Like all good ideas the possibility of cycling the Grand Union Canal came to us at the pub. I remember it was after a long and hard day of doing nothing and we were unwinding with a few drinks when we began to debate the idea more seriously. Our first thought was… is it possible? Well, yes. The distance is approximately 120 miles so if we cycled at 10 mph we would be there in no time.
Of course our optimistic slightly inebriated minds did not consider the possibility of rough terrain mixed with frequent stopping. Also we were both out of shape. I had just finished a long delicious summer in Greece and Mat was.. well.. Mat.
Anyway, the plan was made and a suitable date was found. On that date we set off early, at 7am and in no time found ourselves in Warwick. The canal path was well maintained, we basically had it to ourselves and we were making great progress.
Things started to go wrong after Napton Junction. Before this junction we had been cycling on grass for a while. This is tiring and slow to say the least but not a problem. However once you get past Napton Junction the path gets very basic and is badly maintained. This is where I got my puncture. “No problem” I thought, “I’ll grab the pump”. A quick rummage around my bag revealed that the pump was not in-fact here with me but instead was around 40 miles away in Birmingham.
This meant my next 2 hours involved a slow uphill climb to Daventry with my friends bike while he pushed my bike along the canal path. There I purchased a pump and I rejoined my friend after the Braunston Tunnel.
The rest of the journey was without mishaps and I thoroughly enjoyed it but this delay did slow us down a lot. Below are some pictures from the trip:
How to: Birmingham to London along the Grand Union Canal
Right, so you have heard from my experience and you want to give it a go. I don’t blame you – there is plenty of picturesque British scenery, beautifully decorated canal boats and empty flat land to tempt me back any day.
The Birmingham to London Grand Union Canal Map Route
Birmingham to Milton Keynes
The first thing you need to do is work out a route. I found a good route from Birmingham to Milton Keynes on Bikely. That website no longer exists, so I’ve also uploaded a Birmingham to Milton Keynes via the Grand Union Canal route to Wikiloc.
I used the GPX file to upload the coordinates to my iPhone which I used for route navigation. I’ve rounded up a bunch of great apps you can use on your iPhone for following the route. I recommend the Wikiloc app or ViewRanger.
Milton Keynes to London
I couldn’t find any routes from Milton Keynes to London so I added one to Wikiloc. You should be able to download the GPX file from Wikiloc for free, but you will need to create an account.
The second half of the Grand Union takes you past Watford and via the west end of London to Paddington. It’s up to you to decide what you consider the “centre of London” I would say it was Trafalgar Square others would say it is Charing Cross, Westminster. Chances are you won’t care very much by the time you have cycled all that way!
What to take with you?
- Inner tube spare x2 that fit your bike
- Allen Key
- Puncture repair kit
- Map – there are two ways to go about it. If you have a GPS device then that’s great you can download the direction I have listed above.
- Water – you can on occasions fill up using the narrowboat facilities by the side of the canal.
- Bike lock
- Snack food – there are large stretches of the canal where there is nowhere nearby to get food.
Where to stay?
Halfway and at the end your going to need somewhere to stay. The cheapest option is Hostels. I always book through Hostel World. Alternatively if you fancy a bit more comfort go for a hotel. The best choice of course is if you have a friends house somewhere along the route and they will let you stay.
When to go on the Grand Union Canal?
I would recommend cycling during the summer as obviously you have more daylight and better weather. When it rains the trail can get muddy and you risk taking a dip.
Who is it for?
I cycled there with a Hybrid bike and had not cycled for over a month before setting off. I would recommend a bit more cycling than that before hand. Other than that if you cycle daily then this is a challenge you can do. If you don’t want to push yourself just plan for three days instead of two.
How long will it take to get to London?
This will largely depend on the person but it took me two days, setting off at 7am. Cycling about 12 hours a day.
Anything else I need to know?
The Canal and River Trust has an FAQ about cycling. If you enjoy the route, you may want to donate to their conservation work.
If I missed out any useful information please leave a comment below.
Part of the Breaking out of London series – This is the first post is a new London Cyclist monthly series that inspires London’s cyclists to break out of their city and explore the many gorgeous destinations available in the UK. The series provides all the information you will need to make such a trip.