A Grand Union Canal Tour: London to Birmingham on bike
“Is it really only just around the corner?” I heard Mike call out as the two of us laboriously pedaled through yet more long grass in pursuit of the canal-side pub which Google Maps had promised was close by.
Emerging onto relatively open terrain we spotted the oasis, fixed up our bikes, traversed across the lock and took a seat by the water, recapping the journey we’d made so far that day.
“It’s a bit a harder than I was expecting”
“Yeah… good fun though”
“Where are we going to sleep tonight?”
A cycle trip in the making
My friend Mike and I were both between jobs and looking for something a bit rogue to do.
Tucked away in my long term memory was someone once telling me that London and Birmingham are connected by canal and, with my bike needing to cover that route, riding it home seemed more interesting that sticking it on a train.
Consulting this map from the Canal & River Trust I saw that I could get from my flat in East London to within a few miles of my home in the Midlands all along canals.
The train option was now definitely out of the window.
From the perspective of the map, directions seemed simple enough and when I spoke to Mike I sold it to him as:
Left at the end of my road then again onto Regent’s Canal
Bear right a Paddington
Left at Northampton
Arrive in Birmingham
which, in the absence of a more defined route, worked for the both us.
With that, we packed our rucksacks for the proposed three day trip and met at my flat on Tuesday morning.
Day One: Rain Stopped Play
It all seemed straightforward enough once we sketched out the plans.
The route appeared to be ~150 miles and so 50 miles a day would let us have 3 days and 2 nights. We had no real reference point for how much distance we could cover, and in what time though, so refrained from making plans to book into any hostels as we didn’t know where we’d end up.
The day started well enough, embarking at the mouth of the Thames and up along Regent’s Canal to Angel.
Mike’s bike was squeaking and so when we passed a bike shop on Chapel Market he picked up some grease, whilst I bought some blueberries to get us into the summer mood.
Rejoining the canal we were soon walking through a cloud of international aromas as the food stalls were firing up at Camden Lock, and begun to feel the spitting of rain as we continued on towards Warwick Avenue.
Spitting became chucking, and we were forced to take cover under a shop front whilst the puddles danced with precipitation.
The forecast looked to be more of the same for the rest of the day, and we briefly considered turning back and starting again tomorrow. As the sky began to lighten though, we decided to crack on until a nice pub, and then reevaluate over lunch.
Soggy, we locked up our stuff and sat down to burger and a pint at The Union Tavern to work out plans.
We had planned to sleep rough (i.e. in bivvy bags) that evening, and doing it in torrential rain is just not fun. The options then became whether to find a hotel/ Couchsurf further along the canal, or something else.
I recognised The Union Tavern as my friend Seb lived two streets away, and after a quick call he said we could stay on his sofa once he was back from work. Mike and I were fine with being a day late to Birmingham and so gratefully took up his kind offer.
That meant it was no more cycling for the day, and several hours to kill.
It was an afternoon playing board games in the pubs around Portobello Market before cooking a veg pasta dish at Seb’s around half 8. We left in the morning as he was off to work, contributing a thank you message on his hipster typewriter.
Day Two: Leaving The Big Smoke
Rejoining the canal and seeing sun in the sky was a welcome sight.
We passed commuters on bikes and a man practicing his boxing routine as well as going past some of the more built up factories of West London.
Our first major junction was at Hayes, turning right to go up through Uxbridge, passing a golf course or two and basking in the pleasant surroundings.
Grand Union Aromas
There was a stretch with distinct aromas of baked bread, fried fish and jalfrezi each about 100 metres apart which (we guessed) was the industrial kitchens near Acton.
Later on, north of Bletchley, we had a similar hypothesis about a sweet factory causing a syrupy raspberry smell to fill the towpath.
Around 11am we stopped for a muesli bar, appreciating the rurality of pit stop and commenting how it felt very far from the warehouses we’d seen earlier that morning.
At that moment, a London Underground train went past in the background, somewhat deflating our perception of how far we’d gone. Unperturbed, we decided it was soon time for refreshment, and after passing a lady on her way to work who reeled off a list of about seven canal-side pubs close by, we found ourselves having a pint at The Papermill.
A couple of geezers took interest in what we were up to, recommending a pub for lunch further up the canal and saying “Fair play” when hearing we were off to Birmingham.
About an hour later we were tucking into some pub grub at The Three Horseshoes agreeing that it lived up to the hype. A second course didn’t seem too decadent and so “yes please, we will see the dessert menu”.
The start of the afternoon was sluggish.
In the afternoon heat, questioning the sense of chocolate fudge cake, we stopped for a breather, and I let Mike go ahead to set the pace.
It soon became clear that his back tyre was flat and so we stopped to reinflate it up only to find that the pump didn’t have a correct nozzle. In a moment of serendipity we found that there was a bike shop in one of the Canalside Units two minute walk from where we were.
The Little Bike Shop got us pumped for the trip again, and we carried on for a few more hours seeing the landscape change north of Berkhamsted through to Leighton Buzzard.
Are we there yet?
After crunching through gravely towpaths for most of the day, we were slightly taken aback when confronted with a strip of grass with which to cycle along.
At first it seemed fun enough, but after an hour or so of bouncing out of the saddle we both realised why people suggested wearing padded shorts for an extended bike ride.
The light at the end of the tunnel was The Grove Lock which seemed to forever be “just around the corner” such was our relative sluggish pace when cycling through grass.
That said, we arrived around quarter to five, cheersed a pint, and then began working out where we might sleep for the night.
There seemed to be a good smattering of green patches along the canal, and so we decided to crack on until we got tired and then find a pub close by to set up camp.
A View from the Towpath
Along the trip we saw many miles of water, and with it lots of opportunity for things that were out of the ordinary.
There was a real life blacksmith (who I can report seemed to running a decent trade), a shipment of Calor Gas, some pet chickens and, most bizarrely, a car which appeared to be welded into the back of a barge.
Seeing is believing with this one, if you know what it might be used for, then do shout.
Where to sleep
After a stop for some nuts and a discussion with a man about how herons gracefully cross the canals we began to hone in on concluding the day’s activities.
The Barge became our choice for food and a pint, and after negotiating with a ardently miserable barmaid we took a seat and ordered various things with chips.
Once the bill had been settled we ventured out to the park nearby and scouted out an inconspicuous spot to sleep for the night. We eventually found somewhere relatively flat between some trees and long grass, and got into bivvy bags falling asleep to sounds of nature.
Day Three: The Leamington Spa Mission
About two thirds along the Grand Union Canal journey we were taking is Leamington Spa: home to the world’s first lawn tennis club, Hyacinth Bucket (from Keeping Up Appearances), and my friend from university, Hermione.
Hermione had agreed to have Mike and I stay over as part of our trip, and we aimed to get there some time on Thursday afternoon.
The day started off well, taking in some lovely views as we cycled through rolling scenery, seeing the holiday bargers step out for their morning brew.
Where’s good for breakfast?
Around half nine we were getting a little peckish and so began to keep an eye out for somewhere that could serve us.
A pub came up which said Breakfast Served Here which we felt seemed promising and tootled over to investigate.
The landlord came out saying “Nope, not for another hour I’m afraid” and I then made the mistake of asking: “Is there anywhere else you can recommend?”.
What happened next could easily have been an audition for Little Britain.
He spent 5 minutes muttering away about how we should take this road down here, then next right, then you’ll come to a roundabout, well it used to be a roundabout now it’s a garden centre, and then you go left at The George, no actually that closed down a few years back, but anyway you find a small village called ‘Raggafumpfl(?)’ and from there you go down the High Street and past the candlestick maker you’ll see ‘Greys’, which serves breakfast from 7am.
“You get all that?”
We nodded quietly, backed away, and walked our bikes under the bridge only to find the village’s other pub (The Boat Inn) serving tea and toast to people passing by.
Unable to work out whether not mentioning a rival establishment was a tactical move, or whether our landlord was simply unaware of the village life that lay a mere 100 metres away, we enjoyed our eggs on toast and appreciated the pleasant village of Stoke Bruerne.
The Name Game
To pass the time, Mike and I kept an eye out for interesting names on the sides of the barges that we were cycling alongside. The majority were fairly descriptive, or someone’s name, but the odd few had a lick of humour: Canality Jane, The Onion Barge, Narrow Escape
To pass the time, Mike and I came up with our own suggestions and were disappointed to have not seen
- The Argey Bargey
- Gimme Gimme Moor
- Bargey McBargeface
Back in the saddle
We’d been making good progress throughout the morning stopping for a Solero around 11am. We were at a section where there were three eras of freight transportation all in parallel: the M1, the canal, and national railway, and all this talk of history got us thinking where we might stop for lunch, in order to give us a decent pedal into Leamington for the afternoon.
On a lot of the milestones Braunston kept popping up, and so assuming that it had some sort of significance we decided to opt for there.
Cycling in felt like going back a hundred years: red brick buildings, people stopping to chat in the streets, and (what looked like) engineering firms building boats in an English village.
Upon the recommendation of a group sitting out in the sun we stopped for lunch at The Boat House, enjoying our 2-for-1 meals and eavesdropping on a couple behind us discussing Theresa May’s new cabinet and Pokemon Go.
We took things slow after eating and were soon in and around some lush Northamptonshire countryside.
Most of the time we negotiated through the slightly rough terrain and at times would pause to take a breather, or navigate around something in our way.
Sharing the path
For the majority it was only us on the towpaths, save from a bit of activity at some locks, or a pub close by. On the occasions when we were sharing the narrow strip with others, they were usually receptive to a ring of the bell and would let us past.
There were however, two creatures with whom we struggled: humans with headphones, and dogs.
The person listening to music could be sidled past, but dogs almost always reduced us to a stop. Tottering unpredictably from left to right they would eventually sense a presence behind them and turn perpendicular to the path to gaze wistfully up at the two of us, unaware that they had turned themselves into a blockade.
For all their faults, the pigeons were much less awkward.
An evening in Leamington
By now we had pushed through from the fields of Northamptonshire, and were taking the descent into Leamington.
Mike had to be back in London on Friday for Mexican wrestling match (spectating, I think), and so once we rode into town, this marked the end of our bike trip together.
Once Hermione was home, we had a quick shower then headed over to the tennis club with her boyfriend Rich, and our friend Dan, who had driven up from Bicester.
Rich and I ran around a squash court for forty minutes and joined the others for some tennis before heading back to the flat for a mountain of delicious slow-cooked chilli.
After catching up on everyone’s news, and generally complimenting the food, we nipped to the local (The Royal Pug) before the cyclists began nodding off.
Rich and Hermione were off early in the morning, and so we said our thank yous and goodbyes that evening before slumping off to sleep.
Day Four: The Last Leg
Mike was taking his bike back on the train during off-peak hours and so after a spot of breakfast I said my farewell and began the last stretch of the trip riding solo.
Things were getting sore by now and the glory of freewheeling into Leamington the day before was undone as I took on the seemingly constant flow of locks to get Birmingham-bound.
The paths were still overgrown, and the occasional fisherman was setting up for an overcast day next to tray of maggots.
Soon though the paths began to get more paved and the water more filled with rubbish. Despite no obvious landmarks being visible it felt like Birmingham was getting nearer, especially in the brief exchanges I had with passers-by.
I knew I was close when people began to greet, thank and acknowledge me simply by saying: “alright mate”
Soon the bridges on the towpath came with bonus graffiti and I began to see signs referencing the city’s canal heritage. Around the corner I found the National Sealife Centre and felt this was a decent enough landmark to stop for lunch.
I locked up my bike, bought a Subway and began to work out the best way to get home.
Did you know Birmingham has more canals than Venice?
It also has more rats, but it was the canal thing which made me confident I could find a route back to home in the West Midlands using as much of the waterways as possible.
Consulting Google Maps though, there was no obvious route to get back which didn’t involve cycling several miles in an opposite direction in order to loop back around.
I therefore decided to take a canal south out of the city down towards the University, cut in through a couple of parks and ride along the dual carriageway back to my village.
It was a route I’d taken countless times throughout my life, though this was the first I’d made it without the use of an engine.
It only took an hour and I later found out that my parents used to walk their dogs in one of the parks I went through which was an interesting thing to learn.
I got back home around 2pm, had a cup of tea, and then spent the rest of the day reclining.
Looking back, the trip was definitely physically harder than I first thought it might be: 50 miles cycling on a road doesn’t equate to 50 miles trudging through nettles.
But what I find much more interesting is how I now have this sense of continuity between the two main places I have lived: East London and the West Midlands.
Similar to when I walked back from the Eurostar, the act of taking a routine journey as an unbroken chain of human-powered transit gives me a good connection to the surrounding areas.
Doing it all along canals too was a pleasant insight to the generations gone by when this was the primary mode of national transport.
On a less philosophical note, it was also an excellent chance to get my fix of English country pubs before heading off to Africa
With the decent distance covered and generally how enjoyable these four days were, I doubt this will be the last cycle trip that I undertake.
Either way, I hope you found this an enjoyable read.