Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Grand Junction Jaunt - Part 2 is the copyright of Jim Shead - Cruising the Grand Union Canal from Bulls Bridge to Braunston. First published in Waterways World November 2004.
Grand Junction Jaunt
We continue our journey north up the Grand Union main line from Bulls Bridge Junction. We soon pass the Nestle's factory in Hayes, which started producing chocolate in 1913 and was supplied with coal from the Midlands by canal right up to the 1960s. It is now used for the production of freeze dried and spray dried coffee, including the world famous Nescafé brand.
For the first two or three miles the canal runs close to the railway line and industrial units and offices can be seen along the banks, we then turn north-west to find areas that are more residential before arriving at Cowley Peachey Junction. Here the five-mile Slough Arm, opened in 1882, leaves the canal. There is now a new marina at the junction run by British Waterways close to the Turning Point pub and restaurant. At Cowley Lock the Shovel is another long established pub with a full menu which has now been joined on the lockside by a recently opened tea-room.
Along this section progress is slow due to the long lines of moored boats that are found in so many places at the London end of the canal. This would be less annoying if there were not so many boats that seem to be exempt from the requirements for licences, insurance, boat safety certificates and adherence to the mooring code. Arriving at Uxbridge we go by the Uxbridge Boat Centre and pass close to the town centre before arriving at Uxbridge Lock. There is a more rural feel above the lock as the canal makes its way up the Colne valley passing under the A40 dual carriageway before arriving at the aptly named Denham Deep Lock which raises us 11 feet. In the nearby village in May 1936 the Denham Film Studios opened, boasting seven sound stages, a new Technicolor laboratory, workshops, restaurants and dressing rooms fit for Hollywood stars. The studio work for Brief Encounter was done here, the location filming being based at Carnforth on the Lancaster Canal. The studios closed after Disney's Robin Hood was made there in 1952.
We then pass a lot of open water on both sides of the canal caused by old gravel extraction workings and now much used for carp fishing. Just before Widewater Lock is Harefield Marina and opposite the Horse & Barge pub. At the next lock (Black Jack's) there is a restaurant and above the lock a weir that takes water back into the River Colne.
When approaching Copper Mill Lock watch out for the strong stream which runs just above bridge 177 and can be fierce at times. The Coy Carp pub here used to be called the Fisheries Inn. I strongly disapprove of the increasingly frequent changes in pub names. How are we supposed to give directions to anywhere if the names of the pubs keep changing? In the pound above the lock the River Colne joins the navigation.
The open countryside continues as we pass on through Springwell and Stocker's locks, areas well used for fishing and bird watching. The area around Springwell Lock also has a Sci-fi connection having been used for the filming of episodes of Blakes Seven and Doctor Who.
As we approach Rickmansworth we come to a canalside Tesco's with moorings, surely no canal has more waterside supermarkets than the Grand Union. From Batchworth Lock at Rickmansworth to Lot Mead Lock is only a short distance and it is in this pound that we leave the Colne valley and join the valley of the River Gade which we follow to Hemel Hempstead. Within the mile we arrive at Common Moor Lock that has a lot of new housing above it, part of the outskirts of Watford.
Just before Cassio Bridge Lock a railway bridge carries a branch of the Metropolitan tube line to its terminus at Watford reminding us that we are in what John Betjeman affectionately called "Metroland" an area close to, but excluding his bête noires - Slough.
The canal keeps to the western edge of Watford running between Cassiobury Park and the open land of Jacotts Hill. On the way we pass through Iron Bridge Lock and the two Cassiobury Park Locks. From here it is five miles and ten locks to Two Waters Bridge at Hemel Hempstead. The route takes us under the M25 and past Abbots Langley and Kings Langley before arriving at Nash Mills locks on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead.
Although it was originally used for corn grinding Nash Mills was used for paper making from as far back as 1797 and in 1811 John Dickinson bought it and continued paper manufacture here. Today paper making here is part of the Sappi group of companies. Another old paper mill at Apsley Bottom Lock has been replaced by a new housing development and marina. Before the next Apsley Lock, No. 66, there are moorings for Sainsbury's.
From Hemel Hempstead the canal continues through pleasant countryside as it climbs up to the Tring summit level at Cowroast. There are not any real flights of locks on this southern part of the canal from Bulls Bridge to Tring, instead the canal follows river valleys with most of the locks spaced fairly evenly. Now we leave the River Gade and run alongside the Bulbourne. After Winkwell Lock, No 61, we find our first swing bridge, an electrically operated structure for which a BW key is needed. On the other side of the bridge stands the picturesque Three Horseshoes Inn dating back to 1535.
From here it is about 2½ miles and 8 locks to Berkhamsted. This is perhaps the archetypal Hertfordshire small town and is a place with some charm and a long history. Graham Greene was educated at Berkhamsted School where his father was headmaster, but he was bullied and had to be sent to stay for six months with an amateur psychiatrist to get over it. There are moorings in the town opposite the park and next to a large Waitrose supermarket. The town centre is just the other side of Waitrose's car park and has a Tesco's as well as a good range of other shops.
Seven locks in just over two miles brings us to Cowroast named after the 17th century inn across the road from the lock. At one time drovers from the Midlands on their way to London markets used the large cattle pens that were once here to rest their beasts. The "Cow Rest" somehow became the "Cowroast", perhaps it was the wishful thinking of hungry travellers that caused the change. Just above the lock is Cowroast Marina.
On the summit level we pass Tring railway station, which is over a mile from the town, and enter Tring Cutting. The cutting ends close to Bulbourne where British Waterways has workshops that until recently made lock gates, now the future of the site is under review. Opposite the depot are visitor moorings and the Grand Junction Arms with a large garden. The 3-mile summit ends at the junction with the Wendover Arm and Marsworth Top Lock. Seven locks take us down to Marsworth village and the junction with the Aylesbury Arm, opened in 1815.
Marsworth has three pubs and a BW office and yard with facilities. After the village we come to two more Marsworth Locks which are almost a mile from the bottom of the seven Marsworth Locks we descended before the village. There are also four Marsworth Locks on the Aylesbury Arm so if you arrange to meet someone at Marsworth Locks make sure you know which ones.
We pass Pitstone Wharf before arriving at the second swing bridge on the trip; this one is manually operated. From here eight locks take us to Leighton Buzzard passing Whipsnade Zoo. The zoo is a few miles from the canal, its position on the top of a hill can be located by the White Lion that has been cut out of the hillside and this can be seen between Horton and Slapton locks. At Grove Lock there is now a new lockside pub on the site where an unoccupied house stood for many years.
Leighton Buzzard is another place with a Tesco's by the canal although mooring here is often difficult, even though 2-hour shopping moorings have been provided. The trouble is that most of the spaces close by are given over to permanent moorings. To be sure of a place you have to moor in the industrial area before the town bridge (No. 114) or you may find you will have to go on past the permanent moorings to stop opposite the Wyvern Shipping Company base.
Locks are becoming less frequent now as we pass through Leighton Lock to find we have almost three miles cruising before the Soulbury Three Locks. There is only one more lock, Stoke Hammond, before we enter a three mile pound to Fenny Stratford. This was originally intended to be a 14½ mile pound to Cosgrove but leakages in the canal north of Fenny Stratford meant that the water level could not be maintained and in June 1802 a temporary lock was built to get over the difficulty until the problem could be solved. In 1805 and 1838 the company considered removing the lock but the costs of doing so out-weighed any benefits. Today Fenny Stratford lock, with a fall of little more than a foot, has a swing bridge across the chamber. Fenny Stratford has now merged with Bletchley, which itself has become part of Milton Keynes.
About thirty years ago the next few miles of canal wandered through open countryside now they make their way through Milton Keynes. If you want to take advantage of the excellent shopping and other services of the town centre the best moorings are around bridge 82. From here it is possible to walk through Campbell Park to the shopping centre, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. The whole journey from boat to shops can be made without crossing a road. As we head north we pass Great Linford village with moorings near the 14th century church. This is just one of the many villages that have remained while Milton Keynes has been built around them.
Near Wolverton Station, between bridges 71 and 71A, we pass a long black and white mural of an old train. This was the work of Bill Billings and the Milton Keynes IWA back in the mid 80's and has been regularly touched up by subsequent members of the branch in the last few years. Moorings by bridge 71 are close to a Tesco's, a good place to stock up as there is not another big supermarket close to the canal in the next 28 miles from here to our journey's end at Braunston. Beyond Old Wolverton the canal takes a straight line to Cosgrove Lock, passing over the Great Ouse aqueduct on the way. Cosgrove is an attractive spot to stop and has another of those ornamental bridges found on some canals, usually built as a sop to objecting land-owners, but no one seems to know exactly who Solomon's Bridge was meant to please or placate.
The next 5½ miles through pleasant countryside, past Kingfisher Marina at Yardley Gobion, brings us to the bottom of the seven Stoke Bruerne locks. At the top of the locks we come to one of the most recognised scenes on the waterways. To the right is the Waterways Museum, opened in 1963 and housed in an old mill building. On the opposite side of the canal, next to the boat-weighing machine from the Glamorganshire Canal, is the Boat Inn. Past the museum there are visitor moorings extending almost to Blisworth Tunnel.
This 3,057 yard tunnel has had its problems over the years. During construction delays to its completion caused a gap in the route that was bridged by building a railway over the hill between Stoke Bruerne and Blisworth. Goods were transferred from water to rail at each end thus linking the two halves of the canal. More recently, in October 1980, the tunnel was closed due to major problems with the tunnel lining and was not reopened until early 1985. When navigating the tunnel be prepared for water that is usually pours from the roof at various places.
Once out of the tunnel we continue on the 14½ mile pound that runs from Stoke Bruerne to Buckby Bottom Lock passing the base of Blisworth Tunnel Boats and Blisworth village to Gayton Junction. Here the 4¾ mile Northampton Branch falls through 17 narrow locks to the River Nene. On the main line we pass many villages, places of interest and a lot of countryside before the next lock. Bugbrooke, Nether Heyford and Weedon are the villages on route and boatyards are located at Bugbrooke, Stowe Hill and Weedon. There are lots of places to moor all along this pound the only minus points being the main line railway tracks that are often close to the canal and the M1 which we come alongside a mile before the Buckby flight of seven locks.
The lower locks of the flight are also known as Whilton Locks and beside the bottom lock is Whilton Marina. We have to travel over a mile from the bottom lock before we reach the top lock close to Norton Junction where the Leicester Line joins the main line. After the junction we are only four miles from our journey's end, enjoying peaceful rural Northamptonshire as we head for the 2,042 yard Braunston Tunnel. The tunnel has a slight "S" bend and always seems busy as we usually pass two or three boats in the tunnel. At the end of the tunnel there are visitor moorings before the locks. This can be a good place to moor especially if the moorings in Braunston are busy. The flight is fairly compact having six locks in little more than half a mile so a walk down the towpath soon brings one into the village.
Braunston must be a prime contender for the greatest density of canal based businesses anywhere, with four or five businesses grouped around the bottom lock, more around the marina and many others, afloat and ashore, close to the village. While many larger villages are losing their last shop Braunston has a village stores, butcher, bric-a-brac and fish & chip shop as well as a canal shop at the bottom lock and four pubs. How different would the situation be if the village were not on the junction of two popular canals?
By the marina entrance stands the Stop House originally a Toll Office at the junction with the Oxford Canal, the old line of which is now part of the marina. To be true to this article's title it is here, rather than a few hundred yards further on at the current Braunston Junction, that our Grand Junction Jaunt should end.
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