Grand Union Canal – a bit of an obsession

Some ten years or so ago, I was visiting a friend who lived in Warwick, and obviously I took my bike with. He did the neighbourly thing and showed me a local tourist attraction, Hatton Locks. At the time, I knew canals existed, and that people lived on narrowboats, but that’s about as far as my knowledge went.

If you’ve ever seen Hatton Locks, you already know how picturesque they are, and if you’ve never seen them, you really should try to do so. Locks on canals are essentially steps, raising, or lowering boats on the canal, and Hatton Locks is a flight of 21 such locks, raising the Grand Union Canal significantly in height, when travelling from Warwick towards Birmingham.

Over the following few days, I spent a fair amount of time exploring the canal around Warwick, cycling as far as Long Itchington (past Leamington Spa) in one direction, and past the Lapworth junction on the other.

Even then, the absolute enormity of the work that must’ve gone into building the canals didn’t hit me until I cycled along the towpath and crossed the viaduct that carries the canal over the river Avon below. It might sound stupid, but despite referring to it as a canal, with all that implies, right up to that moment I was thinking of it as a river, albeit a river with heavily engineered banks.

Now, the Hatton Locks, in their current format, were built in the 1930s, so aren’t even 100 years old. However, the Grand Union Canal, as a single entity, remains very much the new kid on the block, and is made up of an amalgamation of many smaller canals, each of which was a separate venture.

The Hatton Locks date back to a far earlier time, and first opened to boats in December of 1799, meaning the canal along here – previously known as the Warwick & Birmingham Canal – is over 200 years old. The entire Grand Union Canal is littered with history that formed the foundation of the Industrial Revolution.

When all the different canals were merged, and brought under the umbrella of a single company, investment into infrastructure followed, and the canal was widened, leading to every single lock at Hatton Locks being rebuilt (as well as many others) while the canal banks, pretty much from Birmingham to Long Itchington, were rebuilt out of cement.

Not all of the Grand Union Canal received this makeover, and the segment from Long Itchington to around Braunston remains dodgy – I’m referring to the towpath here, and the canal is perfectly fine for boats to use. Between Leighton Buzzard and Tring, the towpath can be exceedingly poor, too.

I was planning on cycling the Grand Union Canal in May of 2020. Everything was perfect: I’d taken time off work, and the weather was gorgeous, with weeks of warm sunshine, and not a drop of rain. There was, however, this teensy-tiny little problem in the shape of COVID, and Lockdown meant I couldn’t do the ride. Well, even if I could, it would’ve been absolutely irresponsible risking spreading the virus at that stage.

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In August of 2020, I had the opportunity to go ride it, over the Bank Holiday weekend. This time, the weather was the opposite, and we had a few weeks of rain, with heavy rain across the entire region for most of the week preceding my ride.

With foolish determinism I soldiered on, driving my van to Leamington Spa, to catch an early train the next morning from there to London. Now, while directly linked by rail to London, the Leamington Spa station is on the Chiltern Main Line, as point which would become relevant later on.

Once in London, I was met at Marylebone station by my friend Mikey (you should follow him on Twitter) who cycled with me to Paddington, and a short while further. The towpath along the Paddington Branch of the Grand Union Canal is smooth and makes for easy cycling. The surface is either concrete, or tar, and especially when crossing above the North Circular, you are struck by how peaceful London seems, when cycling along the canal.

Incidentally, the last leg of the GUC, from Bull Bridge (where the Paddington Branch meets the main

GUC – or more accurately, the River Brent) doesn’t have a towpath any more, for the most part. This means that you cannot cycle along that part of the canal, and is the reason I opted to start at Paddington basin, right outside Paddington station.

The towpath becomes unsurfaced mere metres after crossing Bull Bridge, and though quite a drop in surface quality, it’s perfectly rideable. On and off, the towpath’s quality will improve, and drop, as you cycle along. Provided you’re on a bike with reasonably chunky tyres, you should be fine all the way to Tring.

A word of warning, though: especially if the towpath is wet, the further north you go from Rickmansworth, the more you’ll start seeing darker patches on the towpath. Those patches are clay, used to line the canal, to waterproof it, in a process called “puddling”.

As brilliant and cost-effective as clay may be to water-proof canals, wet clay is as slippery as black ice, so when you start seeing those darker patches, try and avoid them, when possible.
It was the clay on the towpath which ultimately defeated me on the 1st attempt to ride the GUC.

North of  Berkhamstead, the towpath became worse and worse. I really should have left the towpath by Tring, but foolishly carried on, and ended up on a towpath made entirely of wet, slippery clay. I tried cycling on the grass, hoping for more traction, but even that was of little use, and I often had one, or both wheels at the same time, slide sideways underneath me.

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Inevitably, the bike slid out from under me, despite at that point riding extremely slowly. Once, I just managed to grab my bike, before it slid into the canal, and the seventh time it slid out from underneath me, I whacked my ankle hard against the pedal, cutting it open. From that point onwards, I started walking, pushing my bike, and even then I slipped and fell over a few times.

Two or three miles before Leighton Buzzard, I finally made it to a little lane that crossed the canal, and diverted onto the road. By that point, the rain was so heavy, it had washed all the mud off me and my bike, but my ankle was still bleeding.

I cycled to Leighton Buzzard, found a chippy, and treated myself to a hot meal, which I wolfed down under the shelter of an alley that cut underneath a building. Once fed, I set off to find the train station, as my ankle was screaming at me, and I expected it’d be worse in the morning, making cycling impossible.

My thinking was to simply catch a train back to Leamington Spa, where my van was waiting, but of course Leighton Buzzard is on the West Coast Main Line, while Leamington Spa is on the Chiltern Main Line. This meant that, to get from Leighton Buzzard to Leaming Spa, I’d have to go via Birmingham.

Even though I phoned the ticketing helpline, and bought the ticket they suggested, my ticket was wrong, and I had to get off at Milton Keynes, to go buy a different ticket. I was beginning to realise that I wouldn’t get to Leamington Spa that night by train, as I had 9 minutes to leave the train in Birmingham, leave the station, cycle to a different station, find the correct platform and board the train.

Reality kicked hard when the train I was on stopped at Rugby – tracks maintenance meant there was a rail replacement bus, and it was now impossible to get to Birmingham in time to catch the connecting train to Leamington Spa.

I didn’t know the area at all, but knew there were motorways, and dual carriageways that were motorways in all but name, and I was worried that Google maps would guide me onto those, so I had to set the mapping to the cycling option, crank up the volume on my phone, and stick it in my rain coat’s front pocket. And still it rained, heavily.

I set off and ended up on a tarred, traffic-free path. Google maps said it was just 18 miles to Leamington Spa, and I carried on. Very soon, though, that nice, traffic-free cycle path became typical of some of the worst of Sustrans’ NCN routes, and I blindly cycled through water deep enough to almost touch the bottom bracket, in the dark, along a muddy and bumpy off-road track.

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After what felt like an eternity, which included stupid barriers on NCN41, over which I had to lift my laden bike, all while my ankle was in agony (though not bleeding much, by this stage) I finally made it onto some tarred roads again.

Blindly following Google Maps’ voice guidance, I was utterly dismayed when it talked me back to the GUC towpath, shortly before Long Itchington! There was no way I was going to risk a wet towpath in the dark. Fed up, I changed the routing settings to car mode, then set off again. After some distance, I saw a petrol station up ahead, and bought two coffees and a large slab of chocolate, devouring it all before setting off again.

At Radford Semele, which is just outside Leamington Spa, my bike’s dynamo  headlight started flickering, then cut out, so I rummaged through my panniers for my emergency backup battery lights, fitted those, then carried on. My ankle was agony, and I was exhausted.

Though it was just another 4 miles to my van, I didn’t know that at the time, and cycled on, slowly. I was extremely relieved when I made it to Leamington Spa, and exceedingly happy when, at 02h30, I finally made it back to my van.

Once inside, I stripped all the wet and dirty clothes off, cleaned myself up as best I could, using some wipes, then got changed into clean, dry and warm clothes. Next, I treated my ankle, patching it up as best I could, then climbed into the bed in my van.

The next morning, I struggled to walk, and I knew I’d made the right decision to bail, as there’s no way I’d have been able to carry on cycling. My mate Dom (follow him on Twitter) who travelled down by train from Birmingham, met me at the Morrison’s, where we had a breakfast in their café, plotting another attempt at the GUC.

That attempt will start this coming Saturday, when Dom and I will try to cycle the GUC, from Paddington to London. Wish us luck!


2 thoughts on “Grand Union Canal – a bit of an obsession”

  1. Good luck, will look out for a wirte up as that would be a relatively convenient long route for me. While up this way, the Tardebrigge flight is a nice canal path (biggest flight of locks in the UK or something like that), and if dry you can take the canals all the way to Worcester, infact there are two canals to Worcester, so there is some possibilities to make a nice loop. I didn't find it as bad as yours but it is hard work in the mud. More clag than slip though.

  2. Thanks, Dave. Hopefully it's not too wet and muddy, but we do have short stretches of alternate routes, to bypass certain short segments of towpath were we warned might be in an atrocious state.
    Fingers crossed the weather remains dry!


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