A bridge, canals, and a church in west London

THE GRAND UNION canal meets the River Thames at Brentford. From there, it runs towards the Midlands where it meets other waterways in England’s extensive network of canals, which was built for commerce, but is now used mainly for pleasure.

Six miles along the canal from Brentford, there is an important junction. Here at Bulls Bridge, the Paddington Arm branches off the main Grand Union canal. From beneath the bridge, the Arm runs 13 ½ miles to Paddington. Near its destination in central London, the arm flows through a large body of water, known as Little Venice. From there, two canals, the continuation of the Arm and the Regents Canal, link Little Venice to Paddington Basin and Limehouse Basin respectively.

The Paddington Arm was opened for use in 1801. The Bulls Bridge is a single-arch brick bridge spanning the Paddington Arm a few feet east of its junction with the Grand Union Canal. It stands amidst a dull landscape filled with industrial units and large supermarkets.

Following the towpath along the Grand Union Canal away from Bulls Bridge in a north-westerly direction for 177 yards, we reach a bridge that carries the canal over a narrow stream, the River Crane. a tributary of the River Thames. According to a website, touristlink.com, the course of the Crane is as follows:

“The River Crane is 8.5 miles (13.6 km) in length. Its source is taken to be a point south of North Hyde Road in Hayes, Hillingdon, from where its course is generally in a southerly, if near semi-circular, direction, before it joins the River Thames at Isleworth. Its name is a back-formation from Cranford, London. Formerly it was called the Cranford River. The River Crane creates the boundary between the London boroughs of Hillingdon and Hounslow.”

What could be seen from the bridge carrying the canal over the Crane was a deep weed-filled fissure in the depths of which there was a narrow stream. This lies in the shadow of an elevated road, the busy Parkway (A 312) that links both the A40 and the M4 with Heathrow Airport.

Continuing north-west along the Grand Union, the canal passes beneath a series of railway bridges that carry trains to and from Paddington Station. Nearby is Hayes and Harlington station, which stands in a part of Hayes, which was once the village of Botwell. This is now a shopping area with supplied with lavishly stocked fruit and vegetable shops and a branch of Lidl’s supermarket chain. Lidl’s faces a Roman Catholic Church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, built in 1961, which according to Pevsner, contains a painting by Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988). Near the station is a less attractive church, St Anselm, built between 1926 and 1928.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century, Hayes in Middlesex was a village north of Botwell and separated from it and other neighbouring settlements by open countryside. By 1940, Hayes had begun to be engulfed by London’s western spread. The village was, according to James Thorne, writing in 1876:

“… quiet and respectable, and chiefly dependent on the wealthy residents … consists of a few ordinary houses and shops.

Today, it is still quiet, the commercial district being in Hayes Town, the former Botwell, near the railway station.

There is one good reason to visit what was old Hayes. That is to see the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. It stands on the eastern side of Barra Hall Park, which are the grounds of the former manor house, now much modified. The church is mediaeval. Its lychgate is probably early 16th century.  Its chancel is late 13th century, the tower and the north aisle are 15th century, and the main aisle is 16th century. The church has beautiful timber ceilings and a 12th century font. On the north wall there is a large wall painting of St Christopher carrying the Christ child. Pevsner did not consider this image was painted before about 1500.

The church is full of fine funerary monuments. These include elaborate memorials for Sir Walter Grene (1456); the judge of the King’s Bench Edward Fenner (died 1612); Roger Jenyns (died 1693) and members of his family; Richard Lugg (1697); and Thomas (died 1576) and Elizabeth Higate. There are plenty more monuments to be seen as well as several fine brasses. Fenner’s monument consists of an effigy of Fenner lying recumbent supporting his head on his right hand. This is framed by marbled pillars supporting an elaborate carved stone semi-circular canopy, which is flanked by a pair of sculpted figures.

Although Hayes is not high on most tourist’s lists of what to see in London, the old church parish church of Hayes is certainly worth a detour. As for Bulls Bridge, visiting it is only for dedicated enthusiasts of  desolate landscapes and inland waterway history.

Arms and locks

THE GRAND UNION canal, constructed from the late 1790s onwards, is an important artery of England’s canal network. Beginning at Brentford on the River Thames, it winds its way to Braunston and Birmingham. Along its way it meets other canals, some of which are designated ‘arms’. For example, the Paddington Arm joins the main canal at Bulls Bridge in west London and from there it makes its way eastwards to Paddington. Recently, we visited friends, who live in Northamptonshire, and they took us on a walk along another arm of the Grand Union, the Northampton Arm. This branch of the main canal begins near Gayton and Blisworth and runs to nearby Northampton, where it enters the River Nene, which flows eastwards towards The Wash, an enormous inlet of the North Sea.

A swing bridge with a lock behind it

Much of the Northampton Arm is very narrow, just wide enough for passage of a single narrow boat. At regular intervals, the arm widens to allow vessels travelling in opposite directions to pass each other. Though short in length, only 4.6 miles, the Northampton Arm has seventeen separate, hand-operated locks for vessels to negotiate. The twelve of these, a flight of locks, is 1123 yards from the Gayton junction with the main canal. These twelve locks are along a stretch of canal only nine tenths of a mile long. The northernmost lock, that nearest towards Northampton, is a few yards north of a bridge carrying the M1 motorway. The locks carry the water from a bit over 300 feet above sea level nearest Gayton down to less than about 225 feet, each lock capable of lifting or lowering a vessel over 6 feet on average. Nearer Gayton, there is an old swing bridge, rather like a castle’s drawbridge. Looking at old maps, it appears that there were several more of these along the arm, but we only spotted one in the stretch between Gayton and the M1.

The canal and its associated towpath pass beneath the motorway through a giant concrete arch, paraboloid in shape and reinforced with horizontal concrete beams. Lined with graffiti, both conventional and anarchic artwork, walking under the motorway is an eery, rather science fictional experience. In contrast to this brutalist concrete arch, several lovely brick, hump-backed bridges carry minor roads over the Arm

The authorisation of the Northampton Arm was given in 1793, but it took another 18 years before it was ready for use. A brief hstory of the Arm (https://waterways.org.uk/waterways/discover-the-waterways/grand-union-canal-northampton-arm) relates:

“Almost immediately the Arm began to carry a large volume of merchandise and stayed busy for over 100 years through to after the First World War.  In the post war years coal, grain and timber were supplemented by goods needed for the show industry such as strawboards for packing as well as iron ingots for castings.  After World War II the carriage of goods ceased as road competition strengthened.”

Now, the Arm is used by intrepid canal boat owners, who are not averse to too much manipulation of lock gates. On the sunny Saturday afternoon that we visited the lock flight, we only saw one narrow boat attempting to negotiate the flight of twelve locks. In contrast, at Gayton Junction, the main Grand Union Canal, from which the Arm branches off, was full of pleasure-seekers’ narrow boats and other craft.

Though hardly used for freight these days, the canal system provides much pleasure to visitors both afloat and on shore. Wandering along the towpaths, one cannot fail to be amazed when considering the engineering ingenuity of the canal builders that we can still see today, as well as the work that is done to keep these waterways usable so many years after they were constructed.