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.

A canal cruise and a cricket ground

BEFORE THE ADVENT of railways, transportation of goods across England (as well as Wales and Scotland) was heavily dependent on an extensive canal system constructed mostly in the 18th  and early 19th centuries. Freight was carried along these canals in the holds of long narrow barges, more correctly known known as ‘narrow boats’. They had to be narrow enough to negotiate some of the narrower canals that formed part of the canal network.  Prior to the development of steam and other kinds of engines, and even for some years after these became available, the narrow boats were towed by horses. These creatures walked along paths known as ‘towpaths’ that run along one or other side of a canal, except when a canal passed through a tunnel. In the tunnels there were no towpaths, and the boats were propelled by the feet of men lying either above the load on the boat or sometimes on planks projecting from the sides of the vessel, a process known as ‘legging’. The boatmen’s feet literally walked along the tunnel walls, thus moving the boat. Meanwhile, the towing horses walked over the hill through which the tunnel passed. All of this interesting but becomes even more so if you can experience a trip on a canal in a narrow boat.

Several companies offer canal trips between Little Venice (near London’s Paddington) and Camden Lock, east of it. We chose to travel on “Jason”, a narrow boat built in 1906 and one of the last of its era, which is still in use. “Jason” has been little modified compared to others that ply the route along the Regents Canal, a branch of the Grand Union Canal system. “Jason”, which was originally horse-drawn, has been fitted with a diesel engine that occupies part of the small rear located cabin that was once the home to a boatman and his family. Passengers sit in the long, narrow freight hold of the boat under an awning that was added when “Jason” was converted from a freight carrier to a tourist vessel, which has been doing the tours since 1951. Unlike most of the other tourist boats, there are no windows separating passengers from the exterior. This provides for great viewing along the route without the hindrance of sometimes not too clean glass, which might be encountered in other vessels.

The tour starts from a landing stage next to Blomfield Road, close to the cast-iron bridge that carries Westbourne Terrace Road over the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. At the other end of the trip, passengers disembark or embark next to the popular (not with me) and rather ‘tacky’ Camden Lock Market. The cruise between the two landing stages takes 45 minutes and is highly enjoyable. Travelling eastwards from Little Venice, we were given an extremely clear and intelligent commentary by a lady called Sarah. Various things she told us made a strong impression on me.

The Regents Canal that links Paddington Basin to Limehouse Basin in east London, where it leads to other canals, used to carry a wide range of goods, from coal to cocoa. The waterway passes under both rail and road bridges. Many of the latter have curved arches over the canal; are made of stone; and look older than the rail bridges, most of which have rectangular arches with roofs consisting of metal plates screwed together. Over the years, the tow ropes drawing the narrow boats have cut grooves or notches in the corners of the bridges next to the towpath. Some of the bridges have been protected from this damage by iron brackets placed so that the ropes passed over these instead of the masonry of the bridge. These metal protectors, which were easily replaceable, can now be seen to be notched where the ropes have abraded them.

“Jason”, like most other narrow boats, has a flat bottom and a shallow draught. This is because the water most of the canal system is quite shallow, usually not more than 6 feet deep. The bottom of “Jason” is made of wood (probably elm) and iron, a combination known as a ‘composite’ construction. Few narrow boats with this kind of construction exist today.

The most fascinating thing that Sarah told us related to the history of Lord’s Cricket Ground. In 1787, Thomas Lord (1755-1832), a professional cricket player, opened his first cricket ground in what is now Dorset Square (close to Baker Street Underground station). In 1809, Lord shifted his cricket ground to another location because the rent at his Dorset Square site became too high. The new location was on some disused ground just south of the present Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was where today the Regents Canal emerges from the eastern end of the 272-yard-long Maida Hill Tunnel. Let me explain.

In 1813, Parliament altered the route of the proposed Regents Canal so that it passed right through Mr Lord’s recently relocated cricket ground (www.lords.org/lords/our-history/timeline). Mr Lord was unhappy about this and was not prepared to give up his ground without first going to court. According to our guide, Lord struck a deal with the government. He agreed to move to a new site providing he was given all the earth that was excavated during the construction of the Maida Hill Tunnel. He used the vast amount of excavated earth to lay out the ground on which the present Lord’s Cricket pitches are now located.

Concerning construction, Sarah told us that not only had the tunnels been dug by hand, but also the entire canal system. Most of the manual workers were Irish and were known as ‘navigational engineers’, or ‘navvies’ for short. The base of the Regents Canal is lined with compressed clay to make it watertight, a difficult process when the canal was built.

The cruise between Little Venice and Camden passes through a variety of landscapes, ranging from disused industrial to almost bucolic. The canal passes through the northern edge of Regents Park, where it is lined with trees and parkland. In this stretch of the canal, it is difficult to believe one is in the middle of a huge metropolis and not in the deep countryside.  The waterway also passes through the London Zoo. On one side, if you are lucky, you can catch glimpses of African hunting dogs and the occasional warthog in their cages overlooking the canal. Opposite them on the northern bank of the canal is Lord Snowdon’s aviary, now devoid of birds and awaiting a new purpose.

The 45-minute cruise provides an enchanting view of several districts of London. The commentary provided by Sarah and what she pointed out along the route helps recreate in one’s mind the golden age of canal transport. We enjoyed the cruise in both directions and hope that many others will take advantage of the special experience that it provides. For booking details and other practical information, consult “Jason’s” website: www.jasons.co.uk/the-tour