by Steve Miles (with acknowledgement to Ed Grimsdale and additional contributions by members of the Society)
The Grand Junction Canal Company’s branch navigation from Cosgrove to the market town of Buckingham in fact consisted of two distinct arms – distinct not only in their original conception by the planners of the Canal, but also in their acceptance by Parliament, and even in their physical construction.
The first was the Old Stratford Arm, a level cut of 1 mile 533 yards, applied for and authorised in the original Grand Junction Act of 1793: This length was considered important enough for inclusion in the initial Bill because it offered the Canal a link with the old Roman road of Watling Street, at that time still a major highway, with all the traffic-generating potential which that suggests. The continuation to Buckingham, surveyed by Barnes in 1793, was included in the subsequent Bill passed by Parliament in March 1794, which also authorised the Aylesbury and Wendover Arms.
In fact, the plans for the Old Stratford and Buckingham Arms were changed after the acts were passed. Originally, the Grand Junction plans relied on lock flights and a river-level crossing to traverse the Great Ouse Valley at Wolverton, but the river was prone to serious flooding in the winter months, and after due consideration new plans including the embankments and aqueduct we are familiar with came into being, to avoid the obvious threat to traffic.
First plans for the Old Stratford cut had it leaving the main line at the river crossing, running along the valley floor to Watling Street, and then the Buckingham extension continuing to Passenham village, where it would have rejoined the river, which was to have been canalised to the Town. Due to the pronounced fall of the river over this distance, a number of locks would have been required. With the changes to the main line, a new junction was chosen immediately above Cosgrove Lock, and the line of the arms thence ran along the upper side of the valley, incidentally offering an easier navigation both to construct and to work, as now only two locks would be needed to raise the canal to its Buckingham terminus.
The main line was opened to traffic in August 1800, albeit on the original plan, with the lock flights each side of the Great Ouse valley. Another indication of the perceived importance of the Old Stratford Arm comes from the fact that this was the next job Barnes’ labour force tackled – the Arm, built to the same wide dimensions as the main line, was complete just six weeks later, before the end of September. Construction then continued towards Buckingham; the nine-and-a-half mile cut, with its two locks, numerous bridges and an aqueduct, built to the narrow 7ft dimension of other Grand Junction arms, was finished in a further eight months, in time for a ceremonial opening on May 1st, 1801. The fact that the Marquis of Buckingham was a major shareholder in the Grand Junction Company, and had in fact loaned all of the costs of construction of the arm, may have had some bearing on this almost unseemly haste! By contrast, the embankments and aqueduct on the main line had to wait until 1805 for their completion; even then, of course, problems with the aqueduct were not resolved until the opening of the Iron Trunk in 1811.
Water-borne transport had an immense impact on the area, opening up Buckingham to a wider world. This was particularly true in the winter. Buckingham was one of the first four towns to establish a stage coach (1636) which took two days from London but couldn’t run in the winter because of the dreadful state of the roads which were just mud and clay. There was little room for freight on the stage-coach which only ran three times a week from the end of March so only high value goods such as butter, veal and bank-notes were transported. Heavier goods were carried by pack-horse – 8 bricks at a time!
The opening of the canal in 1801 caused a trade revolution, particularly in bulk goods such as coal, stone, bricks, slates and lime. There were manufactured goods and imported produce from London Docks and a lot of the capital’s rubbish, ash to treat the clay soil and bones for fertilisers. All this cost less and meant that local produce could be also be moved faster and more easily, whether it was foodstuffs such as cheese, or the boat-loads of hay and straw that were exported to London to provide for the horse-drawn transport of the City. Many trees from the area were cut down and sent for construction in the navy. This led to the area, described in 1872 as being well-wooded, being quite denuded of trees.
Importing coal meant Buckingham town had street lights for the first time, although this was expensive. Workers producing the gas were paid in kind at the New Inn! The buildings of the town began to look different. Previously buildings were made of locally quarried rough stone, now smooth cut stone could be brought in. The shape of the roofs began to change as lighter slates could be used to make bigger less steeply sloping roofs compared to the earlier heavy clay tiles. This meant that there was more room for servants in the attics! These roof variations can still be seen in the town.
Within a few years, trade on the arm had reached 20,000 tons per annum, and was to remain at this sort of level for almost fifty years. A huge proportion of this was coal, up to 80%, and a lot of it came from Shipley in Yorkshire. There were also small local businesses such as the Tuesday trade boat to Old Stratford Market but these were less successful. Of more significance was the development of a chemical industry related to fertilisers. Bones were brought from London and giant carboys of sulphuric acid imported to boil them in. Other fertiliser products were made from guano brought from Chile.
In 1850, the Bletchley to Banbury branch railway was opened, and soon began to draw trade away from the canal, although here, as elsewhere, the threat of competition kept the boats on their mettle, and trade continued profitably through the railway age. Of greater significance on the Buckingham Arm was the already-evident problem of silting, caused in part by the feeder, entering the channel from the fast-flowing river in the Town, quickly depositing its suspended silt in the slower-moving water of the canal. Further complication came from the fact that the final stretch of canal belonged not to the Canal Company, but to Buckingham Corporation, who seized upon it as an ideal disposal dump for the town’s sewage, adding enormously to the silting problem!
By the 1880’s, annual trade to the Town was down to around 2,500 tons of coal, and 500 tons of other goods. In 1890, the Grand Junction Company finally lost patience, and took out an injunction to prevent the disposal of sewage by the Corporation into the canal. But by this time it was already too late; the damage had been done, the Buckingham end of the Arm was in poor repair, and the lost traffic could not be regained. Trade to and from the basin had ceased by the turn of the century – in 1904, Bradshaw’s Directory listed the stretch from Maids Moreton Wharf as ‘barely navigable’. In the early years of the 20th century, 20-30 boats a year were still trading to Maids Moreton; roadstone was still being carried to Leckhampstead for the Rural District Council, and general trade continued to and from Deanshanger.
Once trade to Buckingham had ceased, the silt was allowed to build up without check; soon it was obstructing the flow from the feeder, and navigation became more and more difficult, especially above the locks. The level pound between Cosgrove and lock 1, Hyde Lane, began to draw its water from the main line. Boats became less and less frequent, and leakage resulting from a low level of maintenance began to be a problem, so much so that a major stoppage in 1919 saw the worst length, at Mount Mill Farm, relaid as a concrete trough by a method developed by Thomas Millner, the Grand Junction’s area engineer.
The last recorded boat to travel the Arm was a single Fellows, Morton and Clayton Ltd motor boat, carrying carboys of chemicals to Leckhampstead in 1932: by now the arm was so silted that the boat had to be hauled by a horse from Thornton Bridge. During the Second World War, concerns about leakage led to the bulldozing of a ‘temporary’ dam under bridge 1 of the Old Stratford Arm in 1944; after the war, with no trade, real or potential, the dam remained in place, and the arms lay derelict.
After its physical closure with the ‘temporary’ dam at Bridge 1 in 1944, the Old Stratford Arm lay untouched for many years, all its structures intact. Modern tales of serious leakage as well as the oft-stated reason for the hurried construction of the dam during the second world war (that the arm was taking water from the main line) must now be considered dubious – we have in our archive a photograph taken in 1958, from bridge 1 on the Old Stratford Arm, which clearly shows the canal with a nearly-full depth of water.
In 1960, a survey carried out by engineers of the now nationalised administration saw no justification for reinstatement of the navigation, and recommended that the arms be allowed to remain disused. Under the British Transport Commission’s powers, the Buckingham Arm was abandoned in 1964. This seemed to signal the beginning of the destruction of canal-related buildings as well as bridges and the like, not only on the Buckingham Arm itself but also along the Old Stratford cut, despite its legal retention by British Waterways. The construction of the A5 dual carriageway in the early 1970’s seemed to seal the fate of the canal, and within a few years both of the stone arch bridges over the Old Stratford Arm had been bulldozed. The canal bed was left intact, but over the years self-set undergrowth in the silt above the puddle clay gradually took over. The basin at Old Stratford was sold in 1991. To this day, the length from Cosgrove to the A5 is owned by Canal & River Trust (previously British Waterways), and is still legally a canal, despite its condition…
When the Buckingham Canal Society was formed in 1992 and began the job of clearing the Arm, the whole of the length to the A5 resembled a linear forest; the towpath, despite being in part a public footpath, was heavily overgrown. The only clear section ran from Bridge 2 for a hundred yards or so, where for many years sheep had been grazed! A walk along the Arm now will demonstrate what we have achieved in the intervening time – virtually all of the major growth has been cleared and water has been returned to the bed! The towpath is clear and open to walkers for the whole length. With permission from CRT, the Society cuts the grass and weeds through the summer to keep the path open all year, a fact which has earned us considerable local credibility.