Canals in the UK

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12:27 PM


There are over 2,000 (two thousand) miles (3,200Km) of man-made canals in the UK. They were mostly built (or "cut", which is why they are collectively known as "The Cut") between 1700 and 1880. The canals were created to connect the main docks and rivers at the coast with the industrial centres inland but it wasn't a single interconnected idea, rather a collection of individual projects which each had to become a successful business venture. As they were developed it became obvious that linkages were advantageous and gradually an integrated transport system was created.

When they were started, the only other form of transport was the horse drawn wagon; the canal system allowed the industrial age to grow and flourish, without the canals it would have taken another 100 years.
Eventually they were outmoded by the railways and left to dry up, or filled in and often built over, until, during the 60's a national organisation was formed (The Inland Waterways Association) and govt. policy was changed. Now those that aren’t irrecoverably lost are being slowly restored and managed and a major leisure facility has been created.

Most UK canals are narrow because it was so labour intensive to cut them; it was all done by hand. They were made between 20 and 30 ft wide (6m to 9m) with a saucer shaped cross-section, the centre was never more than 4 ft (1.2m)deep and the edges were shallow because of the saucer shaped section. The boats that used them were designed for the system, flat bottomed and shallow draft and known as Narrowboats. Some canals in the later days were made wider to be used by wide beam barges, carrying heavier loads but this development came too late.
The narrow locks are 7ft (213cm) wide and Narrowboats are 6ft 10in (208cm) wide - that's 1 inch (25mm) clearance either side!

Working Narrowboats would carry up to 45tons (45.700,00kg) and were pulled by horses initially, hence the path beside the canal is called the 'towpath'. Later, when engines were fitted the ‘motor’ (boat) would pull a second boat, (known as a ‘butty’) having no engine. These boats were often manned single-handed (one person on each boat), loaded, unloaded and worked through the locks, in all weather at all times of the year (no work, no pay!)

The towpath continues through the bridges resulting in very narrow ‘bridge holes’ usually not more than 9 or 10 ft (3m) wide. The later boats with engines never slowed for bridge holes, they went straight through, with 18 inches (½m) either side. Boats that met in opposite directions approaching a bridge hole, often with a bend in the canal restricting vision on the approach, would result in some very able and capable boat handling so as not to lose time by stopping. It was in both their interests to avoid a jam which would slow them both and they were too far apart to communicate verbally. They would read the situation and act accordingly and if one got it wrong it would be due to inexperience.
A ‘working pair’ (one boat towing a second) would usually be given priority because the second boat (the ‘butty’) had no engine and therefore no brakes! If a single boat tried to force his way through past a working pair he could find himself in difficulties with a fully loaded butty bearing down on him, with no brakes!

The learning curve of the working boatmen was very steep but most boatmen had grown up on the boats, learning from their parents.
The small cabin at the back of the boat would be home for the whole family; husband and wife often with up to 3 or 4 children, all in a space 6ft by 8ft; 48 sq. ft. (1.8m x 2.4m; 4½m2). No running water, no toilet just a bucket, but it did have a stove for cooking and warmth. Writers from the period tell us that these cabins often "shone like a new pin, with polished brass and painted pictures on the woodwork and adorned with hanging plates and intricate lacework."
Children were always at risk on the boats in the early days – they had to contribute as soon as they could walk, usually by walking the horse who although not needing to be led, would always pull better if they knew someone was behind them. Small children were usually tied to the chimney on top of the boat for safety, but there were many fatalities. Falling into the canal could be survived but falling into a lock that was filling or emptying was almost always fatal. An adult going into a filling/emptying lock is in serious trouble, probably with less than a 50% chance of survival, but a child has no chance.

Even today, with all our modern resources and technology, if you are working the boat alone (and many do), in heavy winter clothing and/or waterproofs and you fall into a lock you are in serious trouble. There is no space between the sides of the boat and the walls of the lock (1 inch either side) and there is nothing to get hold of except the lock gate so you’d have to be able to swim to that, fully clothed. If you were at the back of the boat the engine is always running and the prop is turning in order to maintain control, so the problem is even worse. If the lock is full it’s a problem but if it’s empty you’ve got a drop of between 8 and 14 ft before you hit the water (and further to climb out).
If the lock is either emptying or filling, the surge force of the water is strong enough to put the boat at risk (that’s why the engine is running and the prop is in drive) so falling into that, fully dressed . . . .

Here’s the scene. The working boatman, standing 12 inches above the water on the back of a boat, it’s 70 ft long and just less than 7 ft wide, it weighs about 60 tonnes (15 tonne boat with 45 tons of cargo) and he’s steering it into a brick built chamber that’s only 2 inches wider than the boat and which towers between 8 and 14 ft above him and it’s only 2 ft longer than the boat. It’s winter, it’s dark, it’s pouring with rain and he’s never had enough cash to invest in anything waterproof.
That’s why almost everyone who owns a leisure Narrowboat in the UK today, has nothing but admiration for the working boatmen of generations past. Today we do it as a leisure activity but those of us who do it regularly, do it carefully.

A little known fact is that during the second world war when most of the men were in the forces, a lot of the working boats were crewed by volunteer women. Young women in their 20's or 30's and they did everything that was necessary, including loading and unloading, all by hand and endured all the privations of life on a boat in those days. They wore badges issued by the department of Inland Waterways that employed them, the badges had "IW" in large letters on them and the old timer boatmen gave them the nickname "Idle Women". There are many books telling their story, well worth reading when the washing machine breaks down!

These days many people use the canal system for leisure and often on a ‘short break’ basis, so much so that many of us regular boaters brave the less favourable weather pre and post the summer season to avoid the crush. Boating in March, April and in October, November, December is much quieter but it’s cold and usually wet. Grey overcast days are bad, but if you add a cold wind as well it gets pretty miserable. We do it to avoid the queues at the locks in the summer. There is a fun side to it in the summer months – queuing at the locks you get to meet a lot of new faces all with your own interests, but there’s also a lot of inexperienced holiday makers, in hire craft with little or no instruction who can’t control their boats and that gets tedious.

Tunnels have their own unique charm. They can be anything from 150 yds (137 m) up to 1½ miles (2.4 km). They do not have any lighting system, some have ventilation shafts at intervals and the longest have extractor fans to either blow or suck the diesel fumes out. Of course, if you’re in a convoy and the extractor is moving the air from the other part of the convoy towards your boat, you’re in permanent fumes. It’s a case of thinking it out beforehand, knowing which direction the extraction works and deciding whether to accept the offered convoy position, or wait and be at the front (or rear) of the next one!
There were never any towpaths in the tunnels, the horses were walked up over the hill(s) and the boats moved through by other means. In the early days this was achieved by specially employed men called “Leggers” who laid crossways on the top of the boat, on a plank of wood which projected over the side and allowed them to place their feet on the curved sides of the tunnel, as it curves over to become the roof. They then “walked” the boat through the tunnel. Some tunnels are one-way only, using organised ‘convoy’ passage through and some are two-way which you navigate on your own – scary job passing in the darkness of a tunnel, the spacing allows about 12 inches between and 12 inches either side! Boats have a ‘tunnel light’ on the front but if it’s too efficient, it just serves to blind the oncoming boat. The ultimate ‘chicken-run’ !

Winters can get and in the past, have been, so severe that the canal has frozen. Not often, perhaps every 10+ years or so. Back in 1962 the freeze lasted from before Xmas until March. On the River Avon the ice was 14 inches thick so canals would have been at least that, probably more as they were not fast flowing and were shallow. In those days there were still quite a lot of working boats and many of them were frozen in for weeks on end. The boatmen would have to walk miles for water, fuel and food, usually every few days. By ’62 the working boats as a way of life was just about coming to an end, so a lot of the hardship of that freeze was down to stubbornness because by then communication and transport was so much better. A lot of them just left their boats locked into the ice and went home. The ones who stayed were pretty much the ‘hard liners’, old timers whose families were boaters back a long way.
The previous really big freeze was in 1947 and at that time the working boats were family affairs, with wives and children living on board. The system of Social Support in the country still wasn't very well organised and communication and public transport wasn’t very good. The hardship on the boats during that winter was very, very bad. Having to walk two or three miles every few days, to fetch fuel (coal), food and water through snow that was 5 or 6 ft deep, there were a lot of fatalities and in ’47 the freeze lasted a long, long time.

Here in the UK there are many people who live on their boats – their boats are their full time homes. The majority of them are berthed on ‘residential moorings’ with water, electricity and sanitation disposal facilities, but there is a whole community of what are termed ‘continuous cruisers’, live-aboard boaters who do not have a permanent mooring. They moor overnight and cruise during the day. The licensing rules state that they can moor on the towpath for a maximum of 14 days before they have to move on. Their advantage is reduced licence fees and no mooring fees (between £500 and £5,000 per year, depending on where you moor).
It could be that theirs’ is the kind of community for whom there are no solid census statistics – and they probably like it that way!

Of course canals are not limited just to the UK, this link <a href="http://www.terrypepper.com/w&e/" target="_blank">W&E Canal</a> tells the story of the Wabash & Erie canal in the USA.
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