“It sounds like a glorified pub crawl to me,” said my mate, Andrew Varley as I contemplated the 234km Grand Union Canal, tow path walk in England – from London’s Little Venice to Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin.
It was October, 1993 and I was in England on a threefold mission. My priority was to organise my Kangaroo Supporters’ Tour for the following year. Next on the list was a series of interviews, at the behest of The Courier-Mail, with Australians playing rugby league in England.
The ‘leisure’ aspect was the canal walk, but The Courier-Mail, which contributed funds for my trip, asked me to write a travel story.
In my first week in England I sampled the London accommodation for my group, as well as checking out potential pub lunch stops in County Kent. (Tough work I know). I also covered the Great Britain v NZ league Test at Wembley. (See ‘Drunken Kiwi Steals Hearts at Wembley).
During my time in London, I walked my first leg of the Grand Union Canal, from Little Venice to Alperton. (see Grand Union Canal Walk – Steve Ricketts).
The day after the Wembley Test, I resumed my walk at Alperton Bridge, after taking a series of ‘Tubes’ from Kingsway.
At Sudbury Golf Course I watched two associates tee-off, one not so well, the other quite professionally.
My first pub stop was the Black Horse, which was quite busy, with a (social) soccer team discussing selections and subscriptions. I enjoyed a pint of Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter, before wending my way through a group of bikies near the canal bank, hoping they wouldn’t follow.
The canal then traversed depressing industrial landscapes in Hayes, before my arrival at Bulls Bridge Junction.
My back pack, which contained more than I needed, was hurting like crazy, and my Minolta camera showed signs of playing up. I also wondered where I would sleep that night, given the inhospitable nature of my surrounds.
The scenery improved and at Cowley-Pechey Lock it was a real picture, as a canal boat from Stratford negotiated the rise, with a blonde girl doing most of the work.
An Indian newsagent directed me to a bed and breakfast at Uxbridge (Lyttleton Lodge) about 500 metres from the canal, and that’s where I spent the night. I was so exhausted, I went straight to bed (without dinner) after watching a boring television show about carp fishing.
The next day I enjoyed a hearty breakfast with an Oriental chap and a young female student, from nearby Brunel University.
I met my first fellow long distance walkers, from a church group in Coventry, just a kilometre into the resumption of my trek. They had set out from the Thames in London. Like me, they were carrying too much.
First pub stop of the day was ‘Horse and Barge’ at Harefield, where there was a group from an epilepsy charity. They all seemed to have Scots accents.
On the other side of the canal, there was an old pillbox, a reminder of World War II, when the canal was not just a transport route, but a potential obstacle for the Nazis.
Next stop was the Fisheries Inn, Batchworth, which I should have by-passed, but my canal book, written by Anthony Burton and Neil Curtis, gave it such a great wrap, I HAD to pay it a visit. The Inn was located on an island between the canal and the River Colne.
Inside, I met Australian, Bill Greville from Harbord in Sydney, a contract worker at a nearby computer firm. He came over for a chat, when he saw I was wearing a (Central Queensland) rugby league jersey. Naturally, being from Harbord, he supported Manly-Warringah. (I have fond memories of dinner at Harbord Diggers Club with my former Murwillumbah Brothers’ teammate, Malcolm Minns, who lived at Harbord at the time, 1985).
I thought I had walked a long way, but then I saw a London Tube train go by. Gads.
But there were rural scenes, including a farm where the television series, Black Beauty was filmed. I even spotted a kingfisher, which I was told, was quite rare in 1993.
As night fell, I arrived at Hunton Bridge, not far from Watford, where the licensee of the ‘King’s Head’, Dave Allen said there was no room at the inn. Instead I stayed at the nearby King’s Lodge, a hotel run by a Spaniard – Manuel – I kid you not. Excellent dinner of fresh asparagus, roast chicken, washed down with house wine. Watched a David Koresh (cult leader) special on the BBC and then collapsed into bed.
Kings Lodge was built in the 17thC and converted to a hunting lodge by the Lord of Langleybury, who later became Charles 1 of England.
The lodge is now located next to a major rail line, and sleep was difficult.
My next stop was Ivinghoe, with Birmingham still a week away. This walk was proving much tougher than I thought.
More to come.
1 Canal life
2 Horse and Barge, Harefield.