Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Grand Junction Jaunt - Part 1 is the copyright of Jim Shead - Cruising the lower Grand Union Canal and its London Branches. First published in Waterways World October 2004.
Grand Junction Jaunt
When the Grand Junction Canal opened in 1805 it provided a route from the Oxford Canal at Braunston to the Thames at Brentford creating a direct route between London and the Midlands. On the 1st January 1929 the Grand Junction Canal became part of the new Grand Union Canal Company whose new 137 mile main line, stretching from Salford Bridge Junction in Birmingham to Brentford, became the longest canal in the country. For our trip on the Grand Union we are disregarding this enlarged main line and instead confining our voyage to the old Grand Junction line.
The entrance to the canal at Brentford is from the tidal Thames opposite Kew Gardens and is usually reached either by a fairly short trip down river from Teddington or by a more challenging route up river from Limehouse. Turning off the Thames we find ourselves on a tidal channel about 300 yards long before we get to Thames Locks. These locks are manned and can only be operated at the correct state of the tide. If you want to use the locks 24 hours notice is needed and passage can be arranged through the lock keepers at Teddington or Limehouse. This seems to work well and I have always found a lock keeper awaiting my arrival, usually with the lock gates open but sometimes the arrival of a convoy will mean queuing. There are two locks side by side here and at Brentford Gauging Locks. The pound in between these two sets of locks is semi-tidal as the river comes up over the weir on high tides, a point to bear in mind if mooring. This first pound of the canal is home to a great variety of craft, large and small, seagoing, river and canal boats.
Rounding the bend and coming under a low road bridge we arrive at Brentford Gauging Locks which are electrically operated by boaters using a BW key. The lock mooring is on the left next to a high wall and the locks are reached over a footbridge. Just above the lock there are moorings in a wide expanse of water surrounded by an area subject to many changes. Much of the old has gone and last year when I was there most of the new was still at foundations level. Once back on the narrower waters we find many new office blocks that have replaced the old Brentford waterfront in recent years. The lower part of the canal has rivers flowing into the navigation in many places, here it is the river Brent that joins and leaves through several side weirs. Clitheroes Lock is the first of the standard manually operated locks that are characteristic of the Grand Junction section of the Grand Union. It has quite a rural feel and at one time goats, from a nearby ramshackle urban farm, could be found on the lock side. The whole place has now been tidied-up as no doubt befits the status of an up and coming area.
After the lock the canal sweeps round close to the M4 before turning away, going beneath an original Grand Junction cast iron bridge, under a bridge carrying the Piccadilly tube line, then passing below the M4 before arriving at Osterley Lock. The lock takes its name from the adjacent Osterley Park, a Tudor mansion transformed into an elegant neo-classical by Robert Adam in 1761. While the waterway makes its way round the edge of the park, like a respectful tradesman, the M4 brashly cuts through passing about a quarter of a mile from the house, now a National Trust property.
Half a mile on we come to the bottom lock of the Hanwell flight which has a towpath on the right bounded by the long tall wall of the former Hanwell Hospital. Over the next mile we pass the six Hanwell and two Norwood locks taking us up 68 feet to the BW facilities above Norwood top lock. From here it is 5˝ miles to the next lock on the main line but altogether there are 26 miles of level cruising waters, including 5 miles of the Slough Arm and the 15˝ miles down the Paddington Branch and Regent's canal to Hampstead Road top lock. There are just under two miles, through mixed industrial and residential areas, before arriving at Bulls Bridge Junction where through the roving bridge on the right is the start of the Paddington Branch. Opposite the junction are the 24 hour moorings of the large Tesco supermarket that was built on the site of the former Grand Union Carrying Fleet depot.
At this point we leave the main line to explore the Grand Junction's route to the River Lee, starting with the Paddington Branch that was opened in 1801 - four years before the main line was completed. After the junction the canal passes under the Bristol to Paddington main railway line and soon becomes much more open and green than the previous two miles from Norwood locks. Open areas of grassland break up the London suburbs and tress often hide the back gardens and houses just beyond the towpath. Willowtree Marina is about two miles down the branch and is a marina built as part of a new housing development. It is possible to take your boat into the marina and moor outside the Quayside Bistro but the diesel, gas and pumpout services are on the canal outside. This would seem to be a convenient arrangement except that there is no access from the public footpath on the bank into the marina except by a locked gate. I found that the only way of getting service here was to telephone the marina to let them know I was waiting outside. I was told there was no bell because if there were then passing children would ring it.
Another two miles brings us to Highline Yachting then a more industrial area before passing the canalside Black Horse pub and the open landscape of Horsenden Hill. About seven miles down the branch at Piggery Bridge there is another supermarket by the canal, this time Sainsbury's. The scenery is ever changing as we pass factories, warehouses, housing, boat moorings and pockets of greenery on our journey towards central London. After another mile we arrive at the long modern aqueduct that takes us across the North Circular Road. In the next three miles we pass more industrial buildings, the large railway depot at Old Oak Common, much of which is hidden behind the towpath wall, and finally Kensal Creen Cemetery, which stretches for about three-quarters of a mile on the north bank. This was built in response to the severe lack of burial space in the capital when London's population increased by 20 per cent in the 1820s. It was the first of the seven joint-stock cemeteries that encircle London, the others being at Norwood, Nunhead, Abney Park, Tower Hamlets, Brompton and Highgate.
Although we are now only two miles from Paddington railway station the canal is not oppressively urban and the wide grassy towpath provides moorings that seemed to be well used by a variety of boats when we passed last September. This soon changes as we come to Porta Bella Dock, another Sainsbury's next to the canal then houses and offices closing in on both sides. Next the elevated section of the Westway dual-carriageway appears, dominating the surrounding area and heralding our approach to Little Venice. There are moorings just before the junction but spaces are not always available. Immediately before the junction there are BW facilities. We then pass under a road bridge into the wider waters of Little Venice that look like a small lake with an island in the middle and is the junction between the Paddington Branch, which continues for a short way on the right to Paddington Basin, and the Regents Canal which exits north.
The Regent's Canal was opened in 1820 and operated as a separate company right up to 1st January 1929 when it, and other canal companies merged with the Grand Junction Canal to become the Grand Union Canal Co Ltd. The first few hundred yards of the canal are lined with permanent moorings on the towpath side, which is now on the right again for the first time since we left Bulls Bridge Junction. Soon we pass under a smart café bar and enter the 272 yard Madia Hill Tunnel. After the tunnel we pass some more long-term moorings before the canal goes through Regents Park. This is a pleasant section with the park, grand houses and the Zoo. It is not possible to moor anywhere in this section as the towpath consists of stone and cement with no mooring rings or posts. We turn away from the park at Cumberland Basin, where a large restaurant boat is moored, and head towards Hampstead Road Locks. There are visitor moorings before arriving at the locks.
The two wide Hampstead Road Locks, side by side, are in the centre of a bustling metropolitan scene with a market, trip boats, pubs and a busy road bridge taking traffic into Camden High Street. There are three locks to descend before a pound of over half a mile is ended at St Pancras Lock, just north of the railway station. Beside the lock is the clubhouse of St Pancras Cruising Club who have done so much to promote the use of London's waterways with their many organised cruises. Shortly afterwards we pass Battlebridge Basin, the home of the London Canal Museum and a mooring place for assorted craft, then pass through the 960 yard Islington Tunnel. The other side of the tunnel there are some visitor moorings before City Road Lock, City Road Basin, Wenlock Basin and Stut's Lock all in little more than half a mile.
We are now heading into the East End. In the next two miles we pass Acton's and Old Ford locks to arrive at the junction with the Hertford Union Canal. From here four locks on the Regent's Canal lead down to Limehouse Basin, once known as Regent's Canal Dock. The basin offers good visitor moorings and from there passage can be made through Limehouse Lock onto the tidal Thames or through Limehouse Cut to the River Lee. A trip up the tidal Thames back to our starting point at Brentford would complete the London Ring. If you are doing this make sure that you have read all the safety advice and that you have checked with your insurers before setting off. The useful Thames Tideway Guide by Chris Cove-Smith 1s an A5 size, 12 page booklet available from the IWA Bookshop for 30 pence plus postage.
The Hertford Union Canal was the idea of Sir George Duckett and is often called Duckett's cut. In 1824 he obtained an Act of Parliament to build a shortcut to the Lee, which was opened in 1830 and in 1857 was sold to the Regent's Canal Company. This straight cut is just over a mile long and descends three locks to the River Lee. For much of its length it runs beside Hackney's Victoria Park on the towpath side. On the opposite bank there has been much recent and continuing development as smart new waterside homes take the place of the old East End. Here we end our trip through London. In the next part we will continue up the Grand Union main line.
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