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The Wendover Canal: an arm in need of a hand in 2023!

"Take a daytrip with Albert, our narrowboat day hire boat, moored at the winding hole of the Wendover Arm in Tring, Bucks."
Narrowboat Albert at the winding hole on the Wendover Arm

Q: Okay, so what's an arm doing on a canal?

A: An arm is an offshoot in Canal terminology, much like a branch line in railway terminology.

So the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal is a canal branch from Marsworth on the Grand Union Canal to Wendover in Buckinghamshire. It connects to the Grand Union Canal at Bulbourne, right by the top lock of the Marsworth Flight of locks.

18th C. Origins and history

The act of parliament permitting its building is dated 1794 but was not fully completed until 1799. The branch is 6.7 miles long and follows the course of a shallow brook fed by an aquifer in the surrounding chalk hills.

The Grand Junction Canal Company was formed in 1793 to build a canal linking the River Thames at Brentford with the Midlands. Still, it needed to find a way around the hills between Wendover and Marsworth. In 1811, engineers proposed building an arm off the route at Marsworth to overcome these obstacles. The Canal Company built the arm, but it had to be funded by local landowners. The canal opened in 1816, allowing barges to travel from London to Birmingham via Marsworth. In 1846, the Regent's Canal Company purchased the Grand Junction Canal Company, which continued to operate until 1929, when ownership was passed to British Waterways.

Building the Grand Junction Canal and an Arm to Wendover

The Wendover Arm cost £24,000 to build. Funded came from local landowners, with support from the canal company, who viewed the Wendover Arm as a potentially valuable additional resource to keep the summit of the Grand Junction Canal 'in water'.

Building a canal over chalk presented engineering challenges. Despite good intentions, the Wendover Arm presented problems to the Grand Junction Canal from the outset. It proved to be a net user of water rather than a net contributor.

During construction, the arm was surveyed by John Rennie and his son, Thomas. They found the water level too low to accommodate a working canal, so they advised building a lock near Marsworth Pumping Station instead. The canal's financiers agreed with this decision because it would be cheaper than raising the whole length of the canal.

"Experience Tring, Bucks, from the narrowboat day hire boat Albert, moored at the Wendover Arm winding hole."
Launching boat 'Osprey' at Bushell's on the Wendover Arm

Socioeconomic Impact

The arrival of a canal head in Wendover significantly impacted the town's economy. It brought new prosperity, with hundreds of local people employed on construction projects at the three local brickworks, now supplied with coal by the new waterway and at the two Marsworth Pumping Stations.

The construction of the arm also led to the expansion of mills, factories, and boat-building near its towpath. The three Brickworks were supplied with clay from local fields and exported bricks to London via the canal. This continued (later by rail and road) until all brickworks closed in the early 20th century.

The Wendover Arm operated as a peaceful branch of the Grand Junction Canal throughout the 18th century. It was much quieter commercially than the main line, but it did carry goods along its length. In 1800, just over 1,000 boats used the canal in total. By 1842, this had fallen to just over 500.

Historical decline

The Wendover Arm was not immune to the decline of canals in Britain, and by 1855 it was seldom used for commercial traffic. However, it continued to provide a source of drinking water for Wendover and Marsworth until 1948.

The Grand Junction Canal company decided to close the branch above Tringford in 1897. Instead, it sourced water to supply the summit section from the four large reservoirs and two pumping stations built there in the early 19th century. Tringford pumping station survives and is still in operation to this day.

A leaky arm.

The arm of the canal proved an engineering headache. Various measures were proposed and implemented to prevent water loss into the underlying ground. During the 18th and 19th centuries, there were many attempts to stop water loss from the canal. In some cases, this involved lining sections with concrete; in others, the canal company and its contractors used tar or asphalt (a mix of bitumen and gravel). However, these solutions could have been more practical: they lasted only briefly before they began to decay.

In 1927, the Regent's Canal Company purchased the Grand Junction Canal Company, forming the Grand Union Canal operated in 1929. In 1946 the canal network was nationalised by the postwar Atlee Government, and ownership was passed to the British Waterways Board, later British Waterways, in 1962.

"Discover the canals of Bekhamstead, near London, with Albert, our narrowboat day hire boat. Perfect for a day of family fun, you and your loved ones can explore the winding waterways and soak up the sights and sounds of the countryside."
Tringford Pumping Station and the stop-lock

An arm raised: not drowning but waving.

In 1989 a group of local history and canal enthusiasts began efforts to reinstate the route, taking the name The Wendover Arm Trust (a registered charity). Operations are conducted by the Wendover Canal Trust (WCT), a company.

In 1990 the Department of Transport allowed for the future re-opening by incorporating a navigable culvert into the new road bridge at Aston Clinton. This means that the isolated upper section still in water was not cut into two sections and represented a stirring victory for those concerned with preservation of the Wendover Arm.

At present, 1.3 miles of the Wendover arm is open. The WCT has reconstructed a missing road bridge at little Tringford, preserved the early 19th C brickwork at the site of the Whitehouses pumping station and undertaken regular upkeep of the isolated upper section, the footpaths and other amenities.

"Discover the canals of Bekhamstead, near London, with Albert, our narrowboat day hire boat. Perfect for a day of family fun, you and your loved ones can explore the winding waterways and soak up the sights and sounds of the countryside."
A map of the route, copyright Wendover Canal Trust

The Wendover Canal Trust is working to restore the canal, which is now part of the National Cycle Network.

So far, the WCT (Wendover Canal Trust) has reinstated about half of the canal from Wendover to Halton Mill. This section has been restored and is used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders. The Halton Mill to Kidmore End section is still being worked on, with no agreed date for completion.

WCT members have done much work to maintain and improve the remaining route. However, they have received help from volunteers, local businesses and individuals.

The WCT website can be found here:

The overall cost of the restoration project is expected to be around £ 1.5 million. However, this figure may change as work progresses.

The most significant hurdle to reinstatement of the entire route is raising funds needed to complete the restoration. The WCT are fundraising, but there are no confirmed timescales for when they can open.

Full reinstatement of navigation by narrowboats is hoped for by 2030.

How can you help? Are you charmed by the story of this once-important canal branch and want to help with efforts to restore the Wendover Arm? The best way to help is to donate. Time and money are both welcome!

The Wendover Arm Trust are fundraising. To support their efforts, you can donate by visiting this page.

You can join the Wendover Arm's Facebook page here.

"Spend a day on Albert, our narrowboat day hire boat, and experience an adventure like no other. From Bekhamstead near London, you and your family can explore the tranquil canals and see the countryside like never before."
The splendid countryside of the Wendover Arm

Takeaway: To explore the 1-hour navigable section of the Wendover Arm open to the public, you can hire one of our two traditional narrowboats for a day! The canal is a great place to relax, have fun and enjoy the beautiful scenery. It's also the perfect way to experience the area's history first-hand.

Along the navigable section of the Wendover Arm in and around Tringford and Bulbourne, visitors can experience diverse nature and scenery. The canal is lined with lush vegetation and wildflowers, making it a pleasant sight for visitors [1]. Wildlife is abundant, with various birds, ducks, and other animals that can be seen along the canal [2]. The canal is also home to various fish, including carp, roach, and bream [3]. The Wendover Arm is a peaceful and tranquil place, perfect for a stroll, a relaxing day of fishing or a family day out on one of our traditional narrowboats.





Thanks to Stephen Nugent for the lovely photographs taken from Narrowboat Albert. You can see Stephen's review on TripAdvisor.

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