The main line from London to Birmingham, this is one of the great trunk routes of Britain’s waterway system. It was also the scene of the last major attempt to revive carrying on the ’historic’ canals. A whole series of navigations was brought under the Grand Union banner in the 1930s, deepened, widened and rebuilt. The experiment failed, but has served to greatly enrich this always interesting waterway as well as leaving us with a fine fleet of former carrying craft.
London has two Grand Union lines. The main line from the Thames at Brentford is pleasant enough, but the real London canal experience is the Regent’s Canal, passing Camden Market and London Zoo on the way to the leafy, plush surroundings of Little Venice.
Quickly glossing over Uxbridge and Watford, the canal heads into the Chilterns. Originally built as the Grand Junction Canal, it still bears that heritage today with pumping stations, canalside workshops, carefully engineered reservoirs and flights of well-kept locks; and the countryside will surprise anyone who has only seen it from the confines of the M1.
Nowhere is this heritage more apparent than the famous canal village of Stoke Bruerne, just short of Northampton. The Grand Union is effectively the main street here, with the pub on one side, the canal museum on the other, and little cottages all around. This is a quick chance for a breather before plunging into Blisworth Tunnel, one of two great bores on the Grand Union (pub residents notwithstanding), a devil to build and reputedly haunted to this day.
The village of Braunston, site of the second tunnel, is if anything more lauded than Stoke Bruerne. Here the Oxford Canal joins, its brief reign as the main line to London snatched away when Blisworth finally opened. With the Leicester Line joining nearby, this is often considered the best-connected place on the waterways, as the numerous marinas nearby testify.
The old Warwick canals take over from the Grand Junction here, and these were the ones rebuilt in the 1930s with strangely charming concrete bridges and what must have seemed futuristic lock-gear. Quieter now, the Grand Union descends gently to Warwick and the Avon Valley – only to climb out with a back-breaking flight of 21 broad locks at Hatton. The approach to Birmingham is suburban and understated, but a final flourish of narrow locks leads to the city centre.
In 1962, ’Let’s Go To Birmingham’ showed the train ride from London in just six minutes. It might take six days by boat – but then, there’s much more to see.