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The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system. Its main line connects the two largest cities in England, London and Birmingham and stretches for 217 km (135 miles) and has 160 locks. It has arms to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton.

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      26.07.2013 10:46
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      Free and peaceful

      The Grand Union Canal meanders through Northampton (my bit) with a stoop and a creak on its rustic journey from London to Birmingham, the once main arterial route of the industrial revolution now the distinctly forgetful grandfather of the M1 Motorway and the main fast train line. But its 137 miles are of obvious historical importance and so worth maintaining, if just for leisure use. As it reaches Northampton it gathers shopping trolleys, car tires and allsorts but still maintains its grandeur, running for 21 miles through Northamptonshire.

      I like the canal because it reminds us just how important Great Britain was to the world in the Industrial Revolution, our hard engineering skills and the boldness of the Empire running that now rusty blood through these veins of old industry. The crown jewel of the crown of the canal in Northamptonshire is the Blisworth Tunnel, stretching 3,076 yards through to Stoke Bruerne, the third longest navigable tunnel on the UK canal system and the ninth longest in the world. The first version collapsed in 1796 as there was a kink in the middle and the quick sand base bought the lot down, killing 14 men. It finally opened in 1805 after two attempts, linking the Northampton tramway to the town centre. A significant chunk of the produce and materials of the industrial revolution moved through Northampton from the north to power the world. In the 1980s they put concrete supports in it to secure its survival as it remained closed for a while although at 4ft, 6 inches clearance it's still tight. Today barge and boat owners can kick their way through the near two mile long tunnel lying on their backs, the traditional way. Northamptonshire also have the shorter Braunston Tunnel at 2040 yards in the county, dropping six flights of locks at Braunston to send the GUC on its way to London.

      Unlike rivers, canals can go uphill, the Foxton Locks elevation just north of Northamptonshire well worth a visit, as is the aqueduct near Milton Keynes in Bucks. Northamptonshire also has the misleading Watford Locks, a staircase of four locks that lift barges and boats up some 52 ft. It can be quite a circus in the summer as the boat users operate the locks themselves, causing large traffic jams. They are padlocked in the evenings to stop kids doing what they do. The Canal isn't that busy in Northampton itself and most of the time you only see the traditional boats moored up. It's always nice to see one go through the lock in Beckets Park and the boats are always adorned by bargey types, who generally have sideburns, red noses and a cat. And that's just the women. These people always seem to drink real ale and wave lustily at you, occasionally hurling a guy rope you way to tie them up but that usually hits you in the head! J

      In Northampton itself they built a brand new marina on the site of the old Avon Cosmetics factory in Beckets Park where barge types can park up for the day (£10) or pitch and pay by the month (£200). Living on a barge is a growing trend and with smart meters for electricity and gas canisters on sale not a bad life in the summer, satellite dishes and broadband not uncommon. But because of that needed security it's gated off to the public now and the taxpayers who raised the £2.5 million can't actually use it. There is a much older marina further up river at Billing Aquadrome but floods badly in the winter up there. The new marina is on the junction of the Grand Union Canal and the River Nene. If you wanted to know, a traditional 50ft barge retails for about £40,000 and one of those sport fishing cruiser boats for around £8,000.

      Northampton is part of the Nene Valley Way National Trust walk and it runs alongside the canal for most of the Grand Unions journey through the county. It's a good but not great walk and occasionally popular. Every now and then a man with a demonstrative walking style and floppy hat and matching wooly socks and jumper races through the county in search of more glamorous pastures, not exactly the El Camino Santiago but bracing all the same if you like that sort of thing.

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        04.10.2006 18:50
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        Canal banks are an often-overlooked recreational source

        I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but it wasn’t till I wrote about Bristol and its links with Brunel that I felt inspired to put ‘pinky to keyboard’.

        What follows is a description of one of my favourite off-road walks in my own area of west London. We’ve even challenged friends to come with us, and then ask them where the hell they THINK they are. Frequently they’re wrong!

        WE’RE THE FUKAWI

        The reason for this disorientation is the nature of the walk mostly along canal bank. To this day, it doesn’t matter how built-up and noisy the area, stepping onto a canal bank changes the whole pace of life.

        So here we go – my description of a walk from Norwood Top Lock (Southall) to the River Thames at Brentford, all on canal bank. If you attempt this using public transport, better get a Travelcard as you’ll be coming back from somewhere roughly 4 miles from where you started.

        NORWOOD TOP LOCK

        Accessed from a hump-backed bridge at the end of Melbury Avenue, Norwood Green, Southall, Middx. (UB2 postcode). Nearest trains – Southall (Paddington line) and buses, 207/607 (Uxbridge to Shepherd’s Bush via Ealing).

        As we cross the old steep ‘pedestrianised’ bridge, prepare to step into another gentler time.

        Even here at the very start, industrial archaeology stares you in the face. A cast iron plaque on the bridge warns that “this bridge is insufficient to carry weights beyond that of the ordinary traffic of the district.” It also goes on to mention ‘locomotives’ but I think they mean traction engines and steam wagons. This is of course “By Order of the Grand Junction Canal Company”. The word ‘Junction’ is ground away to make room for ‘Union’ but no-one has ever found a good way of doing this, and white paint just flakes off, so it’s just a Grand………Canal, although not in the Venetian sense!

        The lock itself is interesting especially in summer, as many canal boat users know it as the start of the steady slog down the Thames valley’s final terraces to the Thames itself, with much sweat being needed on the part of some poor crew member as they face eleven(!) more locks in the next 4 miles to the river. Up to this point, they’ve been spoiled by a straight ‘lock-less run’ from the Uxbridge area, or round from Paddington Basin on the Regent’s Canal. The lock is also their last chance to empty toilets and take on fresh water, remembering of course which hose does what! A fine day immediately after the school summer holidays is ideal, as all the SAGA-louts* come out to mess around in boats.

        *I am one – I just don’t have a boat! Incidentally, if these boaters think 11 locks are bad, they haven’t tried Caen Hill on The Kennet & Avon Canal in Wiltshire. 29 locks spaced out at about 100 yards intervals!

        ‘THREE BRIDGES’ – Well, Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad!

        Downstream, we pass one more lock, an unsupervised one this time, and a small wharf used by the local Sea Scouts. Then we come to the gem of this walk (so soon?), I. K. Brunel’s ‘Three Bridges’. Curiously there are only two, but there are three means of transport involved, so that’s where the confusion in nomenclature evolved.

        For some reason best known to the great man himself, he undertook to create a crossing of a railway line, a canal and a road, and maybe ‘just because he could’, he choose to make all three intersect at the same spot, or maybe his surveyors were ‘having a laugh’.

        Hence, deeply buried at the bottom of the pile, we have the old Great Western Railway Brentford Dock line, now a siding, but thanks to the West London Waste Authority, carrying more tons than it ever did, of incinerated landfill, to far off places in Oxfordshire. I’ve ridden this strangely rural line on an anorak’s special, and it really does feel like a country branch line.

        Next up comes the Canal itself, which passes over the line as an aqueduct at an acute angle, some 30-odd feet above it and dripping water on it, whilst all at the same time, traffic on Windmill Lane (A4127) rumbles low overhead, there not being much headroom.

        The road bridge has now been designated an ‘Ancient Monument’ and has width barriers to stop heavy vehicles in excess of three tons from using the bridge, although quite what a narrow heavy vehicle might do is anyone’s guess. Before the road was narrowed, the ornamental parapet to the bridge used to get wrecked at least once a year. Now with less reason to mount the kerb, vehicles have more or less left it alone.

        Anyone familiar with Archimedes’ famous leap from the bath will know that the aqueduct stays the same weight with or without a boat passing over it, so there’s no such restriction down here, and as for the railway; well, it’s on terra-slightly-muddy-but-firma!

        It doesn’t take a genius to see that an ‘A’ road with a width restriction could be a tiniest tad of a nuisance and it has been for many years, since the detour is several miles long. This marks the last spot that the canal is bridged except by a cul-de-sac until it gets to Brentford, which gives an ‘us-and-them’ feel to the area, the Osterley and Norwood Green areas seemingly miles from the Ealing and Northfields area, although they could shout at each other if they tried.

        Passing through on the tow path, we see that some of Brunel’s original wrought iron railway track has been pressed into service as fence post restraints and to prevent the towing hawsers from canal boats cutting into the brick piers of the road bridge. The rails themselves bear the scars of decades of horses dragging their ponderous barges through the narrows of the aqueduct, and slots have been worn into the metal.

        IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE

        To our left we are now presented with a high brick wall, previously of the St. Bernard’s Mental Hospital, later the psychiatric wing of the newer Ealing Hospital next door, and thanks to Mrs. T’s ‘care in the community’ campaign, now converted into trendy ‘lofts’ and executive apartments. That someone would be crazy enough to pay the prices asked is a kind of justice in itself I guess, given the site’s history.

        You can even see traces of an arch in the brickwork of this wall, and this marks the spot where a dock basin for the hospital was built. Coal was brought in, and surplus produce from the hospital’s kitchen garden were taken away for sale.

        It was around this spot last year that I snapped a heron proudly holding aloft a large eel which it decided to eat on the spot as best it could, since flying away with it probably wasn’t an option! I think this highlights one of the benefits of a canal-bank walk. It’s like a walk in the country without having to go there, and local wild-life treats it alternately as a haven for raising young and as a kind of sylvan highway through town.

        The opposite bank is given over to the various gardens of permanently moored house-boats, one of them a Dutch barge, which must have been a tight fit in the locks to get it there. Some of these homes are self-sufficient in light and heating. Wind-turbines and photo-voltaic panels are much in evidence, and one boasts a wood pile consisting entirely of sawn driftwood, drying ready for the next cold snap.

        Another feature of interest is the variety of styles used for the various lock keeper’s cottages. Some are symmetrical bungalows, others full-sized country cottages, but they are all notably still in use. Curiously, this way of life must still appeal to some people, as there’s no road access, and even ownership of a motorbike means trusting it to being parked on the public bank overnight, with all that this implies. To be fair, there’s no real evidence of the now-to-be-expected vandalism, although many of the boats present a protected side to the bank to ward missiles off their glazing.

        Passing the hospital walls we also descend through a handful of locks, which is easy for the walker or cyclist but pity the poor crewman-designate from a narrow boat. I tried it alone once in helping a friend who’d broken his ankle take delivery of a new narrow boat in Brentford that was to be moored near Uxbridge, and it was bloody hard work, upstream or down.

        In olden days, it would have been even harder, as the canal company required you to use the ‘side ponds’ in periods of dry weather. Some of these have been restored with ‘Lottery Money’ although they still don’t get used. The idea was that instead of letting a whole lock-full of water drain downstream when passing that way, you first half-drained the lock into a side-pond, until levels equalised. Then you closed off the side pond sluice. THEN you let only the other half of the lock disappear downstream.

        This means that anyone coming upstream next has half a lock-full in store, before needing to partly drain the upper section of canal. Neat eh? To be honest, it’s not been an issue for donkey’s years, since the canal isn’t very busy, even in summer and it’s fed in several places in north-west London by freshwater rivers, and just below where the hospital wall ends the River Brent joins the canal from the left.

        Depending on the time of year, this river can be regarded as un-navigable, except perhaps by the odd kayaker out to prove a point or kid on a Li-Lo. The Brent rises in north London, firstly as the Dollis Brook, later becoming the Brent as it flows through the eponymous Brent Cross before entering the Ealing area near The Hoover Building on the A40. It then flows under Brunel’s magnificent Wharncliffe Viaduct at Hanwell, which whisks the main line into Paddington over the Brent Valley. From here it’s a short hop under the Uxbridge Road and into the canal.

        Thus from this point downstream, the Brent and the canal are one and the same. They only deviate at locks. The Brent meanders off to the left twice over weirs, whilst the canal cuts a straighter furrow through a lock. In this way, flooding of the locks is prevented in wet seasons by giving the water an alternative route to the Thames.

        The confluence also marks a ‘pub break’. This stretch of the canal does not have cosy ‘canal-side pubs’ but the owner of The Fox in Green Lane, Hanwell W7 has had the foresight to put its sign by the canal, in recognition of the fact that it’s all of 200 feet away. A swelling in the number of boats moored here gives the game away too. The Fox is an urban gem, with a cloistered back garden, good beer and bar food – many’s the time that I’ve curtailed my walk or ride here and hiccupped my way back instead of pressing on, but thash anuvver shtoree besh leff untolled.

        To be honest, the next mile or so is a bit flat, both in terrain and scenery.

        We pass a plaque commemorating the winning of the Kerr Cup For Pile Driving by British Waterways workers in 1959. Somehow, this failed to come to the notice of The Guinness Book Of Records. We also pass constant reminders of our ever-increasing distance from Braunston, 92 miles at this point (“Where?” I hear you cry.) Braunston is the location of THE Grand Junction in the canal system, hub of the universe, that’s where.

        Rounding a bend where we have a reed bed on our left and the canal on our right, we are confronted by the first of those wiers I mentioned, as the Brent beetles off to the left. This is a great place to spot herons standing stock-still in the hope of seeing a fish flounder over the cataract. Don’t be surprised to see numerous foxes, weasels, not to mention the aquatic birds that have all decided to call this stretch home. We pass over the weir so that effectively we’re now on a wooded island, river to our left, canal lock to our right. Here the tow path passes over a sleepy creek that is the Brent rejoining us, and we are immediately plunged back into the current century as we pass under the damned M4, one of Europe’s busiest stretches we’re told, between London and Heathrow.

        However, such is the nature of a canal-side walk that the intrusion is soon gone, only to be partly shattered a few hundred yards further on, although less frequently by the roar of a Piccadilly Line train as it trundles over the girder bridge some fifty feet above us – an odd concept that; Underground trains 50 feet in the air. To this day, I’ve friend who can’t pass under a steel bridge unless she’s absolutely sure there isn’t a train coming.

        TOWROPES ‘N’ STUFF

        Our next major interest is in the crossing to the other bank facilitated by the ominously-named Gallows Bridge, looking like a miniature of the original iron bridge at Ironbridge. The castings have in recent years been restored to their former splendour, with the maker’s name being picked out in white. It’s quite a challenge to many bikers especially those without a couple of dozen gears.

        Towing a boat from shore would also be a challenge but for different reasons. The modern-day ramps make the bridge ‘Z-shaped’ with a right and a left turn needed. Think about it. I’m Dobbin, the faithful towing horse. I pass over the bridge, until, inexorably, I’m dragged over the side as someone has failed to realise you need to let go of the tow rope. Letting go of an old sisal tow rope would vastly increase its weight as it soaks up a fair proportion of the canal’s water, and since it sinks, retrieving it is a pain!

        To get round this, bridges used to have one 90 degree ramp and another 270 degree ramp, spiralling back under the bridge on the other bank. Thus you could tow continuously without letting go. To this day, you can still see the signs of the spiral in the way the parapets start to curve and then are blocked off by newer brickwork.

        One more lock and meander of the Brent and we’re passing under the 6-lane A4 next to the impressive Smith-Klein-Glaxo European HQ building. SKG have paid a fair amount to have the banks neatly coiffured here – somewhere for their workers to sit at lunchtime. Believe me, there’s nowhere else!

        NEARLY THERE – BEER IN SIGHT

        It all starts to get more built-up now, and less ‘rural’. We pass through a disused covered wharf. It’s a strange feeling being ‘indoors’ with this much water, and the place echoes nicely. We are now fair and square in the middle of the old Brentford Dock canal basin. Here, river-going lighters would unload, being too big for the locks upstream. Their cargoes might then have been transferred to rail or road, or even narrow-boats.

        As per bloody usual, it’s now all ‘Waterside Lifestyle’ dwellings. Personally, I think they’re hideous, trying as they do to look like wharves. Still, if it keeps all the rich in one spot, I don’t mind, it’ll make them easier to round up later. I sometimes wonder whether there’ll be any ‘view’ of water left, once the well-heeled have been allowed to hog it all.

        The only saving grace is a rather fine new marina for canal boats which adds a splash of colour to the stainless steel and yellow brick. There’s even a Holiday Inn here now.

        The strangely named Brentford Gauging Lock comes next. This is only the penultimate lock before the Thames, but the ‘Gauging’ part of its name comes from the fact that your tariff for using the canal would be calculated against your boat’s draught here, so effectively the lock doubled as a toll booth.

        At this point, I normally quit the canal bank for a pint of Old Knob Rotter or some other doubtfully named real ale at the dowdy-looking but nonetheless excellent Crown & Magpie in Brentford High Street – you CAN take the canal path right through to the Thames but you pass through some VERY unprepossessing areas of flats and locks-ups before you get there. Much better is to tour The Butts – a rather fine leafy Georgian square and probably west London’s best kept secret. Anna Ford lives here I believe. At weekends*, The Butts is (are?) a good place to park a car at the end of your walk, with another at the Norwood Green end.

        *It’s a Controlled Parking Zone the rest of the time.

        This is what we do, seeding the area with cars before we start our walk – not very green, I’ll admit, but it saves retracing steps, and besides, both of our cars do well over 50 mpg.

        At this point you are also very near to Brentford station on the Hounslow-Waterloo service which now runs every 20 minutes, hence the need for a Travelcard. If you have any energy left, you could easily walk down the road to Kew Bridge and sample the delights of the Gardens, taking in the Kew Steam Museum as you go.

        If any Dooyoo member fancies giving this a try; let me know, I might be able to run you to one end first.

        CONCLUSION

        Canals are something special and to be cherished.

        Someone went to a lot of trouble to build them, and they are a great recreational resource.

        They breathe the countryside into towns.

        People are nice to each other on canals.

        Cyclists say thank you when you stand aside for them.

        Pedestrians say good morning, yes, even to cyclists!

        Strangers pet your dog.

        People on boats hold a beer high and say ‘Cheers’, the bastards.

        Walkers help boaters with the lock gates.

        Find a canal, walk along it, and adopt it.

        Generally speaking, canal banks are flat except at locks, so they make for un-strenuous walking or cycling.

        Just don’t fall in and swallow any! The nearest casualty’s back at Ealing Hospital

        Seriously, use canal banks. Like other footpaths they have a habit of ‘healing up’. I now use this route as my preferred way of commuting to the Richmond area by bike. At least the first four miles are away from traffic, and there’s always the Thames towpath too. For example, I can cycle from Heston where I live, to Barnes, a road distance of around 8 miles once you factor in the dearth of Thames crossings, only having been on road for about one mile and also having cut the distance to seven miles by using a footbridge next to a railway line over the Thames.

        Canal banks rock.

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