Before moving back to London, Sue and I spent many years living in the Bedfordshire market town of Leighton Buzzard. Situated approximately in the centre of a triangle edged by Aylesbury, Luton and Milton Keynes; Leighton Buzzard is well connected with roads, trains and a canal. What with the onset of winter, we decided a great hiking project would be to walk ‘home’ along the Grand Union Canal which runs between London and Birmingham, passing through Leighton Buzzard as well as many other interesting places.
The Grand Union Canal at Berkhamstead
The railway broadly follows the canal, right up until Wolverton a few miles north of Milton Keynes. So, it’s a convenient route to take on an irregular basis as you can get the train or tube to your start point, walk for the day, and then catch a train home from your end point. Being a canal, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost (unless you go the wrong way!) and is well supplied with pubs en route. The only downside is that the tow-path can get very muddy; so you do need to wear reasonably watertight hike boots in wet, or recently wet weather.
London Bridge to Putney Bridge: around 14 kms
We decided to actually start on the Thames path at London Bridge and then walk, over a
Looking towards Tower Bridge from the west
couple of days to where the canal joins the river at Brentford. In previous trips, I made great use of the GPS map and routes on my phone, but for this walk, you don’t need it. The best markers of your position are the numerous bridges, which are named along the Thames and numbered along the canal.
I’ve often been asked by overseas walkers, which route I’d recommend in England. I’d
Stop off for fish and chips, pie and mash or a pizza
actually say the Thames path, as it offers history, architecture, convenience and great food and drink. You can choose the north or south bank, but choose the south. This part of the walk is probably one of the most culturally rich routes you could take on all of the planet. Passing through busy markets, tourist traps, historical monuments dating back centuries and ultra-modern office blocks and museums; you have so much to see and do that you’d be forgiven for not walking beyond the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. But persevere and you’ll enter a quieter, less famous, but equally fascinating area of London beyond the normal tourist areas.
The Peace Pagoda
Our next big sight after Westminster was Battersea; home to the famous ‘power station’. The power station, memorable from Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ album cover amongst other appearances, no longer generates electricity; but is being re-developed into flats, shops, restaurants and a cinema.
After passing the power station, we came into Battersea Park; a large area of parkland and gardens. Perhaps the most interesting item in the park is the Peace Pagoda. During the 1980’s; the world felt at threat from annihilation by nuclear weapons and London’s local government of the time, the Greater London Council (GLC) took a stand by nominating 1984 as its ‘year of peace’ and declaring London to be a ‘nuclear free zone’. To celebrate this one of Japan’s foremost Buddhist groups donated the peace pagoda to the people of London; and Buddha now looks serenely out over the river.
Not far after Battersea, we reached our end point for the day; Putney Bridge and stayed for a great meal at one of the numerous local pubs.
Looking towards Albert Bridge from Battersea Park
Putney Bridge to Southall 21.8 kms
Arriving back a week or so later, we got going from where we’d left off. A good thing about walking in London is that you can easily reach your start point, and return home again by public transport. For the morning, we continued along the Thames Path towards Kew Bridge.
Thames Path near Kew
Looking towards Kew Bridge
By this point, London is becoming more suburban; but there’s still a lot to see. We passed numerous rowing clubs and the London home of the famous William Morris. William Morris was an influential interior designer, key member of the ‘arts and crafts’ movement and 19th century English socialist. His wallpaper and fabric designs are still used to this day.
Starting on the Canal
By lunchtime we’d reached Kew Bridge and stopped off at the Greyhound Pub, just south of the bridge for some fish and chips. Leaving the pub, crossing Kew Bridge, we got caught in a freak hail-storm; as the weather had been good when we’d set off in the morning I’d not packed a waterproof and got absolutely soaked! On y va.
The main line of the Grand Union Canal starts at Thames Lock, not far from Kew Bridge. The Grand Union canal is in fact a network of earlier canals, which didn’t fully open until 1927. Running from London to Birmingham, it has a number of branch lines reaching to locations including Paddington, Aylesbury, Slough and Leicester.
We finished the day in the highly multi-cultural suburb of London called Southall, and then caught a bus home.
Hayes to Rickmansworth 22.63 kms
I’d looked for a good guide book to accompany our walk, but none are still in print. Luckily, I managed to get hold of a copy of Clive Holmes’ 1996 ‘The Grand Union Canal Walk: London to Birmingham’. Although 20 years old, not
Swans are a frequent site of on the canal
much seems to have changed, although a few pubs and much of the local industry has since gone. Clive Holmes starts his walk on the Paddington branch of the canal, which doesn’t join the main line until Bull’s Bridge, just after where we left off last time and just before where we started today. After reading the guide, I was able to drop using the GPS app on my phone and navigate just using the canal and the bridges. Each bridge has a sequential number, and we’d returned to Bridge 200; Hayes. This part of the walk takes you right out of London to Rickmansworth (Ricky to locals) in the beautiful Chiltern Hills.
A sinister guard
The path continues to run through suburban areas until reaching Uxbridge at Bridge 186. The canal then pretty much follows the outer borders of London, before leaving the city altogether near Rickmansworth (Bridge 172). We started to see more colourful houseboats after Uxbridge, many with romantic names. Interesting that people feel the need to personalise a boat more than a house or car. The boats moor up and down the canal, so if you return, you may see a boat in a different place. One memorable boat, which I nicknamed the HMS Jeremy Corbyn, was purely dedicated to animal rights. Another had a defunct car built into the back of it to act as a cabin. But most had more predictable names such as Saxon Wanderer and Hadynuff.
We passed Black Jack’s Lock just after Bridge 178. This lock is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of its former keeper; ‘Black Jack’. Jack was a large African man, brought in to enforce the tolls imposed on boatmen passing though. One boatman, unable to pay his way, murdered Jack and his spirit reputedly lingers to this day. Equally peculiarly, we passed a large plastic crocodile!
We stopped off to eat at one of my favourite local pubs; The Coy Carp. Right next to the canal, the Coy Carp is a spacious ‘gastro-pub’ and we had ‘pie of the day’; with a local craft beer. Passing through the Aquadrome (a collection of small lakes adjacent to the canal), we reached Rickmansworth station and took a short tube ride home.
Rickmansworth to Hemel Hempstead 18.96 kms
Today was a bit of a trudge, as it rained constantly for most of the day and the tow path become increasingly
Meeting a new friend at the King’s Head
waterlogged and muddy. Even full waterproofs and hike boots didn’t keep all of the water out. So we passed on the chance to look around the canal centre or the miniature canal with working locks.
We were glad to reach our lunchtime stop at Kings Langley. The pub immediately next to the canal wasn’t great, so we shifted to the nearby King’s Head, a good choice. A traditional English pub, the range of beers was limited but it had a great atmosphere. To get to Kings Langley, we passed through Abbots Langley; home to England’s only pope, Nicolas Brekspear; who became Pope Adrian IV in 1154.
Time was pressing on and there was no break in the weather, so we pushed on to our next stop; Hemel Hempstead at Bridge 150. The station is some way out of the town centre, and from the canal and Sue got completely soaked by an inconsiderate driver on our way. Although out of the Transport for London area, the trains connect to the underground system at Watford and we were able to make our way home.
Hemel Hempstead to Tring around 18 kms
Weather again proved to be a problem on our next leg. This time the cold. The temperature had dropped to around -5C overnight and the canal had frozen with a thin layer of ice. Whilst this was fun, not so enjoyable were all of the
The Port of Berkamstead
frozen puddles which became quite treacherous to navigate. Hence, our progress was rather restricted, and even my phone had given up the ghost and didn’t record our mileage.
Our spirits rose when we reached Berkhamstead at Bridge 141. Here in the 1060’s William the Conqueror was offered the Crown of England by the defeated Saxons. You can still visit the ruins of a once powerful castle which had held the King of France captive. The canal boasted three pubs, the furthest along of which appeared to have closed, but the other two were in rude health and we chose The Boat. This turned out to be a great choice with a good selection of local beers and some excellent fish and chips.
It was getting cold again and the light was failing; so we agreed to call it a day when we reached the railway station at Tring, right by Bridge 135. We were now right in the heart of the Chilterns and we could see the famous Ridgeway in the distance.
Tring to Leighton Buzzard 18.6 kms
The final leg took us ‘home’ to Leighton Buzzard. This section is considered to be, perhaps, the most picturesque section of the walk. The weather was cold, but dry, so ideal. We got off the train at Tring station which is some way out of the town centre, but right on the Ridgeway between Avebury and Ivinghoe Beacon as well as the canal.
Not far from the station, we stopped at Bulbourne. Here the commercially unsuccessful
Bulbourne Dry Dock
Wendover arm of the canal splits from the mainline to Birmingham. Just before the junction we stopped off for fish and chips and some locally brewed Tring Ridgeway ale at the Grand Junction Arms. The quality of the food was excellent.
Stopping early on, meant a straight march to our destination. We noticed at Bulbourne Junction a sign pointing to our starting point, Brentford, over 38 miles away. Not far from Bulbourne, we passed through the picturesque wetlands of Tring reservoirs; these lakes are adjacent to the canal and provide great fishing and bird-watching opportunities.
Next, we then came across the short Aylesbury arm of the canal, and almost started walking down it until I noticed that we were at Bridge 1! We were now deep into the countryside, and experienced something very rare in the city. Near silence. Only the
Ivinghoe Beacon from the Canal
sound of the wind and some distant bird-song. Looming ahead was the famous Ivinghoe Beacon, rising 233 m above sea level, the Beacon marks the end of the long-distance Ridgeway path. Its height and location, also made it a site for a Bronze Age fort.
Gradually, the Beacon fell behind us as we headed north. I was on the lookout for Leighton Buzzard’s most famous landmark; the spire of All Saints Church, which can be seen from many miles away. I spotted it first somewhere between Bridges 118 and 116, and now knew our destination was not that much further.
We passed Grove Lock and a very good pub, and started to head into the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard and Linslade. Finally, we reached Bridge 114 and climbed back into familiar territory. Not pausing we headed for the nearby railway station reflecting upon the 114 bridges we crossed either under or over, and the nearly 50 miles we’d walked.