Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Branching Out is the copyright of Jim Shead - Cruising some branches of the Grand Union. First published in Canal & Riverboat July 1996
During a summer trip of 974 miles around the waterways, north and south, we saw most of the Grand Union from Napton to Brentford and the Leicestershire Section, also the Northampton, Paddington, Slough and Aylesbury Branches. The first two branches were travelled as part of a route that took us to waters beyond, the rivers Nene and Lee respectively, the other two are dead ends but still well worth visiting none the less.
Some of the branches of the Grand Union (or Grand Junction as it was called when built) were opened about the same time as the main line, indeed the Wendover Branch was fully open in 1799, before the main line. The next year the main line was opened except for Blisworth Tunnel, which was not completed until 1805, in the meantime traffic was carried on a tramroad which ran across the top of the tunnel. The delay at Blisworth meant that the Old Stratford & Buckingham, the Paddington and the Weedon branches were all open before the boats could go from Brentford to Braunston on the main line.
The Northampton Branch was authorised as part of the original Grand Junction Act of Parliament in 1793 but the company were reluctant to build it while the old Grand Union Canal, linking the Grand Junction to the Leicester line, was still waiting for Authorisation, finally the Act was passed in May 1810. In the meantime the Grand Junction opened a double track tramroad in October 1805, using parts from the Blisworth tramroad which was not needed since the tunnel opening in March. The people of Northampton were not impressed with this arrangement and continued to press for a canal, which they got in May 1815.
The Northampton Branch connects with the River Nene and places beyond - the Middle Levels, the rivers Ouse and Cam, and their tributaries - so is an important through route. Those planning to cruise the Nene would be well advised to ensure they are in possession of the Nene lock key and have stocks of water and fuel before leaving Gayton. Facilities on the Nene are somewhat sparse. Our trip down the five miles and 17 narrow locks was uneventful. It was difficult to find an adequate mooring on the branch as the edges were shallow but at Northampton there are good moorings on the river.
The Paddington Branch is also an important link, leading via the Regents Canal to the rivers Lee, Stort and Thames, as well as the Hertford Union Canal. It is also one of the oldest branches, having opened in 1801, and was obviously important as a route to the capital. Leaving the main line at Bull's Bridge Junction it travels 13 1/2 lock free miles to Paddington Basin. This length of canal must surely be the best served by canalside supermarkets anywhere. There is a Tesco's at Bull's Bridge Junction and two Sainsbury's before Paddington, all with moorings for shoppers.
Opened in 1882 Slough was the last branch to be built, but not as Nicholson's guide says "the last canal to be built in Britain except for the Manchester Ship Canal" - I think they have overlooked the Sheffield and South Yorkshire New Junction Canal which opened in 1905. The turning for Slough is Cowley Peachey Junction, a name suggesting a sweet, smooth and fruitful voyage along the five lock free miles. Soon we come to aqueducts over the Frays River and another stream as the canal pursues a fairly straight and verdant course. The M25 bridge, just before the one mile marker at Iver, is not marked in our guide book even though it is on our Ordnance Survey map dated three years earlier.
The bridges have number plaques starting at one from the junction, but are not numbered in our guide book which also shows bridge five which has been demolished. After the two mile marker we arrived at the Highline Yachting boatyard which has all facilities and is the base for a considerable number of boats. Most of the canal is pleasant enough and does not pass through a built up area until the last mile, even then it is not heavily urban.
As we got closer to Slough I noticed that the boat had slowed down considerably and, as I had not heard the boat scraping the bottom, I assumed that we had that curse of urban canal travel, a plastic bag round the propeller. On opening up the weed hatch I could see at once that the propeller was free of obstructions, the water in this part of the canal being so clear that we could have seen the bottom if it had not been covered with blanket weed. The boat must have been scraping the soft bottom of the cut, so we proceeded slowly to the end of the canal. To my mind the canal basin is not how a canal basin should look. No boats moored, no bollards or mooring rings, no warehouses, nothing that would seem to justify this terminus; just a decaying wooden jetty, room to turn the boat and some flowering water-lilies.
After a short distance on the return trip a British Waterways official sprung out from beside a bridge and asked whether we had been to the end of the branch and if we had any problems. It's nice to see that BW is active even on this quiet byway. We did not see any boats until we got back to the Highline Yachting boatyard, after this we passed two boats coming in the opposite direction. It seems that very few craft bother to go all the way to Slough.
Almost thirty miles further up the Grand Union, at Marsworth Junction, is the start of the Aylesbury Branch. After slogging through 52 locks from Cowley Peachey Junction it may not seem a good idea to branch off onto a canal that has 16 locks in just under seven miles, but this is a narrow canal and it was a delight after the wide locks of the main line - we had almost forgotten how much easier narrow locks are to work. The first two locks are a staircase, then the next six follow in quick succession. Next comes Wilstone Lock beside which is a footpath leading across the fields to Wilstone Village, a quiet place with two pubs and a shop, epitomising the typical Home Counties village.
Shortly after Wilstone we cross from Hertfordshire into Buckinghamshire and continue through open countryside to Puttenham Locks, here we found members of the British Waterways Angling Team taking a busman's holiday on the bank. The pleasant views continue through Buckland and Redhouse Lock. Then a pound of almost two miles is reached before Broughton Lock, less than one and a half miles from Aylesbury basin. This long pound included one particularly narrow and weedy stretch on what seemed an otherwise well maintained canal.
The bridges on the canal are very narrow, appearing to be the same width as the narrow locks. Perhaps the Grand Junction Company were keen to save every penny on this branch having been forced to build it by threats from the Marquis of Buckingham to oppose the (old) Grand Union Bill if the branch was not built. The Grand Junction Company supported the bill, as it would bring traffic from Leicester on to the Grand Junction, but they thought that the trade from the Aylesbury Branch would not be worth the water loss caused by the 16 locks down to the town. As a result the construction of the branch was not started until the end of 1809 and was opened in May 1815. Approaching a wide modern concrete bridge I thought that it would at least be a welcome change from the width restrictions of the old bridges but as we drew nearer I discovered that, at water level, it was just as narrow as the original structures.
The canal travels the final mile through two locks and under a number of bridges to arrive at a terminus that meets my preconceptions of a canal basin, with old warehouses, boats and moorings as well as more modern buildings and facilities for boaters. The town centre is close to the canal basin, turn right and walk straight up the road, cross the main road and keep straight on. Very quickly you are in the centre with its market, old shops and modern shopping centres, also some good pubs and restaurants. We had dinner at the Bell Hotel, in the Market Square, where we were served starters the size of main courses and main courses that were much bigger. we enjoyed it even though the quantity defeated us.
Each of the branches we visited had its own attractions and character, different from the main line, and from each other. They were also much quieter and could easily bear some increased traffic without spoiling their back water charm.
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