The Grand Union Canal
I long wanted to cycle the full 144 miles of the Grand Union Canal. The plan was to set off from Paddington Basin, right next to Paddington station, then follow the Paddington branch of the Grand Union Canal (GUC for short). The reasoning was simple: though a branch of the GUC, it was still part of the canal. More importantly, from Bull Bridge (where the Paddington branch joins the main canal) there isn’t a continuous towpath all the way to the Thames, else I’d have opted to start at the Thames.
It was spring 2020, and I’d taken leave to cycle the GUC in the May. We had absolutely glorious weather for it – clear blue skies and day after day of warm sunshine. There was just one teeny-tiny problem: COVID! My original plan was scheduled for right in the middle of what became the first lockdown, so obviously I had to cancel my plans. All summer long we had stunning weather, and an exceptionally long spell of dry weather. When lockdown restrictions were being lifted, I saw another chance to go cycle the Grand Union Canal, over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Only trouble was, it had been raining heavily for the three weeks before that weekend, with more rain forecast over the weekend itself. This was to be a far bigger problem than I expected.
Rural idyll in the heart of London
I caught the train from Leamington Spa, where I left my van, and that meant I ended up at Marylebone station. I was met there by my mate Mikey (yes, he of CyclingMikey fame – do yourself a favour and follow him on Twitter) who showed me the way to Paddington. That was my first time of cycling anywhere in London, and to be honest, the roads were probably less intimidating than cycling in Plymouth. Soon enough we were at Paddington basin, and had a coffee, before I set off. Not before Mikey surprised me with a packet of biscuits from South Africa, though!
Cycling along the towpath was so much more pleasant than cycling on the roads, and there was one part where it was difficult to believe that I was still in the heart of London.
The Paddington branch
Mikey pre-warned me that many of the ramps to footbridges over the canal were very steep. Despite being pre-warned, I was soon caught out and had to do a disgraceful emergency dismount. I soon settled into a good rhythm and it wasn’t very long before I reached Bull Bridge, where I had to cross the little bridge, to continue along the main GUC (along here actually the River Brent). The towpath was initially good, but soon became unsurfaced and muddy. That particular stretch has since been tarred and now is rather good.
The towpath varied enormously in quality. Whenever there was a new development of posh waterside flats, the towpath received an upgrade, and was very good. However, in between, the towpath ranged from OK-ish to nasty. Parts of the towpath contains building rubble, and you’ll be bumping along half-bricks sticking out of the mud. Along some stretches, it’s clear that the towpath once, very long ago, had a strip of tar, but it’s become so broken up with age that it’s like riding over corrugated roofing sheets!
Though the skies were grey, the threatened rain held off until well past me passing underneath the M25 motorway. Oh, and to the CCTV operator of the building site adjacent to the towpath, I’m truly sorry, but I only spotted your cameras after I been for a much-needed wee!
Importantly, I soon discovered that darker patches of mud signified clay. Here’s where we’ll briefly divert into the history of the canals. If you dug a trench and filled in with water, the water would soon simply seep away through the earth. Canals are no different, and needed to be waterproofed. This was done in a process called “puddling”, which involved lining the canal with clay. The clay works brilliantly well at waterproofing the canal, but if you know anything about clay, you’d know it’s extremely slippery when wet! My strategy was simple: when I spotted the tell-tale darker patches, I cycled around them. That worked well. For a while.
By the time I made it to Hemel Hempstead, it had started to rain. Incidentally, Hemel Hempstead despises cycling, and I was surprised it wasn’t banned along the towpath, too. While (obviously) I prefer warm, sunny days, rain wouldn’t stop me from cycling, so I pressed on. Again, the towpath varied greatly in quality. Along some stretches I made good progress, but others were causing me to be far slower. My aim was to get just outside Leighton Buzzard, to pitch my tent. As I pressed on, the rain was falling harder. The towpath also changed – no longer just a few clay patches I could avoid, but increasing stretches were covered in clay. And still the rain fell.
After Tring, the state of the towpath took a nosedive, and it was damn difficult to control my bike. With most of the weight on the back, even on the slightest of slopes, the rear wheel would be sliding wildly all over. It was exhausting enough to pedal through mud so deep my rims disappeared, without factoring in the extra effort needed just to try and keep upright. On some stretches the towpath was overgrown with grass. If you’ve ever cycled along a path through a park, and veered off the solid path, over the grass, you’d know how much harder it is to cycle on the grass. This was ankle-deep grass, and I was grateful for it, as it gave my bike’s wheels a semblance of something to grip. If I cycled on the extremely narrow (perhaps 15cm wide) “track” along the towpath, where there was no grass growing, I’d skid all over and simply get wheelspin when pedalling.
I was riding long a particularly bad stretch like that when my bike simply slid out from under me. It was like hitting black ice, and there was nothing I could do to avoid it. I got up and was covered in mud. Not long after I started riding again, the same thing happened again, and the bike simply slid out from underneath me. This happened for a total of seven times, and during the last fall, I whacked my ankle hard on something solid. It was bleeding quite a lot and was agony, and I knew I was in trouble. And still the rain fell.
I was carrying camping gear, and could simply pitch my tent, get out of the rain and go to sleep. That was extremely tempting, but I was very worried that I might not have been able to cycle at all in the morning. I expected my ankle to get worse overnight. That left one other option: get back to my van in Leamington Spa as quickly as possible. Daylight was fading as I started walking (or rather, hobbling along). Riding wasn’t possible on the slick clay, and even while walking, I slipped and fell over three times. Eventually, I made it to a little tarred lane that crossed the canal, mounted my bike, and set off for Leighton Buzzard. My ankle was agony, and still bleeding, but at least the bike wouldn’t slide out from underneath me. The little lane soon ended at a T-junction with an unpleasant A-road, but needs must, and soon enough I was cycling into Leighton Buzzard. I was ravenous by this time, so stopped at a chippy, before heading to the train station.
The ticket office at Leighton Buzzard was closed, so I punched in my journey details into a ticket vending machine. It spat out a ticket, and I went to the correct platform and waited for my train. Of course, Leamington Spa, where I left my van, is on the Chiltern Line, while Leighton Buzzard is on the West Coast Main Line. The only way to get to Leaming Spa from where I was meant either going via London, or via Birmingham. I opted to go via Birmingham, as that was the shorter distance. When the train conductor came past to check tickets, he said my ticket was wrong. He listened sympathetically, before telling me I needed to get off the train at Milton Keynes (a short distance on) to get a different ticket.
At Milton Keynes, I made it to the ticket office just before they closed. The man who served me simply said “There’s no way you’re getting to Leamington Spa by train tonight”, before selling me another ticket, and telling me on which platform to wait at. Walking away from the ticket counter, I noticed I was leaving bloody footprints – if you’re a cleaner at that station, please accept my apologies. On the platform, perhaps a minute before the train pulled in, there was an announcement of a platform change, and all the other passenger literally ran, crossing a footbridge to the other platform. If you’ve ever tried lugging a laden touring bike up and over a footbridge, you’d understand that I had no chance of catching that train. I was still at the foot of the stairs when I watched it depart. Without me. On the bright side, by that time my ankle had mostly stopped bleeding.
These are the words every train passenger dislikes to hear. If you’re on a train with your bike, you never want to hear those words, as rail-replacement buses don’t take bicycles. Caveat: I once encountered a very sympathetic coach driver, who allowed my bike into the luggage hold. On the train, I was looking at what to do when I got to Birmingham, and it was a nightmare. I had exactly nine minutes to get off the train at Birmingham New Street station, find the exit, cycle to Birmingham Moor Street station (nearby, thankfully), find the correct platform, and board the last train that night to Leamington Spa. My mate Dom (who the next year cycled the Grand Union Canal with me) said he’d meet me at the station, and show me the way. Even then, it would have been a miracle if I made it in time. Dom’s on Twitter, and he’s a seriously good guy, so do yourself a favour and follow him.
As it happens, the choice was removed from me. As we approached Rugby, the announcement over the tannoy came that the train we were on would terminate at Rugby, and that passengers needed to make use of the rail-replacement bus. That simply meant there was no way whatsoever I would get to Birmingham in time to catch the last train to Leamington Spa.
I was out of options. The rain was falling hard as the train stopped in Rugby and I wheeled my bike off the train, and out of the station. I didn’t know the area at all, but knew there were many dual carriageways that were motorways in all but name. I really didn’t want to end up cycling on one of those. I fired up Google Maps on my phone, fed it the location of my van, and set the mode to cycling. With my phone in the front pocket of my rain coat, I set off into the night, with Google Maps giving me voice directions. And still the rain was falling.
Lost in Sustranslation
Let’s be clear: Google Maps, for cycling directions, is dire. Never use it unless you have no other alternative. At first, Maps routed me along some roads, then along a tarred traffic-free segment of the National Cycle Network (NCN). Now NCN routes are a bit of a gamble, and range from wonderful, to absolutely pathetic. Soon enough, the one I was on proved itself to belong to the Pathetic category. The heavy rain didn’t help at all, and at times I was cycling along a rocky single-track covered in ankle-deep water. It made for sketchy cycling! Worse, there were two locations where I had to lift my laden bike over stiles. That’s definitely no fun with an ankle that’s extremely painful. After what felt like an eternity, I was spat out on a rural lane, and riding on tar after that horrid rough track was bliss.
I blindly followed Google Maps’ directions, even though I saw a sign pointing towards Long Itchington, which isn’t far from Leamington Spa, simply because I didn’t know the area at all. After a while, Google Maps brought me right back to the Grand Union Canal, and was directing me onto the towpath. The muddy, slippery towpath, in the dark, in the rain. Exasperated, I changed Google Maps to car directions mode, and again fed it the location of my van, then started following the directions. On the bright side, that took me past a petrol station, where I bought a coffee from a vending machine, and a pack of jelly beans, which I scoffed on the spot. My ankle was bleeding again, and cycling was extremely painful.
I was now very close to Leamington Spa, but the Universe wasn’t quite done with me. In Radford Semele, right on the edge of Leamington Spa, my dynamo headlight flickered, then went out. Later I discovered that water ingress had killed it. In the dark, and in the rain, I fumbled through my panniers, found my torch, and strapped that to the handlebars. Able to see where I was going again, I set off, and I remember the extreme relief I felt when I finally stopped at my van. It had gone 02h30, my ankle was bleeding quite a bit, and I was exhausted from having cycled a laden touring bike 87 miles, over some damn hard terrain. On the bright side, all that rain meant me and my bike were washed clean of any traces of mud or clay.
Once inside my van, I stripped all my wet gear off and dried myself, before setting about disinfecting the cut on my ankle, then dressing it. I got dressed in warm, dry clothes, set my alarm, then collapsed into bed.
Dom and I had arranged to meet for breakfast at the Morrison’s café in Leamington Spa the next morning. I drove there and soon enough he arrived on his bike (he’d caught the train down from Brum). That morning, I realised I’d made the right choice getting back to my van, as my ankle was swollen, and very painful to walk on. There was no way I’d have been able to cycle that day. After a good catch-up, and a surprisingly good breakfast, we said our goodbyes. Driving hurt my ankle too, but as soon as I hit the motorway, I just engaged cruise control and could give my ankle a good rest.
I’m not done with the Grand Union Canal. Last year, Dom and I cycled most of the GUC, but in the end ran out of time. He had to peel off at Leamington Spa, while I continued a little further, to Hatton Locks, as my van was parked nearby. That means I’ve yet to cycle the stretch from Hatton Locks to Birmingham. I’ve learned (the hard way, which is often the only way I seem to learn) that to enjoy riding the GUC, you need at least 3 weeks of warm, dry weather beforehand, and you should ride it over at least four days. Of sure, it’s possible to do it in less time, but that would simply mean you’re too focused on the clock to properly appreciate to wonder of the landscape through which you cycle.
Importantly, this trip underlined something vital: when planning an adventure, always consider what your options would be if things go wrong.
This ride was initially very nice, but then turned into Type 2 fun. Still, some of the best stories are based on Type 2 fun!