Going for a walk down The Cut!
Going for a walk offers a gentle, low-impact exercise that’s easy and free to everyone. Walking strengthens your heart, lowers the risk of illness, helps you lose weight, helps prevent dementia, boosts vitamin D, gives you energy and tones up your legs, bums and tums. What more could you want from a good walk?
One of my favourite places to walk is my local section of the Grand Union Canal between Braunston at the very heart of the English canal system and The New Inn on the Watling Street (A5).
Braunston lies at the junction of the Oxford Canal and the Grand Union Canal between Rugby and Daventry. It was once a very important part of the national canal system and the names of many former boating families can still be found in the graveyard of All Saints Church which also has a wonderful spire rising to 150 feet dominating the landscape for miles around.
The village situated on the hill above the canal thrived for over 150 years on the canal trade carrying goods between London and the Midlands but nowadays it is principally a centre for leisure boating activities boasting the busiest stretch of canal anywhere in the country.
I usually start my walk at the junction of the Grand Union Canal west of Braunston, where the Oxford Canal joins the Coventry Canal at Braunston Turn junction. There are a beautiful pair of Horseley Iron Works cast-iron bridges with low graceful arches which are well worth a brief pause to look at. I usually do a leisurely five mile walk which can be completed in just over two hours along the towpath.
Walking from the Braunston Turn Junction on the south side of the canal there is a canal side pub on the opposite bank. The Boat House is a great spot in the summer for sitting with a beer overlooking the canal watching the boats pass by from the balcony. The pub offers a `Two for One` on its meals which is typical pub grub but good value for money. The Boat House also provides ample outdoor seating and a safe – enclosed children`s play area.
The canal then passes under the busy A45 before arriving at another fine example of the wonderful `Horseley Bridges` at the marina entrance. The Horseley Ironworks (sometimes written Horsley and Iron Works) was a major ironworks based in the Tipton area of the Black Country, which by the end of the canal building boom had emerged as one of the most prolific manufacturers of canal bridges in the Midlands. This was because of their signature bridge design which became very popular with canal constructors during the 18thc Industrial Revolution.
The Stop House is where tolls were collected from passing boats but today is used as an information centre and regional office for the Canal & River Trust. Charges were based on the amount of cargo being carried. Some boatmen tried to sneak past in the dead of night to avoid paying the tolls by muffling the hooves of their horses. A piece of string was threaded across the canal so that a bell would ring if a boat caught it as it passed alerting the night watchman.
I quite often stop for a sandwich and a cup of tea at the Gongoozler’s Rest Cafe which is a narrow boat cafe moored just outside of Braunston Marina near to the old Stop House. They serve freshly cooked breakfasts, omelettes, baguettes & sandwiches, homemade cakes and hot drinks and is open seven days a week. A wonderful way to break up your walk.
The Oxford Canal (1778) had originally joined the much later Grand Union Canal (1797) near to the present – day Marina so Bridge (1) on the Grand Union canal is `Butchers Bridge just beyond the entrance to the Braunston Marina.
This brick built bridge is typical of the period and has been used as the logo for the present – day Canal & River Trust. During bridge construction Iron fenders were fixed inside the curve of the bridges to prevent the tow ropes from cutting deep grooves into the side of the bridge making the bridge unstable over time.
This was caused by grit on the wet tow ropes rubbing on the bricks as the canal horses towed the boats along. Despite the canal engineers efforts you can still see the deep grooves caused by the ropes if you look closely on the inside of the bridges particularly if near a bend in the canal.
If you look closely to the left of the canal you will see a large depression in the hillside. In this area clay was excavated to produce thousands of bricks for the lining of the nearby Braunston Tunnel. The tunnels lining is three bricks thick over its full one and quarter miles so a lot of local clay was needed.
Once over the Timber Ladder Bridge which is unusual along this stretch of canal you come to Lower Braunston or Bottom Lock. The old lock keeper`s cottage can still be seen near to Bridge (2) with an overflow channel running under it! Renovations to the cottage has now made it a desirable place to live with all modern conveniences.
If you look to your right and you will see an old disused Pumping Station tower which used to pump water out from the old marina pools to service the Top Lock.
Union Canal Carriers, Braunston Boats and Wharf House Narrowboats is clear evidence that Braunston is still important for boat building, repairs and fitting even today.
There is also a dry dock and a Boat Shop selling all kinds of canal ephemera and other essential provisions such as ice cream and chocolate.
A flight of six locks descends from the Tunnels summit following the flow of the original Bragborough stream which had carved out the valley over many millennia.
The Admiral Nelson must have been a welcome sight for many bargees after passing through the tunnel but beware there have been stories told of a ghostly apparition walking through the walls of the pub into the adjoining house!
The Admiral Nelson is now a privately owned and family run canal side pub which used to host a very popular music festival which was held every August. The pub always offers a warm welcome, traditional home cooked food using locally sourced ingredients, well-kept real ales and an extensive selection of fine wines. You can sit outside in the summer months, watching the boats go by or in the winter settle down next to a roaring open fire.
There had been another pub near the Top Lock, I had been told the original Anchor Inn foundations could still be seen near to the present day Top Lock Cottage but I could not see them. At one time the village of Braunston had eighteen pubs!
The tunnel is 2042 yards long, 16 feet 6 inches wide and is lined with three layers of brick. It is considered a major civil engineering achievement for the time it was built but I noticed on the two occasions I have passed through it there is a slight `kink` about halfway through where the navigators got their calculations slightly wrong. Considering it was dug out by candlelight using shovels and picks sometimes dropping men down narrow brick built vents to dig out the soil then send back up by means of a winch makes their achievement even more remarkable.
Like most canal tunnels across the country there is no towpath through the tunnel, but there is an old bridleway which the canal horses used which goes over the top. At one time it was necessary to hire leggers to work the narrow boats through the tunnel. There was a hut for leggers at each end where they would wait for work! A loaded boat always cost more of course because of the extra effort needed to push the boat through the tunnel.
The path over the tunnel is sometimes overgrown in places but it is still possible to follow and get back on to the canal towpath at the other end of the tunnel near to Welton Wharf Bridge.
From Welton Wharf bridge (6) on Welton Lane keep walking as far as Watling Street Bridge (11) next to The New Inn pub and Top Lock (7) and the Horse Tunnel going under the Watling Street (A5)
During the winter there are a number of narrow boats moored alongside the canal it this point and on cold mornings a light trail of smoke can be seen and smelt coming from the small chimney on top of the boats. I don’t see any boats moving along the canal during the winter. I begin to see boats moving on the canal as Easter and spring approaches. Suddenly two or three boats going in both directions can be seen over this short section of canal. I have also spotted a number of people in canoes (kayaks?) moving swiftly along the canal.
Some of the canal bridges are named! Bridge (8) is called Lord`s Bridge but no one appears to know why and Bridge (9) is called Water Lane Bridge, curiously as the road that passes over it is called Station Road, apparently because it would take you up to the long closed Welton Station at Watford village.
Immediately after going under bridge no.10 is the turn for Leicester at Norton Junction. This line, which linked the Grand Junction with the Leicester Canal, was originally called the Grand Union and is still referred to as the “Old Union” by grizzled boaters. Stay on the right hand towpath through a couple of small gates, past a few long term moorings until you come to The New Inn Buckby Wharf next to Buckby Top Lock alongside the Watling Street (A5).
I like to sit here when the weather is good and `gongoozle` which I am reliably informed is a canal expression for staring at boats as they pass through the locks. The New Inn is a very popular pub with boaters and the local community serving up traditional British pub food plus some fabulous Sunday roasts.
The small snug area is ideal for enjoying a drink in the winter by the double log burning fires. Traditional bar games such as darts, skittles and dominoes are also available if you want to stay a little longer or just sit outside in the summer and watch the boats going by.
Most of the other canal users I see are out walking dogs, cycling to work or for leisure purposes, fishing (some I expect without fishing permits as they eye me suspiciously as I approach them) and runners, some clad in the obligatory Lycra or tied at the front to dogs who seem to be setting the pace!
The canal towpath changes throughout the year too going from a very slippery muddy trail where you really do have to be careful with your footing to rock hard ruts caused by bicycles as the sun dries the tow path out in the summer. The water is for the most part quite clean but I have unfortunately come across dead deer and sheep floating on the surface over a long period of time. I should think both animals would have fallen in the canal then found it impossible to get back out.
I like the canal in the very cold of winter when the water freezes over and even if like a naughty child I throw in a branch or stone the ice breaks in splinters with a wonderful cracking sound breaking the silence of the morning. Sometimes the ice doesn’t break and the branch/stone slides across the ice and settles upon it – defeated!
The canal is a wonderful place to come across many birds, wildfowl and other wildlife. I have spotted barn owls on late evening walks silently swooping across the fields that run alongside the canal, stood and listened to the sound of woodpeckers in distant trees and watched elusive Kingfishers dropping out from overhanging branches to snap fish out of the water. The canal can be a real delight as often I have the place all to myself unlike the nearby country park.
I love the canal and I enjoy a canal walk for a number of reasons, the peace and quiet, my health, the occasional brief chat to other walkers, time to think, listen to the birds and the chance to spot some occasional wildlife.
The Travel Locker – Jim Davis:
Nominated: UK Blog Awards 2017
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NOTE: Acknowledgements to Braunston Marina Ltd
Walks from Braunston Marina No 4 – 2010