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"Red Babs" and the Skipton Water Festival

Friday 05 May 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reveals a little known fact about one of Britain's most controversial politicians: the lady who saved last weekend's Skipton Water Festival

MANY of the thousands of older people who revelled in last weekend's waterways festival in the Skipton Canal Basin may well have remembered Barbara "Red Babs" Castle as one of the most terrifying politicians of the last half of the 20th Century.

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As Minister of Transport, she introduced the breathalyser and thus earned the hatred of thousands of motorists at a time when drink-driving was considered more of a sporting gamble than a social crime which killed and maimed thousands of people every year.

But few of those who flocked to enjoy the sight of some 100 flag-bedecked narrow boats and enjoy the fun of the fair over the bank holiday weekend would have known that without Red Babs, there would have been no such festivities. In fact, there may well have been no Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

Castle was known as Red Babs more for her fiery brand of full-blooded socialism than for her flaming red hair. I knew her quite well, having interviewed here often when she was MP for Blackburn, but also because her long suffering husband was a journalist colleague of mine.

But it wasn't until she was in her eighties, and I had driven down to the Home Counties to interview her after she had published her memoirs, that I discovered a fact for which I, and tens of thousands of others, should be truly grateful: she stopped the canal system being filled in and turned into roads!

It was in her very first days as Minister of Transport and Britain's road network was even more appalling then than it is now. The massive motorway building programme had barely started and anyone daft enough to drive from Yorkshire to London would either break the journey overnight or arrive in the capitol completely exhausted.

At the same time, the canal system had been allowed to deteriorate into miles of stagnant, dangerous waters filled with rubbish and weeds. In central Skipton, it was full of old bedsteads, bits of bicycles and car parts and often as not dead cats and dogs. Anyone who fell in - particularly a child - was likely to drown tangled in weeds and other debris that made swimming virtually impossible.

The nation was also broke and there little money to spend on proper new roads. So civil servants approached Red Babs, spread yards of maps over her desk, and pointed out that filling in the canals and converting them for wheeled traffic would be quick and cheap as the government already owned the land.

What the pen-pushers didn't know was that Barbara and her husband had close friends who owned a narrow boat on one of the few stretches of the privately owned Rochdale Canal still navigable. And on rare free weekends, they would go off boating through the Pennines totally insulated from the crowds which made the private life of a nationally known politician almost unbearable.

The answer those civil servants received was, shall we say, somewhat heated. She told me that she had sent them away "with a bee in their ears." Knowing her, her reply was probably a single word followed by "off."

So our canals were saved and have since proved to be a massive boon to this country. Tourist towns like Skipton benefit hugely from the money water-born trippers bring in. The canals are also important linear parks for wildlife and leisure facilities for countless fishermen, walkers and cyclists. And they are an integral part of our land drainage system.

Red Babs Castle never got much thanks in her career, largely because her public persona terrified millions who never met her. Those who did found that she was a kind, gentle and deeply thoughtful person who - unlike many of today's cabinet ministers - was very good at her job. The organisers of the highly successful Skipton Waterway Festival owe her a posthumous vote of thanks.

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