Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Curiosity Becomes Obsession

     (Yes this blog is about love and my beloved who is the rainbow and the treasure at the rainbow's end, but it is also about my love for narrow boats and life on the cut. Every story begins somewhere--and we are still in the beginning before he and I ever exchanged a word. One cannot reach the treasure until traveling the length of the bow.)
     As the days rolled forward into late Autumn I found myself dashing home after work to log in and search the 'Net for information on Narrow boats and British waterways. I was consumed by a need to know who built the canals, when, and why; the answers to which tell us why narrow boats are designed as they are: seven feet wide and thirty to seventy two feet long. 

© National Portrait Gallery, London, England

Brief  History of the English Canals
The canals were designed to move freight and goods from the interior factories of  the country to the large ports at Bristol, London, and Manchester. Prior to the development of the canal system, large amounts of freight were moved coastally by boat, or horse and cart on medieval rutted roads that often washed out or were churned into knee deep muck.
     James Brindley, father of the English canals, was born to gentlemen farmers and craftsman in Leek, Staffordshire. Given little in the way of a formal education, he was apprenticed at age seventeen to a millwright during which time he developed exceptional talents. Brindley set himself up as a wheelwright gaining renown for his extraordinary ability to repair a vast array of machinery. In 1752 he developed an apparatus to drain water from coal mines which brought Brindley to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, a 17th century coal magnate.
     The Duke needed an expeditious and inexpensive means of transporting his coal from Worsley to Manchester. In 1759 a commission was granted for the Bridgewater canal which opened in 1761, and the age of the canals was brought into being to serve the burgeoning industrial revolution underway in England. (Wikipedia, English canals, 2010).
     Brindley's genius in canal design displayed itself in the concept--borrowed from the Chinese--of contouring. Instead of digging costly tunnels, locks, and embankments in order to bore a straight path from point to point, a contoured canal follows the lay of  the land, meandering along much as a river might. Man made engineering projects were kept to minimum as a result. Later canals would require these mechanisms so the system could flourish and grow, reaching out across the face of England, connecting small villages, larger towns, and populated commercial hubs with coastal shipping ports.  The minimum width of the canal locks and bridge holes was seven feet, hence the need for a "narrow" boat.

Horse Drawn Narrow Boats
Originally designed to haul freight on the canals, narrow boats have remained unchanged in their basic design for nearly two hundred years. Original working boats were made of wood and pulled by horse power. Boats were towed by the horse while it walked the tow path along side the canal. A horse drawn narrow boat could haul ten times the amount of freight as a horse and cart, saving the producers of coal and pottery money and time in getting goods to market. 
     The basic boat design starts at the back end with the stern and the tiller--the platform upon which one stands and the means of steering the boat. Next comes the cabin, and for those on the old wooden work boats this was miserly space indeed. They were lucky to have six feet by eight  for a wood or coal fired stove, a drop down table, cupboards and lockers, built in benches, and a make shift bed. Continuing forward the remainder of the boat was dedicated to hauling freight with beams, stands, and top planks allowing for the deck to be divided, and freight stored and covered with tarpaulins rolled up over the top of the planks and tied down. A small fore deck at the very front of the bow allowed a bit of storage space and a place to perch with a lantern when entering tunnels.
     Ever heard of the term "legging it?" As a child growing up in the Alaskan Territories, we often didn't have a reliable automobile--or if we did it was in use transporting the man of the house to work and back, which meant women and children walked everywhere they wanted and needed to go. My Welsh grandmother used to call this "legging it," as in "we shall be legging it to the market." I always wondered how Lily George came by that term--and now I know! My mother's mother was born and raised in the coal mining country of Wales and lived as a young woman in Cardiff and Swansea. She would have been more than passing familiar with the site of coal laden barges on the canal system.
     The oldest canals did not build towpaths through the tunnels. This meant widening them which was costly business. Instead the horse was unhooked from the boat, and it went on with its minder to the other end of tunnel to wait. In short tunnels the boatmen would balance at each end of a plank and "walk" the boat through the tunnel. In the longer tunnels professional  leggers were available for hire. According to the Marsden History Group "At the three mile long Standedge Tunnel expert leggers could get an empty boat through in 1 hour 20 minutes, taking 3 hours with a full load, for which they were paid 1s 6d." ( Legging it on a narrow boat was extremely dangerous and many's the man who lost his life in the doing of it. I am in awe of the technological savvy of the British engineers, and the hard working heart and soul of the boatmen. 
     Every time I watched a BBC program or British movie throughout the years I was always amazed at how many lovely bucolic streams seemed to meander across the face of such a small island, appearing in the backgrounds. Now I laugh in wonder and delight as I realize they weren't streams at all-they were canals!

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