The Rickmansworth Canal Festival

I have written of the Grand Union Canal as providing the path for many a good walk, but it is not all about walking:  there is the wet bit in the middle, the canal itself, and the canal is abuzz with life.  Last weekend was the annual Rickmansworth Canal Festival; a celebration of the life of the canal, also with land-based stalls, events, live music stage and funfair.  It is on the canal though that the festival comes into its own, and the narrow water throngs with colourful boats.

This is a celebration of the outdoors, if not a walk, but a life in the fresh air.

You would not know until you see them, or if you are of the fellowship of boaters, how many canal boats there are, and the variety of them.  Some canals are very narrow, as on the Aylesbury Arm just 7 feet wide, and the narrowboats built for it are narrow.  The main line through is a broader water, and by Batchworth they were moored three abreast with still ample room for passage past them, and here they gathered, brightly coloured in the canal-art style, or duller, working boats, and broad-bottomed boats that once hauled coal from Birmingham to London, restored with loving attention.  Some are boats turned into floating stalls selling paintings, artworks, books and more, and others to remind us of the rescue services, including the canal chaplaincy.  There is fellowship here and a unity despite the ill-matched types.  All celebrated, bedecked with bunting.

On day 1 of Herts Embraced I crossed the Wendover and Aylesbury Arms, and saw the Wendover Arm cut off; dry and empty up to a dam, then brimful of water and ready the other – that is a tribute to the work of volunteers that still continues – that dam will be driven back as the work goes on until the Wendover Arm is full and operational.  It is an artificial waterway, so it need maintenance or it decays, bursts and empties.  that is worthy work, but I have not volunteered my arm yet.

The boats are shaped by their owners and maybe the names give a clue to eccentricities:  plenty are named for wives and sweethearts and others, well, I did not see “Fat Bottomed Girl” nor “The Slowness of Cows” but I have seen each ply the canal.  I am a walker not a boater, but I can give a cheer for those who take the tiller in order to enjoy the unhurried flow of the fields past them, and the slowness of cows.

The Grand Union

The Grand Union Canal has been a thread through many episodes of my life. I was not brought up anywhere near it nor educated nor until twenty years ago did I live by it, but it was always reappearing.  Today, its towpath provides a route on many a walk I have made and others I have planned.

It is a manmade imposition in the landscape but amongst all the less sympathetic concrete intrusions it is a pleasing line of cool water and opens a corridor through jarring modernity. The ducks do not know the difference between a river and a canal, and nature reclaims all it can, so if you can ignore the ruler-straight sides, the concrete edges and the lack of current, it can become a country river for you.

As I child I helped my gather to help a family friend move his canal boat up the Grand Union, which seemed to take all day but was, looking back at it, a short distance as these boats are slow vessels. I took a job for a while in Birmingham, and the canal towpath provided a route for evening runs, and a short, safer route for cycling between the city and the suburbs, and at Birmingham it is part of a network of industrial canals which allow the walker to disappear from the groaning cityscape. It was on a canal adjoining it that I used to run down to Bourneville and take in the chocolate-flavoured air, when the Cadbury factory was venting (the railway bridge over the canal was painted in Cadbury purple-and-gold, I recall).  I would escape to the villages and in places like Henley in Arden the canal had followed me.  I was told that they used to hold there an “Alternative Henley Regatta”, where boats would be hauled through the street before being put on the canal.  I took another job, in Milton Keynes, and there was the Grand Union, the one purposeful water in an artificial landscape with man-wrought lakes.  In other places too I met the canal as I travelled the Midlands, until by coincidence I moved to a village on its course, and now I often cycle the towpath as a practical way around the area.  It shapes the landscape in more ways too: the Ruislip Lido, where the children play and which is on the path of the Middlesex Greenway, the large, man-made lake is a reservoir built to feed the canal.

The canal was ‘officially’ created in 1929, but that was just the nominal grouping of other pre-existing canals. The Grand Junction Canal, which forms most of the main line, was begun in 1793.  In addition to the main route from Brentford or Paddington to Birmingham, there are seven branches off, or ‘arms’, of which I have walked along the Aylesbury, Wendover and Slough Arms, at least, and will do so again.

It is a ubiquitous canal. (The canal has also featured in number of ‘Downing Street Walks’ as a way to pass through the conurbation at ease.)

Looking back, many of the posts I have made have featured sections of this canal. The advantage of a canal walk as against a river walk is that the towpath provides a reliable path.  Perhaps a few articles are needed specifically on canal walks.  I may follow that up in the summer.