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Picture taken in the second lock of the Stoke Bruerne flight - with the Navigation pub in the back ground and beyond the bridge, the canal museum.
Photo from canal boat fleet operator
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The Grand Union Canal is actually not one single canal at all but an amalgamation of ten! They 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
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 available here).
Above: Brentford locks to the River Thames - photo courtesy J Briggs
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 trips and canal boat hire avaliable ) and Apsley where the canal begins to climb more steeply taking a north westerly direction skirting 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.
As you leave Winkwell the outskirts of Berkhamsted appear, and you are conscious of the fact that the Chiltern Hills are crowding in all around you. Berkhamsted 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.
Berkhamsted 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 Berkhamsted - photo by J Briggs
As Berkhamsted 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.
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.
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: 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:The Grand Union at Bugbrooke - photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced by kind permission
Above: Gayton Junction - photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced by
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 waterways centre at Braunston -
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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