Over 4 days, Mary and I along with James, Ian & Jess cycled 173 miles from London to Birmingham along the Grand Union Canal. The Uk’s longest ‘merged’ canal. Carrying everything we needed for our ride and wild camping along the way.
Cycling London to Birmingham on the Grand Union Canal
As you know by now, Mary and I Love to ride along the canals. Our last multi day, wild camping trip along the canal was from Birmingham to Llangollen but I’ve had London to Birmingham on the Grand Union Canal ‘floating’ around for some time. When I mentioned this to James on one of our regular Wednesday night Push Bike Crew rides, his enthusiasm was a tipping point, and we set a date for the adventure. Once it was in the diary the planning began.
The Grand ‘Junction’ Canal was completed in 1805. Providing a link between Braunston and Brentford. It shortened the journey by canal from the Midlands to London, and bypassed the upper reaches of the Thames which were slow to navigate. Competition from the emerging railways saw the formation of the ‘Grand Union Canal’. By 1929 an amalgamation of the Grand Junction Canal and at least 8 separate canals formed the longest ‘merged’ canal in the UK, providing a link between Birmingham and London, Leicester and Nottingham.
The canal is a ‘wide beam’ canal and can carry boats with a beam of 14ft up to 72ft in length. Most other canals have a 7ft beam. This wider, 70 ton barge standard meant the canal could move more goods to try and remain profitable in the age of the railways.
From Brentford in London to Salford Junction in Birmingham the Grand Union Canal Runs for 137 miles. The Paddington Arm and Regent’s Canal carry the Grand Union east through London to join the Thames at Limehouse basin and that is where we began our journey.
I didn’t need to plan a route as the plan was to just follow the canal. However, where two canals meet I had to be mindful that I didn’t go riding off the wrong way. I also needed to plan where we could get water, food and camp.
The Collins Nicholson Waterways guides are my ‘go to’ for canal adventures. They contain detailed information on the canal network, overlaid on OS maps. They show all the on and off towpath facilities (water, toilets, supermarkets, pubs), give information on the local area, towpath conditions and show a corridor of the areas either side of the canal.
I then plotted the route in Komoot. I split the total into 4 days of roughly equal mileage. I use Komoot as it does most of the plotting for me and as a multi day ride. I can then look at the surface conditions, distances, mph and completion times for each day and alter the route if I need to based on other maps or information. Once I am happy with the routes I can put them straight on to my Garmin 830 for turn by turn navigation.
I also downloaded the relevant OS maps to my phone so they were available offline. I find OS maps best for the sheer amount of reliable information they hold. I also use Google maps, especially the satellite view when identifying potential wild camp spots.
Euston to Limehouse Basin – 6 miles
Mary and I got up at 5am. Our bikes packed and readied the night before so we could get going quickly, rolling out the door in the dark, to the train station for our 7:15am train from Birmingham New Street to London Euston. New Street was eerily deserted and our train was quiet. It was a restful 2 ½ hour journey. As the train snaked its way along I caught glimpses of the canal that would carry us back home.
9:30 am and Jessica was waiting for us outside Euston station. 20 minutes later Ian arrived. We set off on a leisurely 5 mile ride across london to Limehouse basin where we were meeting James at 12 noon.
The ride through the city was fantastic. The sun was out, it was warm and the city streets were quiet, I assumed partly because it was Saturday morning and partly because of Covid. The cycle lanes made the ride so easy and smooth, a cycling Utopia. A plan has already been hatched for a day out riding around London.
James joined us at Limehouse Basin and we took the obligatory start of the ride photographs. At 12 noon we got underway. Rather than follow the Regent’s canal and the Paddington Arm across the city, we followed the river, to join the Grand Union at Brentford Locks.
Limehouse Basin to Brentford Locks – 16 miles
Riding along the Thames was fabulous. The city was starting to get busier with weekend strollers enjoying the sunshine. Following the North bank, we cruised past the Tower of London, stopped for a selfie at the London Eye; edged our way through protesters in Westminster, past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Just after Battersea we picked our way through the increasing traffic, along London streets and cycleways to follow a less meandering route across to Brentford.
Three hours after leaving Limehouse and after stopping for some lunch, we reached the Thames lock at Brentford. The start of our Grand Union Canal Odyssey. The sun was scorching, so it was nice to finally be off the roads and on to the canal.
Brentford to Croxley Green – 23 miles
The towpath surface was good, becoming flinty and gravelly as we got further away from the Thames. There were 2 towpath diversions that required some ‘on the fly’ navigating but we made good time out of the city despite the rafts of moored boats and their crew making good use of their narrow towpath home. We passed dogs snoozing across the path in the shade, and we moved aside the gongoozlers and the walkers with our bells and a cheery ‘thank you’.
36 miles after Limehouse and around 6pm we arrived in Croxley Green, aiming for a meal at the Harvester. We found a couple of shaded tables outside and ordered a good evening meal.
Sunset was at 7:30pm so once we had finished stuffing our faces we headed a few miles up the canal to Whippendell Woods. It was the biggest patch of green I could find on the map near the canal and had earmarked it as a potential campsite. It was getting pretty dark when we got into the woods but we rode on past the golf course. The area was quiet except for a couple of mountain bikers and a baby deer that we startled. We found a lone picnic bench with a patch of grass. Head torches on we all got to setting up our tents for the night.
Croxley green to Milton Keynes – 42 miles
We all woke around dawn after a good night’s sleep. Dog walkers, bikers, golf carts were already crunching up and down the gravel path that we had camped by. Re-loading our steeds we set off saying goodbye to Jessica on the edge of the woods. She was heading back home to Harrow.
The morning was warm and promised to be a scorcher of a day. The boats started to thin out as we cycled northward and we were soon under the M25 motorway and out of London proper. Through Hemel Hempstead and into Berkhampstead where we stopped for a hearty Wetherspoons breakfast and to stock up on snacks and water.
After Tring we climbed through Marsworth locks and the canal became more remote and rural. The towpath was narrow and rough in parts. Not only did we have to watch under our wheels for roots, rocks and holes; we were attacked from above by low hanging branches and face whippers – often spikey! All we could do was concentrate on the 4 or 5 metres in front of us and shout warnings to the person behind.
Sometimes the path was so narrow that stopping wasn’t an option. There was no where to put a foot down without ending up in the brambles or ending up in the drink.
It all made for pretty exhilarating riding and despite the slow speed the miles flew by.
It was really starting to heat up as we approached Leighton Buzzard. We pulled into a Tesco for ice cream and a rest in the shade. The towpath through Leighton Buzzard and up into Milton Keynes was paved in parts but had become rutted, the surface gravel had worn into grooves along the direction of travel which made the riding hard work and tricky as the ruts took our front wheels from under us.
We arrived at our camping spot for the night with plenty of daylight to spare. The Ruins of St Peter’s Church lay in an area of green on the OS map between the Grand Union Canal and the River Great Ouse just north of the conurbation of Milton Keynes.
Being a sunny Sunday afternoon the area was busy with families, dog walkers and runners. Our tents were still wet from the night before so we laid them out in the crumbling churchyard and hung around in the sunshine to see if anyone would challenge us for being there, but nobody bothered us; apart from one curious lady who thought we were all marvellous for undertaking such a trip and was most concerned that we were willing to sleep in a graveyard.
With the tents finally up and the area quietening down, Mary and I did a store run to fetch the evening picnic and James’ cold bottle of Prosecco that he had been cycling all day on the promise of.
Well fed and watered we retired for a good night sleep.
Milton keynes to Braunston – 33 miles
We awoke to a heavy mist that had settled around our camp. The rising sun, an orange disc trying to burn it’s way through giving our churchyard an ethereal quality. We lingered until most of the mist had gone so we could dry the worst of the heavy dew from our tents.
First port of call was the local supermarket for the day’s supplies and a morning toilet stop. The supplies were abundant but the toilet facilities were closed. Back on our bikes we sped along the towpath diving into the nearest wooded area!
I had planned another 42 mile day but the canal headed into some remote areas. Long stretches of the towpath were very slow going. Beautiful, but slow. Thankfully it was dry. I don’t think we could have cycled half of it had the paths been wet and muddy.
The towpath was hedged with hawthorn that the farmers had helpfully trimmed back, but caused us to have 5 punctures between us.
By 3:30 pm we had only covered 20 or so miles and the day was hot, slowing us down even further. We were in open farmland and there was no respite from the sunlight and the heat on the towpath. Finding a canalside tap, we soaked ourselves and drank as much as we could before refilling our water bottles.
I started to realise we weren’t going to make our mileage for the day and needed to do some fast re-planning. Braunston looked like the nearest and best bet for food. We could worry about camp later. So we set off for Braunston.
We climbed up over the Blisworth and Braunston tunnels as there are no towpaths through and made it via the road into Braunston around 7pm.
Running out of daylight, exhausted, sunburnt and hungry. We needed to find food before we could even think about finding somewhere to camp.
The first pub was closed. I asked a chap who was standing outside the local shop, he told us the pub up the road may be open but wasn’t sure if they did food. Overhearing; a couple strolling on the other side of the road directed us down ‘Dark Lane’ to the ‘Admiral Nelson’, situated at lock number 3 on the Braunston Lock Flight.
We zoomed down the steep lane, twisting and turning. Praying it was the right way as there was no way we wanted to climb back up. At the end of the lane, the pub came into view. Immediately I spotted a flat grassy area, with picnic benches and barbeques. I walked straight into the pub, up to the bar, and asked if we could camp there.
The barmaid disappeared with my request and came back shortly with a smile and directions to a little field owned by the pub where we could camp for the night. What a relief. A lovely pub with a full menu and a safe place to camp. I’m not religious but my nan always said: ‘if the lord doesn’t come; he sends’. This was one of those times.
We relaxed and had a wonderful, filling meal before putting our tents up before it got too dark. Once our beds were ready we went back into the pub for our desserts. Still not quite believing what a wonderful place we had found.
Braunston to Birmingham – 51 miles
It was a very restful night’s sleep. With full bellies and permission to be there, we were able to relax. Waking at dawn we packed up quickly knowing that the miles we didn’t do yesterday would have to be done today, making the days total around 50 miles. Thankfully the amazing weather was staying with us and we were buoyed by the thought of achieving our goal and cycling into Birmingham. It was also a little sad as we’d had such a great time and lots of laughs, we didn’t want it to end.
Between the Grand Union Waterways guide, komoot and various internet sources we knew some sections of today’s towpath were likely to be unrideable so we planned a few road detours around the worst areas to make sure we arrived in Birmingham in good time.
Leaving Braunston in the morning sun made for delightful riding, chasing our shadows, until we were presented with our first obstacle. Steep wooden stairs over a marina entrance. Like the proficient bicycle adventurers we were, we manhandled the bikes over in no time. The towpath was pretty good going and at bridge 98 we hauled our bikes up a steep set of steps and over a stile at the top to put us on a gravel road cycle route, and our first detour of the day.
We made quick work of the gravel and the smooth asphalt lanes that followed, rejoining the canal briefly at Long Itchington. The canal here was National Cycle Route 41 and where route 41 diverted off the canal along the Lias Line, we stayed with it for our second detour. Route 41 then joined the canal for the run into Royal Leamington Spa.
Nearly 20 miles into our day we stopped in Royal Leamington Spa for a breakfast to fuel the next 30 miles.
Skirting around Warwick the Grand Union begins it’s climb up through Hatton Locks. 147ft up onto the Birmingham plateau. The towpath was in good condition but the lock flight was very busy and it was hot. We stopped for an ice lolly after the Shrewley tunnel and lingered as long as we dared in the air conditioned shop.
Beyond Shrewley tunnel there were Knowle Locks. A short and final 41ft climb. Beyond that it was flat, all the way back into Brummagem.
Thankfully there were plenty of trees shading the towpath and the closer we got to the city the better the towpath became until we were flying along the gravel towpaths of the inner city canal.
We reached Bordesley junction and James left us to carry on into the city where he officially ended the ride at the town hall. He then went for a well earned G&T. Mary, Ian and I carried on the Grand Union canal the short ride down to Salford junction and the very end of the Grand Union Canal.
We made it!
173 miles over 4 days. 5 Punctures and 1 bottle of prosecco! It was an incredible adventure, made so much better by the fantastic September weather, the lovely company and our shared sense of humour.
What a ride.
Thank you for reading
See you out there
Sarah & Mary
A cup of tea for Mary & me
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