Spotlight on the Canals – the Grand Union Canal
The incredible medieval castle at Warwick, mighty flight of locks at Hatton, quiet countryside and peaceful villages with traditional pubs
Built to transport goods between London and Birmingham, today the Grand Union Canal is alive with pleasure boats, walkers, cyclists and wildlife.
Stretching 137 miles through 166 locks, the Grand Union Canal emerged as a result of the amalgamation of several independent waterways.
It cuts across the country from the River Thames at Brentford in London to the Digbeth Branch canal in the heart of Birmingham, taking boaters up through the rolling Chiltern Hills, rural Northamptonshire and Warwickshire.
Along the way, it has a series of branches, including the Paddington, Slough, Wendover, Aylesbury, Leicester and Northampton arms.
Some of its most dramatic features include the magnificent Iron Trunk Aqueduct carrying the canal over the River Ouse in Buckinghamshire, the 2,795-metre long Blisworth Tunnel in Northamptonshire and the Hatton Flight of 21 Locks in Warwickshire.
Just some of the canal’s key destinations are the county town of Warwick with its jaw-dropping castle on the banks of the River Avon, and the charming canal villages of Braunston and Stoke Bruerne.
Best for beginners
On a short break (three or four nights) from our narrowboat hire base at Stockton in Warwickshire, canal boat holiday-makers can head west along the Grand Union to the county town of Warwick – a journey which takes seven hours and passes through 20 locks.
Not long after leaving Stockton Top Marina, boaters reach the peak of a flight of 13 locks taking the canal down to the village of Long Itchington, which has six pubs and hosts an annual beer festival. These pubs include the Cuttle Inn with extensive canalside gardens, and The Duck on the Pond in the village centre, serving top quality food.
The next four miles remain rural and just before reaching Royal Leamington Spa, the canal passes by the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Lea Valley Nature Reserve, with family-friendly activity trails.
There are plenty of visitor moorings in Royal Leamington Spa, giving boaters the chance to enjoy some of this historic spa town’s attractions, including its Royal Pump Rooms Museum.
Three miles later, there’s a choice of moorings available for visiting Warwick and its magnificent medieval castle, which dates back to William the Conqueror. And the county town of Warwick itself has a vibrant market place hosting a variety of shops, pubs and cafes, as well as half a dozen museums, including the Yeomanry Museum.
Alternatively, on a midweek break (four nights) boaters can head east along the Grand Union Canal to the “chocolate box” pretty canal village of Stoke Bruerne, a journey which takes just under 13 hours, passing through 17 locks and two tunnels.
First turn right out of Stockton Top Marina and travel lock free for two miles before reaching the three locks at Calcutt. Half a mile later, Napton Junction is reached, where the Oxford Canal branches south off the Grand Union Canal.
Continue along the Grand Union Canal heading east, reaching the Braunston Turn in just under five miles. Branch right here to stay on the mainline, passing through the village of Braunston, with its marina, boatyard, fish and chip shop, and plenty of pubs, including the Old Plough in the village and the canalside Admiral Nelson.
Next it’s the flight of six Braunston locks and then the 1,867-metre long Braunston Tunnel. Soon after emerging from the tunnel, boaters pass the Daventry Arm, which the Daventry Canal Association is campaigning to restore.
One mile later at Norton Junction, the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal meets the mainline and then the Buckby flight of seven locks begins. Here the canalside New Inn above Buckby Top Lock is a popular refreshment point for boaters.
After Buckby Bottom Lock, there are three lock-free miles, before boaters reach the village of Weedon, with its Plume of Feathers and Maltsters Arms pubs in the village.
A further two miles on the canal passes the village of Nether Heyford with its Foresters Arms, and then it’s Bugbrooke with the canalside Old Wharf Inn, as well as pubs in the village.
Another lock-free three miles brings boaters to the next junction – Gayton, where the Northampton Arm branches off up the hill to Northampton.
Just over a mile later on the main line, boaters reach the village of Blisworth with its Royal Oak pub in a beautiful 15th century listed building, and soon after the North Entrance of the Blisworth Tunnel is reached. This 2,795-metre long tunnel, which opened in 1805, is the third longest on Britain’s inland waterways network, after Standedge Tunnel beneath the Pennines and Dudley Tunnel.
It takes around 20 to 30 minutes to travel through, and just outside the South portal there are towpath side moorings perfect for exploring the village of Stoke Bruerne.
As well as a choice of canalside pubs, walking trails, a nature reserve and the Rookery Open Farm, the village is home to the Canal & River Trust’s fascinating Canal Museum, housed in an old corn mill and packed full of canal memorabilia, films, displays and objects.
And there’s a footpath from the village to the hamlet of Shutlanger, home to the award-winning gastro pub, the Plough Inn.
Best for experienced boaters
On a seven-day, 10-day or two-week break from Stockton, boaters can tackle the Warwickshire Ring, travelling 101 miles, passing through 96 locks, and taking around 46 hours.
To travel the ring clockwise from Stockton, travel to Warwick as described above, then continue along the Grand Union Canal to Hatton Bottom Lock and the start of the epic Hatton Flight of 21 locks.
Along a two mile stretch, the Hatton Flight raises boats up by nearly 45 metres – so it’s not surprising to learn that the working boat people called it ‘The Stairway to Heaven’.
Today, just below the Top lock, boaters will find the Hatton Locks Café for very welcome refreshment.
It’s then four miles on to Lapworth, passing through the Shrewley and Rowington tunnels. At Lapworth’s Kingswood Bridge, the Navigation pub is a popular place to stop. Here the Heart of England Way connects to the canal and the National Trust’s stunning moated manor house Baddesley Clinton is just over a mile’s walk away.
Continuing north, soon after Lapworth the canal passes the Black Boy and King’s Arms pubs at Heronfield, and then reaches the Knowle flight of five wide locks, which raise the canal by 12.5 metres. The town of Knowle is a short walk away, with a supermarket and choice of pubs.
After passing beneath the M42 motorway, the route goes past the Boat Inn at Catherine de Barnes, before entering the urban outskirts of Birmingham at Solihull.
Six miles later, boaters reach the six locks at Camp Hill and then Bordesley Junction. From here it’s just half a mile to moorings at Typhoo Basin, close to Warwick Bar in the centre of Birmingham.
There’s so much to do in Birmingham – theatres, art galleries, museums, concert halls, restaurants and shops – but the award-winning Thinktank Science Museum is very close to the canal here and well worth a visit.
To continue on the Warwickshire Ring, boats must next turn back to Bordesley Junction and head up the Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal, which then connects with the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal at Salford Junction.
From this junction, the route starts heading east, still in a very urban environment for another four miles until the Hare & Hounds pub at the bottom of the Minworth flight.
Now back in the countryside, the waterway passes the White Horse at Cudworth, where the Cudworth flight of 11 locks starts. The Dog & Doublet pub is next to Lock 9 of the flight and there are moorings soon after, with access to Kingsbury Water Park, offering 600 acres of country park to explore.
The Heart of England Way follows the line of the canal here for several miles and passes the RSPB’s Middleton Lakes Nature Reserve, great for a spot of birdwatching.
Fazeley is next with its choice of pubs – the Plough and Three Tuns, and from here it’s a short bus or taxi ride to Drayton Manor Theme Park if you fancy a change of pace!
The Coventry Canal meets the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal at Fazeley, taking boaters travelling the Warwickshire Ring east through Tamworth to Alvecote with its Samuel Barlow pub, the ruins of Alvecote Benedictine Priory and the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Alvecote Pools nature reserve.
Now heading south, the canal passes beneath the M42 and past the Pooley Visitor & Heritage Centre, displaying mining memorabilia and offering waymarked paths around woodland and spoil heaps.
Then it’s on through the village of Polesworth, a good place to stop and re-stock with shops, and Bulls Head, Red Lion and Royal Oak pubs.
The canal becomes very rural for a while, passing Hoo Hill obelisk which marks the site of the Chapel of Leonard at Hoo, demolished in 1538 by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Atherstone is the next town, with a flight of six locks, choice of shops and pubs, including the Kings Head.
The canal continues south, lock-free for the next 11 miles. The Anchor at Hartsmill is the next canalside pub on route and soon after the canal becomes more urban again as it winds its way through Nuneaton, before meeting its junction with the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal at Bedworth.
Two miles later, the Coventry Canal meets the North Oxford Canal at Hawkesbury Junction, where Warwickshire Ring travellers begin heading south down the Oxford Canal. The route soon passes under the M69 motorway and through the pretty village of Ansty, with its Rose & Castle pub.
Three miles later, it’s worth stopping at Brinklow to visit the remains of Brinklow Castle, a Norman earthwork motte and bailey fortress, and Brinklow Arches to the south of the village, a canal aqueduct built during the Imperial Period. There are also a number of pubs in the village, including The Raven and White Lion.
The canal then passes through the 186-metre long Newbold Tunnel, past the Barley Mow and Boat pubs, becoming more urban again as it travels through the town of Rugby. Boaters soon reach the Bell & Barge pub and Tesco store at Brownsover, and then the village of Hillmorton, with its flight of three locks, plus Old Royal Oak and Stag & Pheasant pubs.
After Hillmorton, the canal cuts through open countryside again, and is lock-free to the Braunston Turn, where the Oxford Canal merges with the Grand Union Canal. The historic village of Braunston, in the heart of the canal network, is a great place to stop with a marina, boatyard, fish and chip shop, and plenty of pubs.
Eleven miles and nine locks later, the Grand Union Canal reaches Napton Junction, where the Oxford Canal splits off and heads south, while the Grand Union continues towards Birmingham. Passing Napton Reservoirs and through the three locks at Calcutt, two miles later boaters are back at Stockton Marina.
The Warwickshire Ring can also be travelled from our Wootton Wawen base in around 59 hours (128 locks), so a 10-day or two-week break works well from there. Or, to complete the ring from Tardebigge, allow 62 hours (125 locks), perfect again for a 10-day or two-week holiday.
On a week’s break from Wootton Wawen canal boat holiday-makers can travel to Warwick and back in 26 hours (80 locks), or in 38 hours (82 locks) from Tardebigge.