Enjoy varied and challenging traffic-free riding along one of England's most famous canal systems.
Minimum time 2h00
Distance 9.6 miles (15.5km)
Suggested map OS Explorer 223 Northampton & Market Harborough
Start/finish Foxton Locks car park; grid ref: SP 692892
Trails/tracks smooth gravel, narrow grassy track, road and rutted farm track
Landscape towpath, village and farmland
Public toilets at the start
Tourist information Market Harborough, tel 01858 821270
Bike hire none locally
Recommended pub The Bell Inn, Gumley
Notes A fairly challenging ride along an often bumpy tow path and some rough tracks - mountain bikes recommended. One short, steep descent to a railing over the canal (can easily be walked). Care is required crossing Kibworth Road. Suitable for older, more experienced and adventurous children
© Automobile Association 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
Foxton is well signed off the A6 between Leicester and Market Harborough, off the A4304 to the west of Market Harborough, and off the B6047 to the north of Market Harborough. From Foxton, follow signs for the Foxton Locks car park, which is at the top end of the locks.
1 From the car park exit, turn left along a gravel track to get to the bridge over the canal. Cross the bridge and turn right to reach the canal and, after about 300m (330 yards), the locks themselves. Cycling isn't permitted on this section, so you'll have to walk your bikes down the side of the locks (the Foxton Locks Museum is situated on the far side of the passing pond about half-way down this long, steep slope, and can be reached on foot). Stay to the left at the bottom to reach the shop and café.
2 Continue past the shop to cross a cobbled bridge. On the far side, keep going in the same direction. The shingle track along this part of the canal is wide and smooth, although there are one or two places where the left hand edge has collapsed a little, so it's a good idea to stay right. After 1.5 miles (2km), you come to Debdale Wharf. Beyond Debdale Wharf, the path becomes narrow and grassy, and on dry days it may be quite bumpy. In the summer, this section may also be quite overgrown with reeds and bull-rushes, but it should still be passable. At Gumley Road, the track becomes smoother and wider again, before continuing on to Saddington Road.
3 Just beyond Saddington Road, a short sharp climb takes you up to the right of Saddington Tunnel. A longer but more gentle rise, still on a wide gravel track, then takes you along the top of the tunnel, before an equally gentle descent carries you back down to Kibworth Road. From here it's possible to return the way you came, but what follows is an alternative for those who are still feeling energetic.
4 If the gate is locked here, you'll have to carry your bikes over a narrow stile, before crossing the road with care to reach another, wider stile. Another gradual downhill then takes you to a short, steep slope down to a fence above the canal. This can be ridden, but you may prefer to walk it. At the fence turn left to continue along the canal. The path is quite narrow, and can be slippery in wet weather, so take great care here. At the next bridge, continue past it for about 30 yards to reach a gate - go through this gate to reach the bridge.
5 Cross the bridge and continue to the top of the field ahead, where you'll find an enormous slab of granite welcoming you to Millfield Wood. Go through a gate and continue along a wide bridleway across a field. Follow the track as it bears left to reach Kibworth Road and then cross the road to continue in the same direction along another gravel track.
6 After 1.5 miles (2km) of gentle downhill riding on a wide, occasionally pot-holed track, turn right at the road in Smeeton, and then first left along Debdale Lane. This rough farm track rises gently and then more steeply to reach the canal. At the top of the track, bear left towards Debdale Wharf Farm and then turn right at the farm to regain the towpath. From here, turn left to retrace your tracks back to the start.
The Grand Union Canal actually started its life as lots of separate canals, which were joined to provide a navigable waterway from Birmingham to London (the name 'Grand Union' comes from the amalgamation of a number of different companies in 1926). In 1793, long before this name was coined, a canal was begun in Leicester to link up with the Grand Junction Canal, which had started north from the Thames a year earlier. In 1814, the two were finally joined by the ten locks at Foxton, which raised the level of the Leicester canal by some 75ft (22.8m). It takes about 50 minutes for a boat to negotiate all ten locks, and each boat requires about 25,000 gallons of water. The history of the locks is explained in more detail at the Foxton Locks Museum (www.fipt.org.uk), near the start of the ride.
Also worth exploring is Millfield Wood, one of 200 woods created around the country as part of the Woods on Your Doorstep Project to celebrate the Millennium. The 18.8-acre (7.6ha) site was acquired by the Woodland Trust after a successful fund-raising appeal by Fleckney Village. Oak, ash, silver birch and small numbers of field maple are the dominant species.
This ride provides the perfect challenge to budding young mountain bikers, combining easy gravel towpath, flat grassy single tracks, a few gentle climbs, and some rough farm roads at the end of an alternative return route. The wonderfully preserved locks at the start are merely an added bonus.