The Grand Union Canal
The Grand Union Canal leaves the River Thames at Brentford and climbs over fifty locks up into the Chiltern hills. It descends then climbs again to a new summit in Birmingham, 137 miles and 166 locks. Boatmen used to claim to do it in five days but allow well over a week if you want to get any sleep!
The climb up to the Chilterns goes through some beautiful scenery, especially through the partly 17 century Cassiobury Park. Stoke Bruerne and Braunston are old canal towns, the Canal Museum and Boat Inn at Stoke Bruerne are worth a stop. Just north of the Northampton Arm, which gives access to the Lincolnshire Fen district, you pass Weedon barracks, built here two hundred years ago because it was thought to be the place in England farthest from any possible coastal invasion! There are long tunnels at Blisworth and Braunston. The line into Birmingham goes through Royal Leamington Spa, fashionable in Victorian times and Warwick, famous for its medieval buildings and castle.
The 21 locks in the Hatton flight are a daunting sight for boaters who nicknamed the locks ‘the stairway to heaven’. The famous hydraulic paddle gear makes winding easy but slow! Hatton locks and the rest of the main line of the Grand Union Canal was part of a last gasp effort, backed by the government of the day, to modernize the canals so they could compete with road and rail. It took two years and 1000 men to rebuild the 21 Hatton locks alone, using the new material, concrete.
The Paddington Arm and Regents Canal in London go close to the city centre, through Regent's Park and London Zoo and past Camden to meet the Thames again at Limehouse Basin. They form part of a short circular cruising Ring, including the tidal Thames past the Houses of Parliament and joining the Grand Union Canal at Brentford. Care must be taken navigating the busy tidal river.
The Leicester section branches north at Braunston and climbs a little less steeply before falling to join the River Soar just after Loughborough. It winds pleasantly, like rivers do, for about ten miles before flowing into the River Trent.
The Leicester Section is interesting and varied, leaving the main line at Norton Junction south of Braunston and joining the River Trent near Kegworth. The canal section before Leicester is very rural at times and has two tunnels at Crick and Husband's Bosworth and staircase locks at Watford and Foxton.
The 7 narrow beam Watford locks lift the Grand Union Leicester Arm 16 metres (52’6”) to the Leicester summit level. 4 locks are in a staircase sharing top and bottom gates. They were opened in 1814 and there have been schemes to widen them from 7 foot to 14 foot ever since. They, with Foxton Locks at the other end of the summit level, are the main barriers preventing wide beam boats and barges reaching the waterways of the midlands and north.
Foxton is the site of a steam powered Inclined Plane which replaced ten locks and lifted narrowboats 75 feet. It was opened in 1900 but suffered from mechanical and structural problems and the locks were reopened in 1908.
The City of Leicester has Roman ruins. For the last twenty miles or so the route is along the River Soar which is a tributary of the Trent. There is some very pleasant river scenery along the Soar.
The River Lee and the River Stort open up some surprisingly fine countryside to Bishops Stortford and Hertford.