Tales from the waterways

Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port

We used to belong to a club that owned an ancient and very battered narrowboat, the big advantage being that you could hire it for very little money compared to normal prices.  You booked your dates, and the morning you were due to leave you’d receive a phonecall or an email telling you where the last person had left the boat.  This could be anywhere – fortunately these boats don’t move fast so it generally wasn’t too far from its home base.  Then you drove to where it was, usually somewhere down a country lane with a muddy, slippery path down to the canal, unearthed the key from the gas cylinder storage cupboard, and let yourself in.  There then followed about twenty trips up and down that slippery path, arms laden with bedding, food, drink and waterproofs.  Once your holiday had come to an end, you found a place to moor, unloaded, took a taxi back to where you’d left your car, and let the next person know where you’d left the boat.  These little breaks contained an element of surprise that’s hard to find nowadays.

It’s a different world on the canals. They often run alongside or underneath major roads and rail routes, but they go unnoticed by the majority and once you’re on the boat you see these familiar things from a whole new perspective.  Large parts of the canal system cut through countryside it would be difficult to get to any other way, and a lot of that countryside is stunningly beautiful.  Birds and wildlife don’t regard the boats as threats, so you get right up close to them in a way you never normally could.  And there’s something very satisfying about the old lock mechanisms – it’s such a technically simple idea but so effective, and locks are interesting places to linger and watch as well.  There’s a peace and simplicity about life on the canals that belongs to a previous age and you can feel that tight spring inside you effortlessly unwinding as you glide through the water, especially if you can manage to be the person in the pointed end with the book and the glass of wine.

It wasn’t as idyllic as this all the time, of course. Nothing is more miserable than standing on the back deck driving the boat while torrential rain bounces off the water and trickles icily down your neck.  And this particular boat was very old.  The sewage tank sometimes hadn’t been emptied by the previous occupants, and the smell from the toilet could be so bad on occasion that we waited till we got near civilisation and used the public loos rather than have to venture in there. The ‘double’ bed I shared with my husband was no wider than a large single and since he’s a large man that involved some serious co-ordination when it came to turning over in the night, not to mention ongoing insomnia.  And all the cupboards were full of rusty tools, old boathooks, and other assorted junk so that there was nowhere to put anything and we’d constantly trip over all the stuff on the floor.  There was also the fun of periodically having to turn the boat round – a 63 foot boat with no directional control when you’re going backwards is not easy to turn in a turning hole that’s not much wider than the boat is long.  There are fishermen who’re probably still cursing us today.

The first twice we used the boat, the engine broke down. We were fortunate the first time – we broke down in Braunston, which is a major canal centre with engineers and chandlery shops all to hand.  The second time was worse.  We’d been told not to stop anywhere  in Leicester as it wasn’t safe – you know what’s coming, don’t you?  The engine went silent somewhere not far from the centre of Leicester.  The boat swung sideways across the canal, but with a bit of judicious use of boathooks we managed to get it into the side and tied it to some trees.  We were near a bridge that led up to a rather sinister and deserted industrial estate, and there were no passing boats, or people on the towpath, or any obvious source of help.  There wasn’t much we could do except that old staple of the British – put the kettle on.  After a couple of hours had passed, a man on a bicycle came by and shouted hello.  He was a volunteer canal warden and contacted a call-out engineer service for us.  The engineer couldn’t come till the next morning, and we were nervous about being left on our own in a notoriously bad area, so we took everything removable and of value inside the boat, and locked ourselves securely in for the night.  We were right to be worried; that evening some local youths started throwing stones at the boat.  They might, in fact, only have been the size of pebbles but the sound a stone makes when it hits the hollow metal box that constitutes a narrowboat has to be heard to be believed.  It was seriously scary.  They left us alone after a while, and the next morning – somewhat sleepless – we were towed to safety.

This long preamble is leading up to the fact that we visited the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port last Saturday, and it’s the most amazing place – if you’re ever anywhere nearby, do go and visit it.  There’s a persistent romance about the canals even though the reality in industrial times was that running a canal boat was a tough life, and had its dangers too.  Whole families lived and did everything in a tiny space that measured about eight feet square (the rest being used for cargo), but they took pride in their living space and boats were decorated and painted, lace curtains were hung, and bonnets were made.  The work was hard and unrelenting and I’m sure I wouldn’t want to have done it, but it still seems to me that it must have been better than repeating some monotonous task all day long in a dark and gloomy factory.  You could at least feel the sun on your back and breathe fresh air, you were part of a strong community, and you were in charge of your own destiny to an extent that most working class people were not.

I leave you with some photos. I’m never very good at taking the kind of big views that make it onto postcards – they don’t interest me much – so these are small things I saw as we walked around, with explanations where necessary.

Rooftop, British Waterways Museum

Gate with shadow

Old boat - detail

Blacksmith's window

These elaborate bonnets were made and worn by the women of the canals.


They also produced this ‘canalware’ – ordinary objects decorated with brightly-coloured roses and castles.  (I have no idea what that white circle is around the one on the right)


Light on the water

Leeds and Liverpool Canal

Some commenorative spoons, and some original mud from the excavations of the Manchester Ship Canal, which is nearby.

Mud from Manchester Ship Canal

This is a small row of Porter’s cottages, which were lived in not only by porters, but by shipwrights, blacksmiths, and other workers associated with the canals.  Each cottage recreates a home from a different era – 1840s, 1900s, 1930s and 1950s – with all the furnishings and decor of its time.  We got there just as they were locking the cottages up at the end of the day, so we only had a quick look, but the little we did see was fascinating.

Sunlight Soap


And finally, this one simply amused me: a picture of a tap to let you know the thing that looks like a tap underneath is, indeed, a tap.