The Grand Union canal: a retrospective


I suspect that, even if you don’t think of yourself as a canal person, you’ve heard of the Grand Union. If “Name a Canal” were ever a question on Family Fortunes, it would be the top answer. (By the way, if that same question comes up on Pointless, I recommend giving the Digbeth Branch Canal as your answer. More anon.)

Bear with me folks. It’s a long post, but I’ll reward you with pictures at the end. 

The Grand Union is the longest canal in the country, with well over a hundred double (ie wide, ie monstrous beasts of hell, ie I now have arms like Arnie) locks. Its main trunk route through the country starts at Brentford, where it joins the tidal Thames at Thames Lock, and stretches all the way to Bordersley Junction in Birmingham. After that, you’re on the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) – or, more specifically, the Digbeth Branch Canal.

It wasn’t originally conceived as a single canal. In fact, three different companies built and ran different canals along what is now the Grand Union. But, as canals grew ever more pointless as a means of commercial transport with the advent of the railways, in 1929 the companies joined forces, created one mother of a union and in the process rebuilt parts to make it wider. And it’s not just London to Birmingham, though that’s what it’s best known for. There’s a branch to the east – the Leicester Section, where Felucca started her journey – as well as smaller branches such as the Aylesbury Arm, the Northampton Arm and the Paddington Arm in London. (Who knows exactly how the Regent’s Canal fits into this picture? It was in the past part of the GU but I don’t think it is now, as it has separate bridge numbers, and… Oh you don’t care do you? I’m not even sure I do. Let’s move on.)

In October and November, we did a good old stretch of the beast. I’m not going to include London in this retrospective, even though it is technically part of the GU. London is often accused of being unlike any other part of the country and its canal suffers from much the same affliction. Instead, I’m going to talk about my enduring memories of the rest of the canal: the post-London sprawl, the new towns and last but far from least, the pretty bits.

That month gave us Autumn’s glories and our first taste of frost aboard Felucca. We had golden days, grey afternoons and long dark nights. The leaves finally fell from the trees. More than once, our centre line was frozen to the roof when we got up in the morning. But we had our stove, our efficient yet incredibly noisy diesel central heating, two duvets, thermal layers and red wine, so we stayed snug.

The post-London sprawl

We actually went through Brentford twice, for our sins. Not that there’s anything wrong with Brentford, but I think if I’d had to lock up those Hanwell Steps (a flight of 12 locks) a third time I might have lost the will to live and jumped into the cut. And the water’s pretty murky around there so it wouldn’t have been a fragrant end. Anyway, the whole stretch from Brentford onwards was surprisingly hard work. I thought I’d mastered the physics of the lock but this was like Newton’s Third Law of Lock Navigation, where unknown forces act0 mysteriously upon the water flowing through the sluices and everything you had previously held dear about how to work a lock was proven to be rather unhelpful. Of course, there was a knack, we just had to learn it and until we did, we inched our way uphill at a mind-numbingly slow pace. Our progress, slow to start with, was made even more snail-like by the fact that the locks were spaced irritatingly. On some canals – eg the Peak Forest or the Oxford – the original engineers tried to bunch the locks together, so you’d have a flight with loads of locks in a row, then nothing for a good few miles as the canal follows the contours of the land. On others – eg the Huddersfield Narrow – there are just so many locks that it doesn’t make sense to pick up your lock-boy or girl between each one, so one of us would drive the boat the whole day while the other walked on ahead setting the next lock and speeding us through. That’s fine when each lock is less than 2 minutes’ walk away, but the GU is the worst of all worlds. The locks aren’t close enough that walking between each one is a comfortable distance. And they aren’t far enough away to get your speed up, particularly as there were so many moored boats that we had to slow down for. And most of the time we were on our own, nary another boat passed all day let alone someone to share a lock with and make the work easier. And I got a cold. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh again.

Sorry about that. Boater’s rant over.

The new towns

They get proper slagged, our country’s new towns, don’t they? Boring commuter belt zones, no soul, nothing ‘appening, lots of roundabouts and all a bit dreary. And, having passed through both Milton Keynes and Hemel Hempstead, I sort of see why and I sort of don’t.

The in-town shopping centres with an out of town feel are more than a bit depressing. But the canal goes through the parks of MK and I got a real sense of what the town designers were planning: a series of little villages, each with their own distinct feel and aesthetic. And on the one day we took a car over all those roundabouts, we realised how efficient they are for driving in. Not wonderful if you’re usually a pedestrian I grant you. But, overall, there are worse things in life than clean and tidy efficiency. And at least neither MK nor Hemel had that disastrously soul-destroying feel of the semi-abandoned old town (I’m naming no names BURNLEY), where half of everybody has legged it and the other half wander round like zombies, shooting fish in the canal and wishing they could leg it too.

The biggest disappointment of my new town experience was the old part of town. Specifically, Bletchley Park. I was made up to be taken there on my birthday; I have long felt that I should have been one of Dilly’s Fillies in a previous life. And I know it’s being done up and therefore not at its best. But seriously. It honestly felt like it had been thrown together by two elves, who had got the exhibits out of Santa’s sack of rejected electronic gifts. The audio guide (I hate the things! Why did I take one?!) led us first to the main hall, where I think a conference had just been held. I wandered around for five minutes before realising that used coffee cups and biscuit crumbs and empty chairs were not part of the exhibit. It got better, reader, but not much.

The pretty bits

One thing that did indisputably improve, however, was the Grand Union itself. The Tring summit was stunning. We came through Berkhamsted and emerged into a stretch of the most gloriously clear water. So clear I could see all the lock gates, the top cill of the lock and one of the longest, fattest fish I’ve ever seen under the water. And after that, we went through a Lion-Witch-and-Wardrobe like cutting in Tring itself, all autumnal leaves and shards of sunlight and mist rising. Like I said, stunning.

From here right up to Braunston, things just got more fun. The villages were so pretty, they even had pretty names: Cosgrove, Stoke Bruerne, Weedon Bec. Cosgrove has a tunnel that takes you on foot, under the canal, to a pub on the other side with Everards on tap. Stoke Bruerne has a canal museum that puts Bletchley to shame and a pub with real coal fires. All the villages present their best front to the canal and seem happy to have it there. The whole thing just made me happy to still be out on the cut that late in the year and even thinking about it again right now, I’m tempted to get Felucca back out there again tomorrow.

And now here’s the picture retrospective as a grand finale. Thanks for listening.


The bleakness of the post London sprawl.

The bleakness of the post London sprawl.

New town statue. Can't remember where. No idea why.

New town statue. Can’t remember where. No idea why.

Disappointing Bletchley

Disappointing Bletchley

Start of Tring cutting.

Start of Tring cutting.

Gratuitous Felucca shot.

Gratuitous Felucca shot.

Tom stands. Sign has the most amazing names on it - YARDLEY GOBION anyone? - as well as directions to horse tunnel and pub.

Tom stands. Sign has the most amazing names on it – YARDLEY GOBION anyone? – as well as directions to horse tunnel and pub.

Smoke rising from narrowboats on beautiful afternoon in Cosgrove.

Smoke rising from narrowboats on beautiful afternoon in Cosgrove.

Felucca pulling up for services at the junction with the Northampton Arm.

Felucca pulling up for services at the junction with the Northampton Arm.

Look at the ice on that top box! Brr.

Look at the ice on that top box! Brr.

Tagged with:
Posted in Cruising log, History and traditions
One comment on “The Grand Union canal: a retrospective
  1. Clare Waller says:

    Been cycling along the towpath at Tring, it is indeed lovely. x

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