Tales from the towpath – walk into the history of the Grand Union Canal

View from one of the locks

View from one of the locks - Credit: Archant

The Campaign to Protect Rural England Herts branch walks the local stretch of the Grand Union Canal and looks at the key role it has played in shaping our county

Lock gates, Cassiobury Park

Lock gates, Cassiobury Park - Credit: Archant

From its junction with the Thames at Brentford, the Grand Union Canal runs through west London, then up the Colne Valley from near Uxbridge, and enters Hertfordshire just to the south of Rickmansworth.

Grand Union Canal bridge, Cassiobury Park

Grand Union Canal bridge, Cassiobury Park - Credit: Archant

From here it climbs steadily up the Gade and Bulbourne valleys to reach Tring Summit, 390 feet above sea level, at Cow Roast lock to the north west of Berkhamsted. A boat arriving here from the River Thames will have risen through 54 locks.

Late autumn in Whippendell Wood

Late autumn in Whippendell Wood - Credit: Archant

The three-mile Tring Summit stretch passes through a cutting more than 30 feet deep in places and then crosses into Buckinghamshire at Bulbourne, to the north east of Tring. From here the canal descends to the Vale of Aylesbury through a flight of seven locks at Marsworth.

Steps alongside a lock

Steps alongside a lock - Credit: Archant


Turning a profit.

The canal was originally the Grand Junction Canal; its construction was approved by Parliament in 1793 at the height of the canal building boom, when moving goods by water was cheaper and faster than using the roads of that time.

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Planned initially to bring coal from Birmingham to London, the 137-mile canal was finished in 1805. Boats were towed by horses until steam power made an appearance, and the towpath was an integral part of canal design.

For the first part of the 19th century the canal was very profitable. Local businesses benefited from being able to move goods cheaply and for farmers the canal opened up the London market. Boat builders and blacksmiths prospered and canal-side inns sprang up along the route. Canal-borne coal also allowed town gas production for the first time, with gas works opened at Berkhamsted in 1849 and Rickmansworth in 1854.


Mergers and frozen assets.

Ironically, the canal played a role in its own commercial decline, being used to transport materials for building the London to Birmingham railway, completed in 1838. It was a slow decline though, with improvements to the canal to increase its capacity continuing into the 20th century.

In 1929, several canal companies merged to form the Grand Union Canal, which was nationalised in 1948. Commercial traffic continued but the long cold winters of 1962 and 1963 proved fatal when the canal froze.

A few boats carrying coal and cement continued to run after this and the last commercial trade involved the delivery of lime juice pulp to the wharf in Two Waters, Hemel Hempstead, adjacent to what is now B&Q’s car park. This ceased in 1981.

Rest and relaxation

Today, the canal is busy with recreational boats of all kinds, especially traditional narrowboats, whether restored originals or modern. Some people live on their boats permanently.

The towpath is ideal for cycling and walking, being mainly level and well-surfaced. Not all canal towpaths, though, are open to cyclists and some rural towpaths might not be ideal for road bikes with thin tyres. Many stretches of towpath are suitable for wheelchair users. Other popular canal-based activities are kayaking and fishing.

For much of its length through Hertfordshire, the Grand Union Canal runs through a green corridor of open countryside, providing an attractive walking route. To the west of Watford, the canal passes though Cassiobury Park, owned by Watford Borough Council, and is sheltered by trees, making it an ideal place for a walk on a windy winter’s day.

To the north of the mill at Grove Mill Lane, the canal runs through the open fields of parkland belonging to The Grove, now a hotel. The bridge carrying the drive to the hotel is a Grade II listed structure, recently restored. In places along this stretch, the waters of the River Gade have been incorporated into the canal.


Upholding tradition.

The locks on the southern end of the Grand Union are wider than many on the country’s canal system, allowing two narrowboats to occupy a lock side by side: this cut journey times for a typical pair of working boats, one towed by a horse or powered by steam or diesel, the other one of the pair an unpowered butty boat towed behind or alongside.

On some of the many boats encountered along the canal you may see brightly-painted cabins, buckets or jugs. These continue a tradition which arose on the canals in the 19th century, when castles and flowers were common motifs.

The canal bridge in Cassiobury Park is a typical example of canal architecture. By the adjacent lock you can see the worn steps running up the slope below the lower gates, and grooves in the arch of the bridge worn over the years by countless towropes.