Friday, December 04, 2009

elementary canals


I recently spent time on a narrowboat and, as a relative newcomer, was captivated by every aspect of the experience.


Although artificial waterways have been with us for millennia - there's still a navigable part of the English canal system that was dug by the Romans - it was the industrial revolution that saw the great boom in their construction.

Actually, it was more of a symbiosis. Canals came early in the revolution, mostly in the century starting in 1750, and the ability to move huge amounts of goods reliably allowed many industries to take off. A horse pulling a narrowboat can pull up to fifty times as much as a horse pulling a cart.

Additionally, it allowed stability. How could Staffordshire potteries ship their goods by bumpy cart on rocky roads? They were, unsurprisingly, among the first to invest in the new waterways.

One of the first big canals, the Bridgewater, connected coalfields with a town of 25,000 called Manchester. It halved the price of coal there at a stroke. Where would you have chosen to build your new mill then? Imagine if, say, Southport suddenly had half price gas and electricity today. It is no coincidence that Manchester became the world's first industrial city.

Incidentally, the standard size of today's narrowboats is due to a system built for the Duke of Bridgewater, 70 feet by 6 feet 10 inches, designed for the system in his mines three hundred years ago.

The railways knocked canals out of favour being markedly faster (the five hours it took me to go on the canal from Sowerby Bridge to Brighouse is covered by a train in less than ten minutes). The railways not only work at speed, they don't freeze over either.

The last major stretch of canal was built in the early 1900s, and within a couple of decades numerous canals were falling into disrepair.

In the mid-20th century the end of commercial boats (some, even that late, still drawn by horses after 150 years) overlapped with the abandoning of many stretches, but also the fledgling pleasure boaters as documented in LTC Rolt's 1944 book Narrow Boat. He was a founder of the Inland Waterways Association who, to this day, do an energetic job of preserving and restoring canals.

The network was nationalised by the great socialist postwar government, which made non-commercial concerns get a look-in, but also allowed sweeping detrimental policy to be applied. Today, there's over 2,000 miles of navigable waterways in the UK and more boats using them than at the height of their industrial past.

That's all well and good, but why would you do that? What's the attraction?


From a purely practical perspective, I'm sure the freedom in simplicity and safety are some small part of the allure. The buoyancy of the water that made it so easy for horses also means that minor prangs aren't a big deal as you bounce off. Additionally, that slow speed means it's hard to do any real damage. This adds up to a mode of transport so easy and safe that complete novices are allowed to hire and drive one away.

But the real appeal is in what's outside the boat and what's inside you.

The canal and navigable waterways network doesn't show you a manicured version of the land, but instead shows you what's really there. You get to see all that makes up England as it really is. The towns, cities, farms, hills, suburbs, visible to you up close from an angle that isn't trying to show off.

It's something that LTC Rolt noted in his somewhat harsh depiction of Leicester.

The River Soar is Leicester's back door and, as back doors are apt to do, it reveals 'domestic offices' which usually remain discreetly hidden from the eyes of visitors.

Broad squares and pretentious public buildings proclaim the city's prosperity to the traveller by road, but the water-borne traveller sees a very different picture. This is no less than the ugliness and squalor which underlie the superficial pomp and circumstance of all great cities.

We saw the reeking gas works, mountainous refuse dumps, the power-station with its gigantic steam-capped cooling towers, great mills pulsating with machinery rising sheer from the water's edge and, above all, the countless mean streets where dwelt the servants of these monsters.

Whilst the system certainly does wriggle peculiar routes through some of the mingiest parts of the country - I'm looking at you, Stoke on Trent - it mostly moves through glorious rural places. The Macclesfield canal's soft fecund contours, the epic expanse around the navigable Trent, the imposing Pennine grandeur of great stretches of the Rochdale canal.

Nearer than the surrounding landscape, the constant close proximity to wildlife places you amidst the outside world instead of looking at it from a removed position as one does in other modes of transport or places to stay.

You can go for weeks at a time away from much that blights modern life. I don't just mean the obvious assault of billboards, sirens and smoothflow beers. There's something subtler. There are only two types of people you see. Firstly, there are the other boaters, with whom - as with hillwalkers seeing each other upon the fells - there's considerable cameraderie.

The second group are on land, using the towpath as a linear park. These are all dog-walkers, runners and cyclists, meaning it's quite possible for weeks to go by and you forget obesity exists. The towpath folks greet you as readily as any fellow boater.

You are actively acknowledged by the vast majority of people you see, breaking down the armoured alienation that mass society imposes.

Being acknowledged by your fellow humans isn't the only return to a life that your primal self recognises. Pootling at 4mph under stone arch bridges dappled with water reflection like the video for True, you realise that it's not just what you see, it's the way that you see it.

You develop a sense of wonder at the detail of life. You begin to realise just how important detail is... 4mph is walking pace, and that walking pace is the speed at which the human brain can absorb and analyse the myriad of minute details around it. On a canal boat, wandering somewhat aimlessly around the countryside, you soon begin to realise that it's the sum of these details that compose the nature of the place you are in.

- Steve Haywood, Narrowboat Dreams

LTC Rolt notes this element connecting with a place so deep that his description reads in a romantic swoon.

No-one who has not experienced it can fully appreciate the unfading fascination of this tranquil voyaging. The movement of the narrow-boat is like nothing else in the world; as Temple Thurston wrote, 'it is no motion, or it is motion asleep'.

Small wonder that everyone who spends even half a day aboard a narrowboat feels, as I've become, eternally smitten.

Narrowboat moored


John B said...

It's delightful to see a convert joining the ways of righteousness. Good stuff (and especially good call for doing it in December - I introduced a friend to canalery last November and whilst it was awesome, 'Christ it's cold' was a running theme...)

For an odd combination of Rolt-y romanticism, WWII feminism and heinously embarrassing class interplay, there isn't a better UK canal system book than Maidens' Trip. It's probably on Amazon or something.

Anonymous said...

Next week - how real ale is challenging the monopolies of industrial lager giants. Welcome to middle age Merrick! :)

Dave T

merrick said...

Dave, problem is I've been doing the real ales since I was a teenager. Now the joys of single malt whisky, that one really does seem to be an over-30s thing....

Anonymous said...

Check out Low Impact Life Onboard at - for what it says on the tin!