Monday, November 22, 2010

Canal Fever and Narrow Boat Dreams

   My obsessive Internet sleuthing turns up Canal Junction, with links to several dozen canals and a main link titled Choosing a Route. This useful feature allows one to consider personal attractions such as scenery, historic cities, peace, hustle & bustle, interesting villages, canal features, industrial history, pubs, and literary connections. Clicking on a canal link opens a page offering a map of the canal with a brief historical overview and canal facts: length in miles, number of locks, time to travel its length, and other features. It is here I discover England's waterways taken together consist of man made canals and navigable rivers or "navs."

Courtesy A. Denny,
   The Canal Heritage link connects to canal history, folk art, engineering, boats and barges, horse drawn boats, canal restoration news, pubs, canal side castles--oooh! Be still my heart! Every evening for a solid week I investigate these pages discovering more about narrow boats, canals, and Engineer James Brindley: He went on to act as senior engineer on the Trent and Mersey Canal. When his fame spread he then became involved, in some capacity, in work on 363 other canal projects before dying with several key projects left incomplete. Brindley set the standards for most of what followed, especially the dimensions for the narrow canals. (Canal Junction:; accessed 11/20/2010) 
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over R. Dee
   Thomas Telford and John Rennie follow in Brindley's wake, expanding the canal system further. Telford (1757-1834) favored the use of cuttings and embankments in the construction of canals and is the architect of the Llangollen Canal's cast iron Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts--engineering feats recognized for their brilliance as a UNESCO World Heritage site in June 2009. Telford opts to use long embankments and deep cuttings to ply a more direct route from point to point.
   One evening perusing Canal Junction I spot a button titled Boat Owner Centre. It is the Mother Lode of links to boat yards & marinas, canal boat builders, boat sales, and canal boat systems. I visit dozens of boat builders' websites. I am amazed and enchanted by the beauty and variety of the boats available. This site is a smorgasbord of delicious options and a feast for my canal and narrow boat besotted mind. I discover modern narrow boats offer the same amenities as motor homes and caravans.
   One may purchase a used and more or less well loved boat for the reasonable amount of thirty five to seventy thousand dollars, or commission the build of a new boat for seventy five to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars--or more. Depending on the length of the boat and the amount of money one wants to spend, it is possible to cruise simply with basics such as a shower, toilet, modest galley and living area, cabin with built in bed and closet, and central heating or--if money is no option--splash out on a custom interior with fine woods and extras such as air conditioning, washing machine, dish washer, a full size galley and bath, and satellite television in multiple sections. How on earth did narrow boats go from working barges with scant cabin space for a boatman on the move, to luxury water dwellings?
   By 1835 the English canal system was functioning at its peak. Great Britain's waterways stretched from London to Oxford, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, York, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Bristol, with a history of seventy year's service to trade and commerce. There were those who refused to believe anything could displace the canal system in England's economic schemes--and others who saw a new technology making steady headway, and who sought ways to cash in on it.   
Courtesy L. Biggs, NB Valerie
   Railways began development in England at the turn of the nineteenth century when the first public railways began operations in London in 1803. By 1807 railways in Wales were hauling coal to collieries and the first passenger fare paying railroad was established in Swansea. The era of railways launched itself in 1830 with the viability of the Liverpool & Manchester steam passenger rail service and large scale rail lines were built across England; the age of the steam engine arrived with a cloud of vapor and a piercing whistle to challenge the economic feasibility of canals. 
   According to Stan Yorke in his book English Canals Explained: Under the original canal acts the canal companies were prevented from transporting goods....the boats were therefore owned and operated by separate carriers such as Pickford, who also employed the boatmen. The boats themselves were all wood construction, as they always had been, and drawn by horse. The ability of the narrow boats to use both wide and narrow canals made them virtually standard for all long distance work...cabins had been fitted to the boats early on to allow the men to take longer journeys which might involve being away from home for several days. These cabins carried the boat's registration number, the name of the owner and the boat's home town....the boat men were well paid and were able to maintain a home for their wives and children. (p. 24)
Courtesy of  L. Biggs, NB Valerie
   The inevitable growth of the railways was faster and more unstoppable than the canals had been. The advent of rail overtook the canals and carrying companies had to find a way to cut expenditures in order to compete. Some companies formed alliances with the railways; others cut expenses closer to home, and by the mid- nineteenth century boatmen were faced with the inevitable truth: they had to cut the cost of their labor or find other work.
Traditional cabins courtesy  L. Biggs
Necessity is the mother of invention and the hard truth facing the boatmen meant giving up their homes on land and moving their families aboard as crew. "The carrying companies paid the master of the boat for the mileage traveled and the type of load, from which he had to reimburse his crew and feed the horse." (English Canals Explained, S. Yorke, p. 29) With no additional monthly bills, the boatmen managed to continue making a good living, and a few were able to become independent operators owning their own boats, known as number 1s. Eventually things became so tough on the cut many families disconnected from land life as they struggled to make ends meet. Working incredibly long, tough hours they raised entire families in a cabin seven foot wide by nine foot long. The boatmens' wives sought to make their cabins homey by hanging brasses and having the interior painted when the boat was in for repairs. The familiar roses and castles motif appears on boats during this period.
   At the turn of the 20th century diesel engines begin to replace horses. By the 1940's horses were nearly gone from the cut. With the development of modern gasoline powered engines the age of the long haul truck--or lorry as they are called in England--ascended in importance and roads were improved to support freight hauling.
© Sonia Rolt 1994
   By 1939 the nearly 3000 miles of canals and navigable rivers passed unnoticed by the majority of the British population. Many of the canals had fallen into disrepair and some had disappeared all together. A writer and engineer named R. T. C. "Tom" Rolt purchased a 70 foot ex-working boat named Cressy and refitted her for living aboard. He spent his honeymoon and a good part of the following year cruising up the Oxford canal and throughout the Midlands. He and his bride Angela witnessed firsthand the weed choked cuts, broken lock gates, and dried up canals. Published in 1944, his book Narrow Boat became a best seller, bringing the derelict canal system to the attention of the public, leading to the formation of the canal restoration movement and the founding of the Inland Waterways Association. 
Reading, England © Sue & Vic,
    Today canals are being restored at an unprecedented rate and new canals are in the planning. Canal side properties command a high price, and cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, and Reading have rebuilt and redefined canal side civic space with shops and public moorings. Towpaths offer space for walkers, joggers, bikers, and those who like to fish. They are linear parks passing through some of the most beautiful country on earth. England's canals and navs travel through every major city and hundreds of miles of open countryside. One can moor up in the heart of London at Paddington Basin, take a walking tour of the area, do a bit of shopping, see the sights, and be on the move again out into the countryside. In the space of a few days one might pass the 12th century ruins where a long dead English king was born and five miles further on around a curve come upon the 5th century Roman ruin of a long forgotten god. 
Oxford Canal, © Mortimer Bones
   In America one travels across this vast continent measuring distance traveled in thousands of miles; in England one travels across an island barely 800 miles long, measuring distance traveled in thousands of years. 
   Now I go to bed at night and have narrow boat dreams. I am standing with my hand on the tiller;  I can hear the low put-put of the engine and feel the boat underneath my feet. The wind picks up my hair riffling it gently, and I see the water moving in the canal. Looking out toward a curve ahead, I spot a boat approaching me from the opposite direction. Night after night my dream ends here.


  1. That boat approaching is your future and l`m at the tiller so step aboard and your dream will become reality. XX

  2. Ah my love,
    Just when I am convinced my karma in this life was earned by having slaughtered several small villages in a past life, you redeem my faith in humanity, men, and myself. I'd willingly go anywhere as long as it's with you: a narrow boat on the cut, a horse drawn caravan on the road to Gundagai, or a box under the bridge. All that matters to me is that your arms are around me.
    I love you,