Memories of a boy growing up next to the dis-used section of the Buckingham arm canal.
by Peter Stanton.
I was born in 1954 and grew up on Deanshanger Road in Old Stratford, the Buckingham arm was just opposite our house.
I think that I must have been a lively child, because my Mother would often fob me off on neighbours. One lady kept hens in a paddock opposite Holton’s Garage and from around the age of 2 or 3, she would take me with her to feed her hens and we would stop at the bridge to feed the swans on the canal with bread crusts. At this time there was plenty of water left in the section through Old Stratford.
Between The A5 and Holtons Garage there was an impressive row of willow trees which had originally been pollarded, but without maintenance, the branches had overgrown and toppled across the canal. These made fantastic bridges for the village children to climb across. The bark was well worn where their boots and shoes had scampered over them. Also in this section were two old barges which had belonged to Mr Canvin . One barge had the cabin and the other was the butty, they were both holed and resting on the bottom. In the Summer the water level dropped and we used to climb aboard and have pretend games amongst ourselves. There was some faded paintwork still on them, I think I can remember a diamond red shape with a yellow border. The iron work of the barges was still intact.
Mr Canvin was a lovely old chap, who always had a friendly word for me. He had owned the coal business in the village, but as his only daughter had married a Millward, the business was now Millward Brothers.
As a child during the Summer especially, I was woken by Mr Canvin’s cockerel crowing; he had a few hens scratching around on the edge of the towpath which kept him supplied with eggs. In the Spring he would “find” a few duck eggs from a few Mallard nests and place them under a couple of broody hens. We children found it amusing to see a hen followed by a string of waddling ducklings. The ducks would steadily grow feeding on all the natural food around them and then suddenly they would all disappear. I think I was quite old before I realised their fate.
Mr Canvin lived on his own in a wooden cabin (it might be called a chalet today) which was very small and compact. It was creosoted on the outside and painted green throughout on the inside. His bed was a simple wooden box frame which could double as a settle. He cooked for himself and was largely self- sufficient, growing fruit and vegetables in his garden; of course he had a ready supply of coal during the Winter for his stove. He was a short stocky man with lots of facial hair. He always wore walking clothes, blue denim type jacket and trousers with chunky boots. Occasionally I would overhear Mr Canvin talking to his neighbours about life on the canal years gone by. He spoke of barge people catching cray fish by holding an oil lantern close to the water and this would attract the crayfish to the surface and then another person would scoop under them with a net, making a welcome supper. My Mother and Mr Canvin’s daughter would sometimes talk in disparaging terms about how he looked after himself but I thought that he lived like a king! He had a lovely old black and white collie dog that would wander around the area saying hello to who it pleased and at night the dog and he would share the bed together.
Mr Canvin’s cabin had been made by Chapman’s the Wheelwrights. If you carried on walking along the canal Eastwards you passed behind 3 more houses, the Memorial Hall and then under the A5, it was here, on the right that you came to Chapman’s yard. In the evening when I was around 8 or 9, I would climb over the fence and explore the deserted yard. There were stacks of Ash, Oak and Elm, slowly drying waiting for the job best suited for them. Ash with its long grain, ideal for shafts and ladder sides. Elm made the traditional coffin boards, but also was ideal for wheel hubs. Oak had lots of uses where something tough and weather resistant was required, like gates and fence rails. I remember the smell of all the wood shavings and the partly completed work. Sometimes someone coming out of the Swan pub opposite would spot me and shout at me and I would climb back over the fence on to the canal towpath and make my escape further eastwards.
The bridge under the A5 had water underneath and supported a variety of wildlife even after Willow Grove Estate was built. This bridge had originally been a traditional hump back bridge but because of the increase in traffic in the early 1900’s the level of the road was raised to level out the hump. The house on the East of the A5 now has an underground room reaching under the existing pavement as a result! While the work was being completed it was necessary to light the area with paraffin lamps and have a night watchman on duty. Tragedy struck when a vehicle ploughed straight through the watch-man’s hut killing him. Also, once when playing in the canal at that bridge, an elderly woman stopped me and told me that I shouldn’t be playing here as a child had drowned in this very spot. Of course all that did was create extra intrigue to the area. I don’t know if she was trying to scare me or was telling the truth.
The best bridge was the one on the Cosgrove road, it was next to the Recreation ground and lots of children would gather there. Underneath the road was a wide, flat tow path area and the water was clear, during Spring and Summer it was possible to fish for newts there. All three main types of newt were found there, Crested, Palmate and Smooth. The best to catch were the crested because they looked like mini dragons and dinosaurs, we would keep them in buckets and jam jars. Occasionally a boy might take one home and keep it as a pet or take one to school, but usually we released them at the end of the day.
The field next to the Rec. was called the Basin Field, which had been the turning point for the barges and also led around the back of the Rec. to Wharf lane where the Jones Brothers had a plant nursery. This was a proper garden nursery where men in the village would walk up and buy their plants for the garden and allotment, you didn’t buy coffee and twee ornaments made the other side of the world. I remember our neighbour coming back from the pub and telling my father that Mr Jones had been prevented from planting some seed in his nursery because an over protective Swan was attacking him!
Further on, the next field was Tin Hat field and here the embankment started getting steeper and was covered with hawthorn, blackthorn and ash. This area was full of wildlife, and we boys loved it here, making dens and firing our catapults. Some of the boys were quite accomplished with a catapult and by the time we were 11 or 12 we could hit small targets with regular ease, which sadly on reflection, was to the cost of the odd pigeon and moorhen.
Next along on the way to Cosgrove was the quarry field, this embankment was very steep, perfect when it snowed for sledging! Sometimes one or two brave or stupid souls would try riding down it on a bike, this always ended in tears, how we never broke an arm or leg I will never know.
The bridge at the far end of the Quarry Fields was a traditional hump back but had a large amount of limestone in it. Heading for Cosgrove from here there were some large trees which always had an active noisy Rookery in the Spring. Here a couple of brave brothers that I knew, would climb up to the uppermost branches to collect the eggs. Bird nesting was very popular with all the boys and a few girls. I was encouraged to collect them by my parents and others in the village. I could recognise a Blackbird and a Song Thrush egg before I went to school at 4.
We passed into Cosgrove parish and soon arrived at the Grand Union, here there was always something to do! If we played with the Cosgrove boys we always ended up getting into trouble, I can’t say too much about some of these exploits in case the Police haven’t closed their file! We could watch the barges go through the locks, just as long as we behaved ourselves and didn’t upset Mr Bailey and his wife, who were the Lock keepers. Sometimes by the time we were 9 or 10, we would carry on walking down the towpath to Wolverton and then duck under the tunnel by the iron bridge and follow the river home to Old Stratford. I always enjoyed that walk.
We boys hunted for grass snakes in the environs of the canal and were often successful. We grabbed them behind the head as they tried to evade us and then they would wrap their long bodies around our forearms. Often they would exude a defensive musky stench, but that didn’t deter us. One of my friends kept a number in his Dad’s garden shed and we would have to go on hunting expeditions to find dinner for them. The Dogs Mouth brook ran under the canal at the edge of the Quarry Field and it was here that was the spot to catch bullheads and stone loach with our hands. Frogs and toads were also on the menu, but much more difficult to find.
Looking back, we saw a great deal of wildlife, owls, herons, smaller birds in the pollarded willows, willow tits and tree sparrows and in the low grassy tussocks in the boggy ground, nested yellow hammers and rarer songbirds.
The canal towards Deanshanger was just as wild and overgrown. In the Winter of 62/63 the water froze solid and a group of the older boys walked to Deanshanger and back on the ice, but as I was only 6 and couldn’t swim, my mother wouldn’t let me go. Many years later a couple of knowledgeable men from the village claimed to have seen a Bittern on this stretch. There was a good bed of sedge and reed here, so as the reed bunting is a favoured surrogate nest, Cuckoos were often heard here early in April.
Once when we walked towards Deanshanger, to play in a deserted Farmhouse at Northfields we noticed a man standing with his bicycle on the bridge on the Puxley road. He didn’t speak to us and avoided eye contact, the next day we heard that he had committed suicide by drowning himself in the canal. The poor man suspected that he had cancer and was awaiting test results, the stress got too much for him and he took matters into his own hands. A week later his grieving widow heard from the Doctor that her husband’s result would have been given the all clear.
Again there was a lot of wildlife here, there can’t be many people who can remember seeing the Grafton Hunt in full cry hunting a fox directly across the field that is now Willow Grove all the way to the copse at Puxley Crossroads, where the unfortunate creature was ripped to pieces.
Where the bypass cuts through the path of the old canal, there were always lots of Meadow Pipits nesting, along with Skylarks. We were told that the development would not affect wildlife. I would like to meet those politicians and developers who made that decision and walk with them across the fields until we find another Meadow Pipit – I think it would be a long walk.