Canal history – lock, stock and barrel

Heritage feature: David Suchet is the first under the new Little Tring Bridge.
Heritage feature: David Suchet is the first under the new Little Tring Bridge.

Those living in Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted are familiar with the Grand Union Canal – formerly the Grand Junction Canal – but how many are aware of the earliest source of the water which enabled the canal to cross the Chiltern Hills?

By constructing a feeder canal from Wendover to Tring, the canal company thought it had ensured a continuous supply of water to the top levels, vitally important because so much water is ‘lost’ each time boats pass through the locks.

As construction began, it was realised that if it was widened it could also be used for boat traffic. Indeed, the farmers alongside the canal were then able to convey timber to towns, coal from the Midlands was more easily carried, and even livestock could be exhibited at agricultural shows in London.

By 1797, water from Wendover was reaching the Tring Summit, but already in 1802 the canal was leaking.

The causes for this have long been discussed, but it seems that an unstable chalk bed was part of the problem.

Some people also consider that perhaps it was badly constructed, using unsuitable clay for ‘puddling’ or lining the bottom.

A prolonged and severe drought during the 1890s ended its commercial life – and a sad sight it was, too. However, a group of local boaters rose to the challenge of restoring the canal, and formed the Wendover Arm Trust in 1989.

The first task was to rediscover the route of the canal amid the thick vegetation that had grown up in and around it.

Then a bridge had to be built where, in 1973, Little Tring Bridge had been demolished. Using funds mainly from the annual water festivals, a new bridge was professionally built to look like the original.

A whole section of canal, excavated entirely by volunteers, was opened by its patron, the actor David Suchet, in 2005.

Pleasure boats are now able to leave the Grand Union Canal at Bulbourne, proceed to the winding hole at Little Tring and turn around. There is a footpath all along the canal – just over six and a half miles of the towpath is easily walked.

Restoration work continues along the canal between Drayton Beauchamp and Little Tring, and is clearly seen from the towpath.

The Wendover Arm Trust is having a restoration open day on Sunday, September 8 from 12.30pm to 4pm. All are welcome.

>Reference: Water from Wendover by Shelley Savage @ £4.95, available from Tring Local History Museum or email: www.tringlocalhistorymuseum.org.uk