The Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal was to have been the last link between London and the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields. The Union Canal, as the new canal became known, was to link the navigable river Soar at Leicester with the river Nene at Northampton, then rising out of the Nene valley to join the Grand Junction Canal at Gayton.
Despite feverish speculation on the part of the subscribers to the original plan as laid down in 1792, the progress of construction ground to a halt at Debdale Gumley in 1797, some six miles short of Market Harborough. The navigation languished at Debdale for some time, with trade expensively transhipped to Harborough by horse and cart, requiring the upgrading of the track and turnpike. At long last sufficient capital was raised and the line was extended to Market Harborough in 1809.
After several attempts to progress the navigation past Market Harborough, along the originally proposed Brampton Valley route to Northampton, a more direct route to the main line was cut from Foxton. Here the navigation rose out of the Soar watershed via a flight of ten staircase locks and onward to Norton near Daventry, where it joined the Grand Junction Canal. The new cut, known as the [Old] Grand Union Canal, was constructed level, following the contours of the land, thus requiring no locks. Two tunnels, one at Husbands Bosworth and one at Crick were necessary to maintain the level. At twenty miles, the pound is one of the longest stretches of level navigation in the whole canal system.
The meandering nature and rural aspect of the line, which passes few places of habitation makes this a delightfully secluded and tranquil stretch of navigation. The line of the tunnel can be traced by the spoil heaps, here hidden by the trees. Opened in 1813, Husbands Bosworth canal tunnel is 1166 yards long with no ventilation shafts. The tunnel pierces the watershed between the Warwickshire Avon to the south, and the Soar valley to the north. The bore is brick-lined, generally dry, and straight, with no towing path. Bricks for the construction of the tunnel were made on-site close to the east end of the tunnel, adjacent to the Honeypot Farm bridge.
The path of the tunnel can be traced above ground by the line of eight heaps of spoil drawn up shafts from the working faces during construction. These artificial tumulii can be seen clearly from the boat-horse path, along which the narrowboat draught horses were walked over the tunnel whilst the boats were 'legged' through the bore.
This 1¾ mile long branch of the Leicester Section of the Grand Union Canal was built as a navigable feeder to the 20 mile long summit level, bringing water supplies from Welford, Sulby, and Naseby reservoirs. The Arm lay quite derelict and impassable for over 20 years until its re-opening in 1969 following much work by British Waterways and the Old Union Canals Society. The short pound between Welford Lock and the Welford Wharf terminus is the highest water level on the whole of the Grand Union Canal.
At the terminus of the navigation, adjacent to the main Leicester to Northampton turnpike, a thriving wharf and freight exchange centre developed. Limestone shipped in from the Derbyshire hills was burned in lime kilns at the side of the dock for local use in agriculture. The remains of these lime kilns can be seen today. Coal from the north Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields was also unloaded here. The original wharf buildings have been preserved, and are used by British Waterways.
Today, a busy marina and boatyard occupies the extended basin at the canal terminus, catering for the needs of visiting pleasure craft. Fuel and gas supplies, boat repair and maintenance, pump-out, Elsan disposal and water point facilities are available. Secure permanent and temporary moorings are also sometimes available, and there is a dayboat for hire. Call the marina office on 01858 575995 for more information. A limited number of British Waterways controlled 48 hr. and 14 day towpath moorings are available free of charge. Turning places for full length narrowboats are to be found at the entrance to the claypit marina, about a third of a mile before the terminus, and at the terminus itself.
The Wharf House Hotel, adjacent to the terminal dock, has a licensed bar, serves hot and cold meals throughout the day, and also provides accommodation. (Tel: 01858 575075)
NORTH KILWORTH WHARF
Wharf facilities were established at North Kilworth by the Grand Union Canal Company when the canal opened in 1814. Coal from the northern coalfields was traded here, and limestone for agricultural lime was processed. The house, now a private dwelling, was originally the Union Anchor Inn. A popular stopping place for boatmen in the heyday of commercial activity on the canal, the Union Anchor Inn, and North Kilworth wharf were for many years run by the Woodhouse family.
With the decline of canal traffic following the Second World War Kilworth Wharf was abandoned and lay derelict. In the 1960s the site was developed as a hire-boat base by Hucker Marine, who also fitted out locally-made narrowboat hulls. By the 1970s, with the rise in the popularity of leisure boating, the site was a hive of activity as the base for the 'Castle' class hireboats. The hire business was eventually taken over by Anglo-Welsh, a national operator with hire sites throughout the canal network.
Later the business, known as Kilworth Leisure provided chandlery, refit and repair services and a limited number of mooring spaces. In May 2007, on expiry of the BW lease, this business closed.
Recently the marina has reopened, providing a pump-out facility, diesel sales and gas for boaters, and a limited amount of chandlery. Boat repairs, servicing and painting are carried out on site. More services for boaters are planned. Telephone 01858 881723 for details.
For more information, take a look at the Foxton Inclined Plane Trust webpage which has details of the Old Union canals.