A Touch of Time Team.

Cox Bank, Shropshire Union Canal, Audlem Locks,

Iíve always known that there are two sunken narrow boats at Cox Bank on the Shropshire Union Canal, in the long pound below the two top locks of the Audlem flight. Iíve also always known, from what the much missed late Charlie Atkins told me years ago, that they were old Shropshire Union fly boats, sunk there to provide a deep mooring jetty.

In the sixties they were still fairly obvious, but in fact Iíd rather lost sight of them myself for the last few years and I wasnít totally confident that they were still there in any meaningful form. But clearly they were never going to get any better, and our need for extra fly boat information for the Saturn restoration project provided the impetus for some immediate effort.

Knowing that there were several stoppages on the main line this winter, and that the usual flow of water down the canal would be interrupted anyway, I asked British Waterways whether they would mind if I brought a team from the restoration group to investigate these wrecks, just to see what we could learn. No problem, they said, although the engineer seemed somewhat surprised to be told about them. Could we drain the pound so that we could get at them? No, he said, for they would then have to go through the expensive and time consuming process of saving all the fish, but they were quite happy to lower the level by three foot or so for the weekend. Thank you. Could you do it for the weekend of the 18th and 19th of January please? Fine.

My first view of the drained pound on Saturday morning was not totally inspiring. I could actually only see the remains of one boat, and that was only marked by the tips of some iron knees sticking out of the mud. Had I got my enthusiast team coming out under false pretences? Was my reputation for being mustard keen about to be proved to be lunaticly optimistic? At one end of the lines of knees there was a big tree growing out of the canal - at the other there was nothing. (photos upper right & right)

OK., think positive, letís start by digging a trench in the mud across the boat towards one end to see what has survived. It was very messy, but a couple of inches below the soft silt the woodwork began to emerge, not just pickled hard, but still carrying clear evidence of the red oxide paint that the inside of the hull was once painted with. Amazing, and already getting exciting. More of the team arrived and we started to open another Ďtrenchí at the other end of the boat, although trench is quite the wrong word.

It started as a sticky quagmire, became a swamp, a quarry and a mudpool in turns but after a couple of hours heavy digging by a relay of strong persistent men the remains of a beautiful boat was finally emerging. It was the stern, and although the sternpost itself had entirely disappeared, and the offside of the hull had collapsed outwards into the mud, still enough remained to give us a shape and lots of bits of information. We could measure the size and position of the cabin frames, the cabin floor boards, still with paint on, and the position and length of the first scarph in the keelson.

By now the front trench had been widened and deepened to reveal two pairs of knees roughly 15 and 18 foot from the bow, a full section of a strongly barrel sided boat, very similar to Saturn. Apparently it had been sunk already loaded with sandy dredgings of some sort, and so, incredibly, the shutts, the removable floorboards to the hold were still in place. Even more incredibly we managed to lift them complete, and the water was still running out from under the contiguous floorboards on either side.

A single piece of guard iron sticking out from the roots of the tree gave us another clue, and some digging, root pruning and hosing with a high pressure water pump gave us the position of the stem post, although all the really interesting constructional features of the bow are still under and intertwined with the roots of the now mature alder tree. That information will, I fear, take more than a weekend and a bunch of amateurs with shovels to uncover. (photos above right & right)

What was particularly satisfying was the interest shown by the dog-walking locals. Yes, they probably thought we were a bit mad, but as the day progressed they became impressed by the surprising amount of evidence that was still slumbering under the mud after being sunk for at least seventy years, for thatís how far back the localsí memory went. The boats were already wrecks then, although growing a fine crop of reeds in those days suitable for thatching the lock keeperís shed. With a hint from the very helpful farmer whose land we were working from, we found the other boat too, but did not have time to do any further investigation on this occasion.

What was achieved? Well, clear confirmation that at least one of these craft was a very small barrel-sided boat, very like Saturn and certainly built as a fly boat for the fast delivery of high value cargo. We measured the position of knees, and two scarph joints in the keelson, details of the shearing of the sides and, unusually, the bottom boards too. We rescued an iron knee, which was loose, and sections of floorboard and shutts, all useful contemporary information for the accurate restoration of Saturn now awaiting recreation at Malkins Bank in Cheshire. We also learnt just how much information is still waiting in the mud for future historians, provided it is not thoughtlessly dredged out in some rushed canal improvement, without warning. Watch this space.

Tony Lewery
The Brow
January 2003


Above Right - cleaning bottom boards
Right - keelson with scarphed joint

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