Reporter: Janet Winstanley
The idea to cycle from London to Manchester began by Brian, my husband, reading an article in a cycle magazine. The man caught the London to Manchester train with his bike and cycled back to London along the towpaths. If he could cycle north to south then we could cycle the route in reverse. We roughly decided which week would be the best and, watching the weather forecast, we decided which day had the most potential for a few days of dry weather.
Regents Canal - starting at the River Thames and joining the
Grand Union Canal (Paddington branch) which leads into the
Grand Union Canal to Birmingham
Birmingham and Fazeley Canal which then joins the Coventry Canal and at Fradley joins the
Trent and Mersey Canal to its end at Preston Brook on the
Bridgewater Canal and finally leave the canal at Monton
So early one morning, with small rucksacks on our backs, we cycled through Salford Quays and along the Bridgewater Canal to Piccadilly Station arriving in Euston in the early afternoon. We cycled past St Paul’s Cathedral and with a few helpful directions from strangers reached the Regents Canal. Our first destination was Limehouse Basin with the final lock into the River Thames, the start of the Regents Canal. Turning around we began our 310 mile journey north. We passed the Regents Park and Zoo and joined the Grand Union Canal near Paddington.
For our first night I had booked a B&B at Hadfield, just beyond Uxbridge. It was a former mill at Blackjacks Lock. Time was getting on as we had to negotiate our way around pedestrians, the many houseboats and problems finding our way over a tunnel. Knowing we had quite a way to go we were cycling fairly fast and unfortunately I hit a small bush which sent me careering over the handlebars and head first into the canal. The water was fairly shallow so I was able to stand upright still clutching the handlebars. Brian being concerned (the laughter came later) helped me by taking hold of the bike and I was able to scramble dripping out of the canal. Emptying the water out of my shoes and wringing out my socks we made a cursory look for my sunglasses before resuming our journey. Fortunately it was fairly warm so I didn’t look too wet at the end of the day. Just 50 yards from the B&B I got the first of our many punctures.
Our room had the finest of views from all four sides. One overlooking the lock, another looking back along the canal and two windows looking across the lake and river. Breakfast finished, dry shoes and clothes and the repaired tyre returned to the bike we set off to find the nearest bike shop, Halfords, in Hemel Hempstead. With a second inner tube purchased and a cheap pair of sunglasses to replace the lost Oakley’s we continued on our journey. The weather and scenery excelled. There were a lot of locks and the towpath kept swapping from side to side. The only thing that marred the day was being knocked off my bike from the side (not again! as I fell towards the canal) by a cyclist approaching the canal from a blind entry. He must have seen Brian pass the entrance but failed to stop in time for me. We continued on to Milton Keynes and dropped down to Lake Willen, to the Holiday Inn Express. They kindly allowed us to keep our bikes in the room a great advantage.
The next day progress was very slow. The towpaths were poor and many had hawthorn bushes which caused Brian to have four punctures and I had one. We had roughly planned to make Leamington Spa for the evening, but it was getting too late. There was a long tunnel we had to miss so decided that the best option was to go to Daventry, both to find a bike shop and somewhere to stay. Halfords to the rescue again, they were open later than the nearby bike shop. Two inner tubes, two puncture repair kits and two puncture resistant tapes purchased. Later we found a hotel looking over Lake Drayton, bikes in room again.
Battling into a strong westerly headwind we reached Leamington Spa to purchase lunch. Interesting spa town. The towpaths improved for most of the rest of the day and once we turned north the wind eased. We had our sandwiches and a hot drink at Hatton, a flight of 21 locks over 2.5 miles. As we approached Birmingham the towpaths were tarmacked. They seemed a little bleak with very few people using them. It was a Saturday night so there were lots of groups booking into the hotels. The first two where full so we followed the signs along the towpath towards the centre where I saw another Holiday Inn Express. This time the bikes had to go in the lift to the ninth floor. We decided to walk towards the Bull Ring for dinner. Quite busy with lots of groups. Finally found a restaurant with places and were quite happy to get back to the hotel away from the crowds.
Home is now two long days away. We halved the distance and decided that Stoke-on-Trent was roughly mid-way. Being Sunday accommodation should be easy to find (had a quick look on Google and found a suitable Travelodge). Before leaving Birmingham we decided to cycle to Gas Street Basin, a thriving centre for Birmingham’s canal lifestyle. It is also the start of the Birmingham Fazeley Canal which links up with the Coventry Canal at Fazeley. Weather and scenery good again, but the towpaths were little used. With Brian’s first puncture of the day he installed the puncture resistant tape. At Fradley we joined the Trent and Mersey Canal with the wide, but in places very uneven and little used towpaths. First stop was lunch at the canal side café. At Stone it was my turn for a puncture. From Stone the towpath improved and we reached the Travelodge at Stoke-on-Trent. Whilst booking into the Travelodge I was surprised to find that Brian had yet another puncture—the puncture resistant tape had not worked. So three punctures to mend.
Our last day. We soon reached Harecastle Tunnel which is almost two miles long. We were talking to two narrow boaters waiting for their turn to go through the tunnel. They offered us a lift through the tunnel which we both enthusiastically accepted. It takes longer than cycling over the top, but what an experience. We sat at the front of the boat making sure that we were lower than the top of the boat. We did get dripped on and it was quite cool. It was interesting to see all the 100 metre signs on the side with an arrow pointing to the nearest end of the tunnel. Brian noticed a long chain in loops on one side of the tunnel. We found out later that the chains were somewhere to hang on to if anyone fell overboard (there had been a fatality the previous year, so people do fall in).
The towpath continued to be patchy, with noticeable improvements around towns. Scenery and weather continued to be good. On a very patchy part of towpath a couple of narrow boaters commented that seeing a cyclist was very rare. They offered us a cup of tea which was very kind. Just as we reached the Anderton Boat Lift Brian had yet another puncture. Brian 8, Janet 4 and we were getting quite slick at replacing inner tubes with all the practice. Looking back there was an ominous dark cloud getting bigger. We reached the tunnels near Barnton before the rain started. So we hadn’t been carrying wet weather gear for nothing. It was quite cool as well, but fortunately only rained lightly for 30 minutes. The Trent and Mersey Canal joins the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook.
There is something about travelling along a canal. In general it is a slower pace and very peaceful. Between towns, especially in June, the scenery can be most beautiful, whether it be open fields or overhanging trees. When you add brightly coloured narrow boats and even locks the picture is complete. Even the herons didn’t feel threatened, they often stood still, just keeping a wary eye on us as we passed.
Of the other canal users walkers were the most unpredictable. We always slow down when approaching, especially if they are accompanied by dogs, but we never know to which side they will move. Ringing of a bicycle bell has mixed responses. Some people welcome the warning others think the sound of a bell is an intrusion. We had no problem with dogs, other than having to wait for them to move out of the way. Fishermen tended to ignore us. They often spread their equipment across the path, but with a ‘no rush’ or ‘how is the fishing’ we found no animosity.
So our last canal was reached. We live in Eccles, only a good stone’s throw from the Bridgewater Canal. It had been a very interesting 6 days with an average of 51 mile per day. The scenery had been great and we were very fortunate with the weather. Would I do a similar trip again? A definite yes, but before then I will be researching puncture proof tyres.