To anyone with an interest in canal lore and legend Braunston is “home”. It is at the very heart of the English canal system – a pivotal point between North and South. Braunston captures the imagination of waterway writers, artists and photographers, and, with its unique environment, is a living historical monument.
In 1768 the Oxford Canal was formed to link the Coventry Canal at Longford, via Banbury to Oxford, then to London via the Thames. Ease of construction was crucial to avoid unnecessary locks, embankments and so on, so by 1774 it followed the contours via Rugby and Hillmorton, to Braunston. The canal came to where the entrance to the Marina is now, turned sharp right and continued to Napton.
Soon a shorter, faster route to London was needed, resulting in the Grand Junction Canal Company Act of 1793. The canal joined the Oxford Canal at the present marina entrance, up the 6 locks, through the tunnel and south to Brentford via Tring and Hemel Hempstead. All the locks are double width and the canal is straighter and wider than the contour Oxford Canal.
Between 1829 and 1833 the Oxford Canal was shortened to avoid some of the twisting route from Braunston to Napton. This resulted in a new junction at Braunston, the ‘Braunston Turn’ and the original Oxford Canal being terminated to form an arm at the wharf
At Braunston Turn, the beautiful pair of cast-iron bridges with low graceful arches stand as proof that materials such as iron and the technique of mass production need not result in ugliness. The work was completed in 1834 and worked perfectly when the canal at Braunston was a very busy commercial thoroughfare.
From the cast-iron bridge one can see the turnover or “rover” bridge, which, in the horse drawn boat days, enabled the towing animal to cross from one side of the canal to the other without the need for uncoupling. The brickwork at the top of the bridge was rounded to avoid chafing the towing rope.
The “Mill House” public House stands between the canal and the main road. It was previously the “Boatman”, the “Rose and Castle” and, for a short time the “New Castle” when the licence was transferred from the “Castle Inn” in the mid 20th century. Prior to that it was a gentleman’s residence and hunting stables The “Castle Inn “ was shown as “Ye Olde Cock” on a 1675 map. It is now a private house at the junction of the A45 and the track to Wolfhampcote.The Toll House was built in 1796 and is now known as the Stop House. The “look-out” man collected tolls here. There was originally a single lock, which was widened to the standard double lock and later removed. It is said that a rope with a bell was put across the canal so that any boat arriving would ring the bell and alert the lookout.
The bridge at the entrance to the Marina is similar to those at Braunston Turn. This was the original junction of the old Oxford Canal. The Grand Junction Canal was renamed the Grand Union Canal in 1929 when there was an amalgamation of eight canals. This large marina has two dry docks and reservoirs. There are many interesting old working boats to be seen at Braunston, some in pristine condition, such as “Raymond” which was the last working wooden narrow boat to be built here in 1958.
The first of the red brick humpback bridges, built in 1796 from local materials, is called Butchers Bridge. On the inside of this bridge are a number of grooves made as a result of abrasion by grit on wet tow ropes as the animals towed the boats along. The number and depth of grooves indicate how busy the canal was at this time.
Looking across the canal from the Ladder Bridge one can see a large depression in the ground. This was a working quarry, where many of the bricks which line Braunston tunnel, were made using the old shuttering (small boxes) method. At ‘Bottom Lock’ the pumping station was originally built in 1805 and rebuilt in 1897. The Boulton and Watt engine was used to pump water back to thetop of the lock flight. Lying next to Lock no. 1 is a covered dry dock and, opposite, a line of interesting canal buildings, the first of which is said to have been the home of the canal engineer.
The “Admiral Nelson” public house, at Lock number 3, pre-dates the canal and was originally a farm building. Cows were milked where the restaurant is today, and there was a greengrocers shop in the skittle room opening onto the lock side. Leslie Morton of Willow Wren Canal Carrying Company (later Willow Wren Canal Transport Services) used it as an office in the twilight days of canal carrying. It is said to be haunted by a figure in black, who walks through walls into the adjoining Nelson Cottage.
At the top lock stood the Anchor public house, which was demolished after the Second World War. It was originally part of a water mill which fell into disuse when the Grand Junction Canal was built, destroying its water source. The footings of the pub can still be seen by Anchor House. The windmill next to the church in the village was built to compensate the miller.
Approaching the tunnel the remains of a wharf are visible. The tunnel is 2042 yards long, 16 feet 6 inches wide and is lined with three layers of brick. It is acknowledged to be a considerable civil engineering achievement even though, because of a miscalculation, there is a “kink” in the tunnel which is well known to boaters. Construction was carried out by candlelight and the circular brick vents were also used to remove spoil by means of a hand winch.
There is no towpath through the tunnel, but there is a bridleway over the top. At one time it was necessary to use official leggers to work the boat through the tunnel. There was a hut for leggers at each end. At one time the fee was one shilling for a loaded boat and 9d for an empty one.