The title of the post and the first photo should tell you that we're off on a different kind of walk today, along a small fragment of Britain's canal system. We're near the little Hertfordshire town of Tring, on part of the Grand Union Canal. The "towpaths" were originally for the horses that towed the barges before the days of steam. Most of them now form a useful supplement to the footpath network.
The great "canal age" in Britain began in the 1760s when the Duke of Bridgewater built a canal from his coalfields to the town of Manchester. The Grand Junction Canal, which later became the Grand Union, was built later that century to give a better connection between London and Birmingham. Before it was built, boats had to go up the River Thames to Oxford and then transfer to the narrow and winding Oxford Canal. The new canal followed a much more direct route.
The section we're walking is where the Grand Union Canal crosses the Chiltern Hills at their lowest point, which is known as Tring Gap. The Chilterns, even by southern English standards, are fairly insignificant hills, but they set the engineers plenty of problems, as we shall see.
At its highest point the canal is only 120 feet (37m) above sea level, a height which is easily achieved by a series of lock gates. However this is a busy canal and every time a boat passes water is lost. The solution was to build reservoirs near the highest point so that the water-level can be topped up.
A family of swans pose for a photo, though the cob (the male bird) insisted on lifting his foot in that strange way that they often do.
Most of the locks still retain the old lock-keepers' houses, which are today much sought-after properties, though the prospect of having every summer day filled with the noise of boating folks winding open the lock gates wouldn't fill me with glee.
Because this was formerly such a major thoroughfare, essential to the national economy, the Grand Union has a broad channel, wide enough to allow boats to moor or pass easily. Nowadays of course the canal is mainly used by leisure craft. Not every canal in the land is so well appointed or maintained as the Grand Union.
Here, along the Wendover Arm, the atmosphere is totally different. Birds chirrup in the hawthorn bushes and we wondered if we'd see any traffic at all on this dead-end spur of the network.
Just then the "Paul Mark" came puttering along through the tranquil scene. Remember the name and the boat, we'll meet up again towards the end of the second episode of this placid adventure.
An occasional glimpse through the hedges confirmed that we were travelling through farming country. Much of the original traffic on this canal would have consisted of agricultural produce on its way down to London - and horse manure being transported back to enrich the fields.
Then suddenly the canal-side scenery seemed briefly urban. This is Heygates Flour Mill, which is still operating today and, though everything now moves in and out by road, it serves as a reminder of the canal's original purpose. Though the Wendover Arm did have another, less obvious, function. The Chilterns are formed of porous chalk, so there are very few natural watercourses that could be diverted to top up the canal's reservoirs. But it just so happens that there is a natural spring at Wendover, at about the right elevation, so the canal therefore could also serve to bring water to where it was needed.
We passed under a traditional-looking bridge which is actually quite recent, having been rebuilt as part of the restoration scheme for the Wendover Arm of the canal. You remember I said the chalk was porous? Well, this unfortunate canal sprang a leak, several leaks in fact. After many attempts at patching things up it was eventually given up as a bad job, blocked off and allowed to silt up. It's only in recent decades that parts of it have been opened up once more.
And soon we reached a place where the canal came to an end and our path seemed blocked. Luckily there were a couple of boats moored in this out-of-the-way place. Les got talking to a woman on one boat. She wasn't sure where the path went, but she directed us to the man in the other boat, he'd be bound to know. He cut a piratical figure with his gold earring and bandana, but gave us a full and detailed description of the route ahead.
After an excursion through sheep meadows and cattle pastures we came upon a section of restored canal. Then we had to cut away again along an uncertain path across the fields, hoping that it would lead us towards the bird-hide at Winstone Reservoir and the second half of our journey.