The Wendover Arm

Wendover Arm

On New Year’s Eve, I walked along the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal. This turns off the main line of the Grand Union at Bulbourne and runs to the small Buckinghamshire town of Wendover. I started at Tring station, a crossroads of several long-distance paths, and walked down the Great Union to where the Arm turns off.

The Wendover Arm was built in 1799, partly for transport, but mainly to feed water into the Tring summit level of the Grand Union: its route intercepts several small streams running down from the Chiltern Hills. According to Wikipedia, it carried “coal to three gasworks, … straw to London and horse manure in the opposite direction”. However, as a water supply for the Grand Union, it was a failure: it leaked badly, and ended up taking more water from the main line than it put back. So it fell into disuse in 1904. When I first walked it in the 1990s, it was navigable for a couple of miles (from Bulbourne to Little Tring), then there was a long dry stretch, and the final stretch into Wendover still held water (though silted up) and had become a haven for waterbirds.

At about that time, it was taken over by the Wendover Arm Trust, a charity devoted to its restoration, whose patron is the actor David Suchet. I wanted to see what progress had been made in the couple of years since I last went that way. The answer is, not much that is visible to a passer-by. They have added a couple of hundred metres to the navigable stretch. As you go under the road bridge to the new part, you are met by a sign clearly showing that, at least, the towpath continues beyond the stopping point for boats. Alas, this is also “post-truth”; I had to turn around and go back to the road, and walk along the narrow road without verge until the towpath resumes.

Not much seems to have changed on the rest of the route, but it is a pleasant walk anyway. It passes a wooded area called Green Park, where there are some mysterious chalk pits whose origin and purpose is unkown. While passing this section, I saw a little brown bird on a tussock of grass; it dived into the water and swam strongly underwater (the water was so clear that I had a very good view of it). I thought at first that it might been a dipper; but the bird book gave me three good reasons why it couldn’t be. Dippers have a white front, whereas this bird (about the same size) was chocolate brown all over; dippers only frequent fast-flowing streams, not stagnant canals (we see them regularly in the Kinness Burn in St Andrews); and they live only in the north and west of Britain, not the southeast.

But, when I woke up this morning, I suddenly realised that its body shape was that of a cormorant, even though its size and colour were quite different. Perhaps it was a baby cormorant. I am not certain; this is an odd time of year to see baby birds, though it has been a mild winter until very recently. Most birds can’t fly when they are very young, and I once saw on the Thames above Oxford a grebe teaching its baby to dive for fish, which suggests that swimming and diving don’t come naturally either. (Maybe cormorants are different.) I don’t think I saw a baby cormorant before, so I have no idea if the colour and size were right.

Further on, I also saw a kite in the air, and an egret on the ground. The town of Wendover is embraced by two arms of the chalk hills; it lies in a natural transport conduit through which the railway (from London Marylebone to Aylesbury) runs, as well as a busy road. The town has some good pubs; I had lunch. After this, the weather had deteriorated; I had thought of continuing on the Ridgeway Path to Princes Risborough, where I once met the previous Prime Minister; however, I didn’t want to risk meeting his successor, since I might inadvertently be rude to her. So I went to the station, where (after a long wait due to a cancelled train) I was able to ride back to London in reasonable comfort.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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