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Here be dragons

I love maps, they paint a picture of a landscape you can't put into words, as JRR Tolkien said 'I wisely started with a map'. Maps are a brilliant historical snap shot in time.


Today we're used to maps being accurate and complete. Ordinance Survey say this - 'At OS, we use location data and intelligence to illuminate the unseen'.  But that hasn't always been the case. If you go back far enough there was so much the map maker didn't know maps inevitably ended up with blank spaces.   In medieval times blank spaces were often assumed to be dangerous and sometimes pictures of monsters or dragons would be added to fill out the blank spaces. Just to embelish things the words 'hic sunt dracones' - 'here be dragons' might also be inscribed just to make things totally clear that you should be afraid of the unknown.


I'm rambling, but there is a point. Given my interest in the early life of the Grand Junction canal I've been looking for an early map of the canal.  There isn't much, but there is one map that for me stands out over everything else, which is available to see in it's original form in the British Library (might just do that one day).  It was created by a famous 18th century cartographer Charles Smith in 1801.  Whilst it lacks the detail and clarity we're used to today its a far cry from the blank spaces and 'hic sunt dracones' of medieval maps. Here it is.

What I love is that this map is a snap shot in time 4 years before the canal was fully opened.  It is literally a cut in the landscape, largely complete but in a geography as yet untouched by the canal.  The villages and towns are the same as before the canal was there and much of the infrastructure surrounding the canal has yet to be built. Although the canal is largely finished and indeed by this date was functional end to end, there were still large pieces of the jigsaw missing.


There are no reservoirs on the map, although by this date Drayton was complete, and there are none yet at Tring summit. The tunnel at Blisworth wasn't complete and indeed it wasn't even clear there would be one as the railroad over the hill the tunnel goes through was operational. Subsequent to the map being drawn the railroad, however, proved to be too inefficient for the volume of traffic created by the likes of Pickfords fly boats which by 1838 were in excess of 115 pulled by over 400 horses.


Some of the canal villages at the time of the map, either didn't exist or were about to be changed forever by the canal. Braunston at the nothern end of the map was already greatly changed by the canals that preceded the Grand Junction. But it was the Grand Junction that changed Braunston into a major transport junction with all of the infrastructure that requires.


Blisworth, largely because of Pickfords re-locating there, became the largest inland port in the country, but at the time of the map it's just a village by the canal. Stoke Bruerne was changed immeasruably by the canal with, amongst other things, brick works as big as 15 football pitches. Whilst large parts of industry are now gone at Stoke Bruerne, much of the history remains, indeed the tunnel leggers hut still remains and is home to the CRT Lock Keepers. But none of what was to come is on the 1801 map.


There are other large pieces of infrastructure that don't exist in 1801, some of which can still be seen today. The Ordnace Depot at Weedon with it's port culis entrance from the canal which housed 22,000 muskets and 120 artillery guns. The Bulbourne Yard and Canal Works at Tring, for a long time one of the main centres for the manufacture and maintenance of canal infrastructure, such as lock gates. Bulbourne, changed immeasurably by the canal, now only exists as a ghost of it's past glory with much of the estate gone or converted to flats.


On it's way south rather surprisingly the 1801 map misses out the Ashridge estate, the seat of the Duke of Bridgewater. As many of you will know it was the Duke of Bridgewater who of course commissioned the first canal in England and was a major sponsor of the Grand Junction Canal. Much of the Ashridge Estate remains today, including the Bridgewater Monument erected in honour of the "Father of Inland Navigation". Although most visitors to Ashridge are unlikely to understand the Canal Duke's importance to canal building in England and indeed there is no reference on the 1801 map.


The huge amount of wharves that grew with the canal to service surrounding industry of course don't appear on the 1801 map. Grand Junction wharves peaked at over 120 between Braunston and Brentford, but most of these have now gone. You won't find them on google maps and indeed those north of Berkhamsted had diminished from over 60 to only 6 by the 1930's.


Along the length of the canal a large number of mills, not yet on the 1801 map, were built next to the canal to benefit from the transport of raw materials into the mills and end product out onto canal barges. These are now gone or no longer function as mills, the last in Uxbridge, William King Flour Millers closing in 2001. Nonetheless in the case of William King, although the mill is gone the brand of 'Kingsmill' lives on.


In the canal's later years household names such as Heinz, Glaxo and Guinness built canal side factories, including the Art Deco Nestle building at Hayes now converted to flats. All of this underlines the longevity of the canal which was still impacting the landscape over 100 years after the 1801 map was published.


So there it is, the map of 1801. At the time of the map no one knew what the canal would become and how it would evolve to what it is today.


To finish, as we're all mostly interested in the bits of the canal where we live, here's some zoomed in pictures of various sections of the canal from North to South. By the way the crosses on the map are of course churches, which in 1801 is how the centre and importance of places was marked.

More soon.

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