A Whether Forecast

Montgomery Canal, Saturn Shropshire Union fly-boat, horsedrawn narrowboat

Even after the loveliest of late summer days there is an evening chill in the air that reminds the most optimistic that autumn is waiting just behind the next strong wind. But you can’t fight the seasons; you just work with them or cope with them.

It is a measure of the success of the recent British Waterways administration that the imminent retirement of the chief executive and his replacement with a new unknown attitude feels like the turning of a season too. The question is whether it’s from spring to glorious summer, or summer to a chilly autumn. Certainly today’s co-operative attitude feels like an escape from the winter of the old days of B.W.B.

These seasonal thoughts follow a very satisfactory day taking the ancient and about- to-be-restored narrow boat Saturn down the Montgomery Canal to the present limit of the navigation at Queen’s Head. She had been on her last public tour to local rallies at Whitchurch and Ellesmere, and as a final event in her present fragile condition we thought that this trip would be a very suitable and memorable culmination of her first life. Consider these several factors: she is a traditional wooden boat and probably the only craft afloat today that actually worked down this canal before the disastrous breach in 1936 closed it to navigation; we also think that Saturn is the only complete Shropshire Union Canal Company boat in existence, never mind afloat (although I would be really delighted to be told that I’m wrong.) Not only that but she was built as a fly boat, one of an elite class of extraordinarily slim and graceful hulled boats designed specifically for high value perishable cargoes on a ‘next-day-delivery’ system. Already wonderful enough to make news you would think, and rightly, but to put cream on the cake we borrowed a horse and crew from the Llangollen trip boat company and did the trip in classic style behind Geordie, a handsome heavy cob.

It was a splendid occasion in perfect weather, arranged as publicity and a public thank you to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Landfill Tax administration for their support for the restoration project. Hidden within the event however was an even more surprising idea - the fact that British Waterways are part owners of the boat and willing collaborators in our plans for the full restoration of a working horse boat. This is a serious commitment to canal heritage on the part of the local manager and an extremely welcome development from an organisation that was in the past almost the by-word for non-co-operation with any thing historical that took effort or money. Heritage and history were fine so long as they didn’t stand in the way of any of their crass modernisations, but here we are a couple of managements later and the company are buying old boats and helping to restore them. Staggering. If we can now convince them to return the canals to a condition in which historic working boats can operate properly we shall be a long way towards proper waterway conservation. That would be ‘joined up thinking’ and very significant history.

Rednal warehouse

Saturn under tow

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, October 2002

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