“You’ve got a mad boyfriend”, her work mates told her, but I’d decided to cycle the Grand Union Canal between my home in London and my parents near Birmingham many years before after looking at a British Waterways map and wondering if many people still made the entire journey. “By narrow boat it must be snail slow” I thought to myself, but seeing as they were originally designed to be pulled by horses, a bridleway must exist along the whole route, or so I hoped.
A break in work and sunny spring weather left me with no excuses not to and so after a slow morning of getting myself ready, I didn’t set out until almost midday. I rode out first along the Wandle river from Morden in South London to join the Thames and work my way through central London to the Brentford canal junction.
Having ridden through London quite regularly I didn’t bother checking my route first, and after Wandsworth I soon found myself getting lost in London’s ‘village’ of Barnes. Very beautiful as it is, riding in circles was not a good start. So I set the compass for west and tackled the traffic until I was safely back on the bridleway through Kew.
I forgo the idea of wearing lycra as I thought I’ll only be averaging about 9 miles per hour on the canal and dressing like a racing cyclist would attract ridicule from the people idly sitting in pub beer gardens watching me pass. However I didn’t look the average commuter either more like a hiker with a bicycle heavily laden with tent and panniers. But one thing I hadn’t planned for were the parts where I had to carry myself up steps. It must have looked odd to the dog walkers and joggers getting ready for the London marathon but I secretly wanted someone to ask me what I was doing so I could share my little epic plan.
I felt genuinely excited to be standing at the start of the canal near the old docks on a busy Brentford street photographing the signpost like a sad train-spotter but knowing myself the significance of this otherwise unremarkable starting point that was probably lost on the passing tired people with shopping bags and white vans looking irate at red lights. I was looking forward to spending some time, lost in time on the sleepy old England of the canal.
The canal network begun in the late 18th Century by private finance and without modern technology, it eventually became the Grand Union canal in 1929 as the result of many competing independent canals, it finally amalgamated as a ‘union’ to form a continuous link between London and Birmingham.
When I lived in Hanwell 8 years before I used to run to Brentford to keep fit and so I was surprised how much the area had changed. From a scruffy industrial area had sprouted new waterside flats, the sort of modern looking apartments that are now appearing everywhere in the UK since people have decided the leisure value of these old waterways that were once at the heart of industry.
“The area is definitely showing new prosperity” I thought to myself as the canal snaked a quiet path below the main A4 and M4 roads, tube lines and tall mirrored offices of multinational corporations. But soon this gave way to woodland, peace, discarded beer cans and graffiti. A kid on his bike decided to shoot pass me up the hill beside Hanwell flight of locks, but this time I decided to leave him to it. I had a great feeling of relaxation and of the need to take my time and adjust to the rhythm of life on the waterway.
This was familiar territory for me as I headed out passing through west London’s Indian & Pakistani community of Southall, and London started its sprawl passing Hillingdon where I had raced several times on the custom built cycle race circuit. I got to the junction with the eastern stretch of the Grand Union and stopped on top of the steep bridge to pause and savour the map. A man sat on the post eating his lunchtime sandwiches asked me where I was going and so now someone else knows that there is a cyclist trying to get to Birmingham along the canal and I feel a bit better for it.
Along this section the local council had erected special gates across the tow-path to deter motorbikes, normally cycles easily pass through these but not ones with panniers and it quickly became a chore to try and lift the bike through while passing it ahead of me and not let it’s heavy weight allow it fall straight in the canal. I wasn’t making much more progress than one of the narrow boats going the same way it started to make me think this could take much longer than I first anticipated.
London slowly disappeared just showing itself occasionally with sightings of the overland tube and centres of Rickmansworth and Watford. The canal was quite busy along this section with plenty of people taking their lunch breaks from nearby factories, fisherman and the odd dodgy looking character.
It also amazed me how many people seem to be living on the canal, many seemed to be moored for so long that they had sprouted their own gardens on the tow-path and created little homes. This is probably a sign of today’s crazy house prices, for many people this is probably their best chance of owning a home.
People of all types were living on the canal and its tempting to make sweeping generalisations just to keep yourself amused. On this section there seemed to be a fair few late middle aged men with unwashed long hair with their shirts off in the sun tinkering with motorbikes or work benches besides filthy looking pits of boat dwellings. There were also the clean looking holiday makers hiring a boat for a week and the happy retired couples with neatly painted boats designed to appeal to the twee Irish gypsy style with names like ‘Autumn Sunrise’ or ‘Shallweorwot’ that suggested am optimistic rebirth of life. All except one I saw for sale that was a bit run down but called the ‘Spark of Life’, for which obviously had been lost for this owner.
The weather was gloriously sunny and as I sat for some lunch on a quiet bend in the shade I wondered if I might have finally shaken off London. My legs were already feeling a little of the ride and I was really hungry and ate half of the chorizo sausage I’d packed for the trip. From here the canal seemed to be increasingly reserved for the gardens of the rich. The huge sweeping lawns of luxury and beauty must be a full time job for a busy gardener and lining the banks sat hordes of fisherman, almost motionless gnomes staring at the water ripples without a thought of work. And on a day like today, why would any sane person?
Finally getting somewhere I passed through Hemel Hempsted, or some might say, finally reaching nowhere. But to me this was another familiar stretch having cycled from here before to Leighton Buzzard about 3 years before. One of the great things about cycling the canal is how it links up to the train stations and so its easy to head off in one direction and then safely sit on the train home. But not this time.
Dwelling on this thought, the Romans were the first to make a substantial link between the capital and the Midlands. Watling street runs from London through St Albans and Towcester all the way to Holyhead for passage onto Ireland. Later on during the Industrial Revolution the canals supplied manufactured goods and coal throughout the UK and onto the world empire. During the world wars they were used in supplying military equipment and supplies from the manufacturing heartlands around Birmingham and Manchester.
Later the train made the canals redundant. Watling street was renamed the A5 and car and lorry took the glory away from railway’s golden age, eventually eating up a wide chunk of countryside with the roaring M1. Today the canal is kept company by the M1, A5 and train line as they rejoin at various points. When I have the time I prefer taking the train to London or driving the A5 which is far more interesting than the M1 rat run.
Up through the canal town of Berkhampsted and the idyllic village of Tring, now the countryside really sets in and the modern world begins to fade away. The path degrades into grass tracks and cobbled antique bridges that need walking across and great care taken to avoid falling in the canal. It was late afternoon and I wanted to cover half the distance before settling down for the night. There are also no camp-sites around this area and I decided to ride until sunset and find myself a hidden spot to pitch my tent.
I had a welcome break in Leighton Buzzard and grabbed a carbohydrate, protein take away to eat on a curve in the last rays of golden sun. From here to Milton Keynes the path has been upgraded to tarmac making progress much easier and my average speed again began to rise.
The ride was now starting to become a mission to complete in two days and I found myself sinking into the deep trance of long distance cycling. My mind floating between different subjects but somehow not holding onto anything too long and allowing me to gaze into the tranquil scenes of hedges, fields, hills and distant churches. Just snapping awake in time to dodge ducks chilling out on the bank and slowing to unclip my pedals to react to whatever state the track was like under the many old bridges along the route.
Milton Keynes was also familiar, I’d stayed here a month, several years ago for work and again I was riding old tracks I used to jog. The centre of Milton Keynes, the town of concrete cows is surprisingly country like and nature friendly with bicycle paths everywhere. Although still being close to lots of suburbs its not suitable for rough camping, so I rode on further. The sun was setting and I found out later my shins were being feasted on by gnats. I eventually found a hidden stretch of woods before Wolverton, where I locked my bike to a tree and settled down for the night hidden away in a small patch I’d cleared of branches.
Surprisingly I slept right through until 8am and awoke finding the canal busy with people cycling to work. I tested my muscles to determine their condition and to discover if I was up to the long final stretch. My Dad, John had arranged to meet me at the junction village of Braunston about 30 miles away and so I had a target for the morning. Braunston is nowadays a sleepy little place but it must have been something significant in the canal’s heyday as there has been mileposts to there all along the route and not as you would expect to the cities of Birmingham, Coventry, Oxford or Leicester.
Wolverton was undergoing path resurfacing, which meant I had to ignore tow path closed signs and ride over bone shaking stones. I’d covered the last 2 miles at walking pace and expended lots of energy in doing so. The ride soon petered out into full on sleepy countryside, and lost grassy tracks with hardly a soul about. The canal people here were a mixture of German tourists and hippies who seems to have made a good effort in dropping out, but not from avoiding the clichés of looking like a hippy with all the whimsical dream catchers, wind chimes and beware of the fairy signs they are attracted to.
Cosgrove was a typical honey coloured Cotswold like village but without the tourist buses and further on Stoke Bruerne was a delightful place to find, a real canal town next to a flight of 7 locks. It seems to live in and celebrate its canal history while avoiding being spoilt or even discovered much. If I was writing a guidebook, then this is where I’d recommend staying overnight, there are some lovely Bed and Breakfast cottages here, canal pubs, cafés and an interesting looking canal museum.
I ambled along, one hand on the bars eating an ice cream and enjoying the sun. To my disappointment I couldn’t cycle any further at Blisworth as there was no tow-path through the 3056 yard tunnel. There is however a bridleway that goes over several fields, where in the past horses accompanying the canal were taken around to the other end, while professional ‘leggers’ would lie on their backs and walk the boat along the tunnel walls.
Back on the canal I was slipping behind on schedule to meet my Dad, who had already had his second breakfast and was now riding as slow as he could to Braunston. The canal was only offering a good surface in patches and I found myself in lost tracts of Northamptonshire countryside, with only occasional lone boats and beautiful yellow rape fields reflecting in the blossom covered surface water skin.
The heat and distance were hitting me hard and I slipped again into that trance, that mix of peaceful enjoyable high and boredom, where you are free to contemplate freely on life and how lucky you are to be able to get so happily disconnected from reality. I must have passed through the town of Daventry but I didn’t even notice it, the path disintegrated almost to nothing and I wished that I could have swapped my cycle in the imaginary team car for a lightweight mountain bike with suspension. At times the path was so bad I was riding through the canal, and many times I had to walk just to keep upright.
Another tunnel just before Braunston forced me ride up over the hill away from the canal. There were no signposts as to where to go but I felt pretty sure that tunnel would be straight and so by following the bridleway for a mile or so found my way, descending into Braunston, passing several lovely pubs and climbing some horrible narrow steps that prevented me from turning back to revisit them. I met my Dad, John here and together we hoped there would be another pub just down the way.
There wasn’t and the ride again became just a path for the steady footed only. The heat blazed down and our minds concentrated purely on keeping out of the water trying to call us in. The cold, wet brown canal constantly next to you is a powerful reality check preventing you from relaxing too much and falling asleep. The thought of trying to pull myself, bike and panniers from the canal was probably the worst thing that could happen on the whole trip. Still it was comforting to think an unexpected cold dip was much better than playing dice with white vans and lorries on the road.
Most of my energy had been spent and I found myself contemplating steak and chips and a pint of ale for the next few hours as we searched for pub gardens. Its amazing how your mind can empty during these times and the necessities of life become all absorbing. The huge marinas of Napton on the Hill moored multitudes of uninhabited boats waiting for their part time owners to return in the Summer.
The first pub was closed, we stopped anyway and scoffed the remains of bread, oranges and fruitcake that we had left. Time was getting on and doubt was expressed about completing the journey in 2 days. The path since Braunston had been really tough and unless things improved drastically finishing today looked bleak and I was contemplating a third day.
Surprisingly a short break later and the path did improve drastically. Now we heading downhill on one of the Sustran national cycle routes. We flew along just touching our brakes as we sped past flights of locks, fisherman and hippies. Occasionally the path disappeared into rutted grass, but we were now energised from the descent. As the day cooled slightly, the rolling countryside took on the quality of coffee table photography books.
A pint of orange juice before continuing on and the canal slowly became busier as we pedalled into southern Warwickshire. Many people were converging on the canal for the evening, to relax, walk or cycle. The section between Leamington Spa and Warwick was excellent, fast to ride and happily used by locals for getting home and fit. But after Warwick some idiot from the council had decided to pave the route in thick gravel, making riding just about impossible. How can this be called path improvement? Do they not take cycling seriously?
I’d been across Hatton lock flight by road many times before as a teenager with the Cyclist’s Touring Club or CTC, but I’d never stopped before to explore and fully appreciate them. There are 21 locks here going right up the hillside and its amazing to think anyone would dare try to tackle then in a narrow boat, let alone use it as the main trade route across the nation.
Passing the last tunnel at Shrewly the path again resorted to churned ruts of solid mud, at one point almost throwing us into the river as we put safety back a little in order to chase the dying light into Brum. We rode on past Lapworth and onto the lovely Knowle locks, which I’d also never seen before even though I’d grown up in the area, I felt slightly ashamed by how lovely they were now that I was seeing the area from a completely different angle.
Here along the banks we tore along at a speed only possible when you can smell home. Several herons saw us approaching fast and took off flying further up the canal only to stop in our path and again have to take off, this continued for about 2 miles much to our amusement. Here also was a pub called the Heron’s Nest, which had been a notorious cyclist’s hang out in the 1960’s for my Dad called ‘The Cat in the Window’.
The tow path ended for us at Catherine de Barnes, we didn’t fancy riding into Birmingham along the canal at night, dodging drunks and bored kids, I’ll save that for another day. Instead we headed down through the NEC and the airport, to get home at 10pm, sunburnt, sore, dizzy but with huge smiles across our faces.
The canals are a wonderful green and blue network that winds across the whole of Britain. They have been forgotten a long time but today are coming back into significance. They are hugely important for our leisure and offer solutions to combat the problems of traffic congestion and the biggest dilemma of our age, climate change. I think our canal paths should all be restored completely for cyclists and walkers, for both leisure and commuting. I’m sure more and more people will then consider riding this route and the canal will become more popular.
Looking on the internet the next day I see there is now a 48 hour running race along the entire length of the canal which according to the website is the toughest running race in Britain. It didn’t come as much comfort to my tired legs to think other people were running the same distance is the same time as I had cycled it.
May 1-2 2007
Grand Union Canal running race
Grand Union Canal