The Heartbeat of England’s Canal Era

Whether you come by boat, car or stop off in Braunston during a walk, you’ll find a sleepily content village, drowsing beside the canal in the Northamptonshire countryside. A wide high street, welcoming pubs, neat cottages, and a range of useful shops - including a most wonderful butcher - invite visitors to stay. But even several visits later, we’ve yet to see it truly busy.

It’s a far cry from what I imagine Braunston to have been like during the 18th and 19th century, when this charming village played a pivotal role in the development of England’s canal network. And whether you love strolling along towpaths or love to peek into the past of England’s industrialisation, Braunston is the ideal place to start.

Braunston High Street © essentially-england.comBraunston High Street ©

Braunston existed long before the canals, of course, but during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when canals became the primary means of transporting goods, Braunston grew and flourished thanks to its strategic location at the junction of the Oxford and Grand Union canals.

Even now, as you walk the towpath, you can see wharfs, boatyards, chandleries, and pumping stations. During the height of the canal era, many more of these would have lined the canal, along with warehouses, pubs, cookshops, and bunkhouses. And instead of a sleepy high street, both the towpaths and the village would have been busy with people, carts, and horses.

Braunston High Street © essentially-england.comBraunston High Street ©

When the canals came to England, Braunston’s location at a canal junction made it a crossroads for trade, and a centre of commerce.

The Grand Union Canal, which connects Birmingham and London, was as busy as the M1 motorway is today. Completed in the early 1800’s, it allowed for faster transport of products from the Midlands to the capital, connecting England’s industrial north and centre with its biggest market.

Coal, iron, pottery, and textiles passed through Braunston, as well as grain, vegetables, and even - if I read the information boards correctly - live pigs!

The Two Iron Bridges at the Junction Between the Oxford and Grand Union Canals © essentially-england.comThe Two Iron Bridges at the Junction Between the Oxford and Grand Union Canals ©

Braunston’s location made it an essential stop for boats traversing the network, and all the services and trades necessary to maintain the canal and support the boats soon established themselves in the village, contributing to its growth and prosperity.

These days, a visit to Braunston doesn’t require shouting for service or shouldering your way through a crowed. Goods from the Midlands no longer use the canal to reach London. But the history of Braunston and the story of England’s canals remain for all to see.

The Grand Union Canal in Braunston © essentially-england.comThe Grand Union Canal in Braunston ©

The Braunston Tunnel, completed in 1796, is one of the longest tunnels on the English canal network, stretching over 2,000 yards, while the cast-iron bridges spanning the waterways, and the flight of locks helping boats navigate the changes in water levels, are enduring symbols of the village’s rich industrial past.

And Braunston Marina, with its historic buildings and vibrant community of boaters, allows us a glimpse of what life in the village may have been like during its heyday.

Braunston Marina © essentially-england.comBraunston Marina ©

Braunston - Canal Life

Because the canals didn’t just bring economic prosperity to Braunston and the surrounding area. They brought news, new ideas, and - most of all - different people, turning the village into a place where cultures and communities clashed and mixed.

I found the information boards along the canal fascinating to read. Life on the canals was hard, but it fostered a strong sense of camaraderie and mutual support among those who lived and worked on the water. And contact with the people living along the canal would have changed both the boating and village communities.

Braunston Church and Windmill from the Oxford Canal © essentially-england.comBraunston Church and Windmill from the Oxford Canal ©

Even two hundred years later, the canals are still close to Braunston’s heart. It’s on our to-do list to visit the annual Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally to witness the parade of historic boats and to imagine life along the canal all those years ago.

The local museum, housed in a historic building near the marina, offers a fascinating insight into Braunston’s canal heritage, with exhibits showcasing tools, photographs, and artifacts from the era. Guided tours of the village and its waterways are also available if you’d love to find out more.

Industrial Area Along the Grand Union Canal © essentially-england.comIndustrial Area Along the Grand Union Canal ©

What strikes me the most is that England’s canals, once the sign of industrialisation and ever speedier transport, are now a means for us to unwind and slow down. Whether it’s by walking along the towpath and soaking up peace and nature sounds, or by drifting along on a narrowboat without a shred of urgency.

Braunston, I’m happy to say, has catered for one and then adapted to the other and it feels as welcoming as it probably did to the boatmen and their families two hundred years ago. It’s a place to stop, rest, refuel, and look around.

And if the canals are calling you? You could always try a narrowboat holiday...

The Pump House next to Bottom Lock on our Braunston Canal Walk © essentially-england.comThe Pump House next to Bottom Lock on our Braunston Canal Walk ©

For more information about Braunston, the canal, and some walk ideas and maps, I used the Braunston village website.


We believe you'll enjoy Braunston and if you want to make a day out why not try one of our Braunston walks:

Braunston Canal Walk

Braunston, Ashby St Ledger's, and Welton Circular Walk

The Entrance to Braunston Tunnel © essentially-england.comThe Entrance to Braunston Tunnel ©

Fancy A Narrowboat Holiday Along A Canal?

Have our canal photos given you ideas about a narrowboat holiday or short break on the water?

The canal system in England and Wales is over two thousand miles long. There are plenty of different routes and circuits you could choose from, from cityscapes to quiet villages, or remote countryside. You can decide between an adventurous trip with locks and tunnels or a nice and easy float along a canal with no hassles. Below are some ideas...

Rowington nr. Warwick
Sleeps 6

Narrow Escape
Sleeps 4

Canal Boat Hire
Sleeps 6

We understand that not everyone wants to go racing off down the canals, but may still want to experience the canal boat lifestyle. So here are some narrowboats that are permanently moored.

Moored Narrowboats for Accommodation Only

Sleeps 2

The Thistle Dream
Uxbridge, Greater London

Sleeps 2

Narrowboat Gift Ideas

Do you want to experience a narrowboat cruise along a canal, but don't fancy taking the tiller? Or perhaps you know a narrowboat lover and want to give them a special treat.

How about these "eat and cruise" gifts that could make someone's day...

Canal Cruise with Traditional Hotpot
Ormskirk, Lancashire

Canal Cruise with Afternoon Tea

Evening Canal Cruise with Tapas or Aperitifs
Ormskirk, Lancashire

Or what about these exciting London based gift ideas...

Fish, Chips, and Sips on a Barge

Stay on a Boutique Barge

The London Shell Co. Dining Experience

If you have enjoyed reading about Braunston please use the link back to our Northamptonshire page to read about more great days out.