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Legging it back into English history


Modern day England has a legacy from the past that has provided leisure pursuits that could not have been envisaged when it was first devised. The canal system in England provides for many people the opportunity to use the towpaths to fish, walk, cycle, run and of course cruise a boat. There is a canal regeneration program taking place that will help to preserve and retain its history and make it easier to view how life used to be for many.

The Shropshire Union Canal at Audlem

The Shropshire Union Canal at Audlem

When I lived in England it was mainly in a city called Stoke-on-Trent and most of you will have pottery in your homes that came from there. Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Aynsley and Spode to name a few. It was also a major coal mining area and later added steel mills to its range of industries. Just from the nature of these industries it rivaled an area in the Midlands of England known as the Black Country for the very poor air quality. Most of my comments will be based on Stoke-on-Trent and the adjoining areas as I had learned and understood some of the history surrounding it.

Narrowboats on the Cauldon Canal

Narrowboats on the Cauldon Canal

Two men were very much involved in creating the canal system in the UK, James Brindley and Thomas Telford. James was the main driving force and Thomas an engineer – and a master for solving problems. The idea behind the canals was to link both rivers and waterways into a navigable configuration to move cargo more efficiently. In 1766 acts were passed to enable navigation channels to be constructed and 1777 saw the earliest inland waterway completed.

In that period of time the roads were rutted muddy tracks and difficult for laden horse drawn carts to use. In the pottery industry alone the state of the road transportation caused a huge amount of damaged goods resulting in poor or no profit for the company. Also getting the raw materials to the factories, or pot banks as they were known, was very expensive and time consuming. So the canal system looked to be a way to improve both ends of the spectrum. The owners of the potteries were instrumental in funding the local project which would be known as the Trent and Mersey Canal. These were the two rivers that would effectively be joined together by the canal. The Trent ran to the east coast and the Mersey to the west coast. Ports for sea going vessels were located at both coasts. The coal companies also shared some of the costs as they too realized the importance of being able to move the coal along the canal system. The canal barge or narrowboat was also carefully designed using a long but slender style but care was given to how high the cargo could be loaded due to instability.

So now the raw materials would be brought in by canal barge and the completed pottery shipped out in the same manner. In many cases there would be a short spur from the main canal to lead to the pottery firm for loading/unloading the barges. Profits soared as the water transport proved a far more stable method of moving fragile wares. The means of moving the barges was by using a horse to tow the boat along, hence the term towpath for the track that runs alongside the canal. A series of horse stables were placed along the canal route to provide regular changes of horse. Although the barges could weigh upwards of 30 tonnes once moving it wasn’t difficult to keep the momentum going. Of course it wasn’t only the horses that needed to be refreshed regularly. The crew of the barge had to be cared for. And the regular spacing of pubs down the canals showed how this was done.

Obviously the ground wasn’t level for all the distance of the canal. Rivers usually found a natural way to flow with a winding passage through the countryside. But canals needed to be far straighter for the speed in which the goods had to be transported. So hills could not be circumnavigated and Thomas Telford soon worked out a lock system to raise or lower the water. The barge would enter the lock and close the solid wooden gate behind it. Then they would open the sluice panel at the other end of the lock to allow water in or out depending on the direction of travel up or down the hill. This would raise/lower the barge to match the water level of the canal at the exit end of the lock. Then the main gate at the exit end could be opened to allow the barge to continue on its journey. Sometimes it would need several locks very close together to be able to get the barges over the hill, these were known as steps. All the gates were, and still are, extremely heavy and the sluice panels that allowed water in or out are tough to operate by manually winding a winch system. And believe me it is very hard work. Another reason for the ever present pub.

When the hill was too high or steep to use the lock system Telford had another plan…a tunnel to go under the hill. They were an amazing feat of engineering in the 1770’s. Obviously a lock would be impossible to use within a tunnel and so the entry and the exit points had to be a level height with each other. The tunnel would be just big enough to take the barge…literally. There was a specially designed gauge the barges had to go under to make sure they would not be too high for the tunnel. The horse would be detached from the barge at the tunnel entrance and be lead, chiefly by the crew apprentice boy, over the hill to meet with the boat at the other end of tunnel. Then it would be up to the crew to get the barge through the tunnel. To do this the remaining crew would lie on their backs on top of the cargo and by placing their feet on the roof of the tunnel the would “walk” the barge through the tunnel. This was known as legging. When you think that some tunnels were up to 4 miles in length and the barge weighed up to 30 tonnes fully laden then imagine the difficulty in propelling it in this way. Once moving it would flow along easily but you wouldn’t want it to slow too much. The only light would be from lanterns on board.

The tunnel system also led to another problem. At the tunnels it would take a long time to get through by legging and they were only wide enough to take one boat at a time, unlike the canal, which would accommodate two-way traffic. Even locks were placed in pairs to speed the traffic through. Quite often a line up of boats would be created at either end of the tunnel waiting to go through. Many times fights would occur as crews tried to jump their turn. The answer was to build a second tunnel and to operate one-way traffic in each. It was costly, but effective. Telford certainly had an ingenious mind for overcoming topography.

When the trains were invented it spawned the start of the decline in the canal system. 1830 saw the first train passenger service in the UK and it soon became a quicker method of transportation for industry as well. The canals were not forgotten and remained a well used service for many more years. The advent of the motor engine again saw a decline in the canals, as the road system gradually became so much more usable. Around this time the barges were fitted with engines to move more quickly and efficiently and so until the roads became manageable this gave some life back to the canals.

Several anomalies have occurred within the life span of the canal system. One huge undertaking in the mid 1890’s was the Manchester Ship Canal. It linked Liverpool on England’s west coast to Manchester by means of a 36-mile (58 kms) long navigable waterway and some 100’ (34m) raise in water height from sea level at Liverpool. It was designed to help offset Liverpool’s high demand for its docks. Ocean going vessels would travel to Manchester to offload their cargos. At one time Manchester became England’s 3rd busiest port despite being 40 miles (64 kms) inland. It was designed just for ocean going vessels and not for the narrowboats to use.

Today the canals in England have been forgotten for industry but have become a popular tourist attraction. There are close to 2000 miles of navigable waterways in England, all interlinked, stretching from the south coast to both the east and west coasts. The barges are still the same basic size and shape but are called narrowboats now. This is understandable as this is what they are, usually around 60’ (18m) long but just below 7’ (2m) wide. The locks in general are only 7’ wide with a maximum 70’ (21m) length. Many of the bridges crossing the canals are only 7’ wide as well and shaped to just accommodate the narrowboats unique design.

The large cargo section that ran almost the length of the vessel is now converted into living, sleeping and cooking areas and they generally have an electric engine for propulsion. Sleeping usually 6 to 8 people it is ideal for families or couples to explore the system. Some folks even live permanently on these narrowboats and tour the whole of the waterways. A dying tradition is the artwork used in decorating both the structure and the equipment adorning the vessel. Each narrowboat will be uniquely painted and decorated. There is a mandatory speed limit now of 4 mph to protect the canal banks from erosion. The canal system is great for holidaying with many companies offering one or two-week vacation packages renting narrowboats. You take your own “hotel” with you so to speak. And oh yes!! There are the pubs along the canals, have I mentioned these at all.

Once out of the towns or cities you reach the countryside and away from the mad rush and clamor of the modern world. Close you eyes, feel the warm sun radiating out of the blue sky with white fluffy clouds on the horizon. See the myriad of colours from the fields and distant hills. Hear the sounds of the insects and the songs of the birds as you glide silently along the gentle waters. Be at one with nature and relax in a time span that used to be. Oh! And of course wait patiently for the next pub to come into sight.

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