Conserving Conservation

Some recent work has required me to experience the life of a regular canal marina at close quarters for the first time in a while, and it has proved somewhat chastening and thought provoking. The contrast between the present everyday commercial life of the hire and pleasure boat business is so fundamentally different in spirit and attitude to what one hazily and lazily thought it might be forty years ago, and it just seems to have slithered up and consumed all the more subtle canal values like a virus.

Conserving Conservation

There were mature members of the perfectly pleasant workforce there who could justifiably claim to have spent all their working lives in this business. For them the canal tradition started with pleasure boats and the idea of full sized working boats is as alien and distant as a crinoline skirt is to a bare-midriffed young woman of today. It is not their fault- it is just generational and historical- but it becomes part of the mythology that this is the way it has always been, and therefore the way it has to be.

My job was some traditional style painted decoration in a plywood lined cabin on a welded steel cruiser to provide a visual historic link back to the boat population for a discerning and experienced customer and friend. But it was still a strange and somewhat unsettling experience to be working on a relatively modern canal cruiser surrounded by a hundred others all tied with plastic ropes to floating jetties in a specially created basin alongside a section of sheet steel piled canal carrying an almost constant stream of holiday boats. In fact there was absolutely nothing truly historic to be seen in any direction, and this on a section of canal that Rolt found impassable because of the rampant weed growth and lack of water in 1947. And one thinks –has it all got to be like this in the future? Is this really the only way?

We have no future excuse for a lack of foresight now when we are discussing and planning further canal 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. Can inconvenient history and quality be allowed to stand in the way of all this desirable and ‘sustainable’ development? Well certainly not unless this historical stuff is given a firm financial value so that conservation and tradition can be forced into the accountant’s mind early enough to stop it being swept away in the first flush of enthusiastic development. If canal history is what is giving waterways their particular flavour and value then that quality must be looked after first, not the transient fashionable needs of a leisure market that will evolve ever more voraciously as the years go by.


These nagging doubts are constantly brought into focus by my continuing exploration and appreciation of the Montgomery Canal, especially those parts that are closed or virtually unused in the middle. There is still atmosphere and quality in abundance here, and it is an increasing worry that a thoughtless reopening to general pleasure boat traffic will lose something extremely valuable and very rare. Could this section be given some special government designation to protect it from any free-for-all exploitation– something like a national park perhaps, or a full length historic monument. I want people to see it and love it, but I don’t want them to spoil it while they’re doing so. Perhaps- heretical thought- we have something to learn from the rare plants brigade who have been so doggedly determined not to give an inch. I do not agree with them in this case but I admire their adherence to principal. Can we find some firm conservation principals for the canal heritage and doggedly stick to them please? No, this will not be popular with many people but this may be a last chance and is really far too important to be nice about.

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