Cycling The Grand Union Canal - The Missing Link


This trip is the proof of what an obsessive completer-finisher I am. In April 2015 I cycled the Grand Union from Birmingham to London as a part of the training for the Land's End To John o' Groats trip. Well, not quite. Day 1: Birmingham to Milton Keynes was tough. It was ~80 miles with long stretches of thorn-covered grass. After several hours of fixing punctures we arrived at Braunston with not enough daylight or inner tubes left to get to Milton Keynes by canal. Instead we opted for the main roads to finish the final 35 miles. By day 2 the rest of the group had decided not to carry on so I finished the final stretch to London by myself. It bothered me that I'd missed a section of the canal. It didn't seem to bother anyone else so I ended up doing it on my own a year and a half later.

Greater obsessives would have had to start at Braunston and complete the journey in the same North-South direction. I wasn't too worried about that so I started at Milton Keynes, saving an hour of driving. It also gave me a chance to tick off Milton Keynes parkrun before the trip.

Milton Keynes has a reputation for being a pretty dull place, full of modern buildings and logistics centres. I've only really experienced it whilst running there or cycling through it and I actually like it. As a "New Town" it was designed in the 1960s with the car in mind, but it's also great for cyclists. Well designed cycle paths and underpasses mean you can get across town without fighting with cars like in other big towns.

The Grand Union passes near the centre and has good cycle paths next to it. That, however, quickly ends a couple of miles out and the towpath gets very narrow and grassy. It became very clear that we had made the right decision to avoid doing this part in the dark last time we were on the Grand Union.

Cosgrove, a nice village around 8 miles in, would have been a nice place to stop for a while. As I was on my own and on a mission I only stopped to take a photo of the 1790's bridge before pressing on.

1 mile from Cosgrove and the going got tougher as the path left the canal and diverted through some heavily rutted fields for another mile before returning at Isworth Farm. Looking back at the map now, I probably took the wrong side of the canal after Cosworth and missed a much easier section.

Around 15 miles from Milton Keynes the canal reaches the Blisworth Tunnel. It was built over 12 years from 1793 and connects Stoke Bruene to Blisworth 3km away. There's no towpath through the tunnel, so the cycle route takes a steep incline to the top of the hill and follows Stoke Road for about a mile before returning to the canal at the tunnel exit just south of Blisworth.

By now I was low on energy and starving so the Cafe at Whilton Marina was a handy place to stop. Squeezed in between the railway line, the canal and the M1, its not quiet or pretty, but still a nice quirky rest stop before the final push to Braunston.

After passing over Braunston Tunnel, I reached my end point at Braunston Marina, finishing the missing link of the Grand Union adventure. Its a nice stretch of the canal with some interesting sections and I'm glad I made it back there to finish it off. 

Richard gowerComment