The Canal Challenge; Aylesbury to Wendover and back via the Grand Union Canal: Sunday 3rd November.
The challenge was again straight forward, a 20 mile walk from Aylesbury along the main road to Wendover (6miles) and then back via the Wendover Arm (6.5 miles), Grand Union Canal (1 mile) and Aylesbury Arm (6.5 miles).
I set off from the car park in Aylesbury at 08:20 heading straight along the main road to Wendover in the most direct route. Generally there is not a lot to see along this stretch but at that time of the morning there was only me and a few joggers about. I made good time and was at the start of the Wendover Arm at 09:40.
The Wendover Arm, although not navigable along the bulk of its length, is to me the far more interesting section as I feel it has more history; as well as in parts the renovation work is there for all to see.
“The Leaky” Canal as it become known was initially designed as a way of transferring water from a natural spring to the increasingly busy, and thus thirsty, Grand Junction Canal as it was known at the time. Work began in 1793 and were soon expanded to create a navigable route through to the village. The canal opened in 1797.
Within 5 years it became evident that the canal was leaking. Despite many attempts to solve the problem the water loss increased over the next 100 years to such an extent that rather than feeding water to the main canal, the Wendover Arm was actually draining water!
In 1904 the Arm was abandoned. A stop-lock was constructed at Tringford and the remaining water diverted underground to Wilstone Reservoir.
One of the villages passed through on the early part of the walk is Halton; now principally known for the RAF base which surrounds the village and covers a large amount of the surrounding land. In 1720 the estate was purchased by Sir Francis Dashwood, although not occupied as the family preferred their principle residence at West Wycombe. When Sir John Dashwood died, leaving enormous debts, the property was sold for the sum of £47,000 to Baron Lional Rothschild whose family owned a number of large estates in the area. One notable visitor to the estate was the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who enjoyed the opportunity to meet with his mistress Lily Langtry.
A short stretch of the canal still shows the extent to which attempts were made to “plug the leaks”. This section is known as “the narrows” and was lined with concrete to act both as a wharf for delivering goods to the now demolished Green Park home of Sir Anthony De Rothschild, as well as to prevent the persistent leakage invading his dining room!
Leaving the wooded canopy the canal passes into open fields which is the general terrain all the way to the Grand Union. At 10:45 I passed under the A41 and came to the part that had been drained or, as is probably more truthful, allowed to drain.
As you move along the tow path you initially pass by the empty remains of the dried waterway followed by a section that has been fully renovated and ready to be refilled; next renovation is underway and then through the process back to the dried out remains, but this time with a very muddy canal floor that has been well churned up by the construction traffic that is moved along its length to get men and materials to the construction site. Clearly the traffic is moving regularly.
It is fascinating to see the renovation in progress with specific pieces of work being undertaken so visibly before you. What would once have all be done my hand is now supplemented by machine, but the basic process is as it always was.
Another element of the renovation that fascinates me is the time the overall project will take to complete. People who were there at the beginning will never see the end, yet they put their time and efforts into a project that, when complete, will provide a lasting legacy for all.
Having completed the second leg of my walk I reached the Grand Union Canal at 11:55. This magnificent house marks the junction between the Arm and the Grand Union. It was also the first time I saw real boats on the canal during my walk!
On reaching the Grand Union you turn left and follow the main canal for just under a mile before turning left again and heading back towards Aylesbury. This section provided an opportunity for a well earned, in my opinion, cup of tea at the Blue Bell Cafe which is housed in an old canal building. It was clearly very popular judging by the number of people queuing and eating.
Having stopped for lunch and enjoyed my cup of tea, I started the journey along the Aylesbury Arm at about 12:30.
Immediately on turning left onto the Aylesbury Arm you are presented with something that is missing from the whole length of the Wendover Arm – a lock!! As can be seen from the following pictures they are extremely deep and, interestingly, narrow. Locks on the main Grand Union tend to be 14ft wide, where as those on the Arm are only 7ft. This wouldn’t have been a problem as most working boats were designed for the 7ft locks.
The walk back to Aylesbury was generally uneventful with the exception of the detour around one of the locks which was being repaired (http://www.bucksherald.co.uk/news/more-news/update-collapsed-aylesbury-canal-lock-should-be-repaired-by-august-bank-holiday-1-4965839). Unfortunately it was not possible to get close enough to see the work being undertaken and the detour itself was not well sign posted so proved to be a little annoying.
A little while ago when I first thought about walking the Aylesbury Arm, there was a small boat yard right at the end of the canal; the boats were visible as you drove out of town. Recently when planning my route I had noticed that the yard had gone, seemingly brushed away by the development work being undertaken around the new Waterside Theatre. What I wasn’t aware of was that a brand new boat yard had been built a little way out of the town centre with new moorings and sheds which will hopefully help to breath new life in to this wonderful asset.
My walk complete I was back at the car by 14:45. My challenge was done, my feet were sore, but I had seen a part of my local countryside for the first time so headed for home with a very satisfying sense of achievement.
For more information about the Wendover Arm please take a look at their website. It is full of interesting facts about the history of the canal as well as the progress of the on-going renovations works >> http://www.wendoverarmtrust.co.uk/
Although no specific website exists for the Aylesbury Arm there are a number of interesting pages to view – just Google! The following is just one example I found >> http://www.grandunioncanal.co.uk/Aylesbury-GU.html