Grand Union Canal
The Grand Union Canal is Britain’s longest, the trunk route of the canals, linking London to Birmingham passing through rolling countryside, industrious towns peaceful villages.
There's plenty to see along the Grand Union Canal. From the vibrant heart of London, it leads you out into the rolling Chiltern Hills, through rural Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and into the Birmingham suburbs.
The canal’s striking historic features include the dramatic span of the Iron Trunk Aqueduct and the steeply climbing Hatton Lock Flight, set in charming Warwickshire countryside. The Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne gives a fascinating glimpse into this waterway’s past.
Many branches lead off from the mainline to towns along the way, making great diversions if you have time to explore. The longest of these is the Leicester Line. Others include the Aylesbury Arm, Market Harborough Arm and Northampton Arm.
The Paddington Arm runs through a lively and attractive area of West London, full of bars, restaurants, shops, Middle Eastern cafes, juice bars and a terraced canalside seating area at Sheldon Square.
The Slough Arm is an unexpectedly green and rural bit of canal, passing through the pretty town of Iver. It is a great place to escape the crowds on the nearby London waterways.
- Download our free guide to Birmingham, Hatton and Fradley
- Download our free guide to Milton Keynes, Banbury and Tring
The word Union offers a clue to the heritage of this canal. The Grand Union Canal was never constructed as an entity, but is the result of an amalgamation in 1929 of several independent waterways - the oldest being the navigations around the River Soar in Leicestershire, the longest the Grand Junction Canal from Braunston to the River Thames.
With further acquisitions following the formation of the Grand Union Canal Company, the conglomeration amounted to more than 300 miles, including arms and links to Leicester and industrial Nottinghamshire. But the essential component was the direct main line from Birmingham to London, of which the Grand Junction Canal and its branches formed the backbone.
Speeding up the traffic
The advent of the railways forced the waterways to adapt in order to survive. The duplication of locks at, for example, Stoke Bruerne is an early example of attempts to speed up traffic. In the 1930s a scheme to upgrade the northern section of the Grand Union became one of the last large-scale modernisation programmes to be undertaken on a canal network which, having already endured sustained railway competition, was also now beginning to be hit by the switch to road transport.
Long lengths were dredged and strengthened with concrete bank protection. Bridges were widened or replaced, and the narrow gauge locks between Braunston and Birmingham were replaced with broad gauge locks to allow passage of boats in excess of 60 tons between the Capital and the 'Second City'.
The ambitious scheme was stalled just short of target by financial pressures and the intervention of World War II. The final few locks into Birmingham remained narrow, and the canal was frequently too shallow for wide boats to pass each other. Nevertheless, large-scale commercial trade continued along the Grand Union until the 1960s, and the main line was a vital route in wartime for coal to London and materials for arms manufacture to Birmingham.
The remains of the old narrow locks can still sometimes be seen alongside their larger replacements. But although the tunnels were broad-gauge, they could only accommodate wide boats travelling in one direction at a time. As a result, the working pair of narrowboats remained the staple craft.
Coupled with the canal modernisation was an ambitious programme to build the largest fleet of working narrowboats in the country, the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company. More historic GUCCC boats survive today than from any other carrying company. But other famous names are also associated with the Grand Union, including Fellows, Morton & Clayton (FMC) - whose distinctive boats were often described as the aristocrats of the narrow canals - and Pickfords, trading on their promise to hold themselves responsible for goods committed to their care.
Are you planning a day out?
The Grand Union Canal is lined with attractions and museums, which make a great day out for all the family.