The Grand Union Canal in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, has long been a ribbon of history and tranquillity winding through the town. Recently this beloved stretch of the National Cycle Network has undergone a remarkable makeover, enhancing its charm while embracing sustainability and accessibility. Join Clare Maltby, our England Director for Midlands and East, as she guides us along the rejuvenated canal path.
(Left to right) Clare Maltby, Sustrans, Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough, Alan Leather, The Canal & River Trust visited the National Cycle Network to see the improved canal path and mark the completion of this project. Credit: Stephen Hardy
Pedal power, not puddle power
This cherished towpath, which stretches for just over a mile, seamlessly flows into the canal basin in Market Harborough, forming a crucial part of Route 6 of the National Cycle Network, connecting London to the Peak District.
A favoured route for local residents seeking a green, traffic-free path into the town, this route has now bid farewell to days of dodging muddy puddles and uneven terrain.
Over the course of 15 weeks, the path underwent a transformative resurfacing with a natural stone chip layer, providing a smoother experience for cyclists, walkers and wheelchair users alike.
With accessibility as a top priority, the path's width has been increased, ensuring a comfortable passage for everyone, regardless of mobility.
Whether you're commuting to work, enjoying a family outing, or simply soaking up the serenity, this path now welcomes everyone with open arms.
New housing, new connectivity
Towards the end of the newly resurfaced section, the path reaches Wellington Place - a large new housing estate.
Like many new housing developments, this site is on the edge of town and the development could have risked locking in further car-dependency.
However, the improvements to Route 6 mean that residents of the new estate have better options.
With Route 6 they have the choice of a 10-minute cycle into town, and a 15-minute ride to the train station.
Nature's flourishing sanctuary
Yet, the story doesn't conclude there.
The project acknowledges the delicate balance of the canal ecosystem.
Employing traditional hedge laying techniques, centuries-old hedgerows are being rejuvenated to create vital corridors for wildlife.
These verdant tunnels will soon be alive with birdsong, providing shelter for a myriad of creatures, from playful voles to curious hedgehogs.
Richard Bennett, heritage and environment manager for the Canal & River Trust – our partners on this project - discusses why breathing new life into the canal’s hedge line is such an important aspect of the project. He said:
“The growing threat of habitat loss means that our waterways are an increasingly important haven for wildlife, and canal side hedgerows give many of our most cherished species a valuable lifeline.
"Canal hedges are often amongst the oldest, making them particularly valuable for wildlife.
"That’s why our work to keep canals alive and protect habitats such as hedgerows, is so important.
"The works will showcase this ancient countryside skill to people enjoying the new towpath and will soon reinvigorate the hedgerow, making them healthier, stronger and better for some of our best loved species.”
Furthermore, local volunteers will also have the opportunity to help deliver the habitat improvements, and I look forward to seeing the brilliant members of this community play a crucial role in supporting healthier, stronger, and more diverse ecosystems.
A collaborative triumph
Funding for this £1,000,000 project has been provided by the Department for Transport through our Paths for Everyone programme, along with a section 106 contribution from Harborough District Council.
However, this transformation would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of Sustrans, the Canal & River Trust, and Harborough District Council.
Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough visited the National Cycle Network to see the improved canal path to mark the completion of this project. He commented:
“It is great to see this stretch of towpath transformed, making it useable all year round.
"When I was last there just a few months ago, it was extremely muddy and uneven underfoot. Now it is fully accessible, meaning more people can enjoy the canal. It also provides an attractive pedestrian route from Wellington Place to Union Wharf.
"It just shows what can be achieved by all working together. I’d like to thank everyone involved in delivering this wonderful scheme.”
The improvements have transformed a muddy stretch of the Grand Union Canal which is part of the National Cycle Network. Credit: Sustrans
Beyond Market Harborough - our Paths for Everyone project
Remember, this is just one chapter of the ongoing Paths for Everyone programme to improve the National Cycle Network.
Our overarching goal is to create a safe, accessible, and traffic-free network that can be enjoyed by everyone, facilitating smooth journeys to their desired destinations.
In 2018, our Paths for Everyone review offered an honest assessment of the current state of the network, identifying routes, such as Route 6, where improvements could be made.
Since then, we've tirelessly worked to transform paths across the country, thanks to funding from the Department for Transport.
The Paths for Everyone programme underscores the importance of continued investment in active travel.
Your invitation to explore
So, what are you waiting for?
Lace up your boots, grab your binoculars, or hop on your bike and head down to the Grand Union Canal in Market Harborough.
This revitalised path is not just a route; it's an invitation to explore, connect with nature, and experience the joy of an accessible, vibrant waterway.
Let the Grand Union weave its magic, one paddle stroke, one pedal revolution, and one joyful stroll at a time.
Together, we can create a world where walking and cycling are not just options but joyful possibilities for all.