The Grand Union Canal Leicester Line
and River Soar Navigation
from Norton Junction North to the River Trent

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Grand Union Canal north from London eventually reaches Norton Junction, where the main line of the canal continues west, through Braunston Tunnel to Wigrams Turn and on towards Birmingham (see section on the Grand Union Canal to Birmingham).

At Norton Junction the Leicester Line of the Grand Union branches off right and commences its journey northwards towards the cities of Leicester and Loughborough. Ultimately this branch of the Grand Union connects via the River Soar Navigation to the River Trent at Trent Lock. This sectiondescribes that route.

The whole length of the Leicester Line is full of interest and is well worth exploring by canal boat might even be an ideal canal boat holiday. The section around Foxton is particularly picturesque. My hope is that your interest will be awakened by the following details, so that you might visit the Leicester Line yourself one day!

Above: The Watford flight of locks -
photo by Gary Rogers and reproduced
by kind permission

Above: View from the top of the Watford Flight of locks - photo by the Tuesday Night Club and reproduced by kind permission

From Norton Junction the Leicester Line travels through pleasant countryside until it reaches the flight of locks at Watford - this is the "Watford Gap", made famous by traffic reports about the M1. The locks provide some interesting (not to say exhausting) exercise for boaters up and down the flight. The scenery around here is delightful, so when you rest on the balance beams waiting for a lock to fill (or empty...) you are at least blessed with something great to look at!

Above: The Grand Union Leicester Line at Watford - photo by Ian Robb and reproduced by kind permission.

Above: The top lock of the Watford Flight - photo by Bill Sibley and reproduced by kind permission

It is hard to believe that not more than a few yards away lie the busy M1 motorway and the main line railway to the north west!

The motorway and the main line railway from London to Glasgow via the west coast route join the route of the canal at this point and run alongside each other. Also you can clearly see the Watford Gap Services here, but despite the intrusions of the 20th century the canal remains a peaceful oasis- see photo above.

The canal continues north, until it reaches a short tunnel at Crick which is lots of fun, and not as daunting as the long tunnels at Braunston or Blisworth, which lie to the south of Norton Junction. Passing through the tunnel you are near the little village of Crick which has supplies and pubs.

After Crick the canal continues through gentle countryside on a long pound,with no more locks for miles - and precious few canal side pubs either! The hamlets of Yelvertoft and North Kilworth are passed, and suddenly you are at the portal of the Husbands Bosworth tunnel, which is about the same length as Crick tunnel. The countryside around you is still gently rural and relatively peaceful.


Above: The Grand Union canal Leicester Line at North Kilworth - photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced with his kind permission

Above: The Foxton Staircase of locks - photo courtesy the Tuesday Night Club and reproduced by kind permission

Further on still you reach the famous staircase locks at Foxton. Foxton was the site of the original Foxton Inclined Plane. Here the owners of the canal tried to think of a novel way of dealing with the huge problem that faced them. They had to think of a way to elevate narrowboats over 75 feet up the hills here.

To begin with the navigators who actually built the canal created the staircase of 10 locks, but this slowed up the passage of boats up and down the steep hill at Foxton. The ingenious engineers who worked for the canal company built a steam powered "Inclined Plane" which was innovative in the extreme. Canal boats were towed unto large tanks of water, which were then drawn up and down the hillside by means of winches and pulleys powers by steam engines. It was all very advanced cutting-edge technology for the time (1900). However, unfortunately the Inclined Plane suffered from mechanical and structural problems from when it first opened in 1900. By 1908 it was clear that the scheme - however ingenious - was not working, and the locks were re-opened once again and enlarged . They form a particularly attractive vista although they are hard work to negotiate!

Above: The view from the top of the Foxton Flight of locks - photo by the Tuesday Night Club and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The entrance to Saddington Tunnel - again, photo by the Tuesday Night Club and reproduced by kind permission.

Beyond Foxton the canal meanders around following the contour lines, and you can enjoy navigating long pounds of water with no locks. The Leicester Line reaches the city of Leicester via the villages of Fleckney, Newton Harcourt and Blaby.

You also navigate the 880 yard long Saddington tunnel, which is slightly twisted, and this makes it difficult to see through to each end. The tunnel is also home to numerous colonies of bats, which can be a bit scary if you don't like flying things..... The canal leaves Saddington tunnel and you navigate one or two locks as you continue northwards towards the city of Leicester.

The approach to Leicester on the canal is one of the best among large towns and cities, and you can easily gain access to the city centre along a fine canalside walk, past some ornamental bridges. It is worth taking time out to discover the many attractions of Leicester, like the County Museum, the Newarke Houses Museum, Belgrave Hall, the Jewry Wall and Archeological Museum. The travel agent Thomas Cook started his business in Leicester in 1841!


 Above: Limekiln Lock in Leicester

Above: The Grand Union at Loughborough

After the canal leaves the city it becomes the River Soar Navigation. The route proceeds gently northwards for the last 20 miles or so past villages like Syston, Mountsorrel, and Barrow on Soar,and you approach the town of Loughborough. Loughborough is an industrial town with engineering works and railway sidings backing onto the river.

Once past Loughborough you continue northwards through a meandering course on the river. Boaters should be aware that the River Soar is very much a river navigation which is liable to flood in wet weather, and care should be taken. For instance, the many weirs here should be avoided by boaters in bad weather.

Above: The River Soar at Zouch -
photo by Mat Fas and reproduced by
kind permission

Above: Normanton on Soar Church next to the River Soar - photo by Tim Heaton and reproduced by kind permission

The Soar passes two nice old villages called Zouch and Normanton on Soar. Zouch has an old canalside pub called the Rose and Crown with moorings for boaters. Normanton is a carefully preserved little place where you can see a black and white timbered post office with a thatched roof, a lovely little church and a good old pub called The Plough, again situated by the river and good for thirsty boaters.

Beyond Normanton you reach the village of Kegworth, which is the location of East Midlands Airport , so moorings here are rather noisy! Two old pubs are here - the Anchor and The White House - and you can obtain the usual necessary supplies.

Above: River Soar at Normanton - photo by Mat Fas and reproduced by kind permission

Above: A typical landscape on the River Soar - photo by Tim Heaton and reproduced by kind permission

Past Kegworth and Ratcliffe on Soar - a tiny village with another nice old church - you reach the River Trent at Trent Lock. This is the end of the Grand Union Canal Leicester Line. Here you have to make a decision whether to turn right up the mighty River Trent, or left to join the Trent and Mersea Canal.  I hope that this brief introduction to the Leicester Arm of the Grand Union Canal will awake your interest in trying to navigate it yourself!