CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Hertfordshire Life today CLICK HERE

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

PUBLISHED: 10:35 14 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:03 14 February 2014

View from one of the locks

View from one of the locks


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

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


More from Out & About

Fri, 12:26

Christmas isn’t complete without a trip to a festive fair. From German-style food stalls to vintage fetes, Hertfordshire’s Christmas markets have it all

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We quiz author Kevin Exley about his new book that takes the reader on the trail of fascinating stories, new and old, around Berkhamsted

Read more
October 2018
Monday, October 29, 2018

Hertfordshire is a county with a vast, fascinating and sometimes dark and bloody history that has reportedly lead to more than a few angry ghosts sticking around to wreak havoc and take revenge on the living. We have gathered 10 of the most haunted places in the county

Read more
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Make the most out of autumn with these eight walking routes that take in a variety of Hertfordshire’s terrains and - most importantly – have a cosy pub along the way

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

We've selected a variety of spooky activities in the county that are sure to delight the kids

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Charlotte Hussey explores the fascinating world of bats and new projects in the county to help conserve these remarkable creatures

Read more
October 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species is asking the public to look out for mammals on Hertfordshire’s roads as part of a citizen science project

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

From stately homes to skateparks, we have selected some of the best ideas for things to do in Hertfordshire

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The diverse parkland of Pishiobury Park in Sawbridgeworth is undergoing a five-year plan to promote its heritage and enhance its habitats. It makes for a royal day out

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

From Aldbury to Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire has a plethora of pretty villages. We have picked just 10 that you should visit

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search