Monday, 25 July 2011

A new form of honey trap!

The earliest form of transport of goods to be used by man would have been over your shoulder in a pack. With just the necessities needed to ensure your day to day survival. Essentials like food, clothing, weapons and tools. The landscape in those far off days would be traversed following animal trails through the forest and by following river courses. Rivers courses would have been surrounded by flood meadows and would not have been restricted other than by the natural contours of the land. It has long be thought that the rivers were the main routes to the interior.

The Neolithic or New Stone Age (6000 years ago)  can be defined as the time when people took up agriculture as a way of life, and stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers. This lifestyle required our ancestors to use slash and burn tactics to clear trees and scrub to provide clear areas where the crop could grow. The soils created by slash and burn were impoverished and so new areas would be constantly opened up. Changing the landscape of forests and flood meadow forever. As the land converted over to dry meadow, so the soil would improve over time providing fodder for the farming of larger numbers of animals.

Simple stone tools were in use for thousands of years as technology change moved at a very slow pace in those far off days. Simple boats like rafts and the dugout canoe would have evolved into coracle style boats. Their main purpose would have been used for fishing. The coracle could also have been used to aid the transport of goods. The coracle is light and easy to move around. Good for getting around restriction and blockages on rivers. (a bit like the stoppages of today) The first actual record of coracle construction goes back to early Roman times but the technology was already an ancient one even by then.

You might imagine that at that time there would have been little need for transportation of bulky or heavy items. But some magnificent transport achievements were made by our ancestors. Stonehenge is a case in question, the first stage of building started around 5,100 years ago. (the first stone circles may have been erected as early as 5400 years ago)

Modern techniques of “experimental archaeology” have used a variety of methods to test archaeological hypotheses about how things in the past were used, moved or worked based on archaeological material evidence. The general consensus is that water transport by raft for some of the heavy stones for part of the journey, from Wales is a distinct possibility.

When our ancestors moved into the more sedentary localised lifestyle. Certain items such would have had to be moved to them rather, than they moved to it. The new transport technology would then become the string of packhorse.

About 4,500 years ago, the Beaker Folk introduced a pastoral pattern to the agricultural lifestyle. As population grew, more marginal land was brought into cultivation, and was farmed successfully for hundreds of years, until climate changes forced its abandonment. Communities were small, but they were communities, so people could and did indulge in large projects requiring group participation, such as the building of communal graves.

We know that our ancestors were a resilient lot because of some of the large earthwork structures they built, using just antler and bone tools. The significant difference between us and them is one of cost and time. In those days time was measured by the seasons and cost had no real meaning in a society built upon barter and exchange. Like worker bees, each person would have been working for the common good. The motivation to provide the manpower was possibly based on religion or superstition rather than volunteering.

One theoretical piece of experimental archaeology proposes the idea that rafts could be moved along sections of the shallow rivers by the creation of temporary dam structures to allow water levels to be raised. A lesson possibly learned by our ancestors by observing Beavers who are also adept at building such structures. The forerunner of today’s weirs used to back up the water and maintain depth. Simple weirs or dams were known to be used to make pools where fish could be corralled for later capture. Eel traps were also commonly placed in the vicinity of such structures.

Under the Romans the rudimentary trackways evolved so the technology would move on to wagon and horse. As the hamlets and villages evolved, so would trade. Markets would develop and transport between the countryside and the village would develop further. The Romans were the first to seriously use the idea of improving rivers for the transport of materials. Sections of rivers were deepened, straightened and canalised through the use of slave labour. This led to the use of rudimentary locks on tidal sections of rivers. Where the water was held in or held out depending on the tide. But at times when water levels were equal, boats could be moved between the two waterways. After the Romans departed the technology of canal building, water management and road construction was lost in the dark ages for hundreds of years.

The next major change was when William the Conqueror arrived on the scene. He built a strong centralized administration to control the newly conquered English. Towns would grow and fledgling industry would come with that growth. Weaving, milling, mining, pottery, metal working and a whole host of other trades would develop over time.

About 500 years later, with George I on the throne the very nature of English society and the political face of the realm changed. This was the age of the grand country house, when many of the great stately homes that we can visit today were built. Rather than being conquered, we were out there doing a bit of conquering on our own account. We acquired more and more territory overseas through conquest and settlement, lands that would eventually make up an Empire stretching to every corner of the globe. This was the catalyst for the industrial revolution.

The first modern canals were an answer to the age old problem of moving coal in sufficient quantities, between the mines and towns and cities. The Bridgewater canal was the re-birth of an already ancient technology. Horses stopped carrying a pack or hauling a cart full of coal. The horses provided the motive power to haul the boats which were now filled with many different kinds of goods.

Queen Victoria came to the throne, Victoria oversaw England at the height of its overseas power. The British Empire was established in her reign, and it reached its greatest expanse under her. For the first time, speed as well as the cost of delivery became one of the deciding factors. Technology moved on, rails replaced the roads. Steam replaced the horse and larger amounts of coal and other goods could be moved, but now with shorter journey times.

During the 1800s the Industrial Revolution spread throughout Britain. The use of steam-powered machines, led to a massive increase in the number of factories. People from the countryside began to move into the towns looking for better paid work. The wages of a farm worker were very low and there were less jobs working on farms because of the invention and use of new technology such as threshers. Also thousands of new workers were needed to work machines in mills and foundries.

For years the canals and railways competed side by side, new technology in the form of the internal combustion engine modernised the canals boats for a time. But as the rail network grew, the canal network stood still. The time came when the railway was the much more cost effective medium for moving large quantities of goods. The canals started their long slow decline.

Then it was the turn of the railways to come under attack from the roads. Improvements in road building allowed for point to point delivery of goods. The motorways reduced the point to point times. The era of road building had comprehensively replaced the era of railway building. Which in turn had replaced the era of canal building. The railways went into decline, Beeching wielded his axe and road transport was king. Our roads are now full far beyond their built for capacity. People oppose the construction of more and more roads. A single accident can force a stoppage on our motorways. Time is such an expensive commodity in the road haulage business.

Where will the next technological breakthrough come from. I have no idea! Technology foresight holds no clues. As a nation we need to change back from a service industry to a manufacturing industry. People still want to live in the country side or in the outer fringe of suburbia and at the same time have the transport infrastructure to commute to and from their place of work. Our major cities are unable to cope with the numbers of people commuting in an out. Congestion charging and exorbitant parking fees as well as the spiraling cost of rail fares have not stemmed the tide.

Our ancestors lives sprouted technological innovation over the millennia. The innovations made their and our life easier and safer. Now the tables are turned and technology leads our life and we are expected to conform to its stringent requirements. The future is as uncertain for the canals as it is uncertain for everything else.

Now, the canals are more a place of leisure, a place to enjoy the slow speed years of retirement. People, governments and perceptions have changed towards the canals. The canals are now viewed by some as part of our cultural history. They are viewed by others as a linear theme park. For others they provide a cycleway away from our crowded roads. For the first time in a long time we are seeing their worth as places of peace and quiet solitude. There is a future for the rivers and canals, but will it be a cost effective one. The inland waterways are looking for a role to fulfil one that will give them some tangible worth. Their worth cannot be measured in financial terms alone. But in this time of financial feast and famine that's the criteria that will be used to measure everything.

Bee Wally
One thing I am certain of is the proposal by British Waterways to return to the ancient worker bee culture, for the common good. As British Waterways seeks an army of volunteer bee's for its continued future. What will be the motivator for this new breed of worker bee? Will it be  religion, superstition, crossed fingers or more smoke and mirrors. We all know who is sat at the top and who gets all the honey and takes all the plaudits.

When I see the top echelon at BeeW down at the bottom of a lock digging out the dredging's, I will also believe in the tooth fairy and porcine avionics. Click the link to listen to Arthur Askey sing the BW anthem "Oh, what a glorious thing to be, A healthy grown up BW busy busy bee."


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