A recap and some photos that didn't make it to my blog at the time . . .
As I mentioned in my January revisit, heading outside a couple of times a week to take photos of the view from Lake Field meant that I paid closer attention to other details. Frost on the seed heads of flowers, months after they finished blooming. The first daffodils, almost ready to blossom. I tried to convince myself that spring was on the way!
Also in February, we went for a three day walk on the Grand Union Canal. I posted quite a few photos of our trip, but never got around to sharing the little videos I took of mist and reflections on the water.
I hope these pretty scenes inspire you (and me, let's be honest!) to get outside this winter.
The Grand Union Canal, as the name suggests, is not a single canal, but rather a (grand) union of several canals. There’s the trunk stretching from London to Birmingham and then there are branches, or arms, heading off into surrounding areas. Some of those arms are full of water and navigable the entire way. Others are dry or filled in - completely out of commission. Some are little more than reed-choked drainage ditches, half forgotten except by the creatures that find a safe haven in these slivers of weed and water.
A number of years ago, we embarked on one of our very long-term projects: to walk the length of the Grand Union Canal, including all its arms. We started strong, covering most of the sections within London as well as the Wendover and Aylesbury arms. Then we moved down to East Sussex and the canal was too far away for day walks . . . but not too far away for a three day break during the half term holiday! So we booked a couple of Airbnb places and set off. From Slough.
Day 1: Slough to Cowley Lock
Two red kites wheeled close over the road as we drove in - our first taste of the wildlife to come. We parked the car and headed to the canal, surprising a small mammal of some kind (possibly a water rat), which scurried through the reeds and plopped into the water.
The Slough Arm was opened in 1882, mainly to carry bricks from the surrounding quarries and brickworks to London. It was closed to commercial traffic in 1960 and there were plans afoot to fill it in. Locals opposed this idea and got on the campaign trail. The canal was re-opened in 1975 and is still in use today. We didn’t see any boats moving about, but there were a few people fishing from the banks and a couple of boats with smoke wafting from the chimneys.
We stopped for lunch a mile or so into the walk, just before we felt the first few drops of rain. It was light and scrappy at first, but got heavier as the afternoon went on. We passed a couple of other walkers and joggers, disturbed a deer, tut tutted at the section of canalside that was covered in rubbish, spotted a few birds and the first green hawthorn leaves of spring. It was drizzling with a bit more gusto by now, but we didn’t want our thermos of tea to go to waste, so we agreed to stop under the next bit of shelter for a cuppa. The next bit of shelter was a large bridge carrying the M25 around London. What a romantic place for afternoon tea.
Refreshed, we strode on, following aqueducts over the Colne Brook and Fray’s River (where we saw a kingfisher). Soon enough, we came to Packet Boat Marina and the junction with the Grand Union Canal proper. Immediately, the canal became more lively - a few boats moving around on the water, cyclists and pedestrian commuters sharing the path with us.
We admired all the boats on permanent residential mooring, but it started raining in earnest so we headed on. The phone was dead, leaving us without instructions of how to get to our Airbnb. Luckily we found a map by the canal, dredged a few bits of info from our memories and eventually found our way ‘home’: a cosy cabin beside the canal, belonging to one of the permanent moorings. Our host invited her two bedraggled guests into the boat kitchen for a cup of tea, where we met a cute dog (Rufus) and cat (Twix). In the end, we couldn’t be bothered going out for dinner, so we went to bed early, drifting off to the sound of rain on the cabin roof and deers and foxes barking in the night.
Day 2: Cowley Lock to Croxley Green
A cool, still morning dawned, robins and blackbirds singing in the garden. Twix the cat came to say hello and jumped on the bed for pats. After croissants and jam and freshly squeezed juice for breakfast, we set off at a good pace.
The canal was misty, the smooth water broken only by a little group of colourful mandarin ducks. We watched a heron stalk elegantly along a log, then lose its footing and flail around a bit before looking at us haughtily as if to say, “I meant to do that.”
The stretch through Uxbridge was fairly urban, but passing under the A40 felt like stepping into the countryside. Suddenly, the trees and winter hedges were alive with birds: robins, wrens, chaffinches and tits - long tailed, blue and great. Beyond the trees, we glimpsed a large pink building, which later research showed was a new Hindu temple.
We took the opportunity to leave the towpath for a while to walk through the woods by the Denham Quarry Lakes. More birds zipped through the trees around us (we spotted both types of woodpecker during the morning), while others swam on the lakes (ducks, swans, geese, cormorants, coots, moorhens). It was really lovely to see so many different birds. I also spotted some wood ear fungus, which was quite exciting. I didn’t eat it.
Two grey wagtails greeted us as we rejoined the canal (a misnomer - they’re mostly recognisable due to their yellow fronts). A little further on, we took a detour up the Troy Arm (or Troy Cut). This is a short, private branch that was used to service Troy Mill. It looks pretty unnavigable now (at least to anything bigger than a kayak), but the surrounding scenery is beautiful: big quarry lakes, blue sky and presumably later in the year lots of greenery. We stopped at a canalside pub for lunch and even got a window seat.
We might have been full after our meals, but that didn’t stop us a mile or so further on from purchasing cupcakes from two kids who’d set up a canalside cake table. One kid was clearly the business minded partner, with the sales spiel and the cash handling skills. The other one was up a tree.
It was a gorgeous day, with sunshine so bright that I started to wonder if I was getting sunburnt. We frequently saw bands of goldfinches along the canal, with their distinctive red faces. We also saw a goldcrest and (we think) a yellowhammer. It’s funny that we noticed more birds when we were walking in what is essentially the outskirts of London than we do when we’re at home. I guess it’s partly to do with simply being out and about more when we’re on holiday, but I also wonder if it’s to do with the variety of habitats along the canal - part rural, part wood, part urban, part parkland, part lake. This walk also made me think I should try to get better at identifying ducks. We saw several types, but even after a googling session I can still only identify a few: mallard, tufted, mandarin and pochard.
Past Rickmansworth, we left the towpath again, this time to find our Airbnb. We didn’t have to go far - it was only a minute from the water. This time we were greeted by two lovely hosts, homemade blueberry muffins and an energetic little dog. Dan went to the shops to get rolls, cheese and tomatoes for dinner (so much food that day). We ate, had baths and then fell asleep without even getting properly into bed. Such lightweights!
Day 3: Croxley Green to Berkhamsted
Continuing our theme of delicious food, breakfast included fresh blueberries and homemade bread for toast. Yum! We said goodbye to our hosts (well, the one who was awake!) and headed out. There was a thick layer of spiky frost on everything: leaves, grass, ropes coiled on boats. The world was quite white.
We followed a flock of morning commuters, all of whom traipsed over the lock gates rather than going the extra hundred yards to the bridge. Wispy bits of steam rose and danced over the water and, further along, thin sheets of ice covered the canal.
Watford went by without making much of a difference to canal life, although as usual we could tell when we’d left town: passers by started smiling and saying good morning. From Cassiobury Park, the canal and surrounds took on a slightly more manicured appearance.
We passed a number of increasingly pretty bridges until we reached the white bridge, an ornate piece of work that was part of the canal’s payment to the Earl of Essex in order for him to allow the canal to pass through his estate. It’s easy to forget that while today a canal might be seen as a pretty, picturesque addition to the landscape, back in the day it was like having a highway put through the countryside.
We had morning tea in the almost-warm morning sun, sitting on a lock in the middle of a wide green valley between the M25 slip road and the M25. If you count the M25 as the edge of London (which in some ways it is), we were about to head back out of the capital. Near the motorway we spotted a little grebe, ducking and diving all over the canal.
Despite the warm sun, there was still enough frost on the puddles to try and skate. This mainly involved me clutching Dan’s arm and making him pull me along for a couple of steps as I slipped all over the place. We made good time to Hemel Hempstead. Too good, since we arrived at Woody’s Vegetarian Cafe before they started serving lunch. Oh well, second breakfast was good enough for us!
Past the marina, the canal became quaint again - old pubs, locks, a swing bridge - and what with the very muddy path it was easy to forget we were in the middle of a large town. A few clouds started to appear, and a few more. There was rain forecast for the afternoon, so we didn’t amble. Back into the countryside we went, admiring the clear River Bulbourne running parallel. The river is more a small stream now that the canal takes its water. It was full of watercress, and a little further on a sign informed us that there used to be a thriving watercress industry here. We also saw a tiny wood mouse.
We talked about canals and rivers as we walked, planning future adventures. The path disappeared behind us and soon we were in Berkhamsted. The people of Berkhamsted clearly appreciate their canal and have money to spend. The canalside became very well-kept, with pretty historic signs (still retaining the older name of Grand Junction Canal) and several information points. One such board informed us that Berkhamsted “has the dubious honour of being the home of sheep dip!” And with that, the walk was over. We said goodbye to the canal - until next time! - and hopped on a train. It had taken us about 6 hours to walk from the outskirts of Watford to Berkhamsted that day; it took the train 12 minutes to cover that distance in reverse.
Year of sleeping variously: canalside cabin edition
Our second month of sleeping variously. Last time it was Premier Inn!
Canalside Cabin verdict: 72%
If you'd like to start using Airbnb, use this link to sign up and you'll get £14 off your first booking. We'll get credit, too - win/win!
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