Before the railways, canals brought a transport revolution to Britain in the 18th century. In 1793-4 alone, some 30 new canal projects were started and some towns – particularly in the Midlands close to coal supplies – were criss-crossed by were a number of competing companies.
Built by armies of barefoot, known as navvies, they used just picks and shovels to dig trenches (plus gunpowder for creating tunnels and cuttings). It was physically exhausting work that made its owners rich. And the resulting canals considerably reduced the cost of transporting goods across the country when compared to roads and existing water options.
One of the busiest was the Grand Union Canal which was fully completed in 1805 and provided a direct link between London and the growing industries in the Midlands. It carried coal from North Warwickshire, stone from Yorkshire and Derbyshire, glass from Stourbridge and pottery from Staffordshire, as well as bringing imported goods from London to the north.
Previously cargo needed to be transported via the Oxford Canal before entering the Thames at Oxford, which was an extremely slow and lengthy route (some 230 miles). The Grand Union Canal (originally called the Grand Junction Canal, before it merged with other canals in 1929 – the old name can still be seen on bridges) saved time by braking away from the Oxford Canal at Braunston and flowing to Brentford, where it joined the Thames.
The Authorising Act gave the canal builders compulsory purchase of any land within 100 ft of the proposed route, so when they needed to stray further tough negotiation was often required to reach somewhat costly settlements with landowners.
John Hassell described the beauty of the canal in his 1819 Tour of the Grand Junction Navigation:
“The Grand Junction or Braunston Canal is so peculiarly distinguished, that truly it may be said, from its junction with the Thames to its termination at Braunston, to be an almost perpetual succession of variegated beauty, shaping its devious course through some of the richest vallies of Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northampton, accompanied by an abundance of the luxuriant scenery, and lined on its siders with a succession of rising eminences”.
The rise of the railways took trade away from canals, but the Grand Union Canal did provide an important supply route for coal and weapon materials during the Second World War.
Then unfortunately from the 1950s canals lost trade at an increasing pace to railways – and then motorways. For Grand Union Canal a severe frost during the winter of 1962/3 was particularly damaging and the last commercial boats used it in the 1970s.
After years of neglect, the Canal & River Trust and others have in more recent times worked hard with armies of volunteers to clean-up canals across Britain so they can be enjoyed by a new generation of leisure boaters, waters and cyclists.
Today, it’s possible to walk along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal all the way from Brentford to Birmingham. I walked a section of this wonderful stretch of water as part of my trek along the 78-mile Capital Ring trail around the outskirts of London.
Starting my day’s walk at Richmond Bridge (where I finished last time), I enjoyed a pleasurable walk along The Thames – with water on one side of the path and the Old Deer Park on the other. This vast open space was founded by King James I in 1604 as a Royal Hunting Park and is now used for a variety of sports.
The path then crosses the Thames and passes some wonderful riverside pubs. It actually goes over the wooden waterside terrace of one, so if it’s open it may be hard for some to not stop and have a pint! And the London Apprentice Pub has a particularly interesting story in that City apprentices were once rowed by their seniors to celebrate them graduating to journeymen’s wages.
I went on through gates into Syon Park, a 200 year old estate owned by the Duke of Northumberland. Syon House was built in the 16th century on the site of Syon Monastery and there is a plaque remembering Richard Reynolds, a chaplain who was executed in 1535 because he could not accept the supremacy of Henry VIII (it was considered the 10th richest religious house in the country at the time of dissolution).
The house and gardens – remodelled for the first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland in the 18th century by Robert Brown and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown respectively – are today popular with weddings and other events. But you can enter both on selected days and the wider grounds (which includes a Hilton hotel) can be visited at any time.
A few coach parties had just arrived when I reached the gates of the house so I opted instead to pop in to the garden centre which was opened in the old farm buildings and stables in the 1960s. The sunny outside courtyard – next to the house’s spectacular 1820s Great Conservatory – provided a fine location for a morning coffee break.
After crossing a busy junction with superstores, including Pets at Home and Majestic Wines, I entered the wide basin of Brentford Lock. In use until the 1980s, there were once numerous canopied warehouses under which cargo was loaded and unloaded onto boats (the path runs through one of these surviving structures later on).
Today, the area has been transformed and the first building I spotted was a Holiday Inn on water’s edge. It was a hot day and guests were making the most of the outdoor terrace, with comfy sofas, from where it was possible to keep watch on the pleasure craft being manoeuvred in the basin.
The footpaths on this first stretch of towpath looked spanking new and were extremely popular. There are already a number of big business parks just a stone’s throw from the water, but once all the new apartment blocks here are complete, it will no doubt become much busier.
As I carried on further along the towpath where horses pulling barges once trotted along, it quickly got much quieter (bar the occasional pack of people from walking clubs) and less built-up. The paths weren’t quite as new as at the start, but they were still pretty solid, with trees, wild rushes on the side
I passed a number of locks where boats were patiently waiting for the right level of water so they could carry on their journeys along the canal. Chief engineer William Jessop knew how busy the canal was going to be, so built these deliberately wide – allowing two boats to pass at the same time.
One minute I enjoyed the quietness of woodland on my route, then minutes later the peace was interrupted by noisy warehouses and roads (including at one point the M4) close to the towpath.
The history books record the extent of industry that was here, including a special Maypole Arm that opened in 1913 to serve Otto Monsted’s Maypole Margarine Works. Coconut was taken to the factory and margarine was sent the other way. Trade peaked in 1920 with some 84,500 tons of goods were transported to and from the site, which was then the largest margarine-making factory in Europe.
After Hanwell Bottom Lock, the Capital Green route leaves the Grand Union Canal and for the next stretch of my walk I instead followed the River Brent. This waterway is a little bit wild and is considered a “lost river” given that some of it is now hidden from view.
I soon reached a vast viaduct built in 1838 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as part of the engineer’s London to Bristol Great Western Railway line. Such was the scenery that Queen Victoria asked for her royal train to be stopped here so she could admire the view.
My route then took me through Brent Lodge Park, which has all the amenities like children’s playgrounds and cafes, yet away from the crowds it seemed quite wild. And for most of the time, the river – sometimes hidden by reeds – was close-by.
I passed through a few other parks (some better looked after than others), by golf courses and along uninteresting residential streets. And in Greenford town centre I grabbed some food at the Railway pub (which has an Argos distribution next door and a retail park around the corner).
But before I finished my walking for the day at Sudbury Hill station, I got one chance to enjoy the Grand Union Canal – this time part of the 14-mile stretch of the Paddington branch, which connects with the main one near Hayes. Its opening enabled locally-produced hay to be transported to London and manure (known as Horsenden ‘Mack’) for use in fields was sent the other way.
This stretch of the Grand Union seemed more overgrown than the part I’d walked along earlier in the day, with the canopies of some trees reaching right out into the canal. There were a few barges that passed me, but as I’d found earlier, the towpath was much busier than the water itself – with a few other walkers, but mostly cyclists screaming passed at high speeds.
Given canals’ contribution to our industrial heritage, I think it’s great they are being restored so that they can be appreciated by a whole new generation of canal users. And walking along beside the Grand Union Canal and seeing the fun that some boaters were having has convinced me that one day I should go on a canal boat holiday.
My trip along the Capital Ring continues next Thursday on Pastinthepresent.net when I walk from Sudbury Hill to East Finchley. If you have missed any installments from my trek, you can read all the articles that have been published so far here.