GoCycle – Grand Union Canal

144  miles  in  total,  mostly  flat,  with surfaces  ranging  from  excellent  to  dire

The Industrial Revolution laid the groundwork for the world we live in today, and the UK gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. Nothing in that sentence is contentious. What you may find surprising is that the canal network, and in particular the Grand Union Canal (or rather, the sub-parts which make up today’s Grand Union Canal) were the primary transport corridors that made the Industrial Revolution possible.

A horse could pull one tonne of coal on a cart, along the often atrocious, extremely muddy and severely potholed, unsurfaced roads of the time. That same horse could pull 30 tonnes of coal on a narrowboat.
That staggering increase in transport capacity lay at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, with the most important canal being the Grand Union Canal. In simple terms, this means there was a time when the Grand Union Canal was the most important transport link in the world.

The world has moved on since. Railways became cheaper, better and faster at moving freight (and in doing so, coincidently, was responsible for a unified time zone being adopted across the UK). The internal combustion engine, combined with better roads, meant that road freight also became far more efficient, faster and cheaper than relying on the canals.

But is wasn’t the end of the canals. Despite some having become derelict, a leisure use boom meant that the canal network today is busier than it ever was.

Cycling the Grand Union Canal means cycling from London to Birmingham, 144 miles in total. Though the Grand Union Canal joins the Thames, there is no tow-path for the first segment, so this route guide instead starts at Paddington Basin, which is the start of the Paddington branch of the GUC. As the name suggests, that’s right alongside Paddington station.

In parts, the towpath is wide, tarred or concreted over, smooth and good to cycle, but that certainly
doesn’t hold true for the entire length of the canal. You should be prepared for a wide variety of surfaces, and in places the towpath is so narrow that you cannot walk your bike, as there simply isn’t enough room to do so.

Some sections of towpath are covered in clay – used to line the canal, to waterproof it – and when wet, the clay can be as slippery as black ice, as I discovered when trying to ride the route in August 2020, after several weeks of heavy rain.

The main trainline between London and Birmingham, for the most part, is not overly far away from the canal, which means you often have the option of using the train to bypass particularly poor sections of towpath. Throughout the guide, I have tried to highlight potentially poor sections of towpath.

Having said that, after a spell of warm, dry weather, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to cycle the Grand Union Canal all the way. Also, the main GUC guide will pre-warn you of potentially nasty segments of towpath, and point out alternatives (including taking the train, to leapfrog such sections).

For this ride, I suggest a mountain bike, or a bike with chunky tyres. My main bike has 700c x 38 Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres on, and that was fine, but be prepared for very bumpy segments of towpath. Also, whatever your usual average speed is when out cycling, don’t even dream of maintaining that along a towpath. Aim for a realistic maximum average of 8mph in your planning.

IMPORTANT: Cycling is permitted along the towpaths, but towpaths are shared with people. Please be mindful of pedestrians, and if necessary, yield to let them pass. There are people furiously campaigning to get cycling on towpaths banned, so please don’t give them ammunition for their cause. Cycle with care and consideration for others.
The Start – Paddington Basin

The Paddington branch of the GUC was built specifically to enable freight to easily be transferred from train to canal boat, or vice versa, and it therefore makes perfect sense for it to end right next to Paddington Station.
This means that, unless you live in London, getting to the start is probably easiest done simply by taking your bike on the train. It would be pertinent to point out at this stage that Paddington is not the endpoint of trains from Birmingham – that endpoint is Euston station, not overly far away. To complicate matters a bit more, trains from Birmingham that travel via Leamington Spa terminate at Marylebone station, a few blocks from Paddington.

A lot of money has been spent on Paddington Basin, with posh office buildings surrounding it, and boats available for hire on the canal. Obviously, inside the station there are toilets available, but you won’t be able to take your bike with you. There are a plethora of coffee shops, cafés and shops in the station, should you be in need of any last-minute refreshments.

Setting off on your adventure is simply a matter of following the canal, keeping Paddington station on your left, and the canal on your right. Very soon, you’ll be cycling through Little Venice, where you will briefly need to divert away from the canal, before rejoining it very soon after.
You will be amazed by how quiet life seems along the canal, compared to what it feels like on the busy London streets.

You will see many bridges over the canal. With some bridges the towpath runs under the bridge, but with many it goes up a ramp, then down the other side.
When approaching a bridge, look ahead, to see if you’ll need to cycle up the ramp, and if so, change to your lowest gear before hitting the ramp, as they are usually quite steep. Unless you’re already in a low gear, the ramp will catch you unawares, and you may come to a sudden stop halfway up the ramp.

Simply follow the canal until it reaches the junction with the main Grand Union Canal, at Bull Bridge, where you must cross the Paddington branch, before continuing with the main GUC now on your left. Within metres, you will find the towpath quality markedly deteriorates, and it will feel like you’re cycling through a bit of an industrial wasteland.
The Grand Union Canal
The canal to your left isn’t actually a canal, but rather the river Brent, though of course the riverbanks have been constructed ages ago out of stone and cement.
From this point onwards, you will periodically cross the canal, as the towpath switches sides from time to time. The towpath might be somewhat muddy in places, but overall should be fine to cycle on. You’ll also notice a pattern developing: whenever there’s a development of posh waterside flats, or offices, the towpath received a makeover, and will have a decent surface.
Actual towpath surface in places

Along the entire length of the canal there are water points, and services (similar to motorway services in name only). There are also toilets and even showers in places, but you will require a Canal And River Trust Key to access those.

At this point, we need to introduce a history, and geology lesson, in the form of the London Clay Belt. Canals, by their very nature, need to be waterproof, to stop the water simply draining away through the soil, and this was achieved through a process called puddling.
Essentially, after digging the canals, they were lined with clay, with the London Clay Belt providing that in ample supply.

This is a very important element to any plans you may have of cycling the GUC. You see, the canals were never built for leisure use, and towpaths existed purely for the horses to walk on, while towing the boats. Horses can cope with surprisingly poor path surfaces, but bicycles not so much.

In parts, the towpath has seen a great deal of effort and money spent on it, resulting in a good surface to ride on. In parts, the towpath shows remnants of the builders rubble used to construct it, and it will get rather bumpy. Bicycles can usually deal with bumpy.

There are two particular problems when planning to ride the GUC: vegetation, and the very clay used to waterproof the canal. In parts, depending on the time of year, especially brambles will be heavily encroaching upon the towpath. This is particularly true for the segment between Milton Keynes and Leamington Spa, but you may encounter this in other parts, too.

The bigger problem is the clay. When wet, it can be like cycling on black ice, and your bike may be sliding out from underneath you at any time. There really is precious little you can do about it, and even chunky MTB tyres can suddenly have no grip at all in the slippery, wet clay.

It is therefore important to understand the very real risk the wet clay can pose, and my advice is to either divert via roads, or trains, avoiding the worst of the wet clay, or cycle the GUC after a warm, dry spell, ideally lasting several weeks. With the unpredictability of the British weather, that means you may need to be very flexible with your dates.

Despite these potential hazards, cycling the Grand Union Canal is a great adventure, and one you really ought to do. The length of the canal means an averagely-fit cyclist should be able to cycle the route easily over three days. I would strongly suggest that you don’t try to ride it any faster, as you’ll not have time enough to stop often, talk to people and experience so much of what the canal has to offer.

My GoCycle guide, which will soon be available in full, has details on taking the train to bypass certain segments, but that gets tricky from Milton Keynes onwards, as the train line from there to Birmingham diverges from the canal. The last station close to the canal is Long Buckby, and the next train station very close to the canal is Leamington Spa, leaving a stretch of roughly 20 miles that isn’t anywhere near a train station.

Kit needed

What kit you need depends on whether you’ll be camping overnight, or staying in B&B’s along the way.

If camping, I’ll assume you already know what you need, though I have some helpful tips on cycle touring, camping, carrying luggage on your bike, and even packing your panniers.

In addition to your usual camping and cycling kit, do ensure you have a rain coat, but don’t take your best rain coat. Even on a dry, sunny day, with pure blue skies above, you may need to wear it, to protect you from brambles. Yes, they can be that much of a problem.

You will need several spare inner tubes, and ideally some patches, too, plus of course a way to pump up your wheels. Parts of the towpath, especially between Milton Keynes and Leamington Spa, are renowned for the number of punctures people often get, so be prepared for that.

You may want to be optimistic, and take some sun cream. Remember, you can sunburn even on cloudy days, and sunburn is often worse when next to water, as the light is reflected off the water.

Personally, I always take antihistamine along, as getting bitten by horseflies (which seem to particularly like me) is not fun.

There are many water points along the canal, but don’t be complacent – these aren’t evenly spaced, so fill your water bottles at every opportunity you have. I also recommend that you carry at least one litre of water on your bike, as on hot days you’ll drink considerably more.

Your bike needs to be a sturdy machine, and while I’m not saying it’s impossible, the route really isn’t suitable for road bikes with skinny wheels.

Finally, I strongly suggest you place your phone inside a waterproof pouch. After all, you’ll be riding for 144 miles alongside water, and while nobody plans to fall into the canal, you need to consider the possibility of that happening. Also, the canal normally isn’t deep, but there are isolated places where it can be deep, so bear that in mind, in case a member of your party cannot swim.

Overnight options

Let me be blunt here – I don’t care if you can cycle 144 miles in one day. If you cycled the entire 144 miles of this route in one day, then you were cycling way too fast for a towpath! Towpaths are shared spaces, not cycling speedways, and pedestrians have priority, always. That absolutely means slowing down, yielding, and even stopping often. If you average 8mph, you’re doing well. Any faster (overall –

there are some short sections where you’ll be able to go significantly faster) and you’re going too fast.

That means you simply must overnight, for at least a single night, though I’d suggest you do the route over a minimum of three days, with two overnight stops.

There are many pubs, inns and B&B’s directly on, or adjacent to the canal, though obviously, in high season they may not have space, so if that’s your plan, ensure you book in well in advance. Sadly, that means you’ll also be far less flexible with the dates, and therefore more at the mercy of the weather.

My personal preference is simply to wild-camp. There’s this commonly-held misconception that wild-camping is a crime in almost all of England, but the reality is that wild-camping is not a crime. I cover the ins and outs of wild-camping in greater depth in my Cycle Camping post.

Because of my preference to wild-camp, I can be far more flexible with the dates I intend to ride the route, and therefore I’m less at the mercy of the weather, but camping isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Food and drink

One of my golden rules of cycle touring is to always carry food and water, but on this route you can get away with carrying very little. There are a great many places where you can buy food and drinks, and many more places still where you can refill your water bottle (these are included in the GPS file of the route you’ll be sent after buying my GoCycle route guide for the GUC). If you carried just two 500ml water bottles, it should be ample, plus emergency rations of your choosing, such as chocolate, nuts & raisins, energy gels, jelly babies, or whatever you prefer.
Most emergency rations will be sugar-laden, as it’s no fun if your blood sugar levels suddenly drop in the middle of nowhere. Diabetics may need to take extra care to avoid just that.

The GoCycle guide
My GoCycle guide for the Grand Union Canal isn’t ready yet. As soon as it is, you will be able to get it from here.
The guide includes information on using the train to bypass certain segments of the canal, which I’d strongly suggest you do after it’s been raining. It also includes some options of taking to the roads, to avoid treacherous towpath segments, though some of the roads can be rather busy at times.


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