The Oxford Canal came to Braunston in 1774. This enabled goods to be moved to and from the Midlands to London via the Thames River. A shorter, quicker route was proposed that would link London directly to Braunston bypassing the Thames altogether — and that was built by 1800. The two canals secured Braunston’s place as the hub of the entire system.
Today, more than two centuries later, Braunston is a not-so-sleepy village boasting four pubs, a fish and chip shop, a community cafe, a bustling little butchery and a convenience store. It’s a dormitory town for Rugby and Coventry. But it hasn’t forgotten its glory days. Because down the hill below the village lies a knot of businesses devoted to the canals and canal boats: Tradline Ropes and Fenders; Wharf House Narrowboats, a chandlery; Tony Redshaw’s Vintage Diesels; Union Canal Carriers, a holiday narrowboat rental company… and more.
I’m trying to drum up a little enthusiasm for the place, but it is has to be admitted it’s not precisely the throbbing heart of entertainment.
Which begs the question: what did we do in Braunston, aboard Patience, for two weeks that wasn’t purgatorial?
And the answer is: plenty.
Some f’r instances:
We watched the play of light through every day and especially at the close of day.
We had breakfast in the Gongoozlers’ Rest Narrowboat Cafe, a few steps past the entrance to the Marina, and listened in on the conversations of eight elderly men all tucking into the full English breakfast — eggs, bacon, baked beans, sausages, black pudding, scalloped potatoes and a slice of bread — and talking volubly and simultaneously about an endless series of subjects. One told an anecdote about an occasion when he pretended not to be English: “I notta spika English.” And when he was asked what language he did speak, he said: ‘I spika Welsh.’ Which gave rise to much laughter, and then various disparaging remarks about the Welsh.
We went for walks up the hill to Braunston, pausing at the bench thoughtfully provided beside the path half way up, from which we looked down over the marina, and the avenue of trees flanking it, home of a raucous village of rooks.
Trish went to nearby Daventry (once the site of the largest building in the UK — the Ford Spare Parts warehouse, covering 137 acres) by bus to buy provisions. She walked, endlessly, to the village, the chandlery, the fish and chip shop. I did more walking than I’ve done in a while, and could feel my biceps and triceps start to respond to the treatment.
We played Scrabble on Patience.
And drank wine and a few drams of Talisker and the odd ale.
(And worked our arses off doing our 2014 tax; and writing begging letters to the Spanish Consulate in London requesting that they look favourably on our application for a visa to visit their fair country in June; and wrote scripts for Isibaya; and kept the machinery of Allaboutwriting oiled and productive.)
And then, today, our duties done, we cast off and, very very slowly, threaded our way through the maze of boats in the Marina to the entrance which leads into what is both the Oxford and the Grand Union Canal. A short right — turn to starboard, I mean – and we were away.
The first hurdle that faces the intrepid boater heading south from Braunston Marina is a flight of six locks. The Grand Union Canal’s locks are all double the size of those on a typical narrow canal, and so, if you don’t have a boat to partner with, you find yourself occupying half of a space big enough for two. The consequence, unless you’re holding tight to a rope which in turn is looped about one of the bollards lining the lock, is that you’re dashed hither and yon as water cascades into the empty lock to lift you to the next level.
So there I was, hanging on to my tether with all my might, while Trish opened and closed the locks.
Alongside the third lock stands a well-known hostelry — The Admiral Nelson, which serves great food and a range of real ales. When we descended this flight in 2013, on our way back to our berth in the marina, I had the very bright idea of sending Trish into the pub with a pint glass from our galley. She returned then with a pint of Hook Norton… Delicious stuff, well served.
This time she knew before I asked her what my request would be. A minute later, I had the pint pot in one hand, the other on the tiller, and was steaming forward to the fourth lock a truly happy man. It wasn’t Hook Norton this time, but an ale the pub has made up exclusively for it by Merriman: Nelson’s Nectar, they call it, and it certainly is. (One of Merrimen’s other ales is called, memorably but not repeatably, Old Fart Beer.)
After the sixth lock, the canal takes a deep breath and then heads straight into a hill… and emerges 1867 metres later on the other side.
A few hundred metres along from the mouth of the tunnel is a stretch of canal which, but for the distant hum of traffic, could have been whisked straight out of the 18th century. It overlooks a tranquil rural landscape, featuring an ancient farmhouse. A patchwork of fields, divided by traditional hedgerows, lies between us and the farm buildings… I’m checking the scene from the window now and see that that mush about the 18th century simply won’t do: there’s a road snaking down the hillside with 21st century cars rolling down it; and a large wind turbine pokes its head above the hill turning at a fairly brisk pace.
But at last our journeying has begun, and, although that ale is long finished, I remain a happy man.