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Holiday special: narrow boat memories

Friday 01 August 2008

There are now more narrow boats using the English canal system than during their working heyday during the Industrial Revolution, according to British Waterways. Our countryside commentator John Sheard tells a nostalgic tale of a love story that started with a splash

THERE is a scene in my head that took place some 30 years ago which is just as fresh in my mind now as if it were yesterday. With my young family aboard, we were chugging down the River Severn on a chartered narrow boat and were approaching a road bridge spanning the river.

Busier than ever
Busier than ever

At that time, I was driving some 35,000 miles a year on business and it was sheer heaven to be doing 4 mph through the heart of rural England on a hot sunny day. Up on the bridge was an all too familiar sight: the huge traffic jam, the cars and trucks and vans half hidden in a haze of exhaust fumes.

As we got nearer, my children began to wave at the poor motorists stranded above. And in response, a lorry drover’s mate, lolling with one arm out of the rolled down window, looked down on us and raised two fingers in an inverted V, that centuries old gesture of contempt first used by the archers at Agincourt towards the French knights they were slaughtering by the score.

The kids, of course, wanted to know what the sign meant. My wife was outraged: “How dare they do such a thing to children?” But I understood, even sympathised: I knew traffic jams like that all too well and in the heat and the stinking fumes, I too would have been bitterly jealous of anyone making such sublime progress, with no fixed destination in mind and certainly no deadline to meet.

Yet that holiday – the first of several afloat – had started in disaster. The car had overheated and blown its radiator on the way to the boatyard. The dog had fallen into the canal basin between two boats and, in dragging him out by the collar, my specs had plunged in after him.

My son saved the day by diving in to find them in the mud – one good reasons why all parents should take the time to teach their offspring to swim – because even had I gone into that murky water, I would have been unable to see a thing. So we launched into that holiday in wet clothes with wet smelly dog and a hero for a son – and it was the beginning of a love affair that burns just as brightly today.

more and more British people plump for holidays at home – and who can blame them turning their backs on noisy, dirty, inefficient airports and drunken, threatening
airline passengers

British Waterways have just announced the result of a survey which shows that there are now more pleasure craft using our canal system than there were working barges at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when the waterways – or navigations, as they were known then – were the sinews of the Workshop of the World.

Many people talk with nostalgia of the Age of Steam – but the Americas, India and Australia had all been discovered and partially colonised before the steam engine was invented. The world was conquered by sail and horse-power – the horses which towed the barges which carried the goods on the start of their journeys to the far corners of the earth.

As I have recalled before, the canals were allowed to sink into disrepair after World War 11 because the Governments of the time did not even know they owned them. They had been bought up by the upstart railway companies and when they railways were nationalised in the 1940s, the canals came with them as a job lot. Trouble was, no-one bothered to tell Whitehall.

But for the work of amateur volunteers who worked up to their waists in mud and stagnant water to restore locks and towpaths, the canals would have been filled in decades ago and we would have lost a unique national asset, where history, leisure and wildlife can all be enjoyed - at 4 mph.

As more and more British people plump for holidays at home – and who can blame them turning their backs on noisy, dirty, inefficient airports and drunken, threatening airline passengers – we can be thankful that our canals survived out of government ignorance. And voluntary hard labour. Happy UK holidays, everyone.

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