The Ballards - Canals


Canals are a powerful reminder of an earlier, more muscular industrial age, when engineering projects were unconstrained by spurious environmental objections, public planning processes, Health & Safety, Unions and the Green party.
In those days Things Got Done (like they still do in the US today).

The canal age really began in the 1700s, with the growth of cities requiring supplies of raw materials from greater and greater distances, overwhelming the primitive roads and horse drawn carriages available.
Barges had been used for centuries on natural waterways: slowly the realisation dawned that the rivers could be improved to maintain a constant level of water sufficient for navigation by adding locks and bypass weirs.
The deceptively simple invention of the angled lock gate and the development of waterproof mortar allowed the rivers to become arteries of supply. The lower cost per ton-mile of moving goods by water compared with the congestion-charged turnpike roads (sound familiar?) meant that it was but a short step to imagine joining the rivers together with artificial waterways.
The new science of surveying allowed canals to follow the contours of the ground where possible to minimise earthworks, and armies of navvies (short for "Navigators") dug the relatively shallow (often only 3 foot deep) channels and lined then with clay to make them watertight.

The results were the first superhighways, carrying goods, gossip and people between communities at a lower cost per ton than any other means of transport.

Construction of the canals allowed such engineers as Thomas Telford to exploit the compressive strengths of stone and the tensile strengths of the new cast iron to create aqueducts finally bettering the 2,000 year old Roman structures dotting Europe and the near East.
The canal age lasted until well into the age of steam, before the finances of moving goods by the relatively fast railway finally did for all but some small scale coal movements.

In the 1960s, with the invention of the low-maintenance fibreglass pleasureboat and the development of reliable, cost-effective marine diesels, canals began a long, slow return to our hearts.
The money began to flow once more in to Canal Trusts and the British Waterways Board, and finally during the 1990s big deals with the Telecomms companies to lay fibre-optics along canal towpaths sealed BWB's finances to a sufficient extent that it could contemplate not only large-scale maintenance and the re-opening of long-defunct links such as the Blisworth Tunnel but the possibility of new canal construction such as the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust project linking the River Great Ouse at Bedford and the Grand Union Canal at Milton Keynes, due to be completed by, er......2050 (this was to be 2010 but something appears to have happened along the way!).
They have actually built a bridge, thus far (2015).

Even the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal, abandoned in 1904, is being rebuilt and re-watered to provide leisure boating facilities to Wendover and Aston Clinton.
This project has actually been going for a number of years, is hugely professionally run and has even caused a major trunk road scheme to be modified to accommodate it.
Well, I'm impressed....

We lived near the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union for several years and walked, in stages, the Grand Union from Kings Langley to Milton Keynes.

Canal towpaths are endlessly fascinating, as they move gently from rural to urban, from farmland to industrial scenery.
Around each corner is always a surprise: from fishermen to boats, from sudden strange military looking blockhouses to coxed eights.
The wildlife is abundant, and the intrusions of the modern world only tend to occur at bridges where the sudden appearance of cars seems other-worldly.

The appearance of the canal water can vary enormously: sometimes dirty brown and muddy, sometimes green and cloudy, sometimes smelly, sometimes clear and pure.

Unlike rivers, where the flow is always in one direction, as you walk a canal the flow is sometimes non-existent, sometimes in one direction (if you are walking vaguely uphill) then as you pass the summit or bottom the flow changes direction.

The other surprise, especially on the Grand Union, is the number of working boats. There are actually boats carrying coal, and the smell of burning coal on the wintery air brings memories for me of blustery days in Northern towns in the post-industrial-apocalypse early 1980s. It really is colder up North, I found when scouting for Universities and driving to Scotland for holidays.
They look pretty much like old boats you see in black and white films of the 1920s but have a lot more modern conveniences, like powerful central heating, showers, loos (ours had two!), very comfy (if a little narrow) beds and surprisingly powerful (and abstemious) diesel engines and well-equipped kitchens.

But actually driving one of these boats is a very different kettle of fish: it's not as romantic and slow-paced as you might imagine.
The immediate impression from the driving position are "Oh My God, it's 62ft long and looks like the top of a petrol tanker from here".
It's not easy to drive, requiring constant tiller attention and throttle changes (and there's no autopilot).
The wind catches the side of the boat, it understeers and requires power to manoeuvre.
Kill the throttle and you lose most of the rudder.
The "reverse" tiller movements are OK, but turns need planning and constant correction.
Lining it up for the very narrow swing bridges is an art form, and complex turns at anything other than "dead slow" speed require massive tiller input (nudge with the bottom: that helps, or you get a sore arm).

We experimented on a quiet canal on a cold March day with maximum throttle and beyond the speed limit (breaking wash speed) it becomes nigh on uncontrollable on anything other than a dead straight section (rare on the South Oxford canal), and even the straight bits are hard with a crosswind.
Sharp turns at any speed can be sabotaged by the fact that on the opposite side to the towpath the canal is usually shallow and muddy, so cutting the inside of the corner and attempting to drive the back of the boat round to complete the corner simply fails because the hull of the boat is virtually stuck in the mud and won't move sideways, no matter how much throttle and rudder input you give. So you end up understeering in to the outside bank (actually you reverse like crazy and end up just grazing the bank, but if someone is coming the other way you're going to hit them...).
But of course it's not designed to be driven fast. In peak season you can wait an hour for each lock; why drive fast?

But when they say "narrow boat" they mean Narrow. Like the Panamax cargo boats that ply the Panama Canal, these boats are designed to *just* fit the swing bridge gaps and the locks. There is approximately three inches each side under the swing bridges (fun at full throttle...) and in the locks.
So it's snug. And there is a fair bit of contact getting in to the locks.

The locks are amazing: going up you drive the boat in to this gloomy canyon, going all the way to the end bumper plate under the cill to clear the bottom gates behind you, ending up 12 foot or so underground whilst your helper (we took turns) shuts the gate and lets the water in.
Then you go up like a lift until the water is only 6 inches or so below the top of the lock. As you emerge in to the sunlight you feel like a jack-in-the-box.
I've seen people massively over-complicate this process with ropes, but in practice it's best just to hold the boat against the top gate with a trickle of power as you go up and let the gate and paddle person do all the work, then when the pressure equalises the top gate opens by itself. Lazy man's boating.
Going down is a tad more complex because you let the gate and paddle person off before the lock, then you're stuck because the lock is not ready: what are you going to do? Jump out and hold the boat by the bank? Hard work, because you're at the back and need to get the middle line in your hand, not the rear line. Hold the rear line and the front of the boat will drift out in the middle.
Or you drift in to the middle of the canal and let the wind catch you - you end up diagonally across the canal and when finally the top gate is open you spend 5 minutes getting the boat in the right place. I tend to end up backing the boat up the canal a good long way, then when I can see the gate opening I can go forward under power where I have control.
Youtube shows the professionals doing it a completely different way: they drive straight up to the gate, drop the gate opener, then hold the boat in the lock entrance with the engine just far enough away from the gate to allow it to open - that way the confines of the lock entrance hold the boat from drifting away.
Then you enter the lock, slowing right down as you pass the gate using reverse and just stopping forward of the gate. As the water falls away and you descend in to the dank chamber you must keep the rear of the boat forward of the lip (the cill) or you end up with a partially upended boat and have to close the paddles and have another go (and everyone laughs at you...).
But once you're at the bottom you need to back up to allow the bottom gates(s) to open, then power forward until you are clear of the gate, then stop for the (now exhausted) gate and paddle man to jump back on board.
As I say, we took turns.

What is fun is sitting at the front where you are so far away from the engine it feels like it's just you and the scenery, gliding along gently. Snug down so you cant see the driver and it's very relaxing.

The South Oxford canal, from Twyford Lock to Napton takes a day to navigate if (and that's a big "if") you dont have any lock delays (we didn't), you start at 7am (you'll be really popular with the simply enormous number of hippie "off-grid" types that live on parked boats, and they're very vocal: "Slow down!" you'll get, even if you're trickling along past them at minimum revolutions concomitant with a little rudder control, and as far away from their camouflaged Survivalist ex-coal barge covered in nicked bits of wood for their stove as you can get.
Unfortunately they don't realise that near Fenny Compton, half way up the canal, is the UK's largest ammunition storage depot and absolute dead cert Russian nuke target...) and you treat the canal like Silverstone and the swing bridge gaps like chicanes. Probably only doable in the winter, looking at the huge numbers of boats in the marinas if only 10% of those went out you're looking at 1hr per lock.

But the big issue is that if you take a 62ft barge North of Fenny Compton there's no turning round until Napton, so you're committed to a long, cold, windy summit level.

We survived but had sore arms.