1634 Thomas Skipworth of Cotes gained a grant from Charles
I to make the river Soar "portable for barges and boats"
though the scheme was never completed.
1776 The prominent businessmen of Loughborough secured
an Act of Parliament to make the Soar navigable from their town,
northwards,to the Trent near Long Eaton. The engineers in charge
were John Smith and John May.
1778 The Loughborough Canal opened and was a roaring (or
soaring!) success, making the town quite prosperous.
1791 An Act of Parliament was passed to extend the navigation
from Loughborough in two directions; One route was to head west
from Loughborough to numerous coal mines, the other line was to
head southwards into Leicester. Work began with William Jessop
in charge of engineering.
1794 The Leicester Canal was opened making the Soar navigable
for almost 40 miles. The western line was also opened - known
as the Charnwood Forest Branch. However, most of the branch was
made up ofrail tracks rather than a waterway. This included a
2½ mile uphill climb from Loughborough Basin. At the western
end of the branch rail lines travelled towards Coleorton and Swannington.
A track to Cloudhill, which would have connected to similar lines
on the Ashby Canal, was proposed but never built.
1795 Another branch line (operated by a separate company)
opened from the main line of the Leicester Canal (between Cossington
and Syston) to Melton Mowbray. The line was 15 miles long and
used the River Wreak for virtually the whole of its course. The
line was sometimes known as the Wreak Navigation though it is
better known as the Melton Mowbray Navigation. This new line was
so successful that within a year William Jessop was appointed
to survey another new line which would extend the Melton Mowbray
Navigation to Oakham in Rutlandshire, a further 15 miles. The
extension would be called the Oakham Canal.An Act of Parliament
was passed and work began.
1796 While the lines to Leicester and Melton Mowbray were
doing very well, trade on the Charnwood Forest Branch was very
slow to pick up. The company even put on demonstrations in an
attempt to encourage its use. With no real success being gained
from this the company went into the coal carrying and selling
1797 A proposal to extend the main line of the Leicester
Canal much further south was announced. A new canal, the Leicestershire
& Northamptonshire Union Canal would link the river Soar with
the river Nene. However, like many great ideas, the money ran
out before the imagination did and the line reached just 17 of
the proposed 44 miles, coming to a stop at Debdale Wharf near
Kibworth Beauchamp. Thus the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire
Canal never even got close to Northamptonshire. In fact, the whole
project had proved to be something of a failure, the company having
spent thousands of pounds building a waterway which past nowhere
in particular and ended in middle of the countryside miles from
any major town.
Meanwhile, the Charnwood Forest Branch was still struggling to
attract any trade. Water supply was one reason for lack of use
so the company built Blackbrook Reservoir. Following this, trade
picked up but only very slightly.
1799 Heavy rainfall caused Blackbrook Reservoir on the
Charnwood Forest Branch to collapse. Floods destroyed an aqueduct
and part of an embankment. Repairs were begun but the branch was
closed for a number of years.
1800 The Grand Junction Canal opened between London &
Birmingham. A link between the Leicester Navigations and this
new "high speed" route seemed an obvious choice and
the Grand Junction Company were keen to see a link which would
connect their route to the north.However, because there were still
plans for the Leicester navigations to be extended towards Northampton,
the Grand Junction did not attempt to create a link themselves.
Instead they waited to see what developed - at first this turned
out to be very little.
1801 Repairs on the Charnwood Forest Branch were completed.
Sadly, the company failed to regain even the small amount of use
there had been before the floods of 1799. A few years later more
damage occurred and the company sought permission to officially
abandon the route. However, they were constantly denied permission
due to objections from Lord Shaftesbury. This was not because
he wanted to use the route himself but (apparently) because he
had fallen out with the company over certain issues! For nearly
half a century the company were forced to keep the unused (and
unusable) branch "officially" open.
1802 The Oakham Canal opened after costing almost £70,000
to build. It was 15 miles long, with 19 broad locks. Boats could
now travel onto the River Soar from Rutlandshire.
1809 The main line of the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire
Canal was extended from its resting place near Kibworth Beauchamp
to Market Harborough where once again the work came to a stop.
All the same, it was now a considerable navigation, linking the
south of Leicestershire to the river Trent. However, there was
still no link to the Grand Junction Canal.
1810 By now ideas of connecting Leicester to Northampton
seemed pointless. The Grand Junction Canal was running a tramway
into Northampton and would surely soon convert this to a full
navigation.The obvious thing to do now was to connect the Leicester
navigations to the Grand Junction Canal. Work began with Benjamin
Bevan appointed as engineer. However, much to the annoyance of
the Grand Junction Company, the new canal was to be build to narrow
lock standards. The Grand Junction Canal had tried for many years
to promote the advantages of wide canals and had tried to convince
many waterways to convert to broad dimensions. In most cases (as
with this new canal) finances made the idea of a broad route impossible.
The new link had to climb two massive hills and cut through two
tunnels, a narrow route was the only option.
When it became clear that the Leicester businessmen had given
up on the idea of connecting their waterways to the River Nene
it left the businesses of the Fenlands without a link into the
main system. A number of plans were put forward to rekindle the
idea of a link between the River Nene & Leicester. One idea
was to connect the River Nene at Stamford to the River Soar via
the Oakham Canal and Melton Mowbray Navigation. Another proposal
planned a connection from the Nene at Stamford to the canal at
Market Harborough.Unfortunately both Bills failed to get through
Parliament in 1811.A few years later the Grand Junction Company
connected their main line to the River Nene in Northampton.
1814 The new link between the Leicester navigations and
the Grand Junction Canal opened and was named the Grand Union
Canal (not to be confused with the later canal route of the same
name). A junction with the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire
Union Canal was made at Foxton, turning the Market Harborough
stretch into a branch line off the new main line. The southern
end of the new main line ran into the Grand Junction Canal at
Norton Junction near Buckby. The new link was built on very hilly
terrain necessitating a long winding course, two large lock flights
at either end (at the villages of Watford and Foxton) and two
tunnels. Three reservoirs were needed to supply the link with
a lot of water because the large lock flights meant most of its
water was lost into other canals at each end. The Grand Union
Canal allowed boats to travel from London to Leicester, Nottingham,
Derby and the north via a much shorter route than previously.However,
the line was not the instant success that the company had hoped
for. Most of the boats on the Grand Junction were broad beam and
could not enter the link at all and hold ups on the long narrow
lock flights did nothing to encourage narrow boats either.
1846 After just 44 years the Oakham Canal was abandoned.
The main reason for its demise was the usual story of railway
competition.After closure of the canal the railway took over parts
of the bed. The Melton Mowbray Navigation which had shared a basin
with the Oakham Canal in Melton Mowbray continued to operate for
many years after the arrival of the railways.
1848 The owners of the River Soar Navigation were finally
able to officially abandon the Charnwood Forest Branch which had
stood idle since 1801. A local land owner applied to buy part
of the land through which the branch past, he was granted permission
and an Act was passed to allow the branch to be abandoned. (See
below for a description of the Charnwood Forest Branch route).
1877 After 80 years the Melton Mowbray (or Wreak) Navigation
also closed leaving Melton Mowbray with no waterway outlet to
the main canal system. Of course by now railways were by far the
dominant freight carriers in the area.
1886 Mr. Fellows of Fellows, Morton & Clayton (who
were the main carriers on the Grand Union link) pushed the company
to convert the canal to wide beam. When this was not done he tried
to encourage the Grand Junction Company to buy the link.
1894 The Grand Union and the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire
Union canals were purchased by the Grand Junction Canal Company.
By now though even the Grand Junction Company wasn't whole-heatedly
in favour of widening the link. Instead they looked into methods
of making the lock flights more efficient. The simple answer was
to make a duplicate flight alongside the existing locks to make
two way traffic but this would cause other problems, especially
water supply which was already a major headache.
1896 Work began on a bold idea to build inclined planes
by the side of the Foxton and Watford locks. Planes had been used
successfully a hundred years earlier in Shropshire but this was
to be a much grander construction with two caissons each able
to carry two boats and with steam power used to lift the caissons
up and down the hillside. The Grand Junction's own engineer, G.C.
Thomas was given the job of designing the planes. A prototype
model was constructed at the Grand Junction Canal's maintenance
yard at Bulbourne.
1898 After successful tests on the model of the inclined
plane, work began for real at Foxton.
1900 The plane took two years to complete and cost £39,000.
At just 12 minutes a ride it cut nearly 80 minutes off the time
normally taken to use the narrow locks but unfortunately the plane
turned out to be not far short of a total failure. Its structure
had many faults and the rails under the caissons collapsed a number
of times under their heavy weight. Trade was declining too and
because the steam engine had to be ready at a moments notice if
a boat turned up, it proved far too costly to keep it in steam
permanently. Long periods could pass with no boats at all while
the cost of steam was (literally) going up in smoke.
1901 The plan to construct a second plane on the Watford
flight was dropped and the narrow locks were never replaced by
1909 Working absurdly below its potential Foxton Inclined
Plane was closed at night time and the old narrow locks were reopened
for night traffic.
1910 Foxton Plane was closed completely and all traffic
reverted to the lock flight once more though the incline was used
from time to time during lock maintenance and repairs.
1914 For 4 years the plane was maintained with a view
to it reopening if trade picked up. This was completely ruled
out when WW1 began and from then the plane was left to decline.
1927 Foxton Incline was dismantled and sold for scrap
though its site is still clearly marked a few yards to the east
of the lock flight at Foxton.
1931 The whole stretch of waterway from Norton Junction
through to Leicester and on to Long Eaton was merged with the
Grand Junction Canal to form the Grand Union Canal.
Today The remains of Foxton Inclined Plane are preserved
and can be visited free of charge. Currently there is little to
see apart from a grassy bank and a few bricks forming the base
of the top basin and steam house. Some form of restoration is
planned but "surely" they do not expect to rebuild a
fully working plane.... do they?
The Grand Union Canal - Leicester Section is described in all
up to date canal guides, it is fully navigable and therefore I
have not included a full route description. Instead, I have picked
out a few of my personal favourite locations.
Among the route's more interesting places is Loughborough town
centre where support is needed to keep the old basin alive. Plans
were announced in 1997 to fill it in and build on it. It is now
220 years since the basin was first opened, making it one of the
oldest in Britain. The A6 runs through the centre of town right
past the basin.The Charnwood Forest Branch began in Loughborough
but because its first few miles were railway rather than waterway
it is not until Nanpantan that any traces can be found. (See below
for a description of the Charnwood Forest Branch).
Barrow-on-Soar and Mountsorrel are very nice areas and are both
easily found near the old A6, just off the new A6. Both have a
lock and a nice canal side pub along with old canal side buildings.
I would not advise my worst enemy to drive through Leicester.
I'm pretty good at finding my way across any town and rarely get
lost but I've been to Leicester twice and got completely lost
twice. The ring roads are a disgrace, numerous junctions have
no sign posts at all! If you wish to visit the canal locations
within the city boundaries I strongly advise buying a street atlas.
If you manage to make your way to the south of the city and onto
the A6 things get a lot easier. The former Leicestershire &
Northamptonshire Union Canal can be found along any lane west
of the A6 from Great Glen to Market Harborough. This includes
around 16 locks, one tunnel and the remains of the Foxton Inclined
To reach the inclined plane and the 10 locks alongside it you
need to take the A6 south east of Leicester (if you dare) until
you reach the B6047.Take this road south towards Market Harborough,
within ½ a mile you will cross the Market Harborough Arm.
Within another ½ a mile you need to turn right onto a minor
road. This comes to a junction after about 2 miles. At the junction
you can turn right to see the pretty village of Foxton, go straight
ahead through a gate into the marina at the bottom of the locks
or go left. The left turn heads south west and after about ¾
of a mile you come to a wooded car parking area on your left.
This is the car park and picnic area of a local nature trail but
it is also the official parking place for visitors to the canal
at Foxton. The canal is just a few yards further along the lane.
Once at the canal you should head north for about 400 yards,
this will bring you to the top of the 10 Foxton Locks - it is
a marvellous sight.From the top you can see that the locks are
in 2 staircase flights of 5.Between the 2 staircases is a small
pound where boats can pass. Alongside the locks are large side
ponds used to reduce the amount of water used.To the right, beyond
the ponds, is a building with a flat roof. This is now Foxton
Canal Museum (well worth a visit) though it used to be a pumping
station. Beside you at the top of the locks is a white lock keepers
cottage, next door is a workshop which is often open to the public.
On the far side of the top lock is a second water channel, this
used to be the route to the top of the inclined plane.
To see the site of the incline you must cross the canal via one
of the small bridges over the locks. These bridges give a brilliant
bird's eye view of the lock flight. Pathways lead between the
side ponds to the back of the museum (at roof level). When you
arrive at the back of the museum you are actually standing at
the top of the incline in the position where boats once entered
the huge caissons. Ahead of you a slope drops down very steeply
into some bushes. This is the top half of the incline. Some bits
of the original rails still lie in the bank.
It is possible to step onto the roof of the museum, once again
this gives marvellous views of the lock flight. The reason the
roof is flat is because it used to have a building on it - the
engine house for the incline I believe. It is possible to walk
down the incline, heading at "10 o'clock" down the slope.
This will bring you past a number of large museum exhibits to
a road which crosses the lower arm leading to the incline. This
arm is now used for private moorings and therefore cannot be walked
along. From the bridge walk up the road to the bottom of the locks.
On a hot summer day this area will be buzzing with sightseers.
There is a pub, a cafe and boat trips available at the bottom
of the flight. In my opinion Foxton is one the very best canal
locations in the country. A "gongoozlers" delight!
Another interesting site on the Leicester section of the Grand
Union Canal is Watford Locks - better known to motorists as Watford
Gap. To reach here a bit of walking is called for but its a nice
walk! The easiest way to direct you here by road is by exiting
the M1 at junction 18 (Rugby).Head south on the A5 for just under
4 miles to the B4036. Turn left onto this road and you will soon
see the Stag's Head pub. Park nearby.By the way, its an excellent
pub with nice food and a nice canal side garden. From the pub
you need to walk further down the road, across the canal bridge
and onto the canal. The M1 motorway is very close and very loud
here just to the east. Once on the canal you need to walk north
for about 800 yards. First you will pass 2 single locks and then
come to a sharp right hand turn. Right in front of you is a staircase
of 4 locks which seem to tower above you up the hill. At the top
there is a large side pond and one more single lock. From a "gongoozlers"
point of view I was a bit unlucky when I made my only visit here.
On the other hand I saw something you don't usually see in mid-summer
- a lock flight with no gates. Maintenance was going on and the
lock sides were being painted. The canal was virtually dry, just
a few puddles with small fish desperately wriggling about to survive.
It was possible to stand over the locks and look right to the
bottom of the flight through the open gates. One boat crew had
not read the messages posted along the route. They arrived at
the bottom lock and were left with no choice other than to drag
their hired boat back along the canal. If you are feeling fit
you can walk north east a further 1½ miles along the towpath.
This will take you under the M1 to Crick Tunnel which is said
to be haunted!
Back on the road, travel south on the A5 for a further 1½
miles. On route you will pass over the Leicester section but at
the 1½ mile mark you will cross the Grand Union main line
beside the Boat Inn and Buckby Top Lock. To the south east are
6 more locks but about 600 yards north west is Norton Junction
where the route to Leicester begins. At the junction is a fair
sized junction house while in the "V" of the junction
is a much smaller house now used as a holiday cottage, available
from "Country Holidays". This small cottage used to
be a toll office.
CHARNWOOD FOREST BRANCH
First of all it should be noted that there is no forest anywhere
near this canal. If there ever was, it has long since gone.
The branch began in Loughborough but its first few miles were
made up of railway line. At Nanpantan the waterway began and it's
course can still be found, the village is on the B5350 some 2½
miles south west of Loughborough.About 300 yards east of the village
crossroads is a public footpath which is, in parts, the original
towpath. It runs besides gardens - some of which have made use
of the canal bed. Near the entrance to Longcliffe Golf Club (about
400 yards along the towpath) the canal was crossed by Nook Lane.
This road runs north from Nanpantan to the A512. From Nook Lane
the branch can be followed west through the golf course until
the M1 blocks its passage.
Immediately after the motorway the branch heads north west to
the outskirts of Shepshed though parts of the route have been
wiped out by new housing and a cemetery. Past the town the canal
meanders about for around 3 miles to Osgathorpe. At least 2 minor
roads running north off the A512 cross the branch on this section.
Although the bridges on these roads have been flattened, the course
of the canal can still be seen.
Past Osgathorpe there was a short arm which ran south to the
west of Thringstone. On the junction where the Thringstone Arm
begins is a house which was once the company toll office. The
branch terminus was on the A512 beside a stream close to the junction
of the minor road to the B5324. From here a number of rail tracks
ran south to local mines.
The Charnwood Forest Branch ended about ¾ of a mile north
of the junction, near Worthington, at Barrow Hill. Once again,
rail tracks then extended the route to local mines. Barrow Hill
is on the north side of the B5324.
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