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Britain's canals: still going strong despite the bureaucrats

Friday 11 May 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, inspired by last weekend's waterways festival on the Leeds-Liverpool canal at Skipton, revels in the fact that our canal system has survived for some 250 years despite the politicians, bureaucrats and now, the 'elf'n'safety brigade

TO USE an old Northern phrase, I enjoyed a reet good do last Bank Holiday weekend celebrating 234 years of the Leeds-Liverpool canal at the ever-growing waterways festival in Skipton. It was a great success - despite the fact that health and safety inspectors had put the boot in to ban one of its most popular events.

This was the sixth year of the festival, with 64 boats taking part, and the previous five had finished with a mammoth procession of all boats, lit by lanterns and all flags flying, on a mile or so route into the heart of Skipton as the sun went down on the last day.

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However, the health and safety people stepped in and ruled that the moonlight procession could not go ahead until the towpath was fenced off to stop spectators falling into the water, says one of the leading participants, former Craven District councillor Peter Walbank, who had kept a narrow boat at Skipton for some 20 years.

"This is democracy gone mad," he roared as we shared a pint in a canalise pub. "If they have to do this on a canal, why don't they do it on the London Underground? The platforms there are much more dangerous, and the crowds much bigger."

The fact of the matter is that our canal system has been bedevilled by politicians and bureaucrats since its inceptions in the mid-18th Century. From the very start, it needed an Act of Parliament to build a canal and steering one of those through Westminster was always tough: they were supported by land-owning MPs through whose estates they would pass (bringing in large sums of cash) but often bitterly opposed by rival landowners not on the route.

When the "navigationeers" - the "navvies" - finally got permission to start work with their picks, shovels and wheelbarrows (virtually all the tools available) they were disdained by many of the local population and regularly attacked from the pulpit by the clergy for allegedly loose morals.

Through all this, and having carried out arguably the biggest civil engineering project in England since Hadrian's Wall, they had a few decades of prosperity before the railways arrived and stole much of their custom. Yet they still stumbled on and were, indeed, still important trade routes until World War 11.

Then the politicians and their pen-pushers struck again. Or rather, failed to strike. When the post-war Labour Government nationalised the railways, they didn't even realise for some years that, as the railways had bought out most of the canals, they had in fact been nationalised too. This led to years of neglect and hundreds of miles of canal, including parts of the Leeds-Liverpool in Skipton, became little more than open sewers, stagnant, weed infested dumping grounds for rubbish and scrap metal.

Here I must be fair to one politician to whom all canal-lovers owe a vote of thanks, the late Barbara Castle, the infamous "Red Babs." When she was Minister of Transport under Harold Wilson, officials came to her with a proposal to fill in the canals and make them into roads.

The Leeds-Liverpool ran through her Blackburn constituency, of course, and she also had friends who had a narrow boat on the Rochdale Canal, one of the few still in private hands. She told her officials to go away - I believe, in fact, that her curt command ended in "off" - otherwise last week's waterways festival would never have been born.

In the end, it was amateur enthusiasts who defied the bureaucrats and saved our canals. In various parts of the country, short lengths of canal were still reasonably serviceable and people began to buy up old commercial narrowboats and turn them into leisure craft.

They soon became tired of being hemmed into short stretches of water which did not join up with the rest of the country's 3000-odd miles of navigable waterways. Working at their own expense and in their spare time, they began to clear clogged stretches and repair broken-down locks.

It was hard, filthy and costly work but they persevered. In the end, the politicians and the civil servants had to take notice and now most - but still not all - of our canals are back in thriving business, not just for boaters but fishermen, walkers and cyclists. They are an essential part of our land drainage system and a boon to wildlife. Once again, the British amateur spirit triumphed over official neglect!

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