The Inland Waterways of EnglandCategory: Land + People
By L. Т. С. Roll
In the past, before the internal combustion engine banished the horse from the roads as well as from the water ways the great variety of goods carried by water included quantities of hay. When carrying such a bulky cargo the boatman frequently stood on the cabin top and steered by means of an extended tiller called a “looder”. Nowadays, whereas the river navigations and broad waterways still handle much general merchandise as well as an enormous tonnage of petroleum, paraffin and diesel oil, an increasingly large proportion of the traffic carried over the narrow canal system consists of bulk minerals for the carriage of which they are best suited. These include washed gravel and granite chippings, moulding sand, metals in ingot and bar form, salt, china clay, flints and, above all, coal. The last war proved that these canals were capable of handling efficiently a much wider range of goods. At that time canal-borne Government stores were often delivered days before similar goods which had been loaded simultaneously on rail for the same destination. This was a case of the tortoise and the hare, for altough the boats were slow they were not subject to delays.
Even on the narrow canal system which some regard as archaic, one small diesel engine can haul fifty-five tons in a pair of boats provided the waterway is reasonably maintained. For economy in fuel, so important at the present time, no system of land transport can compete with this. Schemes for enlarging the narrow canals to accomodate larger craft may or may not be practicable in the future, but it is certain that the waterway system, even in its present form, could play a very much greater part in the internal transport of this country at the expense of a comparatively small outlay. That they are not doing so at present is due to a number of factors. The majority of waterways are badly maintained owing to lack of labour, capital and modern equipment or, in the case of railway controlled canals, deliberate policy.
The canals which cross the Midland shires, the Grand Union, the Oxford, or the Trent and Mersey share the same quality of remoteness, and it is this quality which distinguishes the canal system as a whole. Sometimes it is very real as on the summit levels of the Oxford Canal and of the Leicester section of the Grand Union where it is possible to travel for hours across the wolds of North Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire without meeting a soul save a passing boatman. But sometimes it is an illusion which is shattered as soon as the traveller leaves the waterway. In this respect the canal is the opposite of the road, for whereas the latter brings the town into the country, the canal seems to bring the country into the heart of the town. This is particularly noticeable in the approach to Birmingham. The city extends interminable tentacles of ribbon development along the main roads to Bristol and London while the equivalent water routes thrust thin probing fingers of green almost to the heart of the city. There is a good reason for this. The three transport systems, canal, rail and road, each initiated a separate belt of urban development, which are often as clearly defined as the rings of growth on the sawn butt of a tree. Each belt naturally tended to concentrate about the lines of communication which initiated it; consequently the canal only becomes truly “built up” when it reaches the older core of the city which belongs to the canal era and pre-dates the railway age. Even here, where the narrow ribbon of blackened water runs through a gloomy and often malodorous canyon formed by old warehouses and factories, the feeling of remoteness persists. The trains, the buses, trams and cars which rumble and thunder overhead belong to a newer and different world, and for this reason the canal traveller still feels himself withdrawn from the ages of steam and petrol. To pass through a large city by waterway is a remarkable experience, and even those who are intimately acquainted with the city’s streets often find it difficult to locate their precise position. For years they may^regularly have used some busy thoroughfare without realizing that beneath them, through some dark invisible culvert, there ran a waterway linking coast to coast.
From The Inland Waterways of England, London, 1950.