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Cycletourer logoAs several people have asked us we thought it would be great to have some guest bloggers contributing to our site. If you would like to be a guest blogger on this spot and write an article that is relevant to cycletouring then please get in touch. As this is a non commercial site we are looking for articles from genuine touring cyclists, therefore no commercial articles please

Cycling alongside the Grand Union Canal

Living on the Grand Union Canal

By Joe Patton

This cycling tour began with a 1000 piece jigsaw Christmas present of the Grand Union Canal. Having spent 3 weeks studying, sorting and assembling a mixture of shapes that created a picture of happiness I became suitably motivated to cycle alongside Britains’ longest canal.

Stretching from the great City of Birmingham to the Capital City of London I could think of no other part of Britain where it is possible to cycle a distance of 137 miles and completely avoid steep hills or the dangers of motor vehicles, parked cars, bus lanes, traffic lights and T junctions.

An internet search revealed a permit used to be required to cycle alongside canals.These days the ‘Canal and River Trust’ simply asks cyclists to watch for walkers as pedestrians take priority over cyclists. Suitably reassured the route was lawful I looked forward to the superbness of a safe, picturesque and unhurried and bicycle ride to London.

The Grand Union Canal Cycle Route

It would be misleading to suggest that cycling alongside a canal is completely risk free; internet stories report an increased incidence of tyres being punctured by thorns, sharp stone or broken glass. Cyclists risk injury from hitting their head on low bridges or branches from trees and being next to the waters edge risks falling in. An uneven terrain causes a bumpy ride.

Road maps do not contain the detail required to plan a canal route. Thankfully the 'Canal and River Trust' provide a free on-line map of every canal in the UK showing walking routes and where it is possible to cycle:
Mountain bikes with wide tyres and suspension forks are more suited to the uneven and puncture risk terrain of tow paths.For this reason my light touring bicycle was slightly modified to be fit for purpose:If I fell into the canal my ‘clip in’ pedals could anchor me underwater so changed them for double sided platforms, one side has a ‘clip in’ mechanism for road use and the other is a flat platform for my shoes to rest on. I packed spare inner-tubes and tyre levers to deal with punctures.

Proof house junction

Wheeling my bike onto the Grand Union Canal towing path in Birmingham I was surprised and delighted to be on a really decent surface. Within 10 minutes I was cycling through a tunnel underneath the long-since closed Curzon Street Railway Station. This used to be the Birmingham terminus for trains from London and the station is going to reopen for trains using the HS2 line from the capital – numbered 2 because it is the second high speed rail line in Britain; Eurostar which connects London with France and Brussels in Belgium is HS1.

A Dutch consultancy firm is drawing up proposals for a new national cycleway that will shadow the HS2 railway from London to Birmingham and the North. Designers aim to stay within 3 miles of HS2 and as most of  railway will run through the countryside, I guess that sections of this proposed new cycleway is likely to follow existing trails. Whilst looking forward to those plans becoming a reality I was now cycling with the sound of the city above me and its underworld of this tranquil canal stretching out into the distance.

I stopped at Proof House junction that takes its name from the  ‘Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House’ where gun manufacturers comply with a legal requirement for weapons to be tested before use and wondered how many killing machines had been secretly transported along the canal network to and from this place, hidden from public gaze. Yet lots of Birmingham factories made weapons and ammunition, including those with an historic connection to cycling such as the British Small Arms (BSA) factory who made bicycles for both the territorial army (WW1) and parachute regiment (WW11). These were loaded onto barges and transported along the Grand Union to an army ordinance store at Weedon Bec for distribution to troops

Beyond Warwick the canal side path turned into a dirt track that extended into to countryside and disappeared due to the absence of foot-fall. Then cycling for miles on grass with overgrown hedgerow and thorns I was so pleased to be wearing a cycling helmet, protective glasses and gloves.

Joe Patton: Guest Blogger, in London at the end of his Grand Union Canal tour

Although a puncture resistant mountain bike would have been the better bike to use, I don’t have one. The adjustments to my bicycle did aid safety and comfort; on more than one occasion the flat pedals enabled me to put a firm foot on the ground and prevent a fall. I had anticipated and managed several punctures.

From Milton Keynes the towing path returned for an easier ride into London. My return journey followed roadways to reach Oxford and Stratford upon Avon to rejoin to canal network on the outskirts of Birmingham and back to Gas Street.

Throughout this adventure I have seen a new lease of life for the canal system. Pleasure craft, new moorings and modern property developments must be applauded as the alternative would be stagnation and decay.
I loved the canal architecture of bridges and tunnels, Victorian wharfs, canal side pubs, modern canal side apartment blocks and above all else the friendliness of people on canal cruisers or living on brightly coloured barges.
The full story with route details of this and many other cycling adventures can be found on this link: by clicking on the archive tab dated May 2017

Bon Velo

Joe Patton

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