Fading Away Fast

Shoreham harbour, joey boats, Hednesford Arm, Wyrly and Essington Canal

There are moments in anyone’s life that turn out to be turning points. It probably wasn’t immediately apparent, not a sudden revelation, but more like a seed just waiting its time (or a splinter waiting to hurt) perhaps for years and years. Then suddenly, with hindsight, you look back and recognise that significant moment for what it was, an awakening or recognition of a certain attitude or set of values that actually shaped much of the life that followed. Canals and canal boats have turned out to be a constant theme in my own, particularly the historic and traditional side of things, but my Sussex upbringing kept me entirely ignorant of canals proper until I was into my twenties. But in my early teens I used to be messing about in sailing boats and rowing dinghies a lot in Shoreham Harbour, particularly in an area of sandbanks and muddy creeks just inside the harbour entrance, all long since built over with bijou bungalows. At high spring tides one could scull or pole the dinghy impossibly far into the creeks, floating magically into the middle of a marshy field of weeds, slipping along on a few inches of water with the leaves brushing either side of the boat. Sound familiar?

Then suddenly one day I went down at low tide and there was a barge sat high and dry on the sandbank with a couple of men with shovels filling it with the sand it was sat on. Now this was truly a revelation, a boat that had mysteriously arrived from I-knew-not-where, taking the beautiful ‘silversand’ that nobody seemed to want and then just as magically stealing silently away on the next tide. Now this did have it all for me—boats, romance and mystery, like something out of a Famous Five book, combined with the heavyweight reality of earning a living, floating tons of sand effortlessly away into the unknown reaches of the upper river. It seemed sensible and satisfying then and it still seems sound to me today, half a century later. I have a clear picture of the moment in my mind, the angle the barge sat on the sand, its anchor and chain stretched out in the sun. That memory still stirs my soul, and with hindsight I can see it as one of my own important turning points, even though in truth it lay forgotten in the back of my mind for many years afterwards.

Upper images, derelict barges at Shoreham Harbour, below abandoned Joey boats on the BCN and Birchills at the Black Country Museum.

Sometimes it is not so much one particular moment in time as one picture of a situation that was refined and reinforced over a period of time that is significant. I’m thinking here of the Joey boats of the midland coalfields—not any one individual boat but the mass of them, the lines of sunken boats that used to lay along the offside of the Hednesford Arm of the Wyrly and Essington Canal, waiting for the traffic that never came back. My first experience of these soldiers of the industrial revolution was in 1963, a fleeting glance from the Grove Colliery bridge near Norton Canes, a mass of black hulls sunk two abreast in the reeds and stretching away as far as the eye could see apparently. Although I had personally been drawn to the canals by this time by the romance of the ‘roses and castles’ on the long distance narrow boats, I was instantly in no doubt that these clumsy straight stemmed coal boats were also the real thing, the proper reality of canal transport. As things turned out it was my fate to spend a hot summer and a cold winter living alongside these boats, sunk originally to keep them watertight and ready for work, but by then, several years later, decaying fast.

They were shabby and faded, sun bleached above the water, filled with green slime and weeds below, but they were still dignified, humble and patient, waiting for a resurgence of coal traffic that never happened. Oakum hung out of the drying seams between the planks, rusting chains tied them together at the middle beams, and cabin doors, if they had any, gaped open, hanging on one hinge. There were no romantic landscapes or swags of painted roses here—in fact most of these joey boats had no cabins at all, but still their solid utilitarian grace hit my soul somewhere, and the faded cracked colours on the bow and stern still appealed to my artistic taste. Bottle greens were faded to chalky blue-green, red bleached to dusky pink and bright blue to slate grey, and the simple circles, crescents and single diamonds still hinted at a secret symbolic past waiting to be explored. This was industrial history and craftsmanship and continuity and art and tradition all rolled into one, and I loved it. And there were hundreds of them.

I was fresh up from the south with a newly minted enthusiasm for canals and canal boats. With no previous knowledge to guide me I youthfully supposed that as so many old boats seemed to have survived from time immemorial here, then obviously they always would. No need to make notes or study them or make a fuss—there were hundreds of them. How could anything so common, so ubiquitous, so essential and so obviously historical disappear? There were hundreds of them. Today there is just the ‘Birchills’ at the Black Country Museum in serious need of repair, and a wreck of a Stewarts and Lloyds tube boat at Ellesmere Port whose chance of restoration or even survival is slim. Do we care? Is there anything that we can realistically afford to do? Or is it all just going to remain a significant memory for a few people, and die with them?

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, October 30th 2003


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