During the 18th century the whole country became affected and permanently changed by the industrial revolution.Coal became necessary to drive industrial machinery, heat homes and produce gas lighting. Coal and the products of industry had to shifted about the country and particularly to the docks.
Roads at this time were sad. On a “good” road a horse and wagon could pull no more than 2 tonnes and a pack horse only an eighth of a ton.
Water transport became the solution – a barge pulled by a horse could manage 20 tones or more.
In the latter part of the 18th century an explosion of canal building took place with navigators (married) traveling through the country digging out canals, financed by a number of separate private companies.
One of the major canals was the Grand Junction later to become the Grand Union. This became an important link between the Midlands and London and the docks.
Reservoirs acting as giant header tanks were excavated to top up the Tring summit. From here water drained both towards London and Birmingham.
In 1793 work started to provide a further water supply to the summit of the Grand Union. The increasing boat traffic was draining the summit dry. The source of this new water was from Well Head 2, Wendover.
By 1797 this water supply was developed as a branch line or arm linking Wendover to the Union system. This immediately provided benefits for the town. Coal prices plummeted; merchants and farmers were able to access their goods to a wider market.
Not surprisingly the inhabitants of Aylesbury pushed for their very own canal. But it was not until 20 years later in 1814 that this was achieved. Like Wendover, coal prices came down and a variety of trades and warehouses sprang up at the Aylesbury Basin.
Aylesbury benefited further as the Wendover arm began to leak. Part of the canal had to contour across chalk and not the impermeable marl clay. By 1894 it was in fact draining the Grand Union and in 1904 it was finally closed and it’s water diverted into the Wilstone Reservoir.
The basin at Aylesbury became the starting point for many cargoes of products from The Vale of Aylesbury – particularly wool and food products. There were the occasional human cargoes of people bound for the docks and hence to the New World.
A number of companies sprang up around the basin – The Aylesbury Condensed Milk Company later to become Nestles. Hills and Partridge Flour Mills and the ABC Brewery Company established themselves near the basin.
Aylesbury also was the recipient of coal and trade via The Grand Union and no doubt of other produce from the London docks and the Midlands.
Marsworth was the junction with the main line 6 miles and 16 locks uphill from Aylesbury.
Here there was stabling at the site of the White Lion for over 20 horses. This became a major meeting place for socializing. Weddings and funerals took place here. Some of the cottages at Startops were reputedly taken over by boaters in order for their children to stay and attend school.
According to a senior citizen at Marsworth these horses pulled barges with their buttys until after the Second World War.
These horses were invariably beautifully decorated. They usually had a metal “bucket” over their mouth to stop them browsing. Imagine a horse stopping to browse, instead of pulling the barge – the 20 ton barge would continue on with it’s own momentum and would most likely pull the horse into the canal!
Covers were put over their ears to keep off irritating flies. They were also fitted with rollers attached to their body over which the rope ran, thereby reducing chafing injuries.
The Aylesbury arm passes south of Long Marston in almost a dead straight line. It’s nearest point being Wilstone and Puttenham lock cottage.
Long Marston shared in the general benefits that came to large tracks of the country.
Coal was delivered to a wharf – Jefferies Wharf at Wilstone. This would have been the supply port for Long Marston. The wharf operated until the 1914 – 18 war when it was closed due to pilferage.
Accommodation bridges linking farm fields on each side of the canal served as points for the depositing and picking up of hay. This was of importance for local transportation between farms and importantly as fodder for the horses operating between Aylesbury and Marsworth.
The nearest Blacksmith to the canal was at Wilstone. It was the only one between Marsworth and Aylesbury. A thriving blacksmith operated in Long Marston opposite the Queen’s Head. It is possible that this too may have served the canal horses.
By the turn of the century the coming of the railways marked the decline of the canals as a transportation system.
The Aylesbury arm was temporarily closed in 1940 due to water shortage. In 1950 the local trading firm Harvey Taylor ceased operating.
The canal was rescued by the appearance of the Aylesbury Boat Company – carrying out hiring, sales and repairs.
In 1961, Inland Waterways Association held a National Rally at the basin.
1964 saw the last delivery of coal and in 1970 the last commercial enterprise at the basin ended.
With active support of the Aylesbury Canal Society the canal use was resurrected. Now it’s emphasis is on leisure – leisure boating, walking and fishing.
On a wider dimension the impact of the Tring summit and it’s 4 reservoirs has attracted a wide variety of birds. Likewise the canal acts as a linear nature reserve.
All these features attract visitors on foot, bike, boat and car. They inevitably penetrate beyond the canal to explore the amenities of the adjacent villages (including Long Marston).
Article written by John Noakes.