Want to know what to expect when cycling the Grand Union Canal?
Time for a rethink?
If you went cycling on the Tarka Trail, in gorgeous north Devon, you’d be riding on (mainly) blissfully smooth tarmac, with ample space. You’ll be relaxed, and easily able to look around, while enjoying the views. Doesn’t that sound like a better option?
The trouble with the Grand Union Canal
You see, the Grand Union Canal works wonderfully well – as a waterway. As a cycling route, less so, especially on a fully-laden cycle touring bike. I’ll tell you the story of how my mate Dom (@Tdr1nka on Twitter, so follow him) and I cycled the Grand Union Canal, then you will see my point. It’s been on my bucket list to do for a long time now, and last year, I made an attempt that I had to abort, due to the weather making the towpaths too dangerous. And no, I’m not joking – continuing the ride last year would have been stupid. However, Dom was going to ride with me for the last day, and my cutting the ride short meant he dipped out, too.
This year, I again made plans to tackle the canal, and Dom was able to join me over all three days – yay! However, May 2021 was unseasonably cold and wet, and I became very concerned about the state of the towpath. With less than a week to go, the weather turned sunny and warm, and the ride was on.
Friends make a ride more fun
We set off from Paddington, with Simon MacMichael, from the online cycling magazine, Road.cc, joining us for a while – you should follow Simon on Twitter, too. The towpath along the Paddington branch of the canal is mostly very good, but watch out for the gradients on some of the bridge ramps – they can easily catch you out. When joining the main Grand Union Canal (GUC), the towpath is unsealed for a while, then there’s a nice stretch of smooth, brand-new tar.
Overall, it’s easy riding, but the towpath surface keeps changing from smooth cement or tar, to cracked up tar, to self-compacting gravel, to effectively building rubble in places. It also changes to grass, or clay, and clay is your enemy, unless dry, as it can get as slippery as black ice.
A serendipitous meeting
Somewhere around the Hemel Hempstead area, Dom and I were cycling under a road bridge, only to have to stop, when faced with very steep steps. Steps are part and parcel of the GUC route – it really isn’t an accessible route overall – but these were big and steep. Just then, a woman on the other side of the canal, also under the bridge, called out to tell us we have to go up over the bridge, and rejoin the towpath on the other side. As I started riding down towards the towpath, she was standing at the side, by her bike, and I said “Excuse me, but aren’t you Anna Hughes?” She seemed surprised, bordering on embarrassed at having been recognised, and we spoke for a little while. Anna (you really should read her excellent books, and buy the new one when it’s published, perhaps early in the new year, as well as follow her on Twitter – @eatsleepcycle) told us she was herself on an overnight camping trip, was crossing the bridge, and decided to stop and have a look at the canal. Serendipity!
I knew the towpath beyond Tring was in poor shape, but we carried on. There were some sections with wet mud, and my bike slid quite a bit, but Dom’s supersized tyres coped better. Before long we were cycling through the area I made it to last year, and it was so much better with the clay having (mostly) dried! Next, we were riding through Leighton Buzzard, with a stop at the Tesco for some food supplies. I was glad for the rest, and was feeling the distance at this stage, though Dom seemed fine.
Our camping spot was opposite a pub, a short distance away, and it was a great spot, except for the greenkeeper of the golf course who decided that mowing the lawn just on the other side of the hedge, at 06h30, was a reasonable thing to do! When wild-camping, effectively without permission, on a patch of grass that could do with mowing, it’s a bit unnerving to lie in your tent, listening to the mower come closer and closer, then stop quite close to us. I was more than half expecting to hear approaching footsteps, followed by a “Get orrrf my land!”. Fortunately, he was on the other side of the hedge, and aside from waking us up very early, no harm was done.
Day 2 saw us divert into Milton Keynes, as Dom’s cycling shoe’s sole decided to declare independence, and we needed contact adhesive. That was followed by an all-day breakfast in the Tesco café (who said we weren’t classy?). We were meant to meet the lovely Carrie Purdom and her partner Steve – they’re @CarriePurdom and @Steve_AJ on Twitter, so do yourself a favour and follow them) and realised we’d be very late, unless we took shortcut through Milton Keynes. Google Maps diverted us onto the Redways, which are impressive (if confusing at times) but also crap, in that they still force you to yield to cars everywhere.
Carrie said to let them know when we crossed the Iron Trunk, as they’d set off, to meet us at Grafton Regis. The towpath was fine (but far from good) to ride all the way to Cosgrove. Just outside Cosgrove, however, the towpath became far worse, but improved for a while from Grafton Regis. After treating us to coffee and cake (well, tea in Dom’s case – look at his Twitter name for a clue) from a canal boat café, they accompanied us for a while, before Carrie turned off, and Steve carried on with Dom and I. He showed us the route that bypasses Blisworth tunnel (the bypass route was badly eroded by the recent rain) and when we reached the Gayton Junction, he veered off along the Northampton arm of the GUC, while Dom and I continued along the main canal.
Lunch was at The Wharf, at Bugbrooke. Due to COVID, they were operating on a pre-booked only basis for food, but they took pity on us. By this stage, we were getting tired, and hot, so it was a welcome break. We were running behind schedule already, and knew that our target of reaching Long Itchington was not realistically achievable anymore.
The Leicester Branch
What certainly didn’t help is me diverting us up the Leicester branch of the GUC by mistake, which involved sections of seriously nasty towpath, and carrying our laden bikes up and down the steep steps bridging a marina entrance – twice, because we obviously had to return the same way. We’d gone as far as the Watford Gap services, before turning back.
The benefits of wild camping
Our fall-back camping option was a site very close to Norton Junction, and again we pitched our tents as darkness was falling. This is the amazing flexibility you get when wild-camping: there’s no pre-booked B&B you have to reach at any specified time, and you’re free to adjust your plans on the fly.
Braunston Tunnel Bypass
Soon after setting off the next day, we reached the Braunston Tunnel. As with the Blisworth tunnel, there’s no towpath through, and you have to divert up a concrete-surfaced path. Towards the top, some storm-fencing was pushed down, and a very rough track continued through fields of nettles, so we stayed on the concrete path, hoping it was the correct way. There were no signs to follow at all, and we’ve done the ride without digital navigation (other than to check how far to a water point, or pub, at times).
The concrete path turned away from where I expected the tunnel to go and started heading downhill again, before spitting us out on a road. Dom spotted a canal sign, and in no time we were back on the towpath. Before the tunnel, meaning we’ve simply looped around! Dom said we’re going the wrong way, so we turned around and again went up the concrete incline.
A sea of nettles
This time, at the top, we pushed our bikes through a sea of nettles, until we were blocked by more fencing around a construction site for a new housing development. Turning back, there was a hint of another track through the nettles, and we pushed through that, to emerge through the trees onto a park.
If you’re going to ride it, don’t do what we did. Follow the concrete path as it turns to the left, and a short while later, you will see an open field through the trees to your right. Cut through between the trees into that park, then turn right, following the surfaced path. Where it forks, veer right each time, till you get to an A-frame, that no trike could ever fit through, then wiggle your bike through.
You’re forced to ride on a road out of Daventry for perhaps 200 metres, before turning left, up a rough bridleway, which takes you to the highest point of the ride, before getting far more rough on the descent, which ends in yet more steps down to the towpath.
Braunston soon follows, and just before the village, we stopped at a canalside shop, which was like a time-warp, stepping right back into the 1950s when you set foot inside. I bought a chocolate bar and fruit pastilles, as I needed the sugar, while Dom triumphantly emerged carrying a mug that says “I didn’t fall in the canal”. This may have been a mistake!
We lost more time when ordering breakfast at another narrowboat café, which was rather busy, and after setting off again, we yet again had to carry laden bikes up steps that bridge a marina entrance. The towpath ranged from poor, to very poor from here, all the way to Long Itchington.
The bad part
At times, both Dom and I were either needing to put a foot down, or we even scooted along with one foot. At one point, Dom went to put his left foot down, only to discover that what he put his foot down on was just vegetation growing out of the canal bank – which meant where we were riding our wheels were probably a maximum of 15cm away from the edge of the canal. Worryingly, we very frequently were riding on a towpath that steeply sloped down towards the canal, and I felt my rear wheel slide towards the canal many times.
I watched as Dom toppled, almost in slow motion, sideways into the canal. Yes, there’s an “Oh that’s funny” element to it, and poor Dom’s had a proper ribbing about it ever since, but there are far more fundamental issues, too: he still had one foot clipped into the bike, and while the very good drybags he used made his bike float, it also meant that unclipping, while trying to keep his head above water, was difficult. Canal water isn’t the cleanest, either, and though small, there’s nevertheless a risk of catching Weil’s Disease. The reality is that it may just as easily have been me who went into the canal.
“I didn’t fall in the canal”
Once unclipped, I helped him out of the canal, and soon after we had a mini ceremony, during which he handed over the “I didn’t fall into the canal” mug he was clearly no longer qualified to own. We walked our bikes for a while, until the towpath was a bit better, then started riding again.
We stopped for a while at The Boat, and had some Coke (sugar and caffeine in 1 dose – usually I avoid fizzy drinks, but needed that) but their prices, and exceeding slow service, made us decide not to eat there. We did, however, have a chat with a lovely couple, who cycled there, though I never caught their names.
The towpath started improving just before Long Itchington, and I pointed out the spot I’d originally planned to camp for the second night – it was clear I’d set a completely unrealistic target, with especially the towpath along the Oxford Canal (the GUC uses a stretch of the Oxford canal) being dire.
Splash – the sequel
The Two Boats Inn pub at Long Itchington was extremely busy, so Dom dismounted and started walking his bike. I followed his lead, and as we walked our bikes through, we received an applause from the pub’s patrons. Earlier, another cyclist on a fat bike came speeding through, and crashed into a young lad who was just getting off a pub bench. This ended with the cyclist falling into the canal (even Dom could laugh at that by now). The cyclist was still stood on the towpath when we passed through, dripping wet, talking to a copper – apparently, he called the cops on the lad, instead of apologising for speeding through!
Out of time
We realised that we were running out of time, and purely for time reasons, wouldn’t be able to ride all the way to Birmingham. I still had an almost five hour drive to get home. Once we accepted the timescale, and final destination had to be abandoned, we could relax a great deal more. Dom peeled off at Leamington Spa, to catch a train to Birmingham, while I cycled to the top of Hatton Locks, then off to my van, which I left parked not far away.
Lessons learned and all that
What never really factored in my original planning is simply this: when the towpath is bad, you cannot look around to enjoy the scenery, as you’re focusing on often surprisingly technical riding. When the towpath improves, however, you still don’t really have much time to look around to enjoy the scenery, as you will speed up, to try and recover some of the time you lost.
So, if you want a relaxing cycling holiday, go ride the Tarka Trail, or similar.
If, however, you want a seriously fun ride, that will challenge you, thrill you, and astound you with breath-taking views, the you simply must ride the GUC! It certainly isn’t a route that would be to everyone’s taste. It isn’t a practical commute route (overall, but some segments certainly are) but it is an adventure ride, and if you ride it, you’re guaranteed to have an adventure.
There are a few pointers I’d offer:
- Do the ride over four days, so you can slow down and enjoy it more
- Take more inner tubes! I had 2 punctures, probably caused by the same piece of metal I dug out the tyre the 2nd time. Dom had 2 punctures, too
- Take sunscreen
- Only do the ride if there was at least a full week’s of hot, dry weather beforehand. Trust me on this one – it will make a huge difference to your experience
- Take time to talk to people
- Stop often and take loads of pics
- Ensure all your kits is packed inside drybags – the risk of going into the canal is real