Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Guest Blogger - Blair Bancroft on English Canals

Today on History Undressed I'd like to introduce guest author, Blair Bancroft (who also writes under the name, Daryn Parke).


As I returned to Orlando on a Virgin Atlantic 747, lost amid Brit travelers to Disneyworld, I had a revelation. I had just spent sixteen days without seeing, or talking to, another American. Although I’ve traveled from Bratsk, Siberia, to Machu Picchu, Peru, I’d never before been completely separated from my snug American culture. As much as I enjoyed the purpose of my journey—a valuable peek into England’s past—my plunge into modern middle-class Britain was the unexpected highlight of my trip.

For seven of those sixteen days I traveled back in time to the heyday of British canals, which in the last decade or so have been rescued, refitted, and are now booming vacation destinations. Definitely something the Brits like to keep as a closely guarded secret. The other week of my trip was spent driving around with a Brit friend as my guide, staying at Bed & Breakfasts, plus several days at a resort which boasted everything from ancient Roman ruins to a sixteenth century haunted castle to a helicopter pad.
For this blog, however, I’ll stick to my canalboat journey from Newbury to Bath. Canalboats - more correctly named narrowboats - are seventy feet long by a scant seven feet wide. Our “hotelboat” consisted of two narrowboats, one pulling the other. The areas the canals pass through have not changed all that much in the last two hundred years. The village houses are still primarily the same. There are long stretches of wilderness (even if a highway is just beyond the trees). A tow path still runs down one side of the canal, now used mostly by walkers and bicyclists. Our canal was a peaceful oasis, seemingly remote from the world. I loved it, but I can recommend it only to people who don’t mind traveling at 3 mph.

So why was I drifting down the Kennet & Avon Canal at 3 mph? Partly because I was totally enchanted by my short excursion on the Regents Canal in London in 2003, and partly because I recognized canals as a great untapped resource for authors who write books set after c. 1740. Britain’s vast network of canals was the country’s lifeline for transporting goods and supplies, such as coal, timber, limestone, and grain, and doing such mundane work as hauling away manure and trash from cities. They were serene pathways into the heartland when Britain’s roads were little more than rutted byways. Yes, there were tolls, based on tonnage hauled, and there were locks, locks, and more locks. But not until the height of the railway era in the mid to late nineteenth centuries did the canals begin to lose their grip on commercial transportation. (Coal was still being hauled by narrowboat and horse in London during the gas shortages of World War II.)
But after the canals were nationalized in 1948, they plunged into disuse and were rescued only by a law suit against the government and, later, by the determined efforts of a number of dedicated canal lovers. They have been lovingly restored and are now one of the Britain’s gems, primarily used for recreational purposes.
How did eighteenth century engineers create them? In most cases, very ingeniously. At the Crofton pumping station, the high point of the Kennet & Avon, I saw the two enormous boilers, lovingly preserved, and the three-story-high pumps that each moved one TON of water per scoop. Why? Because every time a lock is used, water drains downhill and must be sent back up in order for the lock system to function. Hence, pumping stations. I’ll spare you the details of digging canals, lining them so they don’t leak, and building lock after lock to raise or lower the water level as needed. Just know some truly intricate engineering was required.

To me, however, the most amazing construction feature is the aqueduct, something I always thought only carried water from a reservoir. But on Britain’s waterways an aqueduct carries an entire canal, with depth enough to float a narrowboat over a river, a railroad, or even a modern highway. Just picture an overpass strong enough to support a canal! The Dundas Aqueduct east of Bath is two hundred years old and working fine, thank you very much - a true testament to the engineering of the day.
What did I see besides other narrowboats? Mile after mile of alder, willow, hawthorn, poplar, and silver birch. Wild flowers and reeds of every description, from meadowsweet to brambles to bull-rushes (cat’s tails). Oodles of ducks, swans, and geese, though the only other birds I recognized were crows and herons. There were fields of grain and cows on the chalk downs at the top of our climb up from Newbury, jungle-like greenery on both ends of our trip. Most of the old village houses still exist, with some of the ancient barge inns still functioning as public houses. Others, including the lock-keeper cottages, are now private homes; one old warehouse has been turned into a theater. Basically, much of the canal is remarkably similar to what it was two hundred years ago. The main differences, our boat had a motor instead of a horse on the towpath and the locks are brick-lined instead of mostly turf. And we had the luxury of three meals a day served on china around a dining table, plus “elevenses” and afternoon tea delivered on trays by a fleet-footed crew member moving along a six-inch catwalk at the side of the boat.
And, oh yes, we had to open and close every one of seventy-two locks ourselves. Lock-keepers are a thing of the past. That means opening giant wooden levers on each side of the lock, usually by “putting the bum to it.” The boats move into the lock, side by side. The rear lock gates then have to be closed. After that, the sluices are racheted open, using a windlass. When the water level inside the lock is even with the direction in which the boat is moving, the front locks are opened - and then closed after our boats moved through. This is why I cannot recommend do-it-yourself canalboating unless you have at least four strong backs to help with the locks or are traveling in tandem with another boat. The Newbury to Bath section of the K & A canal is famous for the Caen Hill flight of locks - twenty-nine in a row that take all day to negotiate. Fascinating, but tough. Even with everyone helping, our twenty-something crew was done in by the time we reached the bottom of the hill. (We traveled just behind two boats in which one of the wives was nearly hysterical about this was NOT what she planned for her vacation!)
Was it worth it? Oh, yes! Even though, as I tried to board a train in Gatwick two days after the early July bombings, I was suddenly confronted with a phalanx of very tall men in uniform, carrying very large guns, and telling me to get out, the train station was being shut down. Fortunately, the shut-down was short (an abandoned suitcase), and I made it to Newbury without difficulty. The efficiency and frequency of British train service is a whole ‘nother topic; I cannot praise it too highly.
For those who would like to know more about canal journeys in Britain, I heartily recommend the web site of my hotelboat: http://www.hotelboat/ Or for general info on narrowboats, try http://www.flagships.co.uk/ For more details about the joys and hazards of traveling by canalboat, feel free to contact me at blairbancroft@aol.com.

Blair’s books and other articles can be found at http://www.blairbancroft.com/ & http://www.darynparke.com/

Blair’s latest: Steeplechase, a traditional Regency & Tarleton’s Wife, a Regency historical - both available at http://www.jasminejade.com/

Writing as Daryn Parke, The Art of Evil, a hardcover mystery from Five Star.


Regencyresearcher said...

What a wonderful trip that was. Ngaio Marsh has a canal trip in one of her Roderick Alleyn books,.
Will you be including canals in your upcoming books?

Anonymous said...

I live in Todmorden--I always love watching the boats on the Rochdale canal and imagining life in one of them. You've inspired me!