When the scenic uplands roll away into autumn mist, the glorious heartland of England is at its most serene. The Grand Union Canal slips quietly through this peaceful countryside, punctuated at Foxton Locks by an extraordinary piece of engineering. Here, massive gates lock in water to create giant aquatic steps enabling boats to climb and transfer between levels of the canal.
Originally constructed to serve industry in the early 1800s, the complex of canals and side-ponds now provides a gentle haven and leisure facility, where wildlife thrives alongside river traffic.
1. Foxton locks canal museum
When the staircase of locks was considered to be too slow for trade, a steam-driven boat lift was constructed, which could move bigger barges in less time. Learn about this and other extraordinary feats of engineering at the canal museum, open weekends only in winter.
Buzzards are often associated with wild hilly areas, but they can also be seen soaring above the fields and trees that border the locks. In flight, their tail is fanned, and the tips of their wings finger-like. Look out for the shallow v-shape their wings form as they circle looking for prey – small rodents or carrion. Listen out for their ‘mewing’ call, which can be easily be mistaken for a cat’s.
The hours from dusk-to-dawn are the best time to spot the busy badger, usually skirting grass verges along the roadside. It consumes hundreds of earthworms a day, fuelling its frequent trotting between setts and foraging grounds. If you spy a brock-latrine – small holes in the ground, filled with pungent dung – you’ll know a sett is not too far away.
4. Upper arm canal
Mist-laden cobwebs hang between tall-stemmed plants like miniature bridges transporting insect cargo. Alongside the unmistakably human footprint of the canal, the natural world displays its own structures. And when cool winter sunlight illuminates the desiccated plantlife, there’s still a lot of wildlife to see in this boat-free stretch.
It’s exciting to see one of Britain’s best-loved mammals in action, and you might just spot one along the quiet, undisturbed area of the upper arm canal. Otters have a linear territory of around 25 miles, so in theory you stand a good chance of seeing one, but they are notoriously shy. They only stay underwater for about 30 seconds so if you do see one dive, be patient and you might see it resurface.
When autumn arrives, the energetic hare of springtime mellows to a more sedate creature. Surprise it and you’ll still see its impressive speed and agility as it turns on a sixpence. You might spot the shy, brown hare with its black-tipped ears and long legs in fields adjoining the canal, but this summer grass-eater turns to root crops, twigs and bark for food, come the winter time.
7. Grass snake
This lovely reptile thrives in damp habitats so the canal area is ideal. With its grey-green markings, it can be confused with the adder by the uninitiated, but it is harmless and if frightened it will merely slither away or ‘play dead’. They are excellent swimmers and eat mainly amphibians, sometimes even fish. They lay their eggs in June and July, which hatch in the autumn months.