Great Britain's Grand Union Canal

My usual Saturday morning visit to a community garden is cut short, due to some lingering dark clouds on the horizon, along with the anticipation of riding far enough out of London that day to find somewhere comfortable to camp the night.

My target was the Grand Union Canal, starting from where it meets the Thames River at Brentford. The canal would take me all the way to Birmingham if I had extra days; after some research and looking at the maps, I decided I could make it halfway. Two days of roughly 60 kilometers each would get me to Milton Keynes for a train ride back to London on Sunday evening.

A towpath runs the entirety of the canal and, once upon it, it is easy to forget the city you’ve left behind. A mix of terrain keeps it interesting, the simple pleasures of trading the tarmac road for a bit of gravel, dirt, and grass. Compared to the almost walking pace of the narrowboats on the water, you get to take in a lot of what the canal has to offer. The community and life living on the water is fascinating, perhaps a glimpse into a past era not so hung up on the decadence of nearby London.

An obvious indicator and celebration of one's distance from London for me is the passing of the M25, the chaotic motorway that circles London's outer limits, and an obligatory photo from underneath this cement behemoth.

I noticed that the farther I got from the city the safer I felt, even knowing that I would be camping somewhere foreign once darkness descended. The signs that might make one have second thoughts about camping, such as a pile of empties, burnt out remains of something unidentifiable, and other nasty surprises, started becoming fewer and farther between.

After picking up some supplies at a supermarket along the way, I increased my pace as the sun began to set. Paying close attention to the sides of the path, I paused when the path opened up with a patch of woodlands.

I thought I had come across a perfect location, plenty of trees and away from sight, only to recognize a few warning signs. I had a ‘what the hell’ moment, as what looked like a tent turned out to be more of an open-air homeless person's library. Hundreds of books scattered fairly tidily on a collapsed, or once full, tent, and the books in strangely good condition. The thought of being asleep there when the librarian got back sent me back to my search.

I knew that in a worst-case scenario I could pitch (rather ‘pop up’) my tent beside a lock. They usually have a bit of extra grass, and I wouldn’t be in the way. But I didn’t intend on beating the early morning walkers out of bed, and knew I would be more comfortable out of sight. Luckily, I found another wooded area, and after gathering up some dry wood I lit a fire and started to eat as much as I could. For me, the camping aspect is almost equal to the biking, and so the two make a perfect combination. However, next time I’d like to be more prepared for cooking a hot meal.

The following day, after a good night’s rest, I continued on. My first priority was more drinking water, which the canal is good for as there is useful infrastructure at regular intervals for those who live on the boats. I was also carrying a canal map designed for the boaters, which didn’t cross over that well to its surroundings, yet was useful at times. Some water taps have a special key or lock, while others are open; however, if it’s not on the path side it’s not worth the hassle. I still had leftovers from the night before, and I couldn’t resist a picnic table beside the canal in front of The Globe Inn pub for a pint in the sun.

It was a forager's delight this time of year, with an abundance of ripe blackberries and apples. I stopped a couple of times to snack on blackberries, wishing I had a container to put more into. At times, the single track I was riding on was clogged with apples about half the size of typical ones, which my moderately wide tires had no problem squashing as I rode on. Very satisfying.

I managed to miss my turnoff to Milton Keynes; perhaps I wasn’t ready to leave the canal and return to my normal life. After half an hour of overshooting, I realized I needed to check the map. And, judging by the head-scratching of the locals and their directions to major highways, I knew I wasn’t nearby. Oh, well, I turned around and made it back in time for a cheap train ride back to london.

I thought I could’ve kept riding for hours, but upon returning home I realized the weekend of riding had finally caught up on me.

I intend on taking off from where I finished and completing the ride to Birmingham sometime soon, perhaps once the weather becomes a little more camping-friendly. I imagine the path could be a bit more challenging without having a full summer to dry out. I'm looking forward to it.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: Having done this ride during the last weekend of September, the signs of the seasons changing were lovely; it also meant that wild blackberries and apples were perfect for picking, as locals with plastic bags full attested to. The Globe Inn is a good stop-off point for a pint on the second day.

Favorite local bike shop: The London Cycle Workshop in Clapham Junction. Very knowledgeable, and they won’t try selling you more than your needs.

7 responses so far ↓

D. Stewart - Mar 8, 2014 at 8:24 AM

Nice ride.

John Short - Mar 14, 2014 at 12:26 PM

Wonderful write-up, thanks!

I've enjoyed cycling the Kennet & Avon canal before from Reading to Bath, as well as a lot of the Thames (less bike-friendly by far than the canals, but still fun!), and the (shorter) Wey Navigation round where I grew up; and I really enjoyed, and can relate to, your journal.

I do believe you've inspired me to do a bike tour of the Grand Union next time I'm over from Colorado (where my wife's from, and we live most of the year; great mountains and plains but sure miss the canals!), should be this summer :-)

Guy - Mar 24, 2014 at 10:56 AM

Thanks both!
The Kennet and Avon canal looks very interesting, half thinking about doing it over easter then spend some time in Bristol. Cheers

Gordon - Apr 13, 2014 at 9:32 AM

Loved the write up but loved the pictures more. Thank you for taking the time to write.

Gary - Jun 11, 2014 at 2:25 PM

Nice - currently thinking of a little bike trip on the grand union..
The Kennet and Avon is highly recommended - traveled back from Bristol last year on the Sustrans route

muddypete - Nov 30, 2014 at 6:38 PM

I can't quite believe I clicked onto an American cycling website and found a recommendation for my local pub! I ride past it most days on the way to work and The Globe Inn in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, is definitely worth a visit. Good food. Good beer. Two log fires and heated patio area for winter post-ride rehydration. Ace!
Incidentally; its on Sustrans Route 6 if you fancy a 390-mile jaunt from London to the Lake District.

Josiah Owen - Apr 25, 2018 at 8:16 AM

Thank you for this article. Well done!
Love the idea of riding along a former towpath. Maybe toss me a rope and see how far I can tug the boat. Haha! I'm from the USA and I'm hoping to begin my bike touring life soon. Any Warmshowers members here? I'd love to have a background to pitch my tent in and maybe grab a pint with.

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