Travel Report: The Grand Union Canal, Berkhamstead.
The Grand Union Canal, Berkhamstead.
September 2019. I’d had an excellent couple of days retracing the steps of my youth around the Buckinghamshire towns of Chesham and Amersham. But now, on this pleasingly sunny autumnal morning, it was time to head back to London. I’d spent the night at my old friend Steppers’ place in Chesham. The plan had been for him to drop me at the train station after breakfast.
Until… that is… Steppers came up with quite the brainwave! With no particular rush to get back, he suggested we undertake the twelve minute drive to the town of Berkhamstead. There, a pretty section of England’s Grand Union Canal runs right through the town on its way to Hemel Hempstead. The walk wouldn’t take longer than thirty to forty minutes and I could jump on the train at Berkhamstead Station.
I have a confession to make. I’d only vaguely heard of The Grand Union Canal and had no idea that it spans an incredible 137 miles. Starting in London and finishing up at Birmingham, the stretch that runs through Berkhamstead is a small but gorgeous part of a mammoth network.
The Grand Union Canal, Berkhamstead.
That morning Steppers and I jumped out of the car at Broadwater Lock, just across from the Waitrose supermarket. Within thirty seconds we were canalside, drinking in the peaceful vibe. The first houseboat I saw was a long, green vessel called Whippet Express. Utterly charming.
I’ve been fascinated with house boats since my Amsterdam days. In fact, I could totally envision having a writing studio here. Taking my morning coffee on deck before tapping away at articles down in the cabin.
Back in the real world, I had to make do with little glimpses through various portholes. There were football flags and Star Wars stickers, Union Jack cushions and… in one case… a squashed up Krusty the Clown doll. Why not.
Berkhamstead’s section of England’s grand waterway dates back to around 1798 when construction linked the town up with The River Thames at Brentford. Back in the 18th century the cheapest way you could transport stuff was by boat. Hence Berkhamstead flourished during this period as a busy boat-building yard.
Moreover, the canal played a key role in supporting the needs of a local brewery, chemical works and timber yards. It really was the main show in town, until the arrival of the Iron Road railway lines. Nevertheless, Berkhamstead’s stretch of canal remained reasonably active in the local industries until the early 1960s.
What to See and Do, Berkhamstead.
Today the canal stands as a testament to a bygone era. There are beautiful bridges, handsome townhouses, chipped stone steps and three of The Grand Union’s 158 locks.
As we walked, Steppers and I passed plenty of fisherman wiling away the afternoon with their neatly arranged equipment and home-made sandwiches.
We passed couples, dog walkers, smokers, a jogger or two and a woman sat on a wooden bench engrossed in a Monica Dickens biography. Everyone was relaxed and blissfully unaware of the impending arrival of COVID.
It’s also a great opportunity for engaging in a bit of property envy. There are swanky apartment blocks overlooking the canal and immaculate brick, chimney-laden cottages.
My favourite was the amazing building pictured below. At first glance I thought it might be a cafe, or perhaps a florist. But actually this is someone’s home. The owner caught me taking a photo, thus she proceeded to wave from the balcony.
Note the sign to the right of the ground floor greenhouse. It references The 1793 Grand Junction Enabling Act, from which parliament authorised construction of the canal line at a cost of around £600.000.
The Berkhamstead Totem Pole.
You certainly can’t miss Berkhamstead’s red cedar Canadian Totem Pole. This unusual addition was commissioned by William John Alsford, whose family owned the town’s renowned Timber Company.
The purchase came about after William’s brother Roger visited Canada, where he received great kindness and hospitality from a Kwakiutl tribe on Vancouver Island.
William was so touched he asked Canadian Nations artist Henry Hunt to make the thirty foot pole. He then had it shipped to Britain and installed on the site of the family timber yard.
And here it stands today in the garden of Alsford Wharf Apartments. The pole, one of only five in Britain, is a symbol of fertility and includes a carving of a raven, the so-called bringer of first light.
The Grand Union Canal, Berkhamstead.
Naturally, there are some lovely places for a drink and a bite. One good option is The Boat Pub, a traditional watering hole with craft ales, lager on tap and contemporary British cuisine.
Alternatively, how about The Rising Sun, a free house that describes itself as “like pubs used to be, but better!” In addition to award winning cider, cooked breakfasts and ploughman’s sandwiches, they host quiz nights, board game evenings and a charity book club.
Finally, it was time for us to cut back into town. We took the bridge on the aptly named Little Bridge Road, which leads to George Street and the car park.
As we went, I thought what a great introduction this had been to The Grand Union Canal. Hopefully, I’ll add a few more sections over the coming years.
For more on the region, take a look at my travel articles from around Buckinghamshire.
Want to go further afield? I’ve written tonnes of articles from across England and Scotland.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
I love the canal houseboats. Canals make quaint and picturesque sights today. America also had a canal building era in the early 1800s.
That’s interesting. Where would one find surviving canals from that period in the U.S. today?
Such pretty photographs 🔆
Berkhamstead is another place I’m yet to discover but it looks just my sort of place as I love a wander along canal banks. I’m so pleased that I found your blog and am really enjoying your style of writing. I’ll keep dipping into your older articles to enjoy reading more. Marion
Thanks so much Marion, I really appreciate that. Actually, I’m in the process of working through all my old articles (there are around 700 in total) and giving them a complete makeover. Many pieces were written years ago when I started blogging. I think you may notice the difference! In any case all those old ones are getting extended, with more (and better) photos, along with customised header images, SEO implementation and all kinds of other improvements. Thanks again for the support! I enjoy your blog very much too.
I starting blogging in August 2015 and although I haven’t amended / updated any of my original posts I spent much of the first lockdown working through categories and tags and enhancing my blog’s SEO. It’s definitely paid off but there’s still much to do as I also have more than 600 posts but as it’s a labour of love, I’m happy to continue with this tedious task.
Ah, so you know exactly where I’m coming from. Also, it seems we started blogging roughly at the same time.
It’s too bad you couldn’t talk your way inside one of the houseboats. Seeing the interior could be really interesting. Especially the ones that look so modern on the outside. That old guy “fishing” has a really huge pole. What kind of fish to they pull out of there?
If I get a chance to walk through another stretch of The Grand Union, I’d definitely like to see inside a house boat. As for the fish, I did a bit of digging and I found an article that claims rudd, skimmers, bream, chub and carp can all be found in Berkhamstead’s canal waters.
The good weather makes the views of the canal even more spectacular. I like the traditional shape of the English barges, they seem so small. And of course, I noticed the Canadian totem pole.
Cheers, and this is just a small stretch of the network. Wish I had the time to walk all 137 miles of it.
Aren’t you glad you made that small detour? The Grand Union Canal is certainly a gem not to be missed! I’ve always wondered that living in a boat, whether on a canal or at sea, was like, but I imagine it’d be very tranquil, especially with the lovely nature surrounding it! Thanks for sharing your adventures in the UK, Leighton!
Agree with you about loving the idea of having a canal boat. I’m sure it’d be great to just adventure along routes like this. Can’t say I’m too familiar with this route but had me thinking of Peaky Blinders, looking a little more glamarous here mind you! Great read and some gorgeous photos too 🙂
Ha ha, yes just a touch more glamorous. Thanks for reading Jason!
Mesmerising photos! House boats are amazing, would love to see all this with my own eyes.
Thank you for sharing, I have walked down this part of the canal, it’s really pretty, Berkhamsted is a lovely town, lots to see and do 🙂
Nic | Nic’s Adventures & Bakes
Hey Nic! Thanks for reading and taking the time to contribute.
Nice pictures– love the houseboats and canals.
Thanks for reading and following!
What a cool place to visit. A canal boat houseboat would be an interesting home, for sure. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Cheers Allan, I’ve always wanted a little houseboat writing studio. Maybe in the next life.