Sunday, 13 July 2014

Canal Cuttings (33)

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. Covering the last 200 years or so of life on the inland waterways. With particular interest in the major 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 waterways to get reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of asset stripping had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the past. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent 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 Australian Women's Weekly 
19th January 1977 
By Pat Dreverman 

With holiday-makers in tow, Jim the barge horse trudges about 2000km a year along the canals. There's an ancient strict navigation law on Britain's inland waterways: everything gives way to horses! Which is why there's apt to be a comic commotion on the canals when people in pleasure-boats see old Jim and Pamela bearing down on them.

Jim is an enormous black-and-white barge horse and Pamela is the traditionally painted barge he pulls around England for the delectation of tourists and anglers and birdwatchers and everyone else in sight. You see them all grabbing at their cameras, and many a pleasure-craft or Noddy boat as the bargees loftily call them has got stuck in a mudbank in the helmsman's haste to get the romantic scene on film.

There are other horse-drawn boats on the British canals these days, but they are much smaller and do only day trips. Pamela is the only remaining horse barge in use for long holiday tours in the United Kingdom. And Jim is the last true barge horse. His brasses glint proudly in the sun and the flanks of his harness are decorated in red and yellow. On days when the insects annoy him he wears bobbled ear-stalls.

He is about 12 years old and came originally from Ireland. His value is inestimable, so the crew take care not to overwork him. Jim has his own measures too and simply stops pulling if he decides he has had enough. Pamela. 21.3m or 71ft long and technically called a narrow-boat, was built at the turn of the century to carry coal. Now she carries eight passengers and a crew of three on week-long trips of about 80km (50 miles).

The season starts in May at Rickmansworth on the Grand Union Canal just north of London, and the boat slowly works its way north through suburbs, parks, woods, huge industrial cities and countryside. The return journey is made from Wales, with the season ending back in Rickmansworth in September. The total is 2000km (1200 miles).

I joined Pamela on the Llangollen Crewman Eric Johns attends Jim towing the narrow-boat Pamela. Canal in Cheshire, close to the Welsh border. I was welcomed on board by Cobber, the ship's dog, and Beverley Parrott, from Sydney, the cook. Beverley's brother Jeff is the captain. The third member of the crew was Eric Johns, who looked after Jim and guided him along the towpath. Passengers were accommodated in four two-berth cabins each with a hand-basin and electric light. There were plenty of blankets and pillows and we supplied our own linen. There wasn't a lot of space: Pamela is only 2.3m (7ft) wide: but on sunny days we spent most of our time sitting on the roof or walking on the banks. 

Easy to catch up

My fellow travellers were a mixed group, a nursing tutor, a secretary, an American student, an engineer, a customs officer and an opera singer. Once the boat was on the move the peacefulness of our journey was euphoric. There was no engine noise and Jim's hooves moved silently on the towpath. The sounds of the countryside were clear: the lowing of cattle, bird calls and the wind in the reeds.

Hedgerows and banks were bright with forget-me-nots, briar roses, irises, Queen Anne's lace. Swans sailed in our wake and ducks and other waterfowl bustled in and out of the water. There were many humpback stone bridges and here, where the canal narrowed, it was easy to step ashore and explore the countryside. Because of the slow pace we could catch up with the boat again.

We became expert "lock-keepers," opening and closing the large number of locks that raise or lower the boats from various levels of the canals. In some places there were virtual staircases of locks. Steering the barge called for good powers of concentration, especially on the bends, because of its great length. Our leg of Pamela's journey ended at the market town of Nantwich. From there it was a short trip to catch the express train from Crewe back to London. After the pace of the week on Pamela the speed of the train was almost unnerving.

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