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Exploring the watery world of Stoke Bruerne

28th February 2017

This month I have the perfect suggestion to keep all the family happy. It has been the favoured location for day trips for my brood for decades as there’s something for everyone. Great scenery, lovely people to chat with, reasonably weatherproof gentle walks with some fascinating heritage to explore along the way. Oh yes, even better, there are plenty of excellent refreshment opportunities, of both the real ale and the cream tea variety!!

The Grand Union Canal with its well maintained towpaths, is the longest in Britain. Its 263 miles pass through our beautiful county of  Northamptonshire, and includes the Blisworth tunnel between Blisworth and Stoke Bruerne.

This remarkable tunnel is over 200 years old and 2.8km long. It was built with space for 2 narrow boats to pass on the water, but no path for a tow horse. Before the days of powered propulsion, the usual option was for the boatmen to push their boat through the canal themselves.  They did this by lying on their backs pushing the boat along with their feet against the tunnel walls. This was known as legging, and was both dangerous and exhausting.

Because of the physical effort needed to navigate the canals, legging, opening and closing locks etc, there was a great need for refreshment! During the heyday of the canals, most tunnels and locks had an associated public house. Of course a great many of these are closed now, but there are still wonderful canal-side village pubs to be found throughout the county.

One of my favourite places to use as a base for a walk and a great lunch and picnic spot is the village of Stoke Bruerne, found at the southern end of the Blisworth tunnel. This chocolate box pretty village of thatched cottages and comforting pubs also has a fine old mediaeval church to explore. There’s a car park close to the canal side, and a quirky little museum full of the memorabilia of life on the canal.

This museum is run by friendly staff and volunteers, many of whom have lived and worked on the canals for years. On my most recent visit I met a charming gentleman, Brian Mayland, who lives afloat, and who has been working on the water since 1952. He loves the community and the culture of his watery world, describing the canal network as being like ‘a village high street 2000 miles long’. We explored his favourite exhibits in the museum, mostly the items decorated with ‘flowers lettering and landscapes’. Every surface that could be painted was, usually in primary colours with traditional designs, from the boats themselves down to the trivet for the teapot. Brian shared the history of these designs, knew many of the artists by name, and where they had come from.

In addition to the beautiful collection of painted ware and other ephemera, the museum is full of stories of life on the canals over the last 200 years. There are technical models of how locks work, of how tunnels were built, and things for children, including perennially popular dressing up opportunities. There’s an audio tour available to help you explore the area too. I do love a good gift shop, and this museum has a cracker, along with a lovely little cafe with a view of the water.

Outside the museum on the banks of the canal there are 7 locks to explore as well as a nature reserve. The canal is busy in summer so there is always plenty of action and throughout the year there are always lots of boats to admire. If you want to go on a boat trip, perhaps through the famous tunnel (no legging needed nowadays!) there are regular trips to enjoy. The towpaths are well maintained and accessible for wheelchairs or buggies in both directions.

Don’t forget to walk down to the entrance of the tunnel and to say hello to the friendly resident working blacksmith, Bob Nightingale. If he has time, Bob loves to demonstrate his craft and has a wonderful working knowledge of the canals, and an enormous collection of anecdotes that he is happy to share. He’ll also make anything you need - while I was visiting he was making a beautiful gate in memory of a local shepherd, complete with shepherd’s crook, shears and wild roses, stunning!

So scores on the doors for Stoke Bruerne?
Total family appeal: 5/5, there really is something for everyone
Loveliness of everyone I met: 6/5, absolutely over and above what you might expect
Surprise Factor 5/5 It’s a wonderful working and watery world out there!

The 2000 miles of canals, rivers, towpaths, bridges and embankments and more, are maintained by the Canal and River Trust, a charitable organisation set up in 2012. Although access to the towpaths, nature reserves and locks is completely free they are grateful for donations and welcome volunteers. For more information on Stoke Bruerne and the Canal Museum, please visit

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