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The Grand Ring
Featured Routes

The Grand Ring from Aldermaston Wharf

Duration: 14 - 21 Nights
TOTAL LOCKS: 175
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 6 - 9 HOURS (126 HOURS IN TOTAL)

Please inform us at the time of booking if you're doing this route. You're also required to show that you have a suitable amount of experience to undertake this route.

Maps & Guides for this routeN1, N7, G29, E2, E3

What to expect

During your trip, some highlights you can forward to are charming towns and cities such as Oxford, Banbury and Leighton Buzzard. However, to fully enjoy this route, we recommend ensuring that you have at least 2 weeks booked – as this will allow you to experience everything on the route in full.

The Thames River Licence is also included in the hire price from Aldermaston Wharf.

A route gloriously mixing rural and urban which takes in parts of the Kennet & Avon Canal, River Thames, Oxford Canal and Grand Union Main Line Canal. This route from Aldermaston includes two tunnels, many aqueducts, and 198 locks - can be done in 14-21 nights.

Packed with excitement and discovery –your route treads some of England’s most famous towns and cities, with stately homes and castles, museums and colleges, gaols and boathouses, concerts and nursery rhymes - from Roman times to Henry VIII, Norman Conquest to World War II. The energetic Grand Ring is a great challenge to test any helmsman's skills.

From Aldermaston Wharf, head east along the Kennet & Avon Canal descending well-spaced locks. The railway and A4 run almost parallel, and the River Kennet meanders in and out of the canal. Beyond Sulhamstead Lock, flooded gravel pits are abundant - a bird watcher’s dream.   

Garston Lock is a scheduled ancient monument and one of only two remaining turf-sided locks in the country (the other is Monkey Marsh Lock, west of Aldermaston). The M4 interrupts the peace as it crosses the canal, but soon disappears as the canal swings northwards after Fobney Lock to the busy centre of Reading. Take care passing a low weir at County Lock. The canal is controlled by traffic lights through Reading, so don't proceed without the green light.   

Reading is a busy vibrant town, with shopping and dining in the Oracle retail centre and easy access to many museums and galleries, including Reading Museum which houses a full-size 230ft replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. The former prison, now in National Trust care, was the infamous setting for Oscar Wilde's famously grim 'Ballad of Reading Gaol' written with the poignant 'De Profundis' while he served two years from 1895-97.

After Blake's Lock, turn left onto the River Thames to cruise upstream towards Oxford. Almost immediately you reach Caversham Lock (all Thames locks are manned) and beyond Fry’s Island the river widens past Tilehurst. Mapledurham Lock was first on the Thames to be mechanised, in 1956. Mapledurham House, continually inhabited by the Blount family since 1490, sits opposite the restored water mill, one of the oldest on the Thames.

Around Whitchurch Lock and Toll Bridge, the river can be busy with boats from Pangbourne College, founded over 100 years ago as officer training for the Merchant Navy. Open farmland stretches out near Beale Park, 300-acre outdoor wildlife park. Its neighbour is the National Trust’s Grade I-listed Palladian mansion, Basildon Park. Just beyond Brunel’s Gatehampton Railway Bridge, Goring provided one of the most important connections across the river, linking the Icknield Way with the Ridgeway (and the Thames Path), and the Goring Gap created the boundary between Streatley in Berkshire and Goring in Oxfordshire.

A quiet stretch of open countryside with another Brunel railway bridge at Moulsford leads to Wallingford, which received its royal charter in 1155. Originally in Berkshire, it was redefined into Oxfordshire in 1974. Apart from being the setting for ITV’s ‘Midsomer Murders’, Wallingford is the best preserved example of a Saxon fortified town, built in the 9th century by King Alfred to defend against Danish attack. William the Conqueror crossed the Thames here after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and had a castle built providing a royal home until Cromwell had it destroyed during the English Civil War.

The tiny town of Benson by Benson Lock is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and was seat to Kings of Mercia. In 779, King Offa defeated the West Saxons at the Battle of Bensington. The River Thame joins the Thames just west of Shillingford, then the Thames turns sharply north after Little Wittenham Wood towards Day’s Lock (original location of the World ‘Poohsticks’ Championships, now held in Witney). Beyond the Iron-Age earthworks Dyke Hills, connecting the rivers Thame and Thames, the former Roman Dorchester was once cathedral city of Wessex and under Offa, King of Mercia, the See of Dorchester stretched all the way to the Humber.

The river loops past Abingdon-on-Thames, a market town with much to explore. Abingdon’s huge gaol, built in the early 1800s, overlooks the river and the medieval wharf leads to St Helen’s Church and Long Alley Almshouses, built in the 1400s. Abingdon County Hall Museum was built by stonemason Christopher Kempster, who worked with Sir Christopher Wren rebuilding churches after London’s Great Fire in 1666. The annual swan survey ends here in July. From Sunbury to Abingdon, Royal Swan Uppers don scarlet red jackets and round up swans on the water. Swans have Royal status and since the Middle Ages, the Royal Swan Master’s job is to organise the annual swan upping. Unmarked swans are identified with their parentage and marked before being returned to the river.

Looping back north through open landscape, Sandford Lock, deepest on the river apart from Teddington, leads into increasingly urban surrounds. Above Iffley Lock, look out for punts and rowing boats especially near Folly Bridge. The River Thames connects to the Oxford Canal via Isis Lock, and also higher up the river via the short Duke’s Cut. World famous for its university founded as early as the 13th century, Oxford is an exciting place to visit. The ‘City of dreaming spires’ is a seat of learning with historic colleges - one of the earliest, Merton College, was founded in 1264 and provided a ‘blueprint’ for many later scholarly colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge. Also world renowned for the Bodleian Library with its collection of rare books and manuscripts and the Ashmolean Museum, the oldest public museum in Britain… and perhaps in the UK for a certain television detective.

The Oxford Canal was one of the first canals built in Britain and one of the most rural, with wooden lift bridges used by farmers to access their land. Leaving the city, the canal skirts Kidlington, before going through the pretty village of Thrupp. At Shipton Weir Lock, the canal merges with the River Cherwell until separating again just north of bridge 215. The river shadows the canal as it winds through tree-lined surroundings, passing Lower Heyford’s busy boatyard.

Meandering through open countryside studded with lift bridges, the M40 interrupts the quiet before Banbury. Sung by countless generations of children, the cross of the nursery rhyme was destroyed in the 1600s as Banbury was said to be ‘too far gone in Puritanism’. The cross which now lies at the junction of four major roads was built in 1859 to celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. Near the cross is a large bronze statue, unveiled by Princess Anne in 2005, which depicts the ‘Fyne Lady’ upon a ‘White Horse’ of the nursery rhyme.

Tooley’s Boatyard in Banbury is the oldest dry dock in Britain, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and in continuous use since 1790 regardless of changes to its surroundings. The boatyard once built and repaired wooden horse-drawn narrowboats, and has become a visitor attraction within Banbury’s shopping development. Also renowned for its connection with Tom Rolt, who founded the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) during the 1940s ‘war’ to keep canals open. Rolt’s narrowboat ‘Cressy’ docked here before setting off on its legendary voyage around the canal networks. Rolt’s book ‘Narrow Boat’ recorded Cressy’s journey and the publication’s impact helped give voice to the canals in an era of decline.

The railway and M40 noisily encroach before Cropredy. Mostly a peaceful oasis, the village bursts at the seams in August when hoards turn up for the annual music festival which began as a reunion event after Fairport Convention held their ‘farewell’ concert here in 1979. Climbing Claydon Locks, the canal swirls through open country for almost ten miles before Napton Flight’s nine locks take it down from summit level in glorious surroundings. Several pillboxes remind that this stretch of the Oxford was part of the Oxford and Grand Union Canals Stop Line designed to defend the industrial Midlands in the event of an invasion by German troops during World War II.   

Napton on the Hill’s windmill dominates the landscape and would have been a useful landmark for traditional boatmen in the commercial carrying days of the canal. The village has had a windmill since 1543, though the current Grade II-listed windmill dates from the 18th century. Many villagers were employed in local brick and tile works, and the symbol of a windmill was stamped into bricks and tiles before being transported away on canal boats.  

At Napton Junction, the Grand Union Canal heads north to Birmingham while you head east to Braunston. This now sleepy junction between the Grand Union and Oxford Canals was once one of the busiest commercial trading points linking with London. Canal engineer James Brindley built the Oxford Canal in his typical winding fashion, flowing around contours rather than bulldozing a straight course. When the straighter Grand Union Canal was built, it stole much of the Oxford’s commercial traffic - but the Oxford fought back, charging extortionate tolls to use its water in the link between Napton and Braunston. Today its importance has not diminished as it is a much-loved hotspot for canal leisure seekers and the marina hosts the annual Braunston Historic Boat Rally. This idyllic canal village, dating back to the Doomsday Book, begs exploration with its Horseley iron bridges and historic canalside workshops.

After climbing Braunston’s locks, the canal dives through Braunston Tunnel (2,042yds / 1,867m long). Turn right at Norton Junction to follow the Grand Union Canal Main Line southwards. Four transport routes run parallel as the canal descends the seven Buckby Locks. Canal and railway are joined by the busy A5 on the old Roman road of Watling Street, and the infamous M1 before separating north of Weedon and its two aqueducts.

The canal’s activity centres on boatyards and pubs, skirting villages dotting the landscape. Passing Gayton Junction where the Northampton Arm heads off to Northampton, the canal skirts the village of Blisworth before disappearing into Blisworth Tunnel (3,076yds/2,813m long), third longest navigable canal tunnel in Britain. The tunnel’s portal is Grade II-listed. Work started in 1793 but the first attempt ended in disaster just 3 years later claiming 14 lives. It was rebuilt and opened in 1805. By the southern entrance is a huge concrete ring similar to those used to strengthen the tunnel in the 1980s. During the rebuilding, the tunnel was used to test materials later used on the mighty Channel Tunnel.

You emerge into the thatched village of Stoke Bruerne. Dating back over 1,000 years, the canal arrived in its midst during the 1790s, and the Canal Museum is housed in a former corn mill. Every September, the Village at War festival fills the canalside with 1940s music, fly-bys and World War II uniforms. After descending Stoke Bruerne’s flight of seven locks, the canal gently winds across a rural landscape with Cosgrove Lock the only work for the crew in almost 16 miles. At Cosgrove, the short Buckingham Arm heads west while the main canal continues over the River Ouse on a spectacular iron trough aqueduct, Great Ouse Aqueduct. Completed in 1811, it was the world’s first wide canal cast iron trough aqueduct and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Following the Ouse valley under stone bridges and over another aqueduct, you reach the village of Great Linford. Linford Lake Nature Reserve is a wetland wildlife site. The ‘new’ town of Milton Keynes started in the 1970s includes many surrounding villages including Bletchley and Fenny Stratford. Listen out for the Fenny Poppers, six small ceremonial cannon from the 1700s which are fired three times on St. Martin's Day (11 November) to commemorate the day in 1724 when the first stone was laid for the new parish church. Still used on special occasions, in June 2012 a salute was fired to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Just west of Fenny Stratford Lock is Bletchley Park, world famous for its work cracking codes and ciphers including the infamous Enigma Code used by the German Army during World War II. Also renowned as birthplace of modern information technology, the site houses the National Museum of Computing. Beyond Soulbury Three Locks, the canal weaves between Linslade and Leighton Buzzard, home to one of the most popular narrow gauge railways in the country. It was on the track just outside town that the infamous 1963 Great Train Robbery took place.

Frequent well-spaced locks carry the canal up to Marsworth Junction, where the Aylesbury Arm heads west, and Marsworth Locks alongside Tring Reservoirs, four reservoirs whose water is pumped by Tringford Pumping Station on the Wendover Arm to feed the canal’s summit level. The partially navigable Wendover Arm heads off at Bulbourne Junction, where old British Waterways’ workshops used to make wooden lockgates. The 3-mile summit level provides brief respite before Cowroast Lock marks the start of the canal’s descent through Berkhamsted, a market town with the remains of a Norman castle where William the Conqueror received the English crown after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Descending past Hemel Hempstead, whose new town surrounds a historic centre, the canal passes several large paper mills in Apsley. Frogmore Paper Mill is the oldest mechanised paper mill in the world and birthplace of paper’s industrial revolution. The canal follows the River Gade south with several wider stretches of canal to navigate as it descends through Kings Langley. The tomb of the Black Prince’s brother, Edmund de Langley, is in the Norman church. The M25 intrudes before calm restores beyond the ornamental Grove Bridge, ordered by the Earl of Essex before allowing canal builders across his land. Avoiding Watford’s outskirts, Cassiobury Park, also part of his gardens, provides a glorious stretch of parkland and woods, including an avenue of lime trees planted by Moses Cook in 1672.

Three rivers converge at Rickmansworth - the River Chess at Batchworth Lock, and the River Colne and its valley below as you pass old chalk quarries, now havens for wildlife. Lakes, mills and woods continue down through several locks to Denham Deep Lock, the deepest on the Grand Union. Beware large barges being loaded with gravel between bridge 183 and the A40.

The canal skirts Uxbridge, site of the RAF Headquarters where Air Marshal Lord Dowding coordinated the Battle of Britain, and Cowley Lock marks the end of locks for a while.  The Slough Arm heads west to Slough from Cowley Peachey Junction, while you continue south through the conurbations. At Bull’s Bridge Junction, the Paddington Arm heads into the heart of London, while you descend 12 locks including the Hanwell Flight down to Brentford. Syon House nearby has been home to the Dukes of Northumberland since 1594. Its interior was reworked in the 1700s by Scottish architect Robert Adams while the 55-acre gardens were landscaped by Capability Brown.

The section between Brentford Gauging Locks and Thames Lock is tidal, and boats are requested to use Brentford’s single lock to minimise water use. Thames Lock is manned and timings should be pre-planned to enter the River Thames. Heading south on the river, on the opposite bank lies the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, with over 8.5 million items, they house the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. Kew Observatory was built in the Old Deer Park in 1729 and, on the opposite bank, the village of Isleworth is where Vincent Van Gogh taught and used the Thames as his subject.

After Richmond Lock and attractive Richmond Bridge, the river winds past Richmond and its famous Richmond Park, largest of all Royal Parks created in 1637 by Charles II. 17th-century Ham House, once one of the grandest houses of Stuart England and now cared for by the National Trust, is connected by the last surviving ferry on the tidal river to Marble Hill House, built in the 1720s by George II for his mistress Henrietta Howard and cared for by English Heritage.

Beyond Twickenham, famous for a certain sport, Teddington Lock marks the end of the tidal Thames. Traffic moving upstream must observe the light signals at the end of the lock island. The river curves gently between Kingston upon Thames and Hampton Court Park. In the 1510s Cardinal Wolsey intended Hampton Court Palace to be the grandest private house in England, but following Wolsey’s fall from grace in 1529, the stunning palace became the favoured residence for Henry VIII and his six wives.

Numerous reservoirs including Molesey Reservoirs Nature Reserve lead to Sunbury Locks, then Walton-on-Thames and Shepperton, home of the famous film studios. Desborough Cut avoids some of the river’s twists and turns, and the River Wey Navigation heads south from Shepperton Lock. The river continues to wind through Weybridge, Chertsey, under the M3, past Penton Hook Lock, near the huge Thorpe Park which might entice theme-park lovers aboard, and into Staines.

Above Bell Weir Lock, the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215 at Runnymede. Edwin Lutyens created a pair of gatehouses as entrance to the Magna Carta Memorial, Kennedy Memorial and Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial. Passing Old Windsor, views open up across the 655-acre Home Park towards Windsor Castle, first established by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, the world’s oldest and largest occupied castle and of course home to The Queen. There is much to explore between Windsor and Eton, home to the world-famous Eton College, founded in 1440.

Just beyond the M4, Maidenhead Railway Bridge, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1838-9, has two of the largest brickwork spans in the world. The river around Maidenhead is often busy and above Boulter’s Lock, ‘Cliveden Deep’ is lined by the wooded grounds of Cliveden, former home to the Astors and infamous for 1963’s Profumo Affair, now cared for by the National Trust. Above Cookham Lock and bridge, the river widens towards the Georgian town of Marlow, its famed suspension bridge linking the counties of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. Many Olympic rowers were born and trained here including Sir Steven Redgrave, and the river is busy with boats from the Scouts Boating Centre and the National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey.

The river meanders to the 12th-century market town of Henley-on-Thames and the many-arched Henley Bridge. Renowned for rowing, its annual Royal Regatta is held at the beginning of July (it gets incredibly busy then so may be a time to avoid!). The Regatta has enjoyed royal patronage since 1851 when Prince Albert became its first Royal Patron. Henley's award-winning River & Rowing Museum has a fascinating collection of over 20,000 items charting the international sport of rowing, Henley's history, the River Thames and the children’s book Wind in the Willows.

The inns and taverns of the village of Wargrave would have been busy with coaches travelling between Henley and Reading, and a window in the George & Dragon is mentioned in Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three men in a boat'. Suffragettes allegedly burnt down the local church in 1914 in protest to the Church of England's use of the word 'obey' in marriage vows. After Shiplake Lock, the river meanders its way past several islands and the pretty village of Sonning and the willow-lined Sonning Lock, before reaching the entrance to the Kennet & Avon Canal at Reading. Back on the canal, you can now retrace your steps to Aldermaston.

Featured Boats

Featured Boats from Aldermaston Wharf, Berkshire

Two to Five berth Boats

Alvechurch Bunting

Max: 5 People

Length: 47ft

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couple learning how to drive a canal boat
Alvechurch Weaver

Max: 4 People

Length: 49ft

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Six to eight berth Boats

Alvechurch Dove

Max: 6 People

Length: 60ft

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Alvechurch Eagle

Max: 7 People

Length: 66ft

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Alvechurch Gull

Max: 6 People

Length: 66ft

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Alvechurch Lark

Max: 6 People

Length: 66ft (63ft from Falkirk)

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Alvechurch Thrush

Max: 6 People

Length: 66ft

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Alvechurch Warbler

Max: 8 People

Length: 69ft

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Alvechurch Woodpecker

Max: 8 People

Length: 60ft

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Up to twelve berth Boats

Alvechurch Owl

Max: 10 People

Length: 70ft

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Alvechurch Swan

Max: 12 People

Length: 70ft

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