The Grand Union Canal Main Line from Napton to Birmingham

 Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Grand Union Main Line leaves Napton Junction at Wigrams Turn, and continues in a north-easterly direction towards the great conurbation of Birmingham.  This city grew during the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteeth century and early nineteenth century and had at times, a violent undertone, recalled vividly in the TV drama about the gangs and in particular- the Peaky Blinders. This was the gang that emerged top of the pile in the late 19th and early 20th Century, making their name through extreme violence and loyalty inspired by their toughened peaked caps armed with razor blades sewn inside.

The road network from the main ports in England (such as Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester) to Birmingham and the Midlands was poor, and the unsealed road surfaces subject to wear and tear.  A method of transportation  of huge heavy cargoes around the country towards the industrial heartland of England was obviously necessary - and the canal age was born. Birmingham quickly became the chief city for the manufacture of goods and the raw materials could be easily transported by the canal network that sprung up in an incredibly short timescale between 1790 and 1830. 

On leaving Napton Junction the Grand Union  continues through gentle countryside and descends the Stockton Locks, reaching the village of Long Itchington at the bottom.  Here at Cuttle Bridge on Southam Road you can find two nice old pubs called the Two Boats Inn and The Cuttle.

Leaving here once again there is a scenic ride along the canal, with only the Bascote staircase locks to negotiate, until you come to the  town of Royal Leamington Spa - a Victorian gem This has all the amenities a boatman would require within easy walking distance of the canal, and the town makes a pleasant stop for the night. Two old  canalside pubs here are The Lock, Dock and Barrell and The Moorings, both of which serve food and real ale. 

Above: Wigrams Turn - junction of Grand Union with  Oxford Canal - photo by J Briggs

Above: Warwick Castle

With  Leamington behind you  it is not long before you see the towers and spires of the town of Warwick.  This is  a terrific place, full of a mixture of mediaeval, Queen Anne and Victorian architecture, crowned by the magnificent Warwick Castle. As you might imagine, you can obtain all kinds of the usual supplies for living on your narrowboat from the shops in Warwick. You may like to leave the canal for a while to visit  not just the Castle, but also Lord Leycester Hospital built over 600 years, ago and St Mary's Church .

In between Warwick Castle and the Cape of good Hope pub there are good moorings and you can arrange canal boat hire here with fleet operator Kate Boats. At Lower Cape there is a chandlers and the Cape of Good Hope pub

Above: The Cape of Good Hope pub at Lower Cape - photo by DJ.



Once again you can stock up on essential supplies and get ready for your next challenge - the stupendous  flight of locks known as the Hatton Flight. There are 21 locks in all with very distinctive paddle gears and gates, and they are enough to strike a note of  apprehension among even hardened narrowboat owners as they contemplate the amount of work involved... Only the Caen Hill Flight on the Kennet and Avon Canal is a similar challenge....

Near the bottom of the flight is a pub called The Waterman, which has nice views  of the locks and you can sit here with your pint in hand and watch the struggling boatowners working their way up and down the locks.....

 

  Above:Looking down the flight of 21 locks at Hatton - photo by DJ


At the top of the flight you soon see the portals of the Shrewly Tunnel, which is 433 yards long and was opened in 1799. This tunnel is wide enough to allow two 7ft wide boats to pass alongside. 

Leaving Shrewley, the canal continues in a north-westerly direction towards the suburbs of Birmingham.  You will see a beautiful old beamed house at Turner's Green, which stands right by the canal. The next junction of note is Kingswood Junction, where the Grand Union joins with the Stratford on Avon Canal.  The village of Kingswood is not really alongside the canal , but widely scattered.  There is a quaint old pub called the Navigation on the Old Warwick Road at  the canalside  which is well worth aiming for.  Count your lucky stars at this point that you have not chosen to turn left and go up the Stratford on Avon canal - you would immediately be faced with negotiating the Kingswood flight of locks!!!  However, if you wanted a different scene while traversing the suburbs of Birmingham then you can turn left at this point at Lapworth Junction, and  enter the Stratford Canal here. Your route would take you south of the Birmingham conurbation to join with the Worcester and Birmingham canal which enters the city from the south west.  

 
 

Above:The Grand Union at Lapworth Junction
- photo courtesy The Tuesday Night Club 
www.tuesdaynightclub.co.uk and reproduced by kind permission

Above:The Grand Union at Lapworth Junction
- photo courtesy The Tuesday Night Club 
www.tuesdaynightclub.co.uk and
reproduced by kind permission

To return to the Grand Union, the canal  is now continuing in a northerly direction, as it passes through Knowle locks (a short flight of 5 of them, which is nothing after you have successfully negotiated the Hatton Flight ! )

You are drawn ever nearer to the suburbs of Birmingham - Solihull is reached in a short while after Knowle.  The last real village visited by the canal is the quaintly named Catherine de Barnes, where you can obtain the usual supplies, and this is also the last proper mooring opportunity before the centre of Birmingham.

 

Above: Bordesley Junction - photo courtesy Birmingham Canal Navigation Society www.bcn-society.co.uk  and reproduced by kind permission

After this point the canal traverses housing estates, railways, motorways and run down wharves until it reaches Bordesley Junction with the Digbeth Branch of the Birmingham Canal Navigation system.  You can either choose to stay with the Grand Union at this point, or to turn left up the Birmingham Canal Navigation arm towards Aston Junction.

From Bordesley the Grand Union veers north, passing through the  Garrison Locks  and dense housing estates, until it terminates at Salford Junction in the district of Nechells. Here it is joined to the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, and  - in order to proceed north of Birmingham and to break out of the industrial scenes - you need to turn right and navigate towards Fazeley Junction and the Coventry and Trent and Mersey Canals. 

It should perhaps be emphasised that although much has been done to clean up the canals and their surroundings in Birmingham, much remains to be done, and it is recommended by the British Waterways Board and the Inland Waterways Association that for safety's sake you only moor at recognised sites in the centre of the city, such as Gas Street Basin, Cambrian Wharf, or other boatyards by prior arrangement. 

Please do not be "put off" by these comments.  The whole area covered by the Birmingham Canal Navigation network has undergone a huge change  in the last few years, with development schemes everywhere. Apartments and office blocks are springing up alongside the canals, and the cleaning up and "gentrification" process is well underway in many parts of Birmingham.

Above: The M6 motorway crossing the canal at Nechells near the StarCity entertainment complex. Photo by Birmingham Canal Navigation Society  www.bcn-society.co.uk and reproduced with their kind permission

Above: The Grand Union near Salford Junction - photo by the BCN Society and reproduced by kind permission.
Visit
www.bcn-society.co.uk for more info.

However, there is always the element of society that wants to deface things or throw shopping trolleys into canals for the fun of it - all that British Waterways is saying is "be on your guard and moor overnight at recognised areas within the BCN network." 

One thing you will have to observe is the special anti-vandal device which you will need in order that you can operate the locks in the BCN network.  You will be provided with this if you are on a hire boat.  If not, you will need to purchase one or temporarily borrow one from BW staff.  Just don't turn up at a lock and expect to be able to navigate through it with out the anti-vandal device (which prevents the paddles and winding gear being operated by anyone other than bona fide boat users.)

At Salford Junction in Nechells your journey along the whole length of the Grand Union from London and the docks on the River Thames terminates, and you leave the canal to join the Black County Ring of the Birmingham Canal Navigation system.  More of this can be found in a later section of the Canal Connection. (q.v.)

In writing about this section of the Grand Union Canal Main Line I acknowledge my grateful thanks to the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society, a voluntary organisation that campaigns and works ceaselessly to restore the canal network in and around the city of Birmingham.  They gave me permission to reproduce several of their excellent photos and their website can be found on www.bcn-society.co.uk   If you would like to find out more about what this canal society does to promote the well being of the canals in the BCN network  and to restore them and clean them up, then do contact them, using the links on their excellent website.

I hope that this introduction to the section of canal between Napton and the centre of Birmingham will awake your interest in this part of the canal network.  The contrasts between the green Warwickshire countryside and the industrial city landscape of Birmingham could not be greater, but it is a route that is full of interest and excitement at what you might see next!

 

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