Sunday, 17 August 2014

Slow, slow ahead.

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 the last 200 years or so of the inland waterways. With particular interest 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 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 Canberra Times
Saturday 15 September 1984

Slow, slow ahead.

I sat in the "butty" of a pair of narrowboats on the Oxford canal as we glided soundlessly into the Somerton Deep Lock north of Oxford. The day was cloudy, the wind was blowing cold from the north cast, and the walls of the empty chamber of the lock oozed water and were covered in the green slime of over 200 years. It was late in the afternoon and the effect was distinctly eerie.

The boat filled the lock with just an inch to spare each side. From high above I could just see the rope that pulled us in, being hauled by an attractive but sturdy young lady, one of the crew of four looking after our every want on the Rose and Castle, out of Rugby.

As we glided deeper into the lock I noticed chains hanging at intervals, dangling in recesses built into the brick walls by the bricklayers of two centuries ago, like some forgotten instruments of torture. There was a bump as our buffer came to rest gently against the massive beams of the lock gate. A shout from the captain way above us and the gate at the stern end of the lock swung shut, responding to more than gentle pressure from the strong arms and equally strong stern end of the other young member of our crew.

Again gently, for there is rarely any force or coercion these days on the canals that criss-cross England, our gaily painted butty began to rise, brick by sodden brick. Looking over the side towards the swirling water churning into the lock chamber, released by opening the paddles of the lock, again by our young crew, I watched boat and water rise in a majestic cooperative movement. Within minutes I was no longer at the bottom of an ominous wall, and the chains held no terrors. As our roses and castles rose to the level of the canal above, and I could take in the magnificent rural scene around me; as I was told that the chains were, there for the very necessary purpose of hanging onto if you found yourself drifting out again; as the Rose again took us in tow with scarcely a shrug and never a shudder, I decided for the second time that there is nothing more relaxing and uplifting for jaded travellers' spirits than a week on the narrowboats that travel the canals of England.

Not for me the do-it-yourself variety, requiring navigational skills and canal expertise. There is only one way, and that is to take a "hotel" narrowboat, where you can enjoy the best of all worlds. Not pampered, but living in cosy if limited comfort.

It doesn't matter that I must duck my head if I am to keep it,. That my sleeping accommodation is cramped, and that the distance covered in a week might be 100 kilometres or less. It is only important that I can forget crowded trains, rushing buses and taxis everlastingly delayed aircraft, and people. When this week is over I'll be back to it all again, and will enjoy its excitement, but for just one week there is but one thing for me: to watch the swans floating by, to see the cowslips on the bank, to catch a glimpse of the quartet of ducklings under the low branch of the willow tree on the water's edge, and perchance catch up on some writing.

The Oxford Canal was opened to traffic in 1778, when a narrowboat cargo of coal arrived in Banbury. It was designed by James Brindley. who surveyed the route without advantage of survey maps, clinging closely to hill and valley contours. When completed in 1790 it created a canal link between Manchester and Oxford, and for a considerable time was the main through-route from the Midlands to London, for the Oxford Canal joined the Thames at Oxford. We selected it, from the many other narrowboat routes available, more because it suited our timetable than anything else but also because its route differed from our previous canal excursion from London to Aylesbury, travelled in1980.

We joined the Willow Wren Company's Rose and Castle, captained by Kirk Martin, late on a Saturday afternoon in early May. It was the first tour of the 1984 season for these narrowboats, and for some of their crew. The paint of the roses and the castles was bright and spanking; the equally bright watering can was standing proudly on the roof with the tubs of pansies and violas; the red, white, blue and yellow striped tiller bar on each of the boats stood up proudly to welcome us.

Inside, tradition took us by the hand. There were gaily decorated hanging plates around the saloon walls, pictures and knick-knacks all over the place, and vases full of flowers for, as we knew, in their heyday the narrowboats were home to their crew for much of their lives. Traditionalists at heart, we were pleased to see tradition being preserved, and knew that wherever we went over the next week, we would draw very close to England's canal navigations, as the canals were called in the 18th century.

That Saturday in May was eventful in another way too. In pursuit of Blackwell and antiquarian books we had taken a bus out to Fyfield from Oxford, having first had a look at the main Blackwell establishment in Broad Street, Oxford. The village of Fyfield is owned by St John's College, Oxford, but a few years ago the late Sir Basil Blackwell must have used strong persuasion to obtain the Manor House from the college for his antiquarian section. What a master stroke it was. Everything fits the scene. From the large blossoming cherry tree at the gate to the solid oak door entered by a wicket; from the stone-flagged hall behind the door, into which horses were once ridden; from the stone-arched doorways leading into high-beamed rooms lined with suitably designed bookcases; from the first-floor "solar" room to the oak settle beneath the western windows. All of it now made over to books. There could be nothing more fitting.

From that highlight we had made our way, just as satisfying, to another large bookshop back in Oxford, not far from the railway station. I had emerged from it delighted with a first edition of L. F. Fitzhardinge's 'William Morris Hughes: That Fiery Particle'.

So on to the Oxford Canal in good heart. We met our amiable hosts, and our canal companions, three other Australians and three English women, pulled out from Oxford from beside the great red brick mass, now looking decidedly derelict, that was once the Morris radiator factory, passed the junction of the Oxford Canal with the River Thames and pulled up for the night at a secluded spot a few miles northwards, not near any thing. It was idyllic.

Our berth was in the butty. My wife and I chose single cabins, thinking that we might thereby have more room, but I'm not so sure. Mine was tiny. The bunk was a reasonable length, with the bottom half recessed into an alcove built into the next cabin. There was a sink and drawers beneath, with storage space under the bunk. Hanging space for clothes was behind the door and above the bunk in another recess. Free floor space I measured at about 75 by 70 centimetres, cut off at the corner by a dog-leg passage from the lavatory opposite my cabin. Does this sound cramped? Not a bit of it. In the same way that the boat builders had used every square inch, so did I learn to do the same.

The result was a warm and cosy corner, from which I could stretch out and watch the placidly passing parade. And what a parade it was, from the first day out. Other narrowboats chugging by, with names like Rose of Lancaster, Magdalen College, Regent and the less dignified Blue Streak, Martini, etc, and one that came very close to home, Canberra.

I noticed that each of them carefully observed the rules of the game at the many locks. Closing top gates and paddles when going uphill after leaving the lock, showing common courtesy and giving way when necessary, and so on. It's all very basic, I thought, as I watched our young crew handle the windlass to wind the paddles and put their backs to the beam of the lock gate. But as I saw one narrowboat run aground through an error of judgement; and as I felt our own craft bump violently against the brick approaches of a bridge near the Slat Mill Lock on the second day out, causing the hanging china ware and brass ornaments to swing violently, I knew there was no room for lapse of concentration. The captain had two boats over 20 metres to man age in narrow, sometimes ill-kept canal navigations, following winding, shallow waterways dug 200 years ago and only now beginning to be appreciated once again, if only for recreation and a modicum of cargo-carrying. The captain had to know his business.

There was another passing parade. The ducks on the bank protesting mildly as our wash bathed their feet; the Friesians drinking from the canal and raising their heads within feet of our bow; the martin building its nest from the mud near the watering point at Fenny Compton Lock; the solitary swan as she settled on to her nest near the bank, eyeing us; the two Canada geese carefully guarding their young gosling's. What more could you want? But there was much more. The bright blossom of the cherry and the tulips in the lock-keeper's garden; the new green of the leaves of the pussy willows as they drank their first fill from the waters; the bright purple of the aubretia on old stone walls.

The butty? No one seems to be sure, but one story is that the word comes from the coal mining days on the canals, when a word like "buddy" was commonly used. Plausible enough. One of many admiring onlookers as our motor and butty inched past other boats asked our captain, "Why butty? Why not lighter or something?" What a suggestion! Just as soon ask the Friesians along the bank why they are not Hereford's. The answer he got was along those lines, but put very politely.

Our second night was spent moored at an open piece of land near Dashwood's Lock. On the way we had passed through locks bearing such names as Duke's Lock, Kidlington Green Lock, and for a space had joined the River Cherwell, canalised for this part of its length. Our mooring was good enough in that the canal edge was sharp and the water deep enough for a night on an even keel, but it was exposed open rural country, and the wind was biting.

More locks, and a long day for the crew brought us to Banbury. For much of the way we found ourselves accompanied by the Cherwell, generally just a few feet below the canal, bringing home to us the artificiality of the canal. There was Nell's Lock, supposedly named after Nell Gwynne who is reputed to have stayed in a village nearby, but I'm a bit inclined to think there may have been some one else whose name was Nell. Through the day we had tried our hand at helping the crew, but we found them very well able to look after things themselves, thank you. They didn't mind us offering to lend a hand, but I think we only got in their way. Banbury, a clean, busy town, with everyone making sure they photographed the Cross and tasted Banbury cakes. Quite nice, but not as tasty as those I remembered of old, from the cake shop near the post office at Hindmarsh, Adelaide. Is anything?

So we moved along towards the summit of the Oxford Canal, reached on the third full day of travel, at Clasdon. This is where the canal levels out, and stretches its legs along the top until it decides to drop down again. It is where the water level is at its most important, for if there is no water at the top there can be none below. The engineers therefore built reservoirs to feed water into the system at strategic intervals. Cropredy village, where we stayed the night, is reached from the lock over a hazardous path across green, green fields edged with blossom of black thorn. The Anglican Church, with Norman tower, is built up on an island of green. It is stone-walled, self-contained with its cemetery, above and aloof from the rest of the village. To my delight I found another house of worship. Tucked in behind the Sun rising Hotel, fittingly enough, is a tiny building bearing the name Primitive Methodist Chapel. Not used now, it has been, I would think, lovingly preserved by the owners of the house in whose grounds it now stands. I made sure I photographed both of these buildings, so different but yet so similar in their purpose.

The summit of the canal which extends from Cropredy to Napton on the Hill is, surprisingly, not as exciting as I would have thought, despite the history of the country around. It has associations with the Civil War, with Cavaliers, Cromwell and Charles I. At Napton, reached towards the close of one of our days, there is a series of nine locks, as the canal begins its descent. The way to get the butty through these locks, I was to find, is by "bow-hauling" it. I finished the day on the end of a rope, and learnt over several miles along the tow-path what it must have felt to the teams of men who hauled the narrowboats in the 18th century until someone discovered that one horse could do the work of six men making an early instance of man's redundancy. There have been others!

Here at Napton we were helped by a lock-keeper. Essential to the successful operations of the canal companies in former days, their role is now restricted to maintenance tasks, but they are still on hand if needed. This one, mature, gum-booted and cloth-capped, with a twinkling eye, may have been the more ready to lend a hand to our two attractive girl crew members than if they had been mere men, but perhaps I misjudge him. He picked our Australian-ness quickly, and began to talk cricket. He was pleased when I told him that Don Bradman and Bill O'Reilly were still around, and shook his head sadly when I said, at his questioning, that Clarrie Grimmett, Arthur Chipperfield, and Bill Ponsford had long since passed on. Clearly these three names meant something to him. He spoke of an Australian airman of World War II who came back recently to travel the canals and talked to him of Bridge 154. We had just passed under it - isolated, bleak and windswept, leading from one farmer's field to another. The airman related how he had crossed Bridge 154 one night and next day found himself in jail! but The Rose and Castle was through the lock and we had to hop aboard. There must be a way to get the rest of the tale, but how?

The sun shone for us as we turned from the Oxford into the Grand Union Canal. Much of this section of the Grand Union was widened in the 1930s in the final attempts of the canal industry to recover its lost place among England's transporters. The locks were improved and widened, and for a time there was a flutter of traffic, but no more. Passing through these waters is easier and quicker, but the heavy concrete abutments at the lock-sides, starting to crumble in places after 50 years, reminded us of the inevitability of something or other. They will stand for many more years, but so have the brick, stone and oak of the old narrow locks still standing alongside but 150 years older. In one of these now-disused narrow locks a timber narrowboat lies at the bottom. All that you can see of it is part of the rudder sticking up out of the water at one end, and a piece of the bow at the other, and just below the surface, etched against the water, is the shape of the boat that carried cargo in another day.

Leamington Spa for the night, another piece of romantic England in yet another of its periods of excess and enthusiasm. We had no time to do more than admire the fine architecture of the centre, and hope that the current revival of interest in these waters of a different kind from those we sailed along will continue. It seemed quite fitting that our Rose and Castle threw out its ropes finally for us at Warwick. This is where the magnificent ancient Warwick Castle is situated, so integral a part of the Wars of the Roses. What better place for the Rose and Castle?

At the end of our week our group of eight had come to know each other very well. We hope we might meet again, but it's not likely even though we took each other's names and addresses. We had come to know and understand the canals of England, a little of how they worked, and something of the mania that built them. We thought we understood a little better another kind of mania that might in turn envelope us if we aren't careful. The travel mania. It needed a week of introspection, idleness and often stimulating conversation to get us back on the ground again. At the end of it we congratulated our crew, wrapped up our model narrowboats and other mementoes, and inwardly thanked the British Inland Waterways Association for keeping the Oxford Canal open. Commercial traffic has dis appeared from most of it, but pleasure boating is becoming firmly established.

Placidly, I ruminated. But then suddenly towards the end of the trip I was reminded of another kind of mania sweeping this country as it has most others. It came in the form of a smaller pleasure boat that swept past us, ignoring the 4mph (about 6km/h) speed limit, and armed with an outboard motor. The radio was blaring, and the wash of the craft was belting away at the banks of the canal, a prime cause of damage. I can only hope that the sainted souls in their places of rest in the burial mounds, churchyards and crypts that lie on or near the banks of the canals will preserve us from this. At the same time, I hope the volunteers of the Inland Waterways Association will get enough public support to allow them in turn to help those souls.

A typical England canal scene, with a narrowboat leaving the lock and two others in the background.

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