The Canal Museum, tucked away in the beautiful village of Stoke Bruerne on the Grand Union Canal, 7 miles (11 km) south of Northampton, is one of Northamptonshire`s best kept secrets. Assembled in a restored historic corn mill at the end of a row of traditional canal cottages, close to a flight of locks, the museum houses the first national collection of canal memorabilia, films and displays.
Opened in 1963, it was originally known as the National Waterways Museum, until the Canal & River Trust was created in 2012, taking over the responsibility and care for all canals, rivers, reservoirs and docks in England and Wales. The museum is situated on the first and second floors, above the café and gift shop. The museum is both informative and interesting with clear information boards describing how the canal network was built, prospered, declined and then found a new lease of life in the tourism and leisure industry.
It is packed with canal `ephemera’ and memorabilia, old photographs, some colourful hand-painted canal ware, canal clothes, canal tools and plenty of other information about the history of the inland waterways. The re-creation of a boat-builder’s workshop along with its specialist tools, the displays of traditional clothing and boaters’ hand – painted crafts and personal belongings was enthralling.
In the section entitled `Canal people’ there were models of a man and women dressed in traditional clothing. The man was dressed in black cord trousers, heavy woollen coat and waistcoat whilst the female wore a long full skirt, long sleeved blouse, shawl and apron.
There are a wealth of photographs and stories about what life was like for the `bargees’ who lived and worked on the canal network. The Museum also includes some fascinating historical canal signs, and some exciting working models of historic narrow boats, barges, butties and tugs. The vintage films helped bring the history of historical canal activity to life. From the large open `balcony` window on both floors I got a wonderful view of the canal from above.
I would recommend you pick up the helpful free audio walking guide, which is included in the admission price. It helped guide me through the many stories and traditions of Britain’s historic canals. It is well worth spending a couple of hours in the museum.
There is also a lot to see outside the museum including an historic working narrowboat called ‘Sculptor’, which is moored outside the museum and is sometimes available for trips along the canal. As I walked along the towpath I saw several `traditionally’ painted canal boats and picturesque thatched cottages. Most of the buildings are over 200 years old and little appears to have changed since the `Golden Age’ of canals.
I walked along the towpath to the Blisworth Tunnel, which is well worth a visit, to see where bargees or boaters, used to ‘leg’ their boats through the narrow tunnel. Professional `Leggers’ would lie on a plank across the bow of the boat and holding the plank with their hands, would propel the boat through the tunnel with their feet against the upper tunnel wall! The tunnel is 3,075 yards (2,812 m) long and is the longest wide, freely navigable tunnel in Europe. There was plenty of activity on the day I was there, with several narrow boats going through the locks and passing in and out of the tunnel.
If you are looking for something hot to eat, a cuppa and piece of cake, sandwiches, ice cream or a refreshing cold drink, the Museum Waterside Café is a very good option! Packed with gifts and souvenirs, from small treats to `traditional’ painted canal ware, the Museum Shop is also a great place to pick up that small gift or memorabilia. It also has one of the best collections of specialist canal books in the country, along with guides and maps, for the narrow boat traveller or simply curious!
There are several other places to stop and rest including The Boat Inn, The Navigation Inn, both serving a variety of meals and drinks and The Spice of Bruerne, which is an Indian restaurant and takeaway. If the weather is good and you want to sit outside with your own picnic, there are plenty of grassy areas with picnic benches outside the museum and down the towpath by the pounds (ponds), away from the canal. In the summer months you can enjoy a ride on a narrow boat with the Stoke Bruerne Boat Co or ‘Indian Chief’, operated by The Boat Inn.
I really enjoyed my day at The Canal Museum and there is plenty to do outside the Museum too! If you are looking for a fun day out with the kids, have an interest in local canal history or are simply looking for a bite to eat and a drink down by the `cut`, I can fully recommend a day out at the Canal Museum,
The Canal Museum, Stoke Bruerne Bridge Road,
Stoke Bruerne, Towcester, NN12 7SE