbation did not exist.  Now the town has spread in all directions, although - to be fair to the planners - they have done their best to try and minimise the effects of major building projects and housing, to landscape their efforts to a high degree. The usual selection of shops are available here.

Once you have leave Milton Keynes, again travelling through rural countryside, past such traditional villages as Yardley Gobion and Grafton Regis as the canal continues north. You are often in sight of the trunk road (the A5) and the main railway line between Euston and the North, which mirrors the route of the canal.

 

 

Above: The Grand Union at Stoke Bruerne - photo by Martin Clark and reproduced by kind permission

At Cosgrove, where the canal architects had to build an aqueduct to carry the canal over the River Great Ouse, and from there the canal gently starts to rise again through a series of locks until it reaches the quaint little village of Stoke Bruerne.  This is famous throughout the canal world not only for its location at the southern end of the huge Blisworth Tunnel but also for its Canal Museum, which is comprehensive and well worth a visit. Plus a souvenir shop selling canal artefacts. It is probably the best example of a canal village proper in the whole of the U.K. and justly deserves its fame, in my view. It contains everything a devoted narrow-boater looks for - a canalside pub (The Boat Inn) locks with double arched bridges, a museum and "canal shop", other shops selling the essential supplies - with the prospect of a haunted tunnel next on your journey for you to get excited - or apprehensive about (like me!).

 

 

Above: Blisworth Tunnel portal by Neil Geering

From Stoke Bruerne steer you canal boat to the southern portal of the famous Blisworth Tunnel. This is the third  longest tunnel in the whole canal network and a real canal boat holiday experience! It is also reputed to be haunted and is broad enough to let two canal boats pass side by side. Its construction was very difficult, and when a major section of the tunnel caved in and collapsed 14 men were crushed to death. The tunnel has no towpath, and in olden days the horses pulling the boats had to be led up and over the hills above the tunnel, while men had to lie on their backs on boards strapped to the boats and they then had to literally "leg it" through the tunnel. This was the origin of the expression "legging it", and was backbreaking and often dangerous work for the men involved. (photo).  You can still see the remains of the Leggers' Hut at the southern end of the tunnel.

 

 

Above:  Reconstruction of "leggers" walking a narrowboat through Blisworth Tunnel.  Photo property of Blisworth Images and reproduced by kind permission

Blisworth Tunnel used to be a very  "wet" tunnel - boaters were constantly  "dripped upon" and it was advisible to wear protective clothing. I have even seen some boaters on their tillers using an umbrella to fend off the drips!!  However, major restoration work on the tunnel was carried out and several sections of the tunnel were lined with concrete "rings". This has vastly improved the interior of the tunnel and made it a more pleasant navigational experience.  As for the ghost stories - well, people claim to have seen the shadowy forms of the poor navigators who died when the original tunnel collapsed.... All in all, an eerie place  - where one can only be filled with admiration at the audacity of the men who designed and built the tunnel, over 200 years ago without the use of modern machinery, JCBs and earth moving equipment.  Just men with pickaxes, shovels, hard graft and enormous amounts of raw courage...

As you exit the tunnel at the northern end you will see on your right the village of Blisworth, which climbs up steeply from the canal. The Royal Oak is the local village pub and is worth the effort expended walking up the hill to reach it. Beyond Blisworth the canal continues north west and is joined at Gayton Junction by the Northampton Arm - which connects the Grand Union canal with the River Nene 5 miles away. Ultimately, canal boaters choosing this route can reach Peterborough, the Fens and the Great Ouse. A flight of 17 locks over 5 miles drops takes your canal boat holiday route down towards Northampton.

 

 












 

Above:The Grand Union at Bugbrooke -
photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced
by kind permission

Above: Gayton Junction - photo by
Stephen McKay and reproduced by
kind permission

However, the route of the main canal continues NW through some very gentle and pleasant rural countryside past the village of Nether Heyford, until the little town of Weedon Bec. Weedon has canalside pubs (The Narrowboat and The Globe) and a boatyard - well worth a visit - not least because it has a selection of useful shops. Here you can also see a short aqueduct over the River Nene, an old wharf and the Royal Ordnance Depot.

Leaving Weedon, it is not long before you hear the deafening roar of traffic on the M1 and the A5 trunk road to the west of the canal. If this was not enough - you are then aware of the scream of high speed trains as they whoosh past the canal.  It is sobering to think that the canal builders chose their route over 250 years ago, through what is known in geological terms as the Watford Gap , a ridge of low rising hills. This has been copied subsequently by the more modern road and railway constructors who obviously thought that the canal route could not be improved upon.

 

 

Above: The Whilton flight of locks - photo by Humphrey Bolton and reproduced by kind permission

For several miles the canal, railway and trunk roads and motorways run almost parallel until Long Buckby Wharf , located at the bottom of the Whilton Flight of locks and then Norton Junction .  At Norton The Grand Union proper continues north towards Leicester.  In order to complete the Oxford Ring and rejoin the top of the Oxford Canal at Braunston the route turns due west towards the Braunston Tunnel and Braunston village.

The canal now runs westward through gentle hills and green fields, then enters a wooded cutting as the forerunner to Braunston Tunnel.  This tunnel is 2042 yards long, and was opened in 1796 to create a route through the low hills which separate the main Grand Union Canal from Braunston. The navigators made a slight mistake in the alignment of the tunnel, so it has a slight bend. It is wide, and two canal boats can pass side by side.  Again, the towpath leaves the canal to follow a route over the hill, and canal boats had to be "legged" through the tunnel - see Blisworth tunnel above.

Once through Braunston Tunnel it is just a short distance to the hive of activity at Braunston Wharf, where the Grand Union joins the South Oxford canal.  The village itself is located up the hill and the church with its high spire is visible for miles around. 

Down on the canal by the wharf you see long rows of moored boats mainly canal boats in a very large marina, some lovely old black and white bridges and all the necessary supplies. Don't miss The Stop House, originally the Toll Office between the Oxford Canal and the Grand Junction Canal.  There is a plethora of canalside pubs here, mostly old and dating from the days when Braunston was the Spaghetti Junction of the canal world.  You can imagine old canal boat owners meeting up for the first time in months, seeing their friends and settling down to exchanging gossip over some well-earned pints. On a more practical note, Braunston was the place where canal boaters used to bury their dead.  When you had a cargo to deliver you did not stop to hold a funeral until you reached the end of your trip - which was usually Braunston!  So there are very many graves of boaters in Braunston Churchyard up on the hill.

 

 







 

Above: The waterways centre at Braunston -
photo by J Briggs

Above: The junction of the Grand Union
and South Oxford canals - photo by J Briggs

We have come to the end of our exploration of the Grand Union Canal from the River Thames at Brentford to the top of the South Oxford Canal at Braunston. Here you can turn south once more and navigate the length of the Oxford Canal all the way down to its junction with the River Thames at Oxford (see "Oxford Canal"). If you manage this you will have completed what is known at "The Oxford Ring" and it's quite an achievement. 

I first travelled this way in 1970, and it still holds a fascination for me, linking as it does the delights of the River Thames with the lesser known beauty and contrasts of the canal system.  I hope this will encourage you to take a canal boat holiday journey yourself.

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