The Grand Union Canal


The term 'Grand Union' is now generally taken to mean the canal from the Thames at Brentwood to the junction with the Digbeth Branch in Birmingham.The Grand Junction Canal was built to improve the communications between Birmingham and the Midlands and London.  It received its Act in 1793 and was fully opened in 1805.  Its major engineering works were the two long tunnels at Blisworth and Braunston, and the long and deep cutting at Tring summit.Although the Grand Junction was built as a broad canal and could take boats 14ft wide, at its northern end it joined the narrow Oxford Canal and the canals which continued the line to Birmingham were also narrow. In practice, therefore, it was generally used only by narrow boats, except at the London end.The advent of the railways forced the waterways to adapt in order to survive. The duplication of locks at Stoke Bruerne and the ascent of the northern slope of the Chilterns is an early example of attempts to speed up traffic on the Grand Junction. Despite reductions in tolls because of railway competition, the canal stayed profitable.This section was built by two separate companies, the Warwick & Napton Canal and the Warwick & Birmingham Canal.  Both were designed for narrow boats and were completed in 1800.

Reason to Be Selected

Amalgamation In 1894 the Grand Junction bought the canals which now comprise the 'Leicester Line', then in 1929 the Regent's, Grand Junction and the two Warwick Canals merged and were renamed as the  'Grand Union Canal'. The ambitious scheme was completed in 1937 but much of the canal remained too shallow for broad boats to pass each other, and of course broad boats could not pass in the tunnels.  However, narrow boats could now easily and quickly work in pairs.  Traffic increased in the short term, but after the war the long-term downwards trend was relentless as canalside factories ceased using coal as a fuel or obtained it from other sources.


Today, the Grand Union Canal is alive with pleasure boats, walkers, cyclists and day trippers. As well as the impressive mainline, many smaller branches make 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 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.
A walk along the Grand Union Canal from London to BirminghamHe wanted to know the way to Braunston. A sweaty, rucksack laden, ruddy faced, middle aged man whose blemished facial features betrayed recent acquaintance with a public bar altercation.

As it happened he was going in the correct direction. Not exactly lottery odds, as there’s a fifty-fifty chance of success on this particular stretch. Why the man was walking, at speed, to Braunston I don’t know, but perhaps he was on the same mission that I would later undertake - to walk the length of the Grand Union Canal from Brentford to Birmingham.

It was at Braunston that the Grand Union’s precursor, the Grand Junction, met with the not fit for purpose Oxford Canal two hundred years ago, reducing the distance between the capital and the workshop of the world by 60 miles and, because it was a ‘wide’ canal, doubling the capacity.

This walk follows the Grand Union from Brentford in west London to Braunston, onward to Digbeth and Salford Junction in Birmingham and then, following the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, into the City Centre. 

The towpath between the Thames Lock and Brentford Gauging Locks isn’t the best. Initially it is narrow and muddy between what was Brentford Dock but is now a housing estate and run down industrial units. This first section is tidal as it’s really the River Brent and you’ll pass a collection of unattractive houseboats at Ham Wharf before reaching the Gauging Locks. The hundred year old Toll House marks the start of the non-tidal waterway and a sign tells the Grand Union traveller that they have 93 miles to Braunston and 137 to Birmingham.

From underneath a large run down British Waterways shed that is utilitarian at its most basic, you pass GlaxoSmithKline whose glass offices and works of art make a statement regarding their pre-eminence in the 21st century business world. Further on, there’s a boat graveyard next to Clitheroes Lock 99. Nearby is Boston Manor, one of the ancient manors of Middlesex, the early 17th century manor house still stands in Boston Manor Park.

The 18th century canal then meets the 20th in the guise of the M4 before going under the Piccadilly Line and the motorway to reach Osterley Lock. Before the railway you have to cross the listed 1820 Gallows Bridge constructed by Horseley, the famous Black Country iron founders.

On your way to Hanwell Locks there’s an odd memorial to a British Waterways Pile Driving Competition in 1959 and just before the locks the Grand Union throws off its split personality by leaving the River Brent. Rubbish collecting in the locks becomes apparent here together with a vituperative notice asking the public to complain about it to British Waterways. Before the top lock you pass Three Bridges, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s last major undertaking in 1859, where the problem of taking the railway under the canal to Brentford Dock was solved by placing the canal in a cast iron trough, with Windmill Lane going above them both. 

The canal continues towards Southall where the swans dine on naan bread rather than Mother’s Pride. Once past Norwood Locks 91 and 90 and the Havelock Road arm, much of what you see is rather tediously residential. It is a community with no connexion with the waterway and clearly the residents use the canal as a dumping opportunity rather than an amenity. Here the banks are littered with detritus and local people don’t seem to adhere to the notices advising them not to throw foodstuffs into the canal. 

The long straight ends as you cross over the bridge at the BW maintenance depot at Adelaide Dock. Round the corner, opposite a winding hole, is the Old Oak Tree and then further on by bridge 201 is the Grand Junction Arms. The semis now give way to cottages and factories before a row of houseboats (and a Tesco) at Bull's Bridge come into view.


Lat: 51.5286
Lng: -0.101599
Region: Europe
Scale: District
Field: Facility
City: London (greater city)