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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.