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23rd June 2020

 …A green of all colours, yellow brown and dark grey

While the footpath all darkly goes winding away…

John Clare


Thanks for all the positive feedback for my previous post.  I have succumbed to the walking bug several times since then and my enthusiasm for the county’s many surprises continues to grow!

Our canal paths offer the walker a whole new side of life, not only things not seen before but also completely different angles on landscapes and places otherwise familiar.  Lockdown has pretty well paralysed the leisure industry and apart from the small band of permanent boat-dwellers, users of canal amenities have been few.  Busy locks, normally accompanied by the sound of rushing water, are silent and the system has been calm and still, left to the natural world.

One expedition, tracking up the Leicester arm of the Grand Union brought me to the flight of seven locks at Watford.  I realised later that these are actually just visible to northbound drivers on the A5, glimpsed behind the premises of a caravan/campervan dealer.  Anyway, amateur engineers will no doubt enjoy witnessing the 200 year-old solution to the problem of raising boats 16 metres to pass through the Watford Gap (Yes, it’s not just an M1 service station - the topological ‘Gap’ really exists…) but everyone can see what all that undisturbed fresh water means for wildlife too.

These locks need a ready supply of water and reserves are held in a sequence of engineered ponds alongside, all now completely adopted by the natural landscape.  They are prime habitats for fish and amphibians which have been flourishing.  Shoals of black tadpoles many thousands strong were parading around in the clear water, circled by young brown trout not yet big enough yet to enjoy the meal.  Round the pond margins damselflies were excited about finding partners and a frenzy of egg laying promises many more of the species next year.  A vivid blue patch on head and tail and all-round aerial manoeuvrability made it difficult to tell front from back at times.  I just hope they were getting it right.  Later research showed that what I had been watching were Blue tailed damselflies.   These fascinating insects deserve something more poetic.

Another day, another stretch of the canal, this time between Bugbrooke and Nether Heyford, watching ducks and ducklings along the way.  After enjoying the level walking of this lock-free section, it was then time to branch off on the footpath back to the car left at Church Stowe.  When crossing the mainline railway on the way down to the canal, the path was over a leggy steel footbridge.  But the map showing homeward path was much vaguer about how the railway was crossed.  It looked like the path climbed the railway embankment leaving the walker to pick a way across the tracks.  Surely not possible.  At the last minute of the approach across a field, the solution became clear when the brick-arch entrance to a tunnel through the embankment appeared.  It was a bare 2 metres high and 1.5 metres wide, unlit and very dark for its 30 metre length, without passing places, just sufficient to allow one person through at a time.  There was an adrenalin-rush for the first-timer and it was disappointing to get to reach daylight on the other side.

There’s not much of significance to the traveller that OS maps – especially the 1:25,000 series – fail to represent.  However, this extraordinary tunnel seems to have foxed the cartographer, leaving an amazing surprise for the Northamptonshire walker to stumble upon.  

Richard Bunce

20 June 2020


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