A unique staircase of locks is the focus of this pleasant walk through the South Leicestershire countryside.
Distance 5 miles (8km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 213ft (65m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Canal tow path and open fields (mostly pasture), 12 stiles
Landscape Gently rolling farmland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 223 Northampton & Market Harborough
Start/finish SP 691891
Dog friendliness Under control near livestock, good elsewhere (note stiles)
Parking Foxton Locks Country Park (pay-and-display)
Public toilets At main car park
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1 Turn left out of the car park and along the signposted path parallel with the road to reach the canal. Go right, under the road bridge, then over the footbridge, in order to turn right on the far bank and along the tow path to Foxton Locks. Descend the lock staircase to the basin at the bottom.
2 Go ahead past the former lock-keepers' cottages and switch banks via the high-arched brick footbridge (Rainbow Bridge). Walk out along the wide tow path beyond. Continue along this easy and peaceful route for 1¾ miles (2.8km), following the Grand Union Canal as it swings left beyond Debdale Wharf. Notice the large numbers of boats moored in the marina, some in preparation for repairs and renovation, while others are kept here permanently. There are lovely views over the open countryside towards Kibworth Beauchamp to the north.
3 At bridge No 68 go over the stile on the right to cross the metal footbridge via two more stiles. On the far side make your way up the left-hand edge of a wide, sloping field to pass Debdale Grange. Continue through the top field to reach the lane on the far side.
4 Turn right, along the road for ¼ mile (400m) then, approaching a road junction, go over the stile on the left for a signposted public footpath across the field, aiming for the far edge of Gumley Wood. Follow the path closely around the side of the plantation until the second stile, beside a section of fence used as a horse jump.
5 From here strike out across a deeply undulating grassy field towards a stile below trees on the far side. If you want to visit the pub in the village of Gumley, go right before the stile for a short uphill path, otherwise aim half left through the next field. Go over the stile and directly out across more fields, separated by the farm drive, to return to the canal on the very far side. Cross the high, thin footbridge and turn right to return to the basin and locks. Walk back up beside the staircase, crossing over half-way up to visit the museum.
6 From the museum follow the popular path up along its side (don't recross the main canal again) and on along a canal arm through some trees. Go over a lock and continue all the way back to the road bridge. Go under this and turn left to return to the car park.
Although it might be tempting to regard Britain's canal system as an antiquated relic, a visit to the Grand Union Canal at Foxton Locks proves that it is not only still working but also remains very popular. The highlight at Foxton is a staircase of ten locks which raises the canal by 75ft (23m). It takes a boat an average of 45 minutes to negotiate all ten locks, as well as the small matter of displacing 25,000 gallons (113,650 litres) of water for the entire passage.
The locks were opened in 1814, but because they were so narrow it created something of a bottleneck, and 60 years later a mechanical lift known as an inclined plane was built to enable boats to be transported much more quickly. From the black-and-white photographs on show in the museum these two counterbalancing docks or tanks (which ran on rails up and down the hillside) must have been quite a spectacle, and cut the journey through Foxton down to as little as eight minutes. Unfortunately canal traffic was already waning, thanks to the competition from railway and road traffic, so that the inclined plane operated for just ten years. By 1928 the equipment was sold for scrap, leaving only the grassed-over rails.
Today there are more boats on Britain's canals than there were in the commercial days, and places such as Foxton Locks are a popular visitor attraction. The fascinating museum is open daily (except Thursday and Friday in winter) and is housed in the former boiler house of the inclined plane, while the busy pub and the well-stocked shop cater for canal traffic and tourists alike.
At the basin below the locks, a 6-mile (9.7km) arm leads to Market Harborough, although most craft head up and down the main Grand Union route. Boats can be hired, or else you can just enjoy a short afternoon cruise up and down the waterway on board The Vagabond. In fact, things have gone so far full circle that the Foxton Inclined Plane Trust is even talking of restoring the site to its former glory and reintroducing the artificial lift.
Whatever your level of interest, there is something undeniably fascinating about watching a handsome and colourful narrowboat negotiate the ten locks at Foxton. Perhaps it has something to do with the sheer ingenuity of displacing water to raise or lower a large craft, and the quiet and unhurried nature of it all. Or possibly it's simply nice to watch someone else hard at work. Either way, what can beat idling by a picturesque lock deep in the middle of the Leicestershire countryside?
Bridge 61, the pub at Foxton Locks, serves hot and cold food daily, including tea and coffee, while the shop upstairs has all manner of cold drinks, ice creams, etc. Twenty minutes' walk away is the village of Foxton with two pubs (the Shoulder of Mutton and Black Horse) which, like the Bell Inn at Gumley, serve meals every lunchtime and evening.
The brightly painted narrowboats that make the canal such a spectacle today should not be confused with barges. These are much larger craft, usually over 14ft (4m) wide and primarily involved in commercial traffic. Because of their size they tend to be found on rivers and a handful of wider canals.
Little more than 2 miles (3.2km) away is Market Harborough, a rare example of a planned medieval town. It was designed in the 12th century to promote local trade, and over time grew into an important market and coaching town. The Harborough Museum, open daily on Adam & Eve Street, has changing exhibitions and weekend events for children (and also houses the Symington Collection of Corsetry!).