Big truth, little miracle.

horse drwan narrowboats, fly-boats, Wheelock stables

Today’s deep canal enthusiasts tend to immediately go all dewy eyed and unnecessary when they hear the slow thump of any old Bolinder or National diesel engine and think of them as the true sound of the traditional canal world. What tends to get forgotten is that this elemental sound was preceded by 150 years of horses hooves, the creak of harness and the crack of the smacking whip. For the first century and a half or so of canal history every boat needed a horse to earn a living and the many non-stop fly boats needed three or four.

Because all those animals did such long hours they all required high protein food in the day and a stable at night. It follows that every one of those thousands of canal horses of history could find a stable for the night somewhere, wherever they travelled. Stables along the canal were essential and common, no more remarkable than a lay-by or a pub car park is today and just as necessary to everyday traffic. But that was changing rapidly half a century ago as the ubiquitous internal engine pushed the horses aside, on the waterways as everywhere else. The stables became redundant, derelict in many cases and were demolished or converted out of recognition into something more functional, and the survival of a complete working example of such a mundane but vital building is something of a miracle. The stable at Wheelock on the Trent and Mersey canal is just such a miracle.

It is a detached building with a little office and loose box alongside, facing across the wharf to the canal, all in good external repair although the interior of the office is really beyond restoration. But the four horse stable itself is in near perfect if fragile condition, complete with brick floor and wooden stall dividers, hayracks, mangers and harness pegs all in place, and all still covered with a thick accretion of old fashioned disinfectant whitewash. It is a gem of simple vernacular architecture, an example of a genre once so common as to be almost invisible but now so rare that this survivor perhaps deserves the status of a national canal monument. What to do about it without altering it and destroying its value?

When I first saw the interior of the stable about three years ago I formed the idea of making a short piece of film, to try and record the stable in working mode, full of horses, harness and atmosphere and early October this year was largely taken up with that project. With the full co-operation of British Waterways we imported four of Sue Day’s working horses and a boat and set about trying to recreate a moving snapshot of the building in its working days. With imperfect knowledge and insufficient money, but buoyed up with massive help and enthusiasm from canal volunteers and local residents the job is done—‘in the can’ as they say, and now awaits editing during the winter. Hopefully you will be able to judge the results for yourself in the spring. Watch this space.

But, oh! the mixture of delight and despair whilst doing it! The pure pleasure of chatting to some of the older locals as they looked into the stable with nostalgic knowledge, pleased to see it open and full of horses again after fifty years. But the despair of struggling to recreate something of historic truth with horses, boats and bits of rope, knowing full well that the four silver haired ladies watching from the bridge have more knowledge about horse-boating in their little fingers than I shall ever know. But they and their memories are not immortal, alas, and they are probably not going to make a film. Is an attempt at a bit of historic truth better than no attempt at all? Well, I suppose it depends on how flawed the results are.

And then Bill Atkins comes in, a long-retired ex-boatman who remembers harnessing up his dad’s horse in this very stable when he was a child. Hmm, he says, yes, quite like the old days, he says, but where’s all the candle wax? Candle wax!?!? Oh aye, he says, the posts on the end of each stall was always covered in wax because that’s where you stuck your candle when you were putting the harness on the horse on a winter morning. I was dumbfounded. This was clearly the truth, for no sane storyteller would invent such a practise. Imagine for a moment—a dark stable full of horses, with wooden furnishings, with hay in the racks, with straw on the floor, and then balance a guttering candle on the post just a foot or two from the backside of the horse. Then start swinging harness up onto his back in the half-dark… It really is a miracle that the place survives.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, November 2002


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