Saturday 15 March 2014

Canal Cuttings (2)

This is just one of a series of around fifty old newspaper articles that I have been reading. I have been researching from old newspapers and magazines articles over the last 200 years or so based on the inland waterways. With particular interest taken in the issues of the day that were effecting the canals. The most active periods for evaluation and change, has always been just prior, during and shortly after the two world wars. It should be remembered that between the wars the ownership of some of the canals changed hands as the railway companies bought up the inland waterways to reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of 'asset stripping' actually had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were thinking, saying and doing at the time. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent on the canals today. Reading old newspapers can throw up some rather interesting stories. Here is what we would call today a public interest story.

Caveat: Some of the articles are difficult to read and even using modern electronic  scanning and text conversion methods. The odd punctuation, word or character may have been transcribed in error. 

The Spectator 14 May 1910
Wendover and the Wey and Arun

The distinguishing feature of Mr. Edwin Pratt's little volume "Canals and Traders" just published by Messrs. P. S. King and Son, is an extremely cogent series of arguments pointing out the difficulties, and here and there the impossibilities, of a complete reorganisation of our English canals, as suggested by the Report of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways. Incidentally, we are given an extremely interesting series of illustrations. The reproductions from photographs and the maps and diagrams make a fascinating study of canal life, the progress of the waterway and its adventures through long stretches of country and town. The diagrams showing the various levels at which some of the canals run are almost incredible except to these who have made a study of the subject. The canal is shown stretched out at length and viewed from the side, so that the spaces between the locks look like a stairway. Thus the canal between Liverpool and Hull, which has to climb six hundred feet to its summit level near Stansfield, resembles a mountain range with a sharp peak to it. The elevation of six hundred feet is surmounted by ninety-two locks in thirty two. miles. But not less fascinating than the diagrams are some of the pictures showing the difficulties which the engineers had to face in cutting a, passage-way for the canal through rock, or carrying the water by an aqueduct over a valley, or tunnelling a hole in a hill.

There is the Cowley Tunnel, with its embankment, for example, on the Shropshire Union Route between Wolverhampton and the Mersey. The canal before it enters the tunnel runs between sheer walls of rock; the cost of widening it would be prodigious. But the Cowley Tunnel is no more than an archway compared with others. The Norwood Tunnel, for instance, on the Chesterfield Canals 1 mile and three quarters long. The entrance is eight feet ten inches wide at the water level, and the height of the arch over the water eight feet eleven inches; in some places it is less. The Lappal Tunnel of two miles is even longer.

The scenes through which the bargemen and boatmen on these canals pass could hardly change more strangely than in entering and leaving these extraordinary passages pierced through the rock. It would be scarcely possible to imagine a drearier process of travelling. One of the tunnels, the Netherton, constructed in 1858, has a towing-path on each side, and is lighted by gas; boats have to pay a special charge of 4d a ton for using it. But the other tunnels, or most of them, are dark; they have no towing-path, and the boats are pushed through them by two men lying on their backs on the cargo or on a cross-beam, who tread against the sides of the tunnel and so get the boat along at a rate of about half-a-mile an hour. This is called "legging." Imagine legging a heavy boat through the Lappal Tunnel for four hours!

What wonder that the life of a bargeman should be an attractive subject to novelists. You are reminded of the delightful journey which the two children make with Sam Bossom in "True Tilda" on the Stratford-on-Avon Canal; the boat gliding through the deep grass country, the flowers scenting the banks of the meadows, and the 'Success to Commerce' ploughing her way through beds of green arrowheads in the water. Sam Bossom's question asks itself once more, the question which he lay awake at nights puzzling over. "This boat's mod'rate well laden, an' she takes more water lockin' up than if she was empty; but if she was empty, she'd take more water lockin' down. That's a fact an if you can give me a reason for it you'll be doin' me a kindness." Arthur found the reason later, sitting with Tilda, among stalks of loosestrife watching for moorhens and water-rats. "A boat takes up room in the water, doesn't it?
I was thinking of Sam's puzzle, and I've guessed it. A boat going downwards through a lock would want a lock full, all but the water it pushes out from the room it takes up. Wouldn't it?

But a boat going up will want a lock full, and that water too. And that's why an empty boat going downhill takes more water than a loaded one, and less going up. Do all readers face that problem with the same confidence with which they may read his descriptions of scenes along the canal bank.

The difference in the scenery of the countryside brought by the construction of the great network of canals which was put together in the sixty years or so which preceded the general adoption of the railway is at this distance of time difficult even to imagine. The added presence of water in any landscape alters the whole atmosphere. Water suddenly given to a dry stretch of country, even in the stiff form of a stone-lined reservoir, produces an immediate sense of light and space and coolness, like the eyes in the face of a beautiful woman, as Heine said. The sky is reflected in it, white or grey or blue; trees throw their shadows on it, green leaves are mirrored in its surface. And the canals spread water through England, not only in long levels and lines, like so many formal rivers, but in great lakes and reservoirs made to feed the higher levels. The water, too, brings its own changes and transformations with it. In winter the water highway may become impassable, or rather immovable. 

One of Mr. Pratt's photographs shows the Birmingham Canal frozen, and details are given of the difficulties caused to the traffic by the exceptionally severe frost of January and February, 1895. In that frost it was only just possible to keep the canal open at all, and thousands of tons of ice were taken from the main line of the canal between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. The cost of breaking up the ice and taking it out on to the canal banks came to £3,200, and the loss to the canal tolls owing to the interference with the traffic was £29,000. Frost and snow, of course, alter all country scenery profoundly; but the strangest way in which canals can alter scenery is perhaps with hot water. On the Birmingham Canal in the Black Country the proprietors of works situated on the banks have the right to take water out of the canal and use it for their boilers or for condensing steam. The water thus used is returned to the canal thoroughly warmed, and, in fact, whole lengths of the canal become permanently warm and do not freeze in winter. But a difficulty is added to the traffic owing to the steam which arises from the warm water under the colder air, and the manufactures which have been attracted to the canal banks complete the picture. The chimneys send out dense clouds of black smoke, the cold winter air shrouds the chimneys in fog, and the steam rising from the river under the dark pall overhead makes it impossible for the boatman on the canal to see more than a few yards ahead, so that the whole traffic of the waterway is reduced to a crawl, and the blocks at the bend of the canal or near the narrow bridges are worse than ever.

That is in the Black Country, and there is a certain fascination in the picture; the murkiness, the steam, the dark sky, the noise and hard work everywhere have their own distinction. But elsewhere the canals and their reservoirs add brightness and new life. Birds multiply wherever there is water and the undergrowth which springs up by the waterside. Coots and waterhens make their nests in the sedge which lines the banks of adjoining reservoirs; warblers climb about and nest in the reeds. Herons flap up from the side of the towing-path as the barge horse sweeps his flickering rope over the tops of the meadowsweet and willow herb half in and half out of the canal water. Swallows and martins hawk for gnats and flies high and low over the the slow current; sparrows seem to choose canals particularly to sit in the branches of pollard willows and dart fluttering out after moths or mayflies.

Sometimes a canal is chosen as the route for a line of telegraph wires, and the telegraph wire is a favourite point of vantage for the red backed shrike. But perhaps the completest, and in some ways the most permanent, addition to the life and scenery of the countryside brought by a waterway is when the canal is left derelict. A derelict canal, dry for part of its length and half filled with water in other parts, is a kind of sanctuary not only for birds but for flowers. All hollows in the general level of the land are sanctuaries of a sort; they present difficulties, slight or great, to the casual intruder, they are left untouched by the ploughman or the forester, and flowers seed themselves and birds nest in them the more readily, and with lessened chance of disturbance. A derelict canal is a sanctuary along almost its whole length. If there is water in it, the water is impassable, and objects desired by the casual visitor may very likely be situated on the far side, or they may be flowers, such as water-lilies, in the middle. If it is dry, undergrowth shoots up rapidly in it and being out of the line of any road or path, birds nesting in the undergrowth are undisturbed. Indeed, derelict canals, such as the Wendover Canal in Buckinghamshire, or the Wey and Arun Junction Canal in Surrey and Sussex, are in some ways the most permanent additions to landscape scenery imaginable. Even in these days, when money is spent by public bodies on almost everything, nobody is going to the expense of cleaning or filling in a derelict canal.

The full text of True Tilda can be read here on Wattpad.

The report of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways which had recently been published (1910) did not bode well for the future of the inland waterways. It brought with it a certain amount of public interest in the future use of the canal infrastructure. No one was looking at the long term future other than the public who saw the canals as either an amenity for fishing, walking and nature reserves. The alternative to a nature reserve being a place to dump rubbish and to back fill afterwards.

The 'Sam Bossom' puzzle in 'True Tilda' about the amount of water used when ascending or descending through a lock being different, still occupies people even today. The puzzle is in reality a conundrum, as there is no single definitive correct answer.

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