Looking back on a canal life

For entirely unconnected and uncomplicated personal reasons I have been taking more time away from the canals lately. But a recent bout of concentrated boating with the restored Shropshire Union boat Saturn has re-awakened my obsession somewhat, although my feelings about the modern world of canals are a bit of a tangled mix nowadays. As I enter my seventieth year I am experiencing some of the common symptoms of increasing age – stiff knees and odd bouts of old-man grumpyism. Why can’t things be like they used to be? Humph!

Looking back on a canal life
Flyboat Saturn 2010 - watercolour by Tony Lewery

But this grumpyness is not useful, and is not a trait I like in others whether in the pub or increasingly on television and radio so I clearly need some analytical retrospection here, some personal clarification if possible. Perhaps it’s time to try to take a more dispassionate view of the way things are today compared to how I think they really used to be.

I am aware that there are several different factors that influence my sense of modern displacement. Most nostalgia is engendered by the very natural healing process of remembering the good times and gently erasing the misery. If we had to constantly carry the guilt and sadness of past mistakes or continuously feel the same pain of past loss without fresh optimism and hope life would be unbearable. Our body wants to remember the good bits and needs to forget the down side. Then add in the fact that the much younger self that experienced that past, the one that absorbed and processed those memories was also a different person. In every case that person was less experienced, less able to process and balance the information and emotion, and that too was a filtering process. In my case that younger self was naïve and insensitive to the point of stupidity at times and much information and advice was ignored, or more usually simply went unnoticed.

But there is a corollary to this. Given the slow receptivity of that younger self it follows that anything that registered really powerfully must have been slammed into my consciousness with powerful delivery. Canals certainly did that. The canal world that I joined in the early 1960s seemed to be a marvellous place, a blend of water and graceful architecture, of functional engineering and practical transport, of history and a long-established population of boatpeople and craftsmen, all laced with the delicacy of England’s finest folk art. My goodness, what a heady mixture! Of course I did not register or separate all these elements at the time, it just seemed to be the right place, a set of values that seemed to suit my personality. So I joined the ranks of the growing army of enthusiasts that wanted to be part of it and wanted to preserve it. Unfortunately that is where a lack of forethought or simply lazy thinking started to let down the conservation of the canal system, a word rarely used in those days and one tactfully ignored today.

Gifford bringing a cargo of slate for the Ellesmere Port restoration 1975

There seemed only one obvious way in and that was via the expanding fleet of pleasure craft – the private boats owned by the increasing numbers of enthusiasts who had also discovered the canal magic and the emerging market for hire boats. Underlying all was the unspoken understanding that more boats would be the answer to everything. More boats meant that more people would discover the waterways and quite obviously all those people were bound to share the same altruistic values as me and help to conserve the canals. That was common sense surely? Sadly for that young optimist quite a number of the newcomers seemed to want to alter the canals to fit their unsuitable boats, to change things towards their pre-existing of image of what boating holidays should be like. Nautical terminology crept in and the money-making business of hiring boats became ever more sacrosanct. Never mind the quality, just think of the quantity. Traditions and old fashioned craftsmanship couldn’t be allowed to get in the way of any business entrepreneur that wanted to start any canal related business. Onwards!

Saturn at Marsbury 2010

Did it work? That of course depends on your definition of the original intention. The buzz word for years was restoration and in the sense that the water channel for pleasure boat use has been preserved and extended then canal restoration has been a great success. Thousands, perhaps even millions of people now enjoy some aspect of the waterways that would have been denied to them had the restoration movement not taken place. 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. When the charming young relief lock keeper at Welsh Frankton can look at Saturn and seriously suggest that she is too big to go in the locks, when hire boaters ask whether the engine’s broken down when she is on tow, when a private boat owner asks whether she’s going to be restored with a proper cabin soon, one feels somewhat of a voice crying in the wilderness.

All the canal related societies that I am in touch with now bemoan the lack of young members, the lack of interest in the waterways by the younger generation. Some even express surprise. But how many young people do you seriously expect to join a society dedicated to creating a nicely landscaped park for well-off middle aged people to park their glossy caravans in, or a watery theme park for holidaymakers? With no challenge, no adventure and little preservation of quality or spirit left to be done I would be disappointed if they hadn’t got more vital things to do with their lives than just help out with their grandparents’ hobby

Right doctor, thanks for the diagnosis, but what’s the medication? Can it be treated or is it too late? Well, thank goodness for societies like the Historic Narrow Boat Owners Club whose members are dedicated to the preservation and display of real canal boats and all the lore that goes with them. Thanks to those few hardy souls who still drive a few loaded boats around the system demonstrating in an unambiguous and defining way what canals were for and why they are as they are, (or should be.) Thanks to the careful historians who research and document the minutiae of canal life as it used to be so the old inter-related values will not be lost to the future. Conservation means keeping it all, keeping the relationship of the boats to the buildings to the water to the job which was transport. If you agree, but sometimes feel like a lone voice in the wilderness too, shout louder.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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