Monday, 5 June 2023

Tales From The Towpath - Part Two

When you left us last time I had my map in one hand and was scratching my head with the other. My brother, Les, was meanwhile trying to get a signal on his phone so he could bring up a map on there. We came up with our answers at about the same time and for once technology and paper map were in perfect agreement - and on route!

If we just take a few steps in a northerly direction we should come upon a track leading us down to the bird hide on Wilstone Reservoir.

Abracadabra! Plenty of birds and a pretty view. A chilly wind blowing in our faces and not the Black Terns that we were hoping to see, but you can't have everything, even on such a varied walk as this. 

The path then led us along the raised bank of the reservoir. It's another of the four reservoirs built to keep the canals topped up with water, especially during the summer months. There's a car park near here so it's quite a popular walk. We took the flight of steps down to the road, then found a path over a grassy field towards the village of Wilstone.

Like almost every village in England there's a well-maintained war memorial.

There's a pub too, The Half Moon, which didn't tempt us inside as we still had a way to go (and our packed lunches were in a cool box in the car). There were once four pubs here, as well as a few shops. Most of these owed their existence to the relative prosperity brought to the area by the canals. But the coming of the car meant that more folk went to the nearest town for their shopping and entertainment.

We followed a track to the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union which was opened 1814. We could then enjoy a trouble-free and pleasant stroll on the towpath all the way back to our starting point.

A comment on the previous post said how magnificent the hawthorn blossom was this year, and nowhere more so than along this section, where many of the bushes had turned pink.

This section of the canal network almost closed in the 1960s, but the Aylesbury Canal Society was formed to care for, promote and protect it for the future. I remember some of my school friends volunteering and spending their summer holidays involved in restoration work on the canals. One met his future wife while they were digging out black sludge from the locks.

And all so that people could cruise on England's waterways today. You'll notice that the locks here are only just wide enough to accommodate the boat. They were constructed this way, just 7ft (just over 2m) wide in an attempt to save as much water as possible, though it does restrict the size of vessel which can use this branch of the canal.

But soon we reach the junction with the much wider Grand Union Canal itself, which will lead us back to Startop's End (pronounced Starrups, by the way).

Even though the canal is wider the bridges were kept fairly small as the engineers always sought to make savings. And well they might: according to the Canals and Rivers Trust there are some 2,949 bridges on Britain's canals, as well as 1,582 locks, 55 tunnels, 280 aqueducts and 71 reservoirs. Quite an undertaking then.

Most of the boats you see today are pleasure craft which people hire for a week or two's cruising during the summer. Some are privately owned and in use for part of the year. And it's reckoned that around 15.000 people live on boats in the UK, though this includes canals, rivers and coasts. Among that number must be my friend and former work colleague who invested in an old boat as a cheap form of housing and over the years has converted it into a bottomless pit into which he pours his hard-earned cash. Mostly though he just watches the river flow by his window and doesn't seem to worry too much about it.

This unusual bridge was encountered right at the end of our walk. You'll notice it has a double arch, one over the canal and the other over....nothing! The explanation is that there was once a plan to build a narrow lock, next to the wider one, so that if a single narrowboat wanted to pass it would waste less water. For some reason the "cunning plan" never came to fruition.

I went up on the bridge to take a shot down on to the canal and then we walked back towards the car, but.......

On the way we came across the Paul Mark that we'd seen earlier in the day chugging along the Wendover Arm. Since then it had negotiated half a dozen locks and the owners were now moored up for a well-earned cup of tea. Les and I had been discussing how there seemed less traditionally-painted craft afloat these days and were pleased to see at least one boat with the once-popular "castle" design.

We began chatting to the owners. They'd had their boat 47 years, but now only ventured on short trips in her. The water-can, painted with the roses which you used to see on so many narrowboats, was a wedding anniversary present and had to be commissioned from one of the few artists still working in the field. If you look closely you'll see that those seemingly intricate flowers are rendered with just a few highly skillful strokes of the brush.

They also had an extensive collection of the metal badges which proclaim each of the canals they've travelled on. Again you used to see a lot more of these on boats a few years back. We said our goodbyes and then took one last look at the reservoirs and part of the sluice system which allowed water to be let into the canal.

Take care.


  1. Thank you (so much) for taking us with you. Beautiful.

  2. A lovely canal walk, I expect many of us have contemplated living on a boat, but the thought of floating on water and then sinking has never appealed. Isn't the pink/red hawthorn, probably hybridised though, called a Midland hawthorn?

    1. I tried investigating pink blossoms on hawthorn once and came up with different answers wherever I looked - it's the chalk soil, it's dry summers, it's the age of the bush and so on. I've decided just to enjoy it and not worry my head about it further!

  3. Fascinating and beautiful from start to finish, John. Obviously you will have to return to see the Black Terns you missed this time around, so we will perhaps get the chance to do it with you again.

  4. I have run out of superlatives John - just admired the wonderful greenery, the super boat at the end of your piece - my very dear friend, now long gone, was a 'canal freak' - even built his own narrow boat after commissioning a steel hull. Living as I now do in a little town, albeit I can see Penn Hill and Wensleydale from my window, I do your wanders with you every step of the way.

  5. This town is so delicate and lovely to explore. The shops are cute. The sceneries are just pleasant.

  6. We were commenting on the amount of pink hawthorn blossom that is so bountiful this year and wondering why. I too have endeavoured to investigate the reason why, but came up with no answers.

  7. El mapa y las nuevas tecnología, ha hecho que encontraras es bello lugar. Son muy buenas las imágenes que has captado.
    Que tengas una buena semana. Un abrazo

  8. Gosh, what a lovely hike, John! It sounds like a lot of work traveling through those canals. Those are lovely to look at, tho!

  9. Each picture of this hike was a winner, John. Thanks for taking us.

  10. I always enjoy my canalside walks... and I enjoyed yours too!

  11. That was such a lovely hike you and your brother took there. Love these photos. It is a delight to see England through your eyes. Thank you.

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed this walk including part one. Towpaths, canals, boats, bridges, architecture are uniquely and distinctively British and so lovely. Hawthorn blossoms I see in my part of the world are different from yours, only white.
    Regarding your comment, Lito once said he got inspired by a Spanish artist. I think it’s Lorenzo Duran,

  13. Wow, what a fantastic journey. I really enjoyed seeing boats and canals. The water can, what a beauty. Life on the canal must be a very interesting way to live. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos.

  14. Ditto what everyone has said. My appreciation echoes theirs. Your posts always take me a few minutes of stopping my own life, and are always worth the pause. Actually I sometimes wait till I know I can sit down and enjoy them! Not that I'm all that busy otherwise, after all...but it's the thought. A bit of priority I'd say.

  15. This has been such an amazing walk with you & Les! Thanks ever so much for sharing.

  16. Interesting canal walk! I wonder what life on a boat must be like. Very cold in winters?

  17. Love these scenes! It must be so peaceful to walk along the canal.

  18. Thank you, John. I have just caught up with your last two posts on the canals and it brought back many happy memories of trips on the canals and River Ouse. I even got out my old copy of Principal Inland Navigations and checked it out. As always, lovely photos and history.

  19. Not sure the barge vacation float would work for the two of us. Dan is always wanting to explore and I could see him or possibly not, up ahead, going faster than the barge. Such a nice stroll though for you and Les so you can enjoy all the sights. thanks!

  20. I love the barges. We go to Papermill Lock a few times during the summer, there are lots of them moored up. I'm nosy and like looking at them!

  21. A really interesting walk..nature history and boater activity combined!
    You might like to see the work of Dru Maryland..she lives on a narrow boat, usually on the K&A and does illustrated canal maps as part of her artworks.


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