Apartments along the Grand Union near Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, not far from the M25 motorway.


Grand Union Canal Cycle:  

Cassiobury Park (Watford) - Tring

2nd May 2011



I love cycling the canals of England. They speak of a an industrial age long since confined to history, but one where the legacy still remains, in the form of old mills now transformed and used for an entirely different purpose. Canals came into being because the Industrial Revolution (which began in Britain during the mid-18th century) demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. During the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, many canals in the Great Britain, mostly in rural areas, were abandoned due to falling traffic, caused mainly by competition from road transport. The fact that they have survived decay due to the efforts of a number of people, as was recently pointed out in a television program, is nothing short of a miracle. Today the canal is used for recreational purposes, the narrowboats that course their way up and down the UK's canal system being home to many people.

Having cycled up the Grand Union Canal from Little Venice near Paddington, in central London, on more than one occasion, the furthest town reached being Kings Langley, in Hertfordshire, my desire had been to explore sections of the canal beyond this. I awoke on a blustery yet sunny Monday Bank Holiday to the astonishing news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by American special forces. This was on my mind as I made my way down the highway towards Watford around midday, Cassiobury Park to be specific. The strong wind tugging at my bicycle held down to the rack on the back of my car by bungee cords. I should have known that, it being a Bank Holiday and having arrived that late in the day, I would probably struggle to find parking in an area limited to 120 spaces. Luck was on my side though, after having done a second circumnavigation of the complex and I pulled into a bay. I joined the Grand Union Canal towpath and and headed out in a direction away from London after crossing Bridge No 167, with the intention of branching off towards Aylesbury. My best intentions are always ambitious, particularly when I take my camera along, the temptation of stopping for photographs proving too great. This meant that my outgoing trip was frequently interrupted every few miles, in sharp contrast to "hoofing it" on the return leg. As it was, I didn't make it to Aylesbury but got as far as Bridge No 135 near Tring station.

The route leaves the lovely wooded section along Cassiobury Park, loops along the Grove Golf Course, before reaching the Hunton Bridge Interchange leading on to the M25 as well as the M25 motorway itself at junction 20 near Kings Langley. Passing through the industrial part of Kings Langley where the Ovaltine factory once stood followed by the neat housing and gardens adjacent to the canal, it fleetingly brought back painful memories of the time back in 2002 when my Cannondale mountain bike and cameras were stolen one weekend from the home of Kavida, who lived just up the road, not far from the canal. A bag containing my personal belongings had been fished out of the canal by the police and from details taken from my address book, the perpetrators had driven up the M25 to where I lived in Welwyn and ransacked my flat as well, probably whilst the police had been interviewing us early the next morning. Just as in the case of the Ovaltine factory and many old mills along the canals of a long-forgotten industrial age, many have been converted to residential apartments or pubs and restaurants. Passing under Bridge No 155 at Red Lion Lane where I saw canoeists launching into the canal waters at the Recreation Centre at Nash Mills, site of a paper mill in the 19th century, I soon reached Apsley Marina, a waterfront complex with narrowboats moored side by side, on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead. My progress was also slowed by the many including families, out for an afternoon stroll along the towpath. Many folk fish along the length and breadth of the canal. The traffic on the canal itself was also fair and I was lucky enough en route to catch several narrowboats navigating through the locks.


Setting off on the Grand Union Canal tow-path from Bridge 167, Cassiobury Park, Watford, towards Tring.


Along the Grand Union Canal tow-path through Cassiobury Park, Watford, Hertfordshire, looking back.


Lock 76 on the Grand Union Canal tow-path, Cassiobury Park, Watford; View from Lock 75.


View from Grove Bridge No 164, adjacent to The Grove Golf Course & The Grove Hotel, North Watford.


A narrowboat passes under Bridge No 163, North Watford, just before a bend in the canal, where he managed a U-turn.


Two narrowboats, side by side, navigate through Lady Capel's Lock No 74, Grand Union Canal, Abbott's Langley.


Cassiobury Park is the principal public open space in Watford, Hertfordshire, comprising over 190 acres and extending from the A412 Rickmansworth Road in the east to the Grand Union Canal in the west. The name "Caegesho" referred to a larger area of land granted by Offa to the Abbey of St Albans in 793. "Caeg" (Old English cg) may have been a man's name, while Old English ho means "a spur of land" (see Hoo). It was spelled "Caissou" or "Chaissou" in the 11th century and gradually evolved into "Cassio". The suffix "-bury" occurs in many English place names. It comes from the Old English word for a fortified place, burh, whose dative, byrig, means "by the fort", or "by the manor".

Kings Langley is a historic English village and civil parish 21 miles (34 km) northwest of central London on the southern edge of the Chiltern Hills and now part of the London commuter belt. The major western portion lies in the borough of Dacorum and the east is in the Three Rivers district (the rivers being the Chess, Gade and Colne), both in the county of Hertfordshire. It was once the location of Kings Langley Palace, a Royal palace of the Plantagenet kings of England. Around 1276 the manor was purchased by Queen Eleanor and a palace was built on the hill above the village to its west with a deer park extending to its south. This gave the village its link to Royalty, first being renamed Langley Regina after its sponsoring queen , and then later changed to Langley Regis or later still by the added epithet "Kings". The village remained the location of Kings Langley Palace, a Royal palace of the Plantagenet kings of England: a priory was founded next to the palace and remains of this can still be seen. The palace and the grand church that accompanied the priory fell into disrepair at the Dissolution of the monasteries and little remains above ground level. The church of All Saints was built during the 14th century on the site of an earlier church. The body of King Richard II was buried here for a time after his probable murder at Pontefract Castle in 1400. It was later removed to Westminster Abbey.

The Grand Union canal dating from 1797 and the 1838 London and Birmingham Railway which later became the West Coast Main Line, (the main railway line from London to the north west) pass just east of the village at Kings Langley railway station. The London orbital motorway, the M25, passes just south of the village (Junction 20) on an imposing viaduct across the River Gade valley. Kings Langley was the home of the makers of Ovaltine and the listed factory facade is now all that is left and still stands alongside the railway line among a new housing development. The Ovaltine factory itself has recently been converted into a series of flats and duplexes. The former Ovaltine Egg Farm was converted into energy-efficient offices which house Renewable Energy Systems. The complex incorporates a highly visible 225 kW Vestas V29 wind turbine alongside the M25. Kings Langley is home to a Waldorf School, the Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley. This is built on the grounds of the old palace, of which only a small basement part of a pillar remains to be seen. There is also a small display cabinet of finds from the palace period in the school entrance foyer.


View (looking back) from Lady Capel's Lock, Abbott's Langley, as a narrowboat rounds the bend heading towards Bridge No 163.


Approaching Hunton Bridge Lock No 73, just after crossing under the Hunton Bridge interchange leading on to the M25.


Approaching Hunton Bridge Lock No 72, Abbott's Langley, not far from the M25 motorway.


View (looking back) under Hunton Bridge, Abbott's Langley - a sign on the bridge denotes the Dog & Partridge pub, 100 yards down the road.


View (looking back) from Red Lion Lane over Bridge No 155 - on the right, canoeists launch from the Hemel Hempstead Canoe Club.


The eighteenth century Sparrows Herne turnpike road was an 18th century English turnpike road (toll road) from London to Aylesbury that traversed the Chilterns via the valley of the River Gade and ran down Kings Langley village high street. Its route was approximately that of the later A41 trunk road, (excluding the modern bypass sections at Watford and Hemel Hempstead), and much of the original route is now numbered as the A4251. It followed the Edgware Road and ran through Watford, Kings Langley, Apsley, the Boxmoor area of Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted and Tring. It linked in with other turnpikes to the north forming a route to Birmingham.  The turnpike trust was set up in 1762 by around 300 landed gentry to look after about 26 miles of road between Sparrows Herne near Bushey and Walton near Aylesbury. It was the turnpike's depot at Sparrows Herne which gave the road its name. The frequent use of the route by heavy carts carrying grain to London made it notorious for its rutted and pitted state even after being made into a turnpike. The turnpike survived the coming of the railways until 1872, when it passed to the route's various parishes and highway boards to maintain and the tolls were removed.

The original turnpike gates were:

  • Watford Gate at the bottom of Chalk Hill.

  • Ridge Lane Gate on the North side of Watford.

  • New Ground Gate just to the south of Tring near New Ground Farm,

  • Veeches Farm Gate, west of Aston Clinton – this was moved to Aylesbury in 1827 after the road was extended there.

  • In 1860 another gate was established at the top of Tring Hill.

Brick toll houses for these gates were built at a cost of around 25 each. Tollkeepers were appointed and paid 10s 6d a week for which they had to man the gate day and night and from which money they had to pay for the oil for the nighttime illumination of the gates with lamps.
In 1762 the maximum rate for tolls were:

  • Horse or beast drawing a coach - 3d

  • Packhorse (laden) - 1d

  • Drove of oxen, cows etc - 10d per score

  • Drove of sheep, calves, swine - 5d per score.


Red Lion Lock No 69, which lies between Kings Langley and Hemel Hempstead.


Pipe Bridge, Hemel Hempstead, along the Grand Union Canal tow-path.


Approaching Apsley Marina, Hemel Hempstead - view from Bridge No 154 at Stephenson Wharf.


A narrowboat passes under Bridge No 154 at Stephenson Wharf, Hemel Hempstead.


View of the modern footbridge at Apsley Wharf, Hemel Hempstead and the old paper mill.


Narrowboats moored at Apsley Wharf, Hemel Hempstead.


Apsley Wharf, Hemel Hempstead, looking back towards Bridge No 154.


View of the old paper mill, approaching Apsley Lock No 67.


Apsley is a 19th century mill town in Hertfordshire, a historic industrial site situated in a valley of the Chiltern Hills, positioned below the confluence of two permanent rivers, the Gade and Bulbourne and today a district of the larger town of Hemel Hempstead. It was the construction of the trunk canal (later to be called the Grand Union Canal) between London and the Midlands through the valley in 1798 that began its industrial rise at the start of the 19th century. The canal gave an easy way of transporting the raw and manufactured products to and from the mills. John Dickinson, the inventor of a new method of continuous papermaking, purchased an existing mill in the area in 1809. There is record of paper making already taking place nearby at this time. His business expanded throughout the Victorian age coming to occupy large parts of the flat land in the valley bottom. Streets of mill workers' terraced houses grew up adjacent to the mills. Housing for managers was built on the old Manor Farm, higher up the hill towards Felden, in the grounds of the Manor Estate, today known as Shendish Manor Hotel. Production peaked during the Second World War. The site was however not ideal for large scale papermaking in the 20th century and later became a warehouse and distribution centre for products made elsewhere. The last John Dickinson warehouse closed in 1999. There is a a National Paper Museum called the Paper Trail in some remaining mill buildings. Paper continued to be made until 2006 a short distance away at Nash Mills by the global Sappi group at a former John Dickinson mill. This too has now closed for production but continues as a distribution centre.

Though the town of Hemel Hempstead developed after World War II as a new town, it has existed as a settlement since the 8th century and was granted its town charter by King Henry VIII in 1539. The settlement was called by the name Henamsted or Hean-Hempsted, i.e. High Hempstead, in Anglo-Saxon times and in William the Conqueror's time by the name of Hemel-Amstede. The name is referred to in the Domesday Book as "Hamelamesede", but in later centuries it became Hamelhamsted. In old English, "-stead" or "-stede" simply meant a place, such as the site of a building or pasture, as in clearing in the woods, and this suffix is used in the names of other English places such as Hamstead and Berkhamsted.


Residential setting opposite Apsley Mills Retail Park, between Apsley Locks No's 66 & 67.


View (looking back) to a residential setting along the Grand Union Canal at Apsley, at a bend in the canal between Apsley Locks No's 66 & 67.


Approaching Bridge No 153, Apsley, Hemel Hempstead.


Apsley Lock No 65, Hemel Hempstead, from Bridge No 153.


Old geezer commandeering an Old Badger.


The Old Badger navigates through Apsley Lock No 65 and under Bridge No 153.


Along the Grand Union Canal close to central Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.


Having just crossed under the railway bridge near Winkwell, Bourne End, just outside Hemel Hempstead.


View along the canal (looking back) at Winkwell Lock No 61, near Bourne End, the railway line from London to Birmingham forming a backdrop.


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Links to other websites:

  • History of British Canal Systems - wiki

  • Grand Union canal locks & bridges, London - Kings Langley - webpage

  • Grand Union canal locks & bridges, Kings Langley onwards - webpage

  • Narrow boat design - wiki

  • Grand Junction Canal - wiki

  • Grand Union Canal - wiki

  • Cassiobury Park, Watford - website

  • Hemel Hempstead Canoe Club - website

  • Amaravati Buddhist Monastery - wiki

  • Berkhamsted Castle - website

  • Cowroast Marina - webpage

  • Grey Heron - wiki

  • Mute Swan - wiki

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