Grand Union Canal to Milton Keynes
or Leighton Buzzard
1 Week Route
You may have time to carry on to the old market town of Leighton Buzzard.
If so please add on the extra miles, locks and hours.
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.
At Braunston you join the line of what is now known as the Grand Union Canal, opened in 1800 as the Grand Junction Canal to provide a direct route from Braunston to London rather than the previous route down the Oxford Canal to Oxford and thence via the Thames.
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 (http://www.enjoyrugby.co.uk/)
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 and plenty of attractive scenery 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 fine buildings, a well stocked supermarket, chip shop and four pubs.
As you enter Braunston the route to Oxford branches off to the right under the famous pair of cast iron bridges but you keep straight on 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. It is immediately apparent that the Grand Junction was conceived over a quarter of a century later than the Oxford Canal. Civil engineering know-how and confidence had evolved in leaps and bounds during the canal building period and the first indication of this are the much larger locks designed to accommodate two narrowboats side by side.
The six locks are easily negotiated, especially with another boat to share the work with, and a short distance above the top lock you plunge into the 1.2mile long Braunston Tunnel. It took many months to build but you will pass through in about 20 minutes. Like the other major tunnel on this route at Blisworth it is wide enough to pass boats coming the other way.
Just over a mile after leaving the tunnel you pass Norton Junction, where the Grand Union Leicester Line branches off to the left, but you carry straight on and down Buckby locks. There’s a pub (the New Inn) at the top of the locks, and a souvenir shop which sells ice creams about half way down should you find yourself in need of refreshment.
Just below the 7th and final lock there is another marina, shop, chandlery and cafe as well as garden centre. From here you can see three generations of transport networks in this country – canal, rail and motorway next to one another as they squeeze through Watford Gap.
From here it as about 2 hours cruising through rolling farmland to Weedon, a good place to overnight before heading back with a good choice of shops, antique centres and pubs to visit.
The canal basin here was once an interchange point between the railway and canal, but also marks the junction of what was once a very important short arm with huge military importance. When war once again broke out in Europe in 1803 there was great fear that Napoleon would invade the south of England. It was decided that munitions should be stored away from the south coast, and Weedon (http://www.weedonbec-village.co.uk/index.asp?page=10) was chosen due to it’s proximity to the Watling Street (now the A5) and the recently constructed canal.
After boldly crosses the valley if the infant River Nene on a tall embankment to reach Stowe Hill, where there are good moorings and a pub/restaurant, the canal now takes on a more winding course past small villages such as Nether Heyford and Bugbrooke before reaching Gayton Junction where the Northampton Arm descends through xx locks to Northampton and the navigable River Nene.
Your route soon brings you to Blisworth( http://www.blisworth.org.uk/?reload), a large village with good moorings. Then the northen portal of Blisworth tunnel beckons you into another 2.8km long subterranean adventure. Cut through difficult terrain this tunnel took two attempts and 12 years to construct, finally opening in 1805, 5 years after the rest of the canal.
Emerging from the southern end of the tunnel you arrive in Stoke Bruerne. There are good visitor moorings here, two pubs which both serve food, a thriving Indian Restaurant (The Spice of India) and an excellent canal museum (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/the-canal-museum) which explains both the local and national history of the canal network.
A flight of seven locks lowers you into the Tove valley and a scenic run towards Cosgrove. Shortly before Cosgrove there is an ornate bridge and you can take advantage of the moorings in the centre of the village to visit the Barley Mow or just explore the area. This must once have been a busy place on the canal. You can still see rails on the wharf here – the remnants of tramway system that brought sand from local quarries for onward shipment by boat. Just above the lock, the Old Stratford and Buckingham Arms branched off to the right. Effectively derelict by the early 20th Century, the Buckingham Canal Society(http://www.buckinghamcanal.org.uk/) is working towards their eventual restoration.
Below Cosgrove Lock the canal crosses the River Great Ouse by means of a great embankment and a cast iron aqueduct. This is the second aqueduct at this point built to replace two flights of locks which originally lowered the canal down to the river and back up on the other side.
Milton Keynes is a thriving city notorious for its roundabouts. Happily, they won’t bother you as the canal picks it’s way through the old villages that have been absorbed into the new development. There’s plenty to do in Milton Keynes with excellent shopping, cinemas, indoor skiing and indoor skydiving at Xscape and two museums: the Milton Keynes Museum (http://www.miltonkeynesmuseum.org.uk/our-story/) which tells the story of the area from pre-history to the present day and Bletchley Park (http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/) which tells the story of code breaking in World War 2 and the early development of computing.
There are good moorings for the centre of Milton Keynes at Campbell Park and Fenny Stratford is the closest place to Bletchley Park. There are plenty of winding holes through this section as well as a number of canalside pubs serving food.
You may have time to cruise further on to the town of Leighton Buzzard and the scenery on this stretch becomes more dramatic as the canal approaches the Chiltern Hills.