Strategic Escapism

Derelict canals, Montgomery Canal, Weston Arm

Perhaps the time has come to come out, to admit to the world that I harbour a guilty secret gnawing away at my vitals.

I have come to realise, slowly and painfully, that I actually like derelict canals just the way they are. For years and years Iíve been telling myself that I only like them for their potential, for what they could be if they were restored, for what pleasure and value they could give to so many more peopleís lives if they were operating once more. However we are now far enough down the restoration road to know that what actually happens often isnít anything like as wonderful as my vision. My version of restoration and conservation seems to be radically different to that of most of the canal industry, and very different to what todayís waterway management want.

So my reasons for enjoying the canals in their unrestored state drop into two camps, the positive romantic and the negatively realistic, the imagined world of how it used to be set against the dread of how it will probably turn out. The romantic inclination takes in the evidence that survives and then reads it backwards into the past, elaborating it with as much information as one has, factual or fanciful. Having established the picture, and loving it, the enthusiast then sets about projecting that vision into the future. If we like what we think we see in the past then our human good nature wants some future generations to have it too and we set about preserving or recreating that past with the best of intentions. We can be quite nice animals at heart, and get quite a lot of personal satisfaction out of the process along the way. Fine.

The trouble is that what turns out at the other end is so often disappointingly different to the vision, to the facts as we understand them. There are so many compromises to be made, so many costs to be cut and so much old time craftsmanship not available or not affordable that the end result has a sense of cheap hollowness. There is a lack of precisely that subtle quality that enchanted us in the first place, the very quality that we set out to preserve for the future. Mellow stonework and reedy margins have to give way to concrete and steel piling to protect the banks from the constant wash of the speeding hire boats that pay for it. Grassy towpaths get tarmaced so that more cyclists can tear along them, safety signs proliferate and old functional canal buildings get brutally modernised to make them cost effective. And everything gets painted black and white, crassly and corporately. Oh, please, letís escape back to something overgrown and unrestored, still unsullied by the pressures of having to Ďpay its wayíÖ

I have had the great benefit and pleasure of living close to the Montgomery canal for the last couple of years and have taken the opportunity to explore some of its dry and abandoned sections. Some are sad in the extreme but many places have a poignant poetic beauty that is entirely due to a lack of use, of boats and of people. The romantic in me basks in the certain knowledge that the last boats to navigate these overgrown ditches were proper boats doing a proper job as part of a practical transport system, albeit out of date even then. The parts still in water are still more picturesque, and the pleasure of walking the towpath is at present enhanced by the knowledge that the view round the next bend will not be spoilt by the presence of yet another steel box of a modern canal boat cruiser with its plastic bags of logs on the roof, the television aerial and the bikes hanging off the end. How can I be so churlish? How can I complain about so many other people having such a nice time in their own way? Yes, all these very pertinent questions are seething within me too, a sort of philosophical indigestion between a theoretical social policy for canals and my real feelings about what is really happening. No, I donít have an answer here, just a nagging disquiet. I am not the only one of course. For some thought provoking reading try the summary document of the Montgomery Canal Partnership which tries to grasp the nettle, and will probably upset everyone.

The big problem is that the numbers simply do not match, either of people or money, and I canít see how they ever will. If something private is shared with a lot of people it becomes public and its nature is changed, forever. The financial costs of thoughtful and careful conservation will always be far more than it can ever be earned back by businesses which do not ruin that which they live on. If the sensitive appreciation of a particular quality demands contemplation and solitude then - a) you canít make money out of it and - b) lots of people simply cannot share it all at once. So does it have to remain elitist, for ever? Well, perhaps it does, but even then it will still require subsidy. If it is a valuable piece of culture then it must be given a financial value and subsidised accordingly. Yes, just like a national Museum.

All images taken on the derelict Weston Arm of the Montgomery Canal.

© Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, April 6th 2004

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