PETER FROST explores the colourful ancient waterways in the heart of England’s Midlands.
Gongoozlers, it’s a wonderful word isn’t it. Working boat families coined it to describe the people who stood on the bank to watch the boats go by.
Today commercial carrying is all but gone from the canals but they are still beautiful and bursting with wildlife and you are still likely to see brightly painted narrowboats brightening the view.
Look at a map of England’s waterways and you’ll see the basic pattern is a large ‘X’ four of our greatest rivers provide the arms. The Mersey in the north west; the Trent in the north east; the Severn in the south west and the Thames in the south east.
These ancient rivers, and their network of tributaries and canals all flow towards the middle of England and they all seem to come together in the canal network of Northamptonshire.
In the county we are always amazed how often we cross these antique arteries of commerce that were once the country’s main trade routes.
Let’s start our visit at Stony Stratford on the edge of Milton Keynes. It’s a pleasant market town with a fine main street and one very important to those, who like me, love to tell a story.
The High Street has two large and fine pubs; the Bull and the Cock. In earlier times it had at least a dozen more. A story or rumour started in one pub travelled up and down the street and when it got back it was usually ‘a right Cock and Bull story’.
From Stony Stratford it is only a short drive to the fast track of Silverstone motor racing circuit. In fact we headed for the slowest track, to the pretty canal side village of Stoke Bruerne with its waterway’s museum. It’s the perfect place for a spot of gongoozling.
North bound boats climb to Stoke Bruerne though a flight of locks and you can watch the crews locking through. Thirsty boaters often stop for a pint at the the Boat pub. It’s been providing boaters with refreshments almost as long as the canal has flowed this way. Inside the tiny bar you can admire the wall painting by which one ancient boatman and amateur artist paid for his beer.
Boats heading north leave the village through the 3,076 yard long (2,813 metres) Blisworth Tunnel. It’s the third longest canal tunnel in Britain. For a closer look at the tunnel take the little cruise boat from outside the museum.
The handsome town of Northampton is certainly worth a visit. It is built around one of the biggest and oldest medieval market squares in Britain. They still hold a busy market here every day except Sunday and Monday.
Close to the market square is All Saints Church and the church tower gives amazing views across the town.
For more gongoozling we headed for Braunston with it’s pretty marina. It’s a great place to start a tow path stroll or cycle ride with locks, elegant iron bridges, historic dry-docks and boatyards.
We enjoyed Northamptonshire. It is a much underated part of the country. Why not try a spot of gongoozling here yourself?
Where to go gongoozling in Northamptonshire.
There are miles and miles of towpaths to explore on foot on by bike and of course you can always get afloat on a passenger boat trip or even a self drive boat which can be rented by the day.
Boat trips leave from outside the museum at Stoke Bruerne. Contact Stoke Bruerne Boats, Wharf Cottage, Stoke Bruerne, Northampton, NN12 7SE Tel; 07966 503609 www.stokebruerne.co.uk
Start a tow path walk from Braunston Marina which has its own campsite and walk up the six locks to the entrance of the Braunston Tunnel. Along the way you will pass wet and dry docks and slipways where boats are still built and repaired.
There is a disused steam pumping station with a handsome chimney and a historic canal side pub as well as an old fashioned canal boater’s shop that still has no real road access but even today does a good trade selling everything they need to passing boaters.
Day boats with cooking and toilet facilities can be hired from Union Canal Carriers, Bottom Lock, Braunston, NN11 7HJ Tel; 01788 891950 www.unioncanalcarriers.co.uk
A version of this article originally appeared in Caravan Magazine.