Grand Union Canal to Market Harborough
1 Week Route
An interesting trip through rolling Northamptonshire countryside, but with 4 tunnels and 2 staircase flights of locks (26 locks total each way) it is a fairly challenging route. There is a short pleasant detour up the Welford Arm. At Foxton, apart from its awesome flight of locks, are the remains of the ingenious but short-lived Inclined Plane, which hauled boats in counterbalanced iron tanks up the steep escarpment. The entire site has been turned into a visitor centre with a museum, cafes and clear explanation of how the inclined plane used to work.
This route takes you on a journey through the rural heart of England along two canals of very different character. The Oxford Canal was one of the first to be built in England, construction commencing at Coventry in 1770. Four years later it had reached Napton and by 1778 was open as far as Banbury: It took another 12 years to raise the money and complete the canal from there to the Thames at Oxford! The canal was engineered by James Brindley and built as a “contour canal” which means that the line follows the contours of land with a minimum of earthworks. This created a very tortuous route and the northern section of the canal was modernised in the 1830’s, almost halving the distance from Coventry to Braunston, striding across the countryside with a series of impressive arrow straight cuttings and embankments interspersed with winding sections of the original canal.
The old Grand Union Canal runs for 23 1⁄2 miles between Norton Junction and Foxton and opened in 1814 after several false starts and route changes, making it one of the later canals to be completed. It was the result of cooperation between existing companies keen to open a route from London to the East Midlands and was never a financial success. Its very rural nature meant it generated little longhaul or local traffic of its own so relied totally on longhaul traffic for income and much of this was taken away by the advent of railways to the area in the mid 1830s. The inclined plane at Foxton was a bold but doomed attempt to reclaim some of that traffic.
Starting from our base at Stretton Stop, where loaded boats were once “gauged” to be charged a toll for their cargo, you head south, through a short tunnel at Newbold to Hillmorton.
As you come out of Newbold tunnel there is a pub (The Barley Mow) on your right hand side, and you can usually moor close by. It’s worth knowing as you walk along the access road in front of the pubs that this was once the canal. If you walk through the churchyard opposite on the public footpath you can find the original Newbold tunnel, now abandoned.
Between Stretton and Hillmorton there are many short “arms” of the canal – short seemingly purposeless length of water which are actually some of the remains of the original route of the canal. They were retained to serve industry – normally flour mills or lime kilns which had been built alongside the old line or because they carried out some other function such as water supply. Where necessary these are crossed by graceful cast iron bridges. These bridges are all identical and some of the earliest examples of mass production in the world.
The canal passes through the outskirts of Rugby, but maintains some privacy in a series of leafy cuttings or embankments. There are good moorings close to Bridge 58 convenient for the adjacent retail park with a multiscreen cinema, restaurants and a 24hr Tesco supermarket. The moorings here or at Newbold are the best places to stop if you wish to visit the centre of Rugby.
The first three locks of your journey are encountered at Hillmorton, where the commercial traffic was so heavy by the late 1830’s the locks were duplicated to speed the flow of traffic between the Warwickshire coalfields and London.
Above Hillmorton there is another canalside pub (The Old Royal Oak) which is family friendly. There are several more long straight sections of “new” canal on the way to Braunston, a major junction and and one of the historical centres of the UK canal network. There are plenty of moorings here and the village is well worth exploring with many interesting buildings, a well stocked supermarket, chip shop and four pubs.
You carry straight on (keep left) at Braunston Turn past the historic Nurser’s boatyard (now part of Braunston Marina onto the Grand Union Canal. There is an impressive brick built pump house (now a workshop) at the bottom lock which originally used to pump the Grand Junction Canal Company’s precious water back up the flight of six locks you ascend before entering the 1.2 mile long Braunston tunnel. A couple of miles after the tunnel you turn left at Norton Junction onto the Leicester Section.
Soon you reach Watford Locks, the first flight of staircase locks on your journey. Moor up at the bottom and find the lockkeeper who will assist you. The Watford flight takes you up onto the Leicester Summit a 20 mile pound running through remote and attractive Leicestershire countryside. You must brave the reputedly haunted Crick tunnel – but there’s an excellent canalside eating place just beyond. Then the canal passes close to the village of Yelvertoft (good moorings and a pub, the Knightly Arms, in the village) and on through rolling countryside steeped in the history of the English Civil War – the site of the 1645 Battle of Naseby is close by.
There is a short (1 mile and one lock) arm to Welford which you may wish to explore with a marina and old coaching inn (The Wharf Inn) serving good food at the end.
On the main line the next place of note is North Kilworth where there is a boatyard and marina, but sadly both the pubs are now closed. The canal passes under Husbands Bosworth village in another tunnel, emerging to run along the edge of Laughton Hills with some fine views across the valley before you reach the end of the summit section at Foxton.
Here two more sets of staircase locks, one of the most famous flights of locks on the canal system, lower you dramatically down the hillside. Volunteer lockkeepers will help you here as at Watford and once through the flight it is well worth mooring up and paying the museum a visit.
At the bottom of the locks the main line carries on towards Leicester but you make a sharp right turn through the swingbridge on to the Market Harborough Arm. Originally part of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal it had been intended to go all the way to the River Nene near Northampton, however only the first five miles were built and a basin constructed at the terminus in this historic and prosperous classic English market town which welcomes boaters and is well worth exploring.