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History of our Canal

This page describes the history of the Wendover Canal, and the reservoir and pumps that were built around it.

Tringford Pumping Station

The photo right shows Tringford pumping station and stop-lock in 1910. However the pumping station was considerably reduced in height a few years after this, when the steam beam engines within it were scrapped. The stop-lock was never a lock in the conventional sense because there was no change in level; it was just somewhere to close off the canal if the leaks became too much. Not long after it was built, the canal was closed anyway, so it served little purpose. For more details, see the links at the foot of this page, also read on…

The Grand Union (formerly the Grand Junction) canal, as its name implies, was designed to be part of a system of canals linking with each other rather than a single canal. Indeed, many waterways make up the integrated Grand Union Canal as it is today, forming a main artery to link the prime routes from London and the south to Birmingham and the Potteries.

The main line of the Grand Union Canal runs effectively from the River Thames at Brentford westward to Cowley Junction (access to the Slough Arm) then north and north west to the midlands. 

With a wide variety of landscapes and numerous towns and historic canalside halts, the GU offers various options as the many arms (branch canals) which make up this wonderful waterway come and go at junctions like Bulls Bridge (Paddington Arm leading to the very heart of London), Marsworth (Aylesbury Arm), Gayton (Northampton Arm), Norton (Leicester Section), Braunston (Oxford Canal), Napton  (Oxford Canal), Kingswood (Stratford on Avon Canal), and Bordesley where the Grand Union enters the Digbeth Branch and the Birmingham & Fazeley canal.

The Grand Union Canal ascends some 380 feet from its junction with the River Thames until, after a climb of 56 locks in over 36 miles, it reaches the two and a half mile long Tring Summit. Here the descent northwards commences, towards what we now called Milton Keynes.  It then rises again to another summit at Braunston.

The Tring Summit was completed in 1797, in advance of the main line to north and south. As this stretch of water was to supply the needs of the canal on both sides of the summit it became imperative to find sufficient water; the first Act of Parliament for the canal stated the need for a feeder from the north side of the Chiltern Hills behind Wendover to the summit level. The Wendover Canal, which was originally known as the Wendover Arm, became the first of several feeders to the summit level.

Work started on the construction of the Wendover Canal in the summer of 1793 and followed the 390 foot contour to join the summit of the Grand Junction Canal at Bulbourne Junction on the Tring summit level. After construction of the Arm had started, it was soon realised that little extra expense would be incurred in making the feeder navigable and authority to carry out this work, costing £13,000, was obtained in 1794. Although the Wendover Canal was primarily built to supply water for the locks each end of the Tring Summit at Marsworth and Cowroast, it was served by many wharves along its length sending local produce to the London markets and also receiving coal, timber and manure for use on the land. 

Commercial traffic on the Grand Junction Canal increased very rapidly – the  canal was the “M1” of its day – so much so that four reservoirs were built in the Tring area to store water for canal use.

But the commercial life of the Wendover Canal was short. By 1802 there was a considerable loss of water through the banks and the canal was closed for repairs to be carried out. By 1841, 20 locks of water were being lost per day through leakage, and extensive repuddling (lining with clay) over a length of four and a half miles was carried out. To no avail, however, as by 1855 some 25 locks of water were escaping. Further repairs saw the lining of the leaking parts of the canal with a layer of asphalt two and a half inches thick, in preference to repuddling with clay, a task which was completed by 1858. In spite of this, by 1870 the loss was 30 locks of water per day. Repair work continued in 1895-96. In 1897 the leakage was so large that the Arm was actually taking water from the main line.

Trade was lost to the nearby Aylesbury Canal (Arm) which did not suffer from the same problems. – this of course meant that the Wendover Canal became less commercially viable. Stop-planks were put in at Little Tring with the result that, although the Wendover Canal was severed, the level of water in the summit pound immediately improved. A stop-lock (which can still be seen next to Tringford Pumping Station) was constructed at Little Tring to permit the Arm to be used for traffic should the water situation improve. Eventually, despite massive protests from local people, the Royal Commission for Canals and Waterways, and the County Councils of Herts. and Bucks., the Grand Junction Canal Company blocked the canal above the stop lock and Little Tring, de-watered the next 1¼ miles and lowered the water level on the remaining 3¾ miles. This major part of the Wendover Canal was closed in 1904.

Early in the 20th century, so that some of the water could still be carried, an 18 inch pipe was laid in the canal bed for 1¾ miles near Tring. 100 years later the leaks are worse and the pipe is in urgent need of replacement. Instead, the Wendover Arm Trust is fully restoring and relining the canal to stop the leaks.  British Waterways gave the Trust the £200,000 that they said they would have spent on replacing the pipeline, and the Trust has to find the rest.

Despite the strenuous efforts of many organisations, trying to prevent further deterioration of the infrastructure, bridges were lowered, culverted or demolished.  Finally at a meeting in October 1985, instigated by the Grand Union Canal Society, a steering committee was formed which became the Wendover Arm Trust. To read about our restoration work, please click here.

For a more detailed history, one source is here .

To download a summary of the building of the Wendover Canal’s pumps and reservoirs click on the link below:

Download a very detailed description of the pumps and reservoirs by our Vice President Barry Martin, from which the above was summarised:

Download a modern diagram of the water flows:

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