Heritage is a lock keeper's hut!

Canal heritage, Lindsay, Keppel, traditional narrowboat pair

Heritage. Now there’s a word that’s being conjured with, especially in the name of waterway interpretation. The dictionary says that heritage is “that which is inherited, condition of one’s birth; anything transmitted from ancestors or past ages.”  So you can’t pick and choose your own heritage, any more than you can pick your parents, but you do alter the future by deciding what there will be for your future heirs to inherit.
What’s saved today stands some chance of surviving, but what’s destroyed is gone. However, we can’t save everything, so decisions have to be made, some of which will be mistaken. That’s part of the stressful nature of being human and fallible.” Hmmm… the canal heritage then-- something of which to be proud, to cherish, and to pass on to our heirs.

The most interesting canal heritage for me is as much the combination of little things as the big statements, more lock keeper’s hut than Gloucester docks, more slipway winch (above) than Anderton Lift. It is the worn groove in ironwork fitted to a wooden lock gate to preserve the carpentry from the towline of the horse pulling the boat that was the home of the man who was earning his living transporting goods important to the manufacturing industries of the world. Closer to my own speciality-- it is the well painted rose by the boatpainter who decorated the drinking water can to beautify the cabin and life of the family of the man who was earning his living transporting goods important to the industry of the world.

boatyard slipway winch
It is that underlying chain relationship that seems to me to be critically important to most that is worth preserving on the waterways, but it is not easy to save that complete story. But we do need to try and preserve the whole chain in reality, not just links as exhibits in glass cases, or as theory in books.

Some of this philosophical musing has been forced on me and focussed by a ’heritage’ boat-painting job, just completed. The Peak and Potteries division of British Waterways have an unusual and refreshing attitude to their fleet of big old working boats, which reflects much credit on the local management and the personal enthusiasm of many of their employees. They keep the boats, maintain them, and paint them up smartly in the early BW blue and yellow as part of their own local heritage policy for the area. Then they continue to work them hard to earn their living. The public relations flagships of the fleet are Lindsay and Keppel, one of the very last motor-and-butty pairs of carrying boats commissioned by British Waterways in the late 1950s, and these are the boats that we have been working on in Northwich, on the River Weaver, very close to where they were built nearly half a century ago. New paintwork and signwriting on the cabin-sides of Keppel, and a general freshening up of all the other paintwork has prepared them for a series of public appearances throughout the North West this summer, and very smart they look too (though I suppose I shouldn’t say it myself).

repainting Lindsay & Keppel
The irony in all this is that the ‘heritage’ colour scheme that we have been working so hard to re-create and preserve was at the time it was introduced the absolute antithesis of traditional canal culture.

There was an enormous public row in 1949 about this new dreary nationalised livery, one that reverberated in the letter columns of The Times for months- “dull conformity smothering the vibrant colourful lifestyle of the boat folk.” Here was the visible imposition of a desk-bound bureaucrat’s idea of modernity on a traditional lifestyle, although it was probably just thoughtless cost-cutting in the name of efficiency, trying to streamline away all the Victorian frills and furbelows so beloved by the conservative and insular people of the narrow boats. Now even that argument is history, and part of our inheritance. Funny stuff, heritage. God save the King, and long live Cromwell! Oh, come on, make up your mind!

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, May 2002

repainting Lindsay & Keppel repainting Lindsay & Keppel


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