This afternoon on something of a whim, I decided to cycle to Rickmansworth. Why? Well I was actually considering routes for a charity bike ride, and happened to be tracing the route of the Grand Union Canal out of London on Google Earth when I came across the place. It's also on the Metropolitan Underground Line (yes, it stretches quite far out!), giving me an easy way back.
Setting off mid-afternoon (cough), the weather was fine, a surprise given the generally miserable outlook forecasted.
Blossom everywhere in beautiful England
Now, what’s this about a canal you ask? Well in my opinion, it’s one of the best features of London, and a relatively unknown one at that. Here’s the spiel from wiki:
The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system. Its main line connects London and Birmingham and stretches for 220 km (137 miles) and has 166 locks. It has arms to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton..
The bit Londoners are interested in is in fact a series of canals, from Bow and Limehouse in the East, across (as the Regent’s Canal) Camden, behind King’s Cross, through the middle of Regent’s Park (and the London Zoo), before emerging in Little Venice, where I live.
The bit near me
For the non-cyclists out there, one can take a regular passenger canal boat between Camden Lock and Little Venice (just near Paddington). Lovely!
Setting off at Blomfield Road at the bottom of my street, I follow the towpath (left-hand side of the canal as one heads West) through Westbourne Park and Ladbroke Grove. Approaching Park Royal, one passes Willesden and White City on the left, depot home of Eurostar and lots of train lines.
This is a familiar ride to this point for me, as COLT have a data centre out here, and I would cycle along the canal for almost the entire route. Very pleasant, although one would find oneself going the opposite way to the rush hour cycle traffic, fine on the way out as being on the left side meant outside, but returning one would be waterside, and some of the towpath is quite narrow!
Canal’s busy today
Reading up about the history of the route, I learn than that the red-brick seemingly-disused building opposite the point where I would normally cut up off the canal for my work is an old Heinz factory! Perhaps they mixed baked bean sauce in with the clay before making the bricks? Shortly after, one passes the Grand Junction Arms, a Young’s outlet that I’ve visited before with Will, and the furthest I’ve been on the canal.
From this point onwards it’s all new and exciting!
Unfortunately, my excitement is short-lived, as a few yards on the towpath is closed for construction, so we’re diverted off into the industrial estates of Park Royal. Without any diversion signs and TomTom-less, I weave my way blindly through the quite well-tarmacked roads and roundabouts, before re-joining next to another nice-looking pub! Lots of temptations! Through Alperton, we pass over the fascinating and surreal North Circular viaduct. This is a two-lane canal crossing *over the top* of a ring-road around London, with a small island structure in the middle bearing the coat of arms from the previous bridge. Imagine the scene – canal boats drifting gently across the water as ten lanes of noisy traffic motors across beneath! And to my good fortune, a boat does indeed cross just as I do.
The track weaves its way on, through neighbourhoods, where there tends to be local traffic, pedestrian and other cyclists, and industrial estates, where it is quieter. We pass a large mosque on the right, and the path starts to deteriorate. After a shockingly bad yet strangely concrete section under a bridge, the path turns to dirt. I notice the signs here say that a cycle permit is required – I’d never realised this before. I later checked this out, and the rules have been relaxed – you don’t need the permit for the London area. The permit itself is just a form you print out from the Waterways website which declares that one promises not to be naughty.
We now approach Southall, which is one of the concentrations of Indian culture in London, especially Punjabi, i.e. Sikh. I actually haven’t ever visited here before, but today is not the day, a curry would not be conducive to my ride! Onwards, around Hayes I arrive at Bull’s Bridge Junction having ridden about 13-14 miles. This is the point where the Paddington Arm of the canal joins the main thoroughfare, which runs from Brentford (where it meets the Thames) up to Birmingham! There’s a signpost:
This was apparently once the sight of the canal company’s main dockyard. There’s now a large Tesco opposite the junction. My mind turns to Bacon and Egg sarnies, but I resist, turn right and begin the ride to Birmingham! It is time for a break though, so at the next pleasant opportunity, I stop, park the bike up and sit dangling my legs over the canal whilst enjoying the bananas and tea I’ve brought. The tea, incidentally, is Yerba Mate from Argentina, which one drinks in small cups with a metal straw. It resembles a pipe, and one generally receives some curious looks when partaking!
Back on the bike, and I decide to pick up a pace a little, especially as the weather is starting to turn. There are seven locks to cross before my destination, Rickmansworth – I haven’t come across a single one yet, being in the Thames basin, but now the canal starts to climb gently out of London. Along the path there are periodic kissing gates with narrow gaps through which one can pass a bike, presumably to stop youngsters bringing scooters down here. The number of lager cans piled up near some of the access points suggest it is a place to hang out in the evenings.
Some of the more elaborate house-boats
The path is of variable quality – at times narrow dirt track, sometimes terribly bumpy, sometimes smooth. Occasionally there’s beautiful smooth tarmac, but it never lasts for long. I’d say the quality of the path is such that it’s just feasible with a town bike – any worse and it really would be mountain bike only. My bike, a hybrid, has quite narrow tyres on it at the moment, plus no suspension (well, carbon forks don’t really count!) and I could just about tolerate it!
The locks provide interesting interludes – some request cyclists dismount, which is sensible as there’s generally a steep slope up to the far side, combined with a blind turn round a bridge. There are generally a number of features in addition to the lock itself – the bridge over, a pub or shop for canal traffic, often a boat-yard or mooring area on the lower side of the lock, and some seating for when you’re in a water-bound traffic jam.
Just before Uxbridge is Cowley Peachey junction, where the Slough arm branches off westward. Around here also, I cannot fight temptation any more, so stop in at the Malt Shovel pub, which has a lovely canal-side terrace with benches, facing a boat yard on the other side. Unfortunately they only have London Pride, their other ales being off. I also have to endure the following conversation without making comment: “Can I have a John Smith’s please?” “It’s off, I’m afraid”. “Ok, Fosters then”. Not my kind of place, clearly.
Leaving Uxbridge, it’s clear we’re leaving suburbs and hitting countryside proper. Through Cowley, the canal begins to climb the valley of the River Colne following a north-westerly course. There are many disused gravel workings in the valley so the canal is surrounded by lakes as it passes Denham and Harefield before veering north-east to Rickmansworth. This whole stretch is beautiful, and it’s remarkable that we’re so close to London.
Rickmansworth comes, but I’m at a loss as to where the train station is, so have to ask. It’s the other side of the pleasant town centre. I fight the urge to pop in for a celebratory pint, and head up for my ride home. To those who want a less strenous day, I think taking the Met Line to here then cycling to Uxbridge, perhaps with a picnic or pub lunch along the way, would be a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
Incidentally, I have now settled on my plan for a charity cycle ride – London to Lille, with the chosen charity being AVERT, a British-based global AIDS charity. There are a number of route options – down to Folkstone, Eurotunnel then Calais to Lille, or perhaps we could head to Ramsgate for the Oostende ferry, or Dover for Boulogne. Either way, it’s about 150 miles, and I’m hoping to do this ride with Adrian Wilson and Will Herrington, my London Brighton bike-chums, on the 14th June, returning the following day (by train, I assure you!). If you’re interested in sponsoring me, please visit http://www.justgiving.com/londonlille
P.S. The photos in this report are a mixture of low-quality shots from my camera-phone on the day, and some older pictures taken by Will Herrington in 2006 on a previous ride. They also do not necessarily correlate to the adjacent text. Apologies, all will be rectified when I purchase a camera.