On the Oxford Canal, North of Braunston, 16 May 2018
Sally picked up Viv, Molly and Sid from the marina at Gayton Junction on Monday afternoon. We’d spent the morning working the 17 locks of the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal, built to connect the rivers of East Anglia with the central canal system, and most significantly, London and Birmingham. The Grand Union was completed by 1805, with the Northampton Arm added in 1815. The locks neatly fitted around the boat – room for just one – with vee doors at our stern, and one gate that swung open to let us out into the next holding pool.
We’d been warned not to head off too early, as these pools can drain over night – so we had a leisurely breakfast and made sure Jenny was settled in before we set off.
A late lunch at Gayton with Sally of salmon, new potatoes and asparagus, and much hilarity as we told her just how impossible the last few weeks had been, what with my bossiness, and Viv’s control freakery, and the dogs ruling everything. Even after they’d gone, we couldn’t get rid of them, as Viv forgot the dog food and had to come back.
It was a lovely lunch and a fitting send off to the team that had been so brilliant over the last few weeks.
Then it was just Jenny and me.
We set off to take TLA down the remainder of the Northampton Arm to join the Grand Union proper, turning right to head north towards Braunston. We moored up after an hour or so on a beautiful towpath outside Nether Heyford.
Viv hates Scrabble. So this evening gave Jenny the opportunity to thrash me.
Tuesday was a long day, with 13 locks, and the Braunston Tunnel to negotiate. The locks were serious – by which I mean, deep and large – and for the first couple saw Jenny and I turning the paddles up and down with ferocious amounts of water descending on us from high above. The trick is to find another boat to pair with, and thankfully the pair behind us decided it would be quicker if one of them came with us. So Martin and Christine joined us through the remaining five locks …
… and then gave us good advice for the tunnel ahead.
You need waterproofs for Braunston Tunnel, and your headlight and all the lights on in the boat. It’s dark, and dripping, and hard to see anything – except the bright head light of a boat approaching from the other direction. There’s only just room for boats to pass, with much scraping against the sides of the tunnel. I have a small brick souvenir.
The tunnel is 2,042 yards (1,867 m) in length, built by Jessop and Barnes, and opened in 1796. It really is incredible to think of the construction – I’m full of admiration for the engineers who conceived that such a thing is possible. How would you begin to plan such an enterprise? Its construction was delayed by soil movement, and probably that caused the tunnel having a slight ‘S’ bend. There is just room for two 7 ft beam boats to pass – we’re 6’ 10”. There are three air shafts along its length.
It took about 20 minutes. You wouldn’t want to fall overboard, nor have engine failure.
We left Martin and Christine as they moored up and we headed off for the next set of six locks, this time pairing with a boat with two couples on board, so lots of help for Jenny with the descending locks ahead which took us into Braunston.
Braunston Junction is where the Oxford Canal meets the Grand Union at a three way junction with beautiful Horseley Iron Work bridges.
Braunston the village is on the hill above, where Jenny I had a cider at the Old Plough, but the life really happens along the canal with chandlers, and marinas and boats galore.
We passed a plaque to the Bray family, and intrigued, I googled them. Arthur Bray’s obituary in the Guardian came up. It gives a brilliant picture of a life now gone – but what these canals once were, before the leisure industry revived them.
Bray died in 1998 at 93, having been one of the last of the old working canal boatmen, the head of one of three families from Braunston, who together worked the last fleet of six paired narrow boats, carrying cargoes under regular contract.
Jenny and I turned up the Oxford Canal, and moored on the towpath amidst cow parsley and fields that reveal the ridges and furrows of the peasant farming that endured from the middle ages until the enclosures.
Each ridge and furrow would be an allotment for a family. When the hawthorn hedges were put in by farmers to enclose the common land into fields, whole settlements were displaced, often forced towards the factories of the burgeoning industries of the cities.
Many landowners became rich through the enclosure of the commons, while many ordinary folk had a centuries-old right taken away. An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century summed up the anti-enclosure feeling:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
So great was the need for hedges during the Enclosures, that a whole new industry sprang up supplying hawthorn plants to be used in planting new hedges.
Those same hawthorn hedges are now absolutely stunning – covered in heavy white blossom – clouds of beauty.
To match the forget me not, the bugle, speedwell, comfrey and other delights of the towpath.
Onwards, now, to Rugby and Coventry along the Oxford Canal, and then onto the Coventry Canal.