Our last minute decision to go for a walk was fuelled by wanting to get out of London even only for a few days and to finish by making it back to London for New Years Eve. We chose the simplest adventure we knew possible, take a train on out of London to Milton Keynes, find the Canal and head South. What we found out along the way has left us in love with canals and the idea of becoming water gypsies!
We scurried around and gathered our gear, Tent, sleeping bags, Jetboil and all other such like gear we’d need for a few days walking. Tuesday 30th we tiredly fumbled our way to Euston Station and made our way on the 07.04 to Bletchley (wanting to avoid Milton Keynes itself)
Barrelling like a pair of excited schoolchildren up the narrow stairway at Bletchley station, high on Costa Rica’s finest espresso blend and the train-window view of the greenery beyond, past bleary-eyed commuters, we spilled out giggling onto the icy pavement and promptly realised we had absolutely no clue what direction the canal was in. Hallelujah Google Maps.
Given Bletchley’s exemplary history as a stalwart of the Enigma machine and the heroic effort of the wartime code breakers, the town centre was nothing to write home about, and our hearts skipped a beat when we turned off another dreary home-counties cul-de-sac and were greeted with a beautiful sight. A small, brick built bridge was framed in the golden-blue frozen morning mist by a majestic row of silhouetted poplar trees, and the promise of a long ribbon of watery wonder that lay below.
After an obligatory game of icy pooh-sticks, we started the trek along the canal side, stopping every so often as a small opening in the hedgerow created another breathtaking sight, a yawning expanse of frozen field bathed in the beginning of a crisp sunny winter’s day. Beautiful photos began to fill smartphones, filters were negated and the excitement rose to fever pitch as bend after bend of the canal revealed more hidden gems – small cozy coal-fire-heated narrowboats nestled quietly against the canal side, geese slid gracefully across the ice-covered canal surface in the dawn light, and every so often a runner puffed past, filling the passing air like a steam train.
The tranquility was morbidly, if fascinatingly (and amusingly) shattered by the discovery of a frozen deer, half over and half under the water. How? Why? You hungry?!
As the sun rose over the horizon, the frost and the miles melted away to the view of a large lock-house looming over the river, casting a chilly shadow against the luminous canal-side grasses. Turned out the place was a humongous pub called The Grove Lock that had just opened its doors for the day, and was the recipient of two cold, grateful and permanently hungry trekkers. What started as a coffee (doesn’t it always) turned into a dirty three-course gorge from which we emerged, blinking and with cheeks rosier by good ale into the midday sunshine. As the down layers came off, the miles continued to pass underneath our boots. We passed cows lazily chewing the cud, excitable spaniels, kids on bikes, more quaint humpy bridges and small lock-houses thrown back into century-old history of shire horses, boats, coal and mead.
Enough of the lyrical waxing. At this point, it was as warm as it was going to get all weekend, we were slightly bored by the endless flood plain fields, lack of entertainment to help ignore the faint coffee and ale hangover that had begun to set in, and the fact my walking boots had decided to bite back. The locks became more plentiful and this meant HILLS. On a CANAL PATH?! This certainly hadn’t featured in the guide books. Bloody Lonely Planet Liars. No wonder they’re bloody lonely.
Early on we’d decided not to dilly dally as this was a long walk over the two days and we wanted to bring ourselves back to London to see in the new year in style (well as good as we could look after walking 60 odd miles over two days..) With the comfort of the telly tx and google maps we chose to smash out miles well after the sun had set, which really was wasn’t that long as this time of year its dark by 4.15.
Our head torches did us proud with little or no light along the canal. we set our sights on a pub then started the ever familiar routine of trying to reach a food source before finding a spot to put up camp, the most basic and ever repeating process of all adventures how ever great or small. Thankfully our chosen country pub served food until nine and although we cut it fine after explaining our clothing choices and or days walking they soon as most places do abliged with a huge bowl of pasta, sweet potato fries and a some well earned beers. 10.30pm came and we guest that it was time to leave the quiet country pub with open fires and locals donning their own personal drinking challis, we wanted for a while in the frozen dankness for a suitable out the way spot quickly threw up the tent and hunkered down for our first night, dam it was cold!
Hydration is paramount and fundamental to all trips, many training events should take place to ensure sufficient fluid intake can be upheld with the activity being carried out……
NEW YEARS EVE
Day two started off pretty dam chilly, frosty and foggy. And even with the strongest of coffee’s it took us a fair while to get moving and into a rhythm, this is where you blame the constant photo opportunities!
We did sadly have some major route finding issues, as you can see Jana (AKA the compass) Harrison was having some simple directional problems, after all this was a canal and all we needed to do was follow it….
As we neared ever closer to London the sense of canal family and personal belongings came back to play and the previous days blissful country pubs, deer in the fields and peace and quiet and normality slowly seemed to dissipate, As you’ll see below we even stubbled upon a narrow boat with a car on the side! If anyone knows how this is possible please tel me!!
Passing under the M25 filled us with mixed emotions, the fact that we’d pretty much entered London again and that felt like an achevement and the sobering fact that we were now intact getting closer to the place we’d wanted to escape from just a day or so ago. As communities gathered and old bridges revealed themselves allowing us to conjure up thoughts of horses being used to pull and guide the canal boats through.
One utter bonus of walking a canal path is dogs, dogs everywhere they seem an integral part of canal life, our favourite was these two Labradors who were just wandering around in the field next to the owners boat, they soon came over to make friends. Its true what they say, labradors do have eyes filled with galaxies of nothingness!! We struggled to leave, had they been smaller I’m sure this blog would have been written with a dog on my lap….
Anyway, back to the walk and the challenge of walking from Bletchley to London via the Grand union canal over two days finishing in Paddington Basin for new years eve. The day seem to pass in a blink with us enjoying the countryside, then it dawned on us we still had a huge amount to walk, so much that at a huge push wouldn’t see us make central London for any celebrations, well thats just not on is it!!
We made the adult desition to grab a train from Watford to Wilsden Junction, the sun was low in the sky and temperatures dropping by the hour it seemed. Our last 10-12K of walking saw us pass through the industrial parts of the canal system back to Paddington Basin, if central London is the heart of the city, these canals and warehouse areas on the outskirts are the vessels that keep it beating..
As we approached Paddington the natural light of the day was slowly replaced with the glaring city and soon enough it was time for the simplest of journeys to end. As we came around the last corner we saw our very last and most beautiful modern industrial bridge we’d come across on the trip. With sore feet and slightly saddened we were home our watery path ran out, we sighed as the reality of new years eve in London and the ever reducing personal space engulfed us
We took our final piece of memories on the canal and said fair well. With no maps, no plan, not even knowing the distances! We’d had super cheap winter wonderland adventure an hour from London and this was just 70 miles of the 2000 miles of canal Britain has to offer us.
Our souls have been stirred with canal life and ease of use, theres 100’s of years of British heritage and history along these routes and most cities have canals running through them. This won’t be our last trip along the simplest of routes, why not get out and explore your own local canal and see where it leads you..