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Rolt felt it and fell in love with it.  Rolt had the revelation and composed industrial poetry to it.  Aikman knew it was out there but never quite knew where to look.  Telford spanned valleys and housed lock-keepers with it, Sister Mary delivered babies with it, Ken Keay caulked coal boats with it whilst Frank Nurser painted roses and castles with it.  Boathorses wore grooves in it.  Boatmen were born with it, knitted fenders and polished brass with it, and some would go back tomorrow.  Boatwomen thought they might have liked it but were much too busy.  Idle women were seduced by it and some still fight for it.   Why is it getting so rare? 

Hippies empathised with it and became camping boat captains.  Graham Palmer talked work parties into wallowing in it.  Restoration groups try to rebuild it but often without the original plans. The Anchor at High Offley still serves it by the pint and it seeps out of every brick of Taylorís yard in Chester.  Historic narrow boats plough through mud to retain it and even some hire boaters still have a hunch itís still lurking about, if only their television wasnít in the way.

British Waterways are embarrassed to discover that they are in charge of much of it, and desperately seek partners to explain it to them.  Waterway managers run focus groups to try and define it, but they usually move on before it makes sense, or they suffocate it with a risk assessment.  Special project officers wonder why they canít make community art with it.  Public Relations people would love to bottle it but they use beginners, baskets and sledge hammers to collect it.

The hire boat operators feed on it and wonder why it gets weaker whilst developers chip bits off to sell houses with.  Architects concrete it over.  The Waterways Trust sacrifices it to naturalists. Sub contractors arenít expected to know of its existence and nobody is paid to tell them.   New engineers are paid not to recognise it, for recognition would cost their employers more time, more thought, more sympathy and understanding, more skills and more money.

What?  What is it?  I sometimes fear that those who need to ask the question are unlikely to understand the answer.  But we must keep trying for we are only going to lose it once, and that will be forever.  It.  It is a quality, a seamless blend of history and utility, a perfect fitness for purpose both practical and - dare I say it - spiritual.  It is a subtle concept but increasingly valuable as a statement of what is possible.  It flowered on a transport system, but one that was largely created at a time when simple grace was expected in everyday functional architecture and engineering, when new canals were consciously intended to enhance the landscape as well as improve trade.  Simple functional beauty was not accidental nor embarrassing, it was part of the spirit of that time.

But that was just the start.  Economic success led to a long life that allowed those waterways to be thoughtfully improved by experience and polished by familiarity and use.  They developed as an insular world supported by an integrated network of tradesmen, all working within the normal standards of the time, when high quality craftsmanship was expected whatever the trade - bricklayer, boatbuilder or boatman.  Part of craftsmanship is understanding the human needs of the job as well as the purely practical, the way a tool will look and feel and behave whether itís a lockgate, a lock windlass or a watercan.  Fitness of purpose included all those things.  For a century or more the canal craftsmen were getting things better and getting things right in the light of their combined experience.

And then surprisingly, perhaps miraculously, the vagaries of business by-passed it, side-lined it, and it accidentally became a legacy.  The old-fashioned standards and relationships survived by default into a new world where those integrated values had to be reinterpreted in the light of a modern philosophy.  Enter Rolt and the I.W.A.

O.K. Fine, but do we really still have to worry about it and define it into boredom?  I fear so, because it has become a rare commodity and there are people out there who will sell it or steal it for personal gain, or simply lose it through ignorance.  Fight back.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, March 2003


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