Off The Mainline by Tony Lewery
Tony Lewery is a well known waterways author, a regular contributor to the waterways press and acknowledged expert on canal art and heritage.
For over ten years Tony has been writing these 'Off The Mainline' features for Canal Junction, taking a personal and thought provoking angle on a wide range of waterways topics and events, all accompanied by his own original photographs or artwork. They are intended to encourage discussion and Tony is pleased to hear your views.
Pot Luck and Possibilities
A couple of old ceramic jugs have come to my notice lately, one very collectable, the other quite common, but both perhaps offering something to canal history and the folk arts of the canals in particular.
One is inscribed on the front with the name 'W.Massey – Flatman 1823'. Could that be someone who worked on the River Mersey?Jugs with canal connections
An Irish Diversion
For personal reasons quite unconnected to canals I recently travelled by car across the middle of Ireland. However, being the waterways nerd that I am I took the opportunity to take a bit of a detour to look at bits of the Grand Canal on the way.
Rusting hulks, a derelict Grand Canal hotel and Galway's Eglington Canal!More about the Grand Canal
Canal & River Trust Launch
The Canal and River Trust launch event for our area was at the Ellesmere maintenance yard in Shropshire which is an architectural gem of a particular idiosyncratic organic order.
The invitation to the local worthies
and leaders of the local canal societies to visit and explore this historic complex was, hopefully, a statement of intent in itself.
Wappenshall junction is where the ‘new’ line of the Newport branch of the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal joined the old line of the Shrewsbury canal in 1835, all shortly to become part of the Shropshire Union conglomeration.
What miraculously survives at Wappenshall is an architectural statement of that transition, a sculptural memory in brick and stone.More on Wappenshall
Chester, new chapter or verse
A transformation is taking place at Taylors Yard in Chester. The old Shropshire Union Canal Company dockyard has at last been let to a new tenant by British Waterways and a long overdue restoration and reclamation has begun.
Good news then? Well, yes, but it is a process that is viewed with a tangle of feelings by some of us that have been campaigning for the preservation of this very historic canal boatyard for years and years.More on the transformation
There are eighteen separate pieces of art sited around Ellesmere at present with more to come later this year. They all therefore impact on the canal environment in some way and therefore have relevance to those of us whose prime concern is with the historic canal heritage.
Are they a good thing or a bad thing -- do they help or hinder understanding or appreciation? Hmm, big questions.More this way
Tony wonders if canal restoration has worked. "In the sense that the water channel for pleasure boat use has been preserved and extended then canal restoration has been a great success.
However the preservation of the traditions, knowledge and skills of the old reality is another matter, the things that made canals special in the first place.".More this way
This trip was a highspot for Saturn in two separate ways. It was the first she has made to Llangollen since she was a hotel boat butty behind Jupiter back in 1987 which seemed significant to us.
But it also gave us a wonderful opportunity to try for some serious publicity by attempting to take her right up to Llantisilio.More about the trip
..yet these elegant grooves remain
The start of the centenary year of L.T.C.Rolt’s birth would seem to be an opportune moment to celebrate -- re-evaluate perhaps, certainly to reconsider his influence and impact on the whole waterways scene today.
Tony considers why 'Narrow Boat' was so popular and influential, and whether Tom Rolt would be satisfied by the leisure industry that he helped to create.More this way
Frankton - An Eightieth Anniversary
Tony discovers photographs of Welsh Frankton Junction in the 1920's and considers just how much can change in a lifetime, from busy transport artery, through rural dereliction, to the most popular waterway holiday route in the country.
L.T.C. Rolt discovered canals right here in the 1920's, writing the book that lead to the rebirth and restoration of canals for leisure.More on the Junction
More canal Art
Canals have inspired many flavours of art, from the decorative paintwork of the boats to fine art landscapes, carefully crafted drawings and illustrations, and the working architecture of bridges, bollards, paddle gear and iron guards grooved by decades of towropes.
But what about the sculptural stuff that increasingly litters the towpath, does it actually add anything?More Canal Art
Just pitch and rust, and a memory
Waterways Recovery Group working on pushing the Montgomery Canal Restoration further south came upon the remains of an old boat partly embedded in a tree trunk.
It was a boat which may have had an unhappy history involving a headless boatman decapitated on a Shropshire guillotine! Tony investigates.More on the restoration
Harnessed-Up and Away
I am sorry to be so smug but I feel I have to tell you how well our latest bit of horseboating went.
We had two day’s worth, bringing the restored Shropshire Union boat Saturn from her winter moorings on the Montgomery Canal up to Ellesmere, ready to start her season’s commitments.More on horseboating
Heads or Tails?
Let’s try and be optimistic, let’s look for the silver lining in this cloud of recession.
In a period of non-development the gloomy can take comfort that whilst things may not be actually getting better at least some of our historic survivals are not getting developed out of existence.More this way
Fine Furnishings for a Boathorse
In 1999 a volunteer work party carefully cleaned and recorded the contents of a Shropshire Union fly boat stable, due for conversion to a house, taking photographs and notes.
Then they had to before dismantle as much as possible for removal to safe storage at Ellesmere Port Boat Museum. Now it is all headed for the bonfire.More this way
Brightwork over the Pennines
It still surprises me that the extraordinary decorative paintwork tradition of the Leeds and Liverpool canal is not better known, not lauded or loved more profoundly and proudly.
One reason perhaps was Rolt's highly influential 'Narrow Boat', focussing on the elegeic and romantic, not the blackened coal boats driving relentlessly into industrial northern towns.More this way
Older Off the Mainlines organised by topic (sort of!)
Canal Restoration & Preservation
the last surviving wooden narrow boat to be built in Wales come to such a state
of dangerous collapse that it had to be destroyed?
More this way»
When the first seriously hard frosts of the winter hit the River Weaver in Cheshire it revealed the dignified remnants of many old working boat wrecks. More this way»
We need to keep a representative number of historic horse-boats in existence and mobile because they provide the best possible simple ‘heritage’ check! More this way»
Heritage. We can’t pick and choose our own heritage, but we do alter the future by deciding what there will be for our future heirs to inherit. More this way»
Recreating the traditional sounds of the canals; not the slow thump of diesel engines but the click of horses hooves, the creak of harness and the crack of the smacking whip. More this way»
A sticky quagmire became a swamp, a quarry & 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 emerge. More this way»
Strapping posts, do we need them on modern canals? And if British Waterways started putting them back, would we know what to do with them, and would they know where to put them? More this way»
The Waterways Trust has now hit financial trouble. Costs must be cut and money saved, and the first target for cost cutting has been the waterways museums of course. Can we trust the Trust? More this way»
The act of digging out preserved evidence means that nobody else will ever be able to interpret it afresh, any time in the future. We’ve only got one chance to get it right. Oh Lord, what a responsibility! More this way»
How quickly the everyday needs of a working canal become obscure ancient history in an age of leisure and pleasure boats. Who knows what is an icebreaker? More this way»
Where can you go on our increasingly busy canal system and get anything like an accurate flavour of a piece of canal in proper working trim.. ? Tony has a suggestion! More this way»
Canal life 'was a historical traditional way of life being lived on a network of secret water roads, still doing real work'. Tony ponders what has lost to the 'new commercialism'. More this way»
restorations. 'We now know what it will be like, what British
Waterways would like it to be like, and what the commercial mind of the
hire boat and pleasure boat business will say it has to be like to get
their commercial return.'
More this way»
The heritage and skills invested in a friendly footpath gate by a bridge on the Montgomery Canal lead Tony to consider whether we should allow that much craftsman’s time to be re-invested in a simple gate again. More this way»
Maybe the best way to preserve an old wooden barge is to pull it up on land, cut a hole in the hull side and let visitors wander through it; better than letting boats rot in the water for shortage of funds. More this way»
Tony doesn't really want to reveal the 'quite extraordinary qualities of an old Shropshire Union waterways maintenance yard'. More this way»
A canal without boats and boats out of water – is this a good way to preserve and interpret waterway history? Tony suggest it could be. More this way»
The isolated Welshpool section of the Montgomery Canal sees very little boat traffic. Although restoration is moving south from Maesbury it will be a while before this beautiful stretch is on every hire boater's route like the nearby Llangollen. Tony enjoys it now! More this way»
Volunteering. Why do we do it? We undoubtedly get some fun and satisfaction along the way but underlying these personal benefits is the understanding that if we didn’t do it, it probably wouldn’t get done, and the world would be a poorer place. More this way»
In this hard financial autumn our old historic canal boats have had a very hard month indeed. Their natural rot has been accelerated by the Waterways Trust museums at Ellesmere Port and Gloucester shutting down to part –time opening, operating with even fewer staff than they have been struggling with anyway. More this way»
A group of volunteers have been surveying some of the buildings at Taylor's Yard, the old Shropshire Union boatyard in Chester, prior to forthcoming repairs, cleaning them out and recording any surviving items of boatyard history. More this way»
Canal Literature and Art
working boat with 'roses & castles' recently, Tony found that few
modern canal users even noticed, maybe they don't want canal history.
More this way»
Tony goes film making in Birmingham this month, focussing on the precise techniques of sidecloths, topcloths, tippet and topstrings! More this way»
The traditional art of the boats, that special unique culture of the boatpeople, was quite suddenly stolen by the holiday boat business and became a staple ingredient of a souvenir industry. More this way»
Traditional canal skills are disappearing. What were the day-to-day craft skills; how do you sheet up a narrowboat, run a canal stable, rig a Joey boat mast ...? Sight Seen Partnerships are trying to video the past before even the memories have faded away. More this way»
Our waterways have lost a great champion recently with the death of Edward Paget-Tomlinson, author, artist, museum curator and painstaking historian - and that’s just the start! More this way»
‘Colours of the Cut’ appeared in the inside back cover of the monthly magazine Waterways World from 1987 to 1994. Now there's a new book on its way. More this way»
Tony ponders the New Waterway Art - '... add-on art that seems to be being blue-tacked on to the canals in an attempt to broaden their appeal and make them more like urban parks' More this way»
So when was this written? “Canal boats and canals we suspect are going fast out of use, and will very shortly give place entirely to railways... ". You might be surprised! More this way»
castles? Why are they painted on canal boats and why is it so
important that they should be painted on boats anyway?
More this way»
A new magazine and a new exhibition could be signs of Springtime regeneration on the canal heritage front, but will they be successful? More this way»
I have been given an old cabin door - a very tatty cabin door it has to be said, but one that pleases my soul more than it has any logical right to. More this way»
Tony has been revisiting his 'adolescent ambition to be a painter of the old fashioned sort, an artist painting landscapes and portraits in oils and watercolours' and was led to wonder why canal scenes make such good landscape subjects. Surely not just coincidence? More this way»
A painting of a canalside cottage on the Llangollen Canal was painted in 1888 but the cottage is still there a hundred and twenty years later and is still virtually the same – un-modernised, un-extended, and from a historical viewpoint almost unspoilt. More this way»
By a happy coincidence of interests I was recently asked to paint a pub sign. I have always been interested in the subject and find it a deeply satisfying tradition if strangely odd and strangely British, a leftover from the days before street numbering. More this way»
In principle I am all for the idea – public works of art that enhance the landscape and expand the viewer’s cultural experience – great! It’s just the end results that are often so disappointing. Why? More this way»
Canals, Boats and Boat People
A fully restored
narrowboat was launched in Runcorn while the unique wooden boatyard
was being demolished around it.
More this way»
The September Gathering of Boats at the Black Country Museum is a major events for traditional narrowboats and boaters. Tony Lewery reports back. More this way»
Hunting for money to preserve historic wooden boats, and heaving tons of oak into the boatyard where in 3 years it will be ready to use. More this way»
A soon to be restored wooden narrowboat travels a hopefully soon to be restored waterway, promising signs that old attitudes are gone. More this way»
Horseboating today takes three people person to make sure other towpath users don't get hurt. How far should we go to make canals risk free? More this way»
Saturn, the last Shropshire Union flyboat, no longer exists except as a pile of old knees, a set of measurements and a very big pile of firewood. Is this restoration? More this way»
Does a breakers yard beckon for the veteran twin screw steam tug Daniel Adamson, commissioned originally for the Shropshire Union Canal Company in 1903? More this way»
Tony returns from his Summer travels to the South West with tales of horse boat trips on the Grand Western and the last surviving Bude tub boat, back in the mud after 34 years! More this way»
Now, be honest, what is your instant reaction to the word? Delight?
Distaste? My own subliminal response is certainly a rosy glow of
More this way»
Houseboats continued - 'If you want to live on the canal without spoiling it then be prepared to live within the canal conventions.' Are houseboats a blot on the canal landscape? More this way»
The Montgomery Canal continues to amaze me. Yes, I realise that I am becoming uncomfortably obsessive about it, but its survival, conservation and future development potential just seems to sum up so many philosophical canal problems all in one place. More this way»
The Shropshire Flyboat restoration is nearing completion and we are about to present Saturn to a twenty-first century public as a statement about how we think things were a hundred years ago. Have we got it right, do we even know what colour she should be? More this way»
Tony rediscovers a forgotten pair of narrowboats which still have original decoration done by Harry Bentley, a potteries boatman, and were built by an ex-boatman called John Preston who worked as a mechanic at the Anderton Company dock. More this way»
An unique Arun barge sunk at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire is probably doomed because the Museum has no money to restore her. More this way»
“Right” said Ian “I’ve booked the sailing barge for the end of August. The only unexpected problem is that we will have to take part in the River Colne Thames barge race over that weekend, is that O.K?” More this way»
Tony remembers Joe Skinner ... "a symbol of something so special about the canals that I think we could do with being reminded yet again of this iconic man and the vanished world that he came to represent. " More this way»
The Appeal of Canals
But what is it about boats that makes them so
fascinating, whether big barges, wooden narrow boats, plastic
dinghies or tiny toy boats?
More this way»
Telford spanned valleys and housed lock-keepers with it, Sister Mary delivered babies with it, Ken Keay caulked coal boats with it... What is it? Tony poses a Spring Riddle! More this way»
Just what gets us hooked on boats and canals? For Tony it was a sandbarge in Shoreham harbour, 'Now this did have it all for me - boats, romance and mystery, like something out of a Famous Five book.' More this way»
Tony decides that the time has come to admit to the world that he 'harbours a guilty secret gnawing away at my vitals'. More this way»
We all like the ‘picturesque’, but do we all agree what it means? Tony reflects that part of the problem is that it is so dependant on the time it is written, or is written about. More this way»
A visit to
Venice and a trip along the central waterway is 'a startling
eyeopener to an English canal enthusiast.'
More this way»
With the leaves off the trees and the ground vegetation at its lowest it is far easier to see the bare bones of canal engineering in the winter, the artificiality of its structure which is disguised in the summer by two hundred years worth of vegetation. More this way»
The job was to tow the restored Shropshire Union narrow boat Saturn from her winter mooring to the historic boat gathering at Ellesmere Port for Easter, and then return home to Ellesmere proper with the Canal Junction tug Greenman. More this way»
From one canal extreme to another this time, from dusty nineteenth century boatyard to sparkly twenty first century boat rally (- from the sublime to the ridiculous some might say). More this way»