Snapshot, a day in the life of…
Picture the scene – it is the end of the 1700s. The Grand Junction Canal, later known as the Grand Union Canal, runs from the River Thames to a junction with the Oxford Canal here at Braunston, and on to the north.
The horse plods slowly along the canal towpath, pulling the narrowboat steadily, gliding through the calm waters. A voice shouts “tunnel ahead” and two men get into position back to back in the centre of the boat. They face outwards, eyes determined, straight forwards. Someone hops off the boat to untie the horse and lead him safely over the top.
The two men on the boat lean backwards, facing the ceiling, horizontally on a plank across the middle of the narrowboat. The “leggers” brace themselves as they muster their strength to side step carefully along the tunnel wall, propelling the boat in a smooth forward motion.
The tunnel is narrow and pitch black inside, but the men know what they are doing. They have done this many times before. The work is slow as the tunnel is over a mile long. The men concentrate on the job in hand.
They navigate expertly around the very slight S-bend, a ‘kink’ in the construction which all the workers are aware of. The reason for this shape is a miscalculation when setting out the line of the tunnel at the bottom of the working shafts. Regardless, it is still a remarkable feat of engineering, lined with three layers of brick gathered from a local quarry.
The process of “legging” the narrow boat through this tunnel is tiring but thoroughly routine. The men are synchronised in their movements, working steadily and deliberately, together as one.
Powering the Industrial Revolution
The canals were the facilitators of the Industrial Revolution, and Braunston’s canals hold another distinction – they are the waterways which join the north and the south of England together.
The Braunston canal network has a history dating back to the eighteenth century, as a thriving hub of working life. Imagine the sheer hard work and determination it took to create the majestic infrastructure in the first place. The tunnels were worked on entirely by candlelight. For the workers who made their livelihood here, the canal was integral to their way of life.
Before the coming of the railways, canals were the most successful means of transporting goods from one part of the country to the other, due to the efficiency of movement by water, where the load moves with relatively low friction. This advantage is recognised as inspiring the development of the canal system throughout the country.
Swapping horses for steam power
By 1833, the canals were booming – practicality was the primary concern, so the Oxford canal was shortened to avoid some of the twisting route from Braunston to Napton. The idea saved precious time when transporting goods.
A new junction was created here, called the ‘Braunston Turn’, using innovative materials such as cast-iron for its pair of distinctive bridges which spanned the busy commercial thoroughfare, and can still be seen today.
This increased canal traffic produced more work for the “leggers” whose roles were already dangerous and physically demanding. How much would they have given for an engine? Yet, it would not be until 1886 that some companies introduced steam-powered boats.
These “steamers” were mostly used for long distance runs between London, Braunston, Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham. They linked the industrial heartlands of the country to its seaports and could be described as a key aspect in transforming Britain into an industrial country.
Braunston today – still a key canal destination
The boating community is still prevalent today, and Braunston is well known as being the heart of the waterways. To come back here can often feel, for boaters and their families, like coming home.
The tunnel and locks of Braunston, including the curious stop lock, are wonderfully preserved parts of our working waterway heritage. Pleasure boating is flourishing; there are great places to eat and characterful pubs embracing their local history – there is even a floating café!
The tranquil waters and abundant wildlife can inspire a feeling of peace. A respite from a stressful day job, both for those who live here and those who come to visit. Why not take a closer look?
Village Emporium hint
Check out their village web site for details on local walks, pubs and businesses.