Autumn glory: A walk around Tring Reservoirs and the Grand Union canal

PUBLISHED: 13:18 21 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:18 21 November 2017

Opened in 1815, the Aylesbury arm runs for just over six miles

Opened in 1815, the Aylesbury arm runs for just over six miles


Mighty Georgian-era reservoirs attracting overwintering wildfowl, village pubs and a blaze of autumn leaf colour are just some of the attractions of a walk around Tring Reservoirs and the Grand Union canal in autumn, writes Liz Hamilton

Autumn is an ideal time to venture into the flatlands of the clay vale beyond the Chilterns to explore Tring Reservoirs and the canals they supply. The trees will be in their autumn colours and the hedges laden with fruit. You might spot some of the rare native black poplars locally abundant in the area – at this time their leaves turn golden. There’s good parking, numerous well-surfaced paths and several pubs and cafés.

From Wilstone village, two miles north west of Tring, a circuit of about four miles takes in the Grand Union canal, its Wendover and Aylesbury arms and all four reservoirs. The Half Moon pub in Wilstone is a good place for lunch before or after a walk.

Close to the village, Wilstone is the first reservoir you encounter, reached by a flight of steps. It’s the largest reservoir, built in 1802 and expanded twice later in the century – the lines of trees in the middle mark the original banks. A path (often muddy in winter) runs through trees fringing the western end of the reservoir. From here you can reach a hide for views of the wintering wildfowl that congregate on the reservoir, as well as resident birds. Beyond there’s a climb to the towpath of the Wendover arm.

The Grand Union canal (originally the Grand Junction canal and completed in 1805) crosses the Chilterns via the Tring summit, the highest point on its route from London to Birmingham. From the summit the canal goes downhill in either direction. Each lock operation uses 50,000 gallons of water and on a busy day four million gallons can be lost from the summit. Finding an adequate water supply was a major challenge for the canal builders.

Initially, water was supplied by the Wendover arm, a contour canal without locks which collected water from springs along the chalk scarp to feed the main canal. For a while it was also used as a waterway allowing boats to reach Wendover. Unfortunately the Wendover arm always leaked badly and eventually the central section was abandoned and became dry.

Heading along the Wendover arm towards Little Tring, you can enjoy good views over the nearby countryside and see the restoration works aiming to revitalise the waterway into Wendover.

The Grand Junction canal builders wanted to expand their network far beyond what was eventually completed, but continuing problems with water supplies at Tring frustrated many of their ambitions. In 1806 Marsworth reservoir was built to improve supplies, while the appointment of Thomas Telford to the post of chief engineer in 1814 must have raised the hopes of the Grand Junction company.

Telford added two more reservoirs, Startop’s End and Tringford, and installed a powerful steam engine in a pumping station at Tringford to lift water up into the Wendover arm from the reservoirs. When Wilstone was expanded, the mainly spring-fed reservoirs had a combined capacity of over 420 million gallons, but even then water shortages in dry periods meant that a borehole was sunk into the chalk in 1848 to augment supplies.

The construction of the canals and reservoirs must have had a very significant impact on local communities, especially in the villages to the north-west of Tring where the reservoirs are located. The huge influx of working men – the navigators or navvies – was undoubtedly unpopular, despite the extra income for local traders, since the navvies had a reputation for drunkenness and violence.

From Little Tring the walk takes you near the pumping station to reach Tringford reservoir, popular with fishermen. Beyond, the path running between Marsworth and Startop’s End reservoirs brings you to the Grand Union towpath. Keeping the canal to your right you reach the junction with the Aylesbury arm about half a mile to the north.

Close to the start of the Aylesbury arm there’s a double lock (two adjacent locks served by three sets of gates). The arm is a narrow canal, whereas the main Grand Union is a broad canal where the locks can accommodate two narrowboats side-by-side, but use much more water. Opened in 1815, the Aylesbury arm runs for just over six miles. Plans for an extension beyond Aylesbury were never achieved.

The walk leaves the Aylesbury arm just past bridge number two where a path leads through a gap in the hedge and brings you back into Wilstone village.

Tring Reservoirs is on OS Explorer Map 181. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, it is owned by the Canal and River Trust and managed by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.

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