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- D.W. Horsfall[Published 1981]

book front cover (22K)


Foreword by Hugh McKnight
Introduction — On writing the biography of a boat.
Chapter 1 —Adelina, from Thy Dark Exile
The finding, raising, and naming of Adelina; her history, from being opened as a Boys' Club by the Duke of Gloucester; moving her to Shardlow.
Chapter 2 — In Friendship's Name
Making the boat more or less inhabitable; fed-upness of colleagues with canal obsessivenesss and method of getting own back; moving Adelina to Burton upon Trent.
Chapter 3 —Hitting the Trail
Journey of Adelina to London, mainly towed by Willow Wren working boats; problems of finding residential moorings in London.
Chapter 4 — All Mod Cons
The next phase of making Adelina into a home; odd plumbing system and sanitation.
Chapter 5 —Duckett's Cut
Life on a canal in the East End of London; peculiar method of access; amiable encounters with the police, and the dog that couldn't climb ladders; decision to move home.
Chapter 6 — The Basingstoke
Brief account of the tribulations of the Basingstoke Canal, and what life on it was like; Floating Homes in a floating suburb.
Chapter 7 — Water Music
Further civilising of Adelina, with description of curious systems of pumping and electric lights.
Chapter 8 —The Canal Press
Account of setting up a miniature printing and book binding activity on board, which culminated in the production of two small books.
Chapter 9 — Memorabilia
The collecting mania and canal enthusiasm combined; filling Adelina with teapots and books; painting her in a traditional fashion.
Chapter 10 — Deep Waters
Narrative of a journey on the remarkable underground canal system (now closed) used in the coal mines established by the Duke of Bridgewater at Worsley.
Chapter 11 — Rallying Round
Recalls some personally memorable highlights of Rallies at Aylesbury, Woking, London; Dinners at House of Commons, attended whilst resident on Adelina.
Chapter 12 — Goodbye
Final account of Adelina as she was just before her owners departed for new country; toddlers on board and their life.
Description of a visit by the family in 1977, the first time Adelina had been visited by the Horsfalls in 12 years, seen through the eyes of 15 year old Amelia.

CHAPTER 12: Goodbye and Postscript

Whilst life on the canal front was interesting and rewarding, professional life became unavoidably less so. By the early 1960s, oil competition was making serious inroads into the British coal industry. Few heeded the warnings of experts that increasing reliance on non-indigenous sources of primary energy might at some stage imperil the country. Such experts were dismissed as contemporary Cassandras, or coal chauvinists.

I recall an after-dinner remark by E.F. Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful and then Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board), on an occasion when we were both speakers at an NCB training course. He said he would not be surprised if, by the end of the twentieth century, oil would be credited with having brought about the downfall of Western Civilisation in its existing form. Prophetic or not, less coal meant fewer jobs and opportunities for young engineers in coal, and I started scanning the papers.

In 1963, I saw an advertisement for a job, that appealed to me very much: Ann was less attracted, but agreed to give it a try. The advertisement, for a Fuel Technologist, was much debated by us, because being appointed to the position would result in a transfer to the politically "hot seat" country of South Africa, to work for the Anglo American Corporation. The day I was interviewed for the job happened to be the day on which the treadle press was interviewed by me for a position at the Canal Press.

The senior mining engineer, seeing applicants at the Grosvenor House Hotel, little knew that one of them was covered in oil from wrist to elbow. Anglo American, chaired by the well known Harry Oppenheimer, is one of the world's biggest mining groups, and is traditionally associated with the liberal movement in South Africa. That orientation had an important effect on the decision to go, when the job was offered. Equally significantly, the job then offered almost limitless opportunities for doing the sort of technical work I enjoy, and making a positive contribution to developments in coal technology. Looking back over the years that have elapsed since leaving the UK, I realise that changes of remarkable significance — even on a national basis — resulted from the decision. But that is another story [1].

The actual move was timed for August 1964, and the saddest aspect of changing locale having to sell Adelina. A willing purchaser was Tim Dodwell, an old waterways friend of mine; and the sale was emotionally pleasing as he intended to make his home on Adelina after marrying Miss Elizabeth Marshall, daughter of the Canal Manager. A modest price was agreed; but both parties realised the potentially higher re-sale value of the craft. Consequently we agreed on a clause in the sale bill that gave me 50% of any price realised greater than my price to Tim; less a small sum allowed for improvements. Tim, an aspirant lawyer, produced an impressive agreement to that effect couched in suitable legalese, on proper paper, and with space enough for witnesses to the Treaty of Versailles.

It was a pleasant surprise a couple of years later, when the Dodwells themselves decided to move onto dry land, to receive a cheque in the post for a sum equal to that originally paid to me by Tim for Adelina; the more so as I was unaware of the resale. From the price movements since I bought her, it appears that a narrow boat can be a sound investment: she was given to the Boy's Club; the owner before me paid £5; I paid £50 and effectively received £500. The geometrical progression has tailed off a little but the last time I heard she was on sale for about £2,000.

Our life on board in the last few months before departure was singularly happy: it was a good summer, and both Adelina and the canal had never looked more beautiful to us. Office days started with being woken up by the birds: in summer at an un­earthly hour, later in winter as, I think, their beaks froze. We alternatd in providing breakfast in bed; not on the chauvinistic lines that I did it in summer and Ann in winter; we tended to swop duties on an ad-hoc basis.

The ritual in summer was always the same: pliers taken out of cupboard and with them paraffin stove coaxed into being ignited. In winter there was a quick shake out of ashes from the stove and more Brunobrights loaded into it. Once either appliance had got into its stride, and they tended to take things easy as well, water could be heated for washing and for tea, and traditional breakfast fare could start sizzling in the pan.

The main cabin always looked a picture on early summer mornings: the sunlight reflected from the water surface gave a shimmering pattern on the ceiling; the greenish tinted light transmitted through the trees around the mooring gave its own special aura; and the assembly of books, objects, stove and lamps, visible through the main cabin door, made a picture that is indelibly imprinted on the mind.

Clocks never seemed to function very well on Adelina: maybe their mechanism was too ordered and neat for survival in such a mechanically competitive atmosphere, where every device tried to follow its own instincts; or perhaps they just got water in the main spring. Quantification of the passage of time was primarily provided by an eccentric little transistor radio Ann and I made between us; though it wasn't designed to be odd, any more than the cheese grater and Moulinex mill of Chapter 7 had arsonist tendencies when they left Selfridges. The electronic marvel was tailor made for a narrow boat, being eighteen inches square and three inches wide.

Whether argument about where, on the tuning coil, a particular wire should be soldered, or whether the coil design itself became confused with a knitting pattern I know not; but the radio could only tune-in to the BBC Third Programme and Radio Sophia. Such selectivity may have resulted from the line of the boat, anything in fact could have been responsible, but it is completely true to say those were the only two stations that could be received.

Consequently time checks had to be carried out by consulting programme schedules in the newspaper; always assuming the language was understandable. Radio Sophia, apart from the language problems, was possibly in a different time zone as well. In a sense Adelina was also in her own time zone, for we had the feeling of remoteness, both in location and time, that is peculiar to canal dwellers. Right in the heart of modern suburbia, we could have been on another continent and in another age, for all the effect our environment had on us once we were afloat.

This sensation did not diminish, in fact if anything it grew as, dressed and ready for work, I said "Goodbye" to the wife and kids, grabbed the battered briefcase and marched down the gangplank, the vibration sometimes setting a poised pump or two in action, to give a farewell fanfare. The sound of water gushing into the canal as one left was re-assuring: the sort of feeling that all the devices were rallying round to help the little housewife, something like Snow White's dwarves.

The walk through the copse has been described. From the gate, a narrow path led to the footbridge over the lock. Passing the derelict-looking lock on the right, and the charmingly restored lock cottage on the left, intensified the sense of being unattached to the modern world. The pound above the lock was usually drained and filled with weeds — a depressing sight. However, a glance down the canal in the other direction showed the line of boats, peacefully occupying their unchanged bit of eighteenth century ambition: a small area of rurality protected by the canal's curious unassailability.

From the lock the path turned left, traversed a road, went through an attractive clump of trees, and ended just in front of West Byfleet station. The jouney from boat to station took four or five minutes: the generally punctual trains meant that if one wanted to walk to catch the 8:05, leaving at 7:59 would be early enough; by running, departure could be delayed until 8:00am. Whether four or five minutes journey was involved, that was all the time needed for two hundred years of scenery change to be traversed, and perhaps it was that time warp more than the birds, the canal, the rurality, even possibly Adelina herself, that made living there Different.

From the station, modern life in the worst sense began with a bang. The no-holds-barred struggle for a seat on the train, and dirty crowded Waterloo Main Line Station, into which the packed equipage drew, provided an almost unimaginable contrast with the peaceful scene left behind. The underground journey was even worse: an elbowing stream of people pouring down the entrance, splitting off into boisterous rivulets that themselves formed tributaries of another great flow converging towards some particularly popular station.

Repetition of the whole thing in reverse followed at the end of the day, and under such circumstances most people became mere automata. On several occasions when staying in town for the evening, and not returning by the usual reversal of the morning routine, I'd enter the Underground and unthinkingly allow the automatic pilot to take over. Consciousness returned when I found myself struggling up the steps into Waterloo Station instead of, say, Leicester Square or Covent Garden: in the absence of firm instructions, the body blindly followed through the endlessly repetitive daily routine. A real effort of concentration was required to reach a different destination.

Whether the day had been good or bad, productive or desultory, with the utmost relief the final stage of the return journey was reached, as I turned into our own private world at the entrance to the copse. Adelina herself had never looked more charming than she did during those last few weeks on board, and as though to show that they had meant no harm, all the electrical devices functioned without a hitch.

To get a better final impression of Adelina, let us make an imaginary visit to her during that last period of our tenure. Standing at the foot of the gangplank, the nervous visitor might pause, as it was narrow and without a handrail; in periods of high water, quite steeply inclined. But the plank was firm, non-slippery, and short, so a couple of steps brought one to the little double doors. One could comfortably lean against the superstructure whilst knocking on the doors to signify arrival. This action usually failed to have an effect, as the doors were secured internally by a spring clamp, so as the knuckles struck, the doors receded, making it pretty difficult to get a decent sound.

The next step, literally, was to stamp on the gangplank, which made the boat shudder and caused the occupant to come rushing along like an outraged Bugs Bunny. His arrival might be followed by the hatch in the deck rising suddenly, so much so that a person standing too close could get a nasty thump on the nose; and it was usual before opening the hatch to give a warning shout. The opened hatch and doors created a maw, descent into which was by a steep but quite broad flight of steps.

The small entrance door at the foot of the step was usually open, unless the weather was very cold. If it was not open, host and visitor required to be on very intimate terms indeed, for them to fit simultaneously in the minute entrance hall. Had the door been closed, a brightly painted Chinese style castle would have met the eyes as the steps were being negotiated. The hall was lit by a little lamp, really a gas bracket but converted to the electricity supply of the moment.

In the depths of winter, to prevent the carefully garnered heat in the boat from rushing out on opening both sets of doors, the hall became an air lock, into which people would descend, one at a time. Each descent was followed by closure of the outer doors and hatch, before the inner door was opened. Closing off access to the outer, non-boat world, enhanced the feeling of descending into submarine depths.

There was a broad gap between the double doors and the hull, so on the occupant being summoned by someone on the gangplank, a good view of the visitors' feet was obtained before the doors were opened. In time we could identify most of our friends by their footwear, and they were often surprised to be greeted by name well before becoming fully visible to those inside the boat.

At the foot of the steps, if the visitor turned left, a curiously shaped and constructed door gave access to the nursery. The curiosity arose from its shape following the irregular contour of hull and superstructure and, being made of innumerable pieces of power station wood, giving an impression of outsized marquetry work.

Inside the nursery, to the left, stood the wardrobe, a faint whirring emanating from the lower part revealing that the hot-air fan was merrily blowing warmth sucked from the radiator into the clothes. In the centre of the cabin, a swing was suspended from the beam; and at the far end little double doors led to the tiny rear well where Ethel had reigned when Adelina was on the High Canals.

The well, a favourite spot for a person with a book, an apple and plenty of cushions, was delightfully shady and looked down the length of the reach. The large shape of Godolphin, close by, blocked out much of the view of Floating Homes; the remaining vista of tree-lined canal ensured that though the book might remain unread and the bottom be sore the spirit would be relaxed.

On one side of the door, the children's cages with Gretel I and Gretel II (in reality Selina and Amelia) sleeping peacefully inside. On the other side of the door stood the miniature stove with car radiator behind. Hanging on the wall, two bright yellow life jackets worn by the children (by this stage aged 2 and 3) all their waking, walking hours. They became quite used to them, in fact liked their warmth in cold weather and when we left England, Selina brought hers along, wearing it in the chilly Transvaal winter in preference to a pullover. Perhaps she recalled with gratitude being saved from drowning on the couple of occasions when her unsteady steps toppled the mite off the gangplank. The water was deep enough to immerse her tiny frame completely.

The nursery (12K)
52. The nursery.

A favourite corner for browsing (13K)
53.A favourite corner for browsing.

On departing from the nursery and retracing steps towards the main cabin, the visitor would first of all pass by the entrance hall, and then the Elsan compartment, which was roomy, badly sound-proofed, and an absolute icebox in winter. The compartment was the only room on the boat without any heating, but was cheered by a large panel of roses painted on the door; the flower would have been appropriate in that closet even in a non-canal environment.

Next came the adult bed chamber, with hard wooden bed and equally hard but reputedly healthy mattress. The latter was made by sawing a coir mattres in two (a cross-cut saw does quite a neat job) and joining one of the halves onto a single mattress. The central heating system began here, with the loop of pipe alongside the hull doing its best to keep the temperature above zero in winter.

With bookcase over bed, lights conveniently to hand, chest of drawers close enough to rummage in without getting out of bed, everything was so arranged that the occupants, virtually coccooned in mid-winter, could carry out a few chores without stirring from the bed's cosy confines. Even when getting-up time arrived, clothes and so on could be extracted without too many calories being lost in the process.

From the bed chamber the door to the main cabin was a fine sight: panelled, bearing a large brass handle, and still stained with the watermark imprinted in the wood when Adelina was sunk at Long Eaton. Via that warped but impressive door, the visitor passed into the main cabin where chaos was the first sensation from its initial visual impact. There seemd to be a great many things associated with dissimilar activities lumped together, so the primary, over-riding impression was Clutter.

The long room (17K) The long room, divided into different activity zones.

As the eye became more discriminating, order could be discerned, the long room (about 25 feet long) being divided into distinct activity zones. By the entrance, the kitchen zone, with near chest-high sink and platform to reach it on one side; marble topped table standing next to paraffin stove on the other. Next, dining area: massive coal stove on one side (green enamelled, shiny black top, roses round the chimney), table and chairs on the other. The narrow width dictated that guests had to be seated according to girth: thin ones at the sides between stove and table; plump ones at each end, otherwise an incautious backwards movement could jam buttocks against stove.

Really, people's buttocks and their comfort are a personal concern: my worry was that the resulting sharp forward movement away from the stove could push the table through the side, and sink us all. In drilling a hole for the sink waste pipe, after finding a suitable spot, the position was marked by pressing the plastic pipe against the wood so that the drill could be brought to play. In fact the pipe, with a bit of pressure, just went on and kept moving, until it had popped out of the hull. With something of the instinct of a homing pigeon, the spot chosen was soft right through.

Accepting that such spots were rare, it would still have been unfortunate to locate one in the middle of dinner. By force majeure, the chef had to sit at an end of the table as well, otherwise food could not be served, so by-and-large, sit-down dinners were restricted to one plump person per gathering. Such parties were usually kept to a maximum of six, greater numbers sat around with plates on the knees.

The very greatest number ever entertained on board was 35: it was after a working party on the canal, when I casually dropped an invitation to tea, and everybody accepted. Hardly anyone could sit and breathing may have been difficult for those that were packed in first, but everybody had a cup of tea. The greatest sufferer was Ann: heavily pregnant at the time, struggling with teapots, sandwiches, and plates past so many bodies, almost induced premature birth.

From the dining area, the living area flowed, to use modern parlance. There was space to sit around on the so called "railway chairs". The term has always seemed to me to be an indictment of the railways, the chairs were so uncomfortable that they could have been designed for the compulsory use of signalmen, to keep them on their feet. They were inexpensive and strong: and today, probably, almost in the antique class.

Finally, guest space and library: the spare bed on one side (the bed with the compost heap interior) and books on the other made this a favourite spot for lounging and browsing. Due to the narrowness of the boat, everything was within reach, so that sitting on the bed, the browser could lean over and select a volume from the shelf across the aisle.

The bed was at such a height that the windows allowed a complete survey of the towpath activities opposite, though not quite as intimately as on Godolphin. Their toilet compartment was on the towpath side. In times of low water, when the boat was way out in the middle of the canal, an occupant of that smallest room would be about four feet away from the fishermen on the opposite bank. Being discreetly hidden by lace curtains permitted vicarious sharing of angling pleasures, providing a pleasant variant to the one of reading when so occupied.

From the main cabin into the workshop: substantial bench, built of magnificent hardwood found floating in the Thames en route; treadle printing press with cases of type and furniture; lathe; control board; cistern and pumps: each artifact in its own little area, each ready to leap up and do its thing at the call of the hand, foot, or leak.

Open the front window, and there was the delightful lock and cottage view: one of the prettiest anywhere on the canal system. On weekdays, when one could stay at home for leave or holiday reasons, to watch the scurrying commuters hastening over the bridge was a sobering experience and made modern life seem even more eccentric and less acceptable.

Down the gangplank (25K)
54. Down the gangplank for the last time.

We arranged to sell Adelina more or less furnished, taking only personal goods and a few sentimentally cherished objects. The packers arrived: in with the commode ("I couldn't stand those bloody logs any longer"); Victorian cast-iron oil stove that stank the boat out when in use (another puff for solid fuel); a pair of singularly graceful paraffin lamps, making a trip to yet a third continent; books, printing presses (five), all the memorabilia; all were to come with us.

As the packers took out each object, so carefully collected in the first place and gleefully put in its niche on Adelina, the whole five years passed kaleidoscopically through our minds. With the bewildered children we saw the bits and pieces that had become part of our lives put in cases, not to be taken out again until we had started a new life on a new continent. Then it was up the steps, down with the hatch and along that gangplank for the last time. The next gangplank was to be the one labelled British Overseas Airways Corporation, leading into the 'plane that whisked us off to Africa.

D.W. Horsfall
His Majesty's Theatre
South Africa

Amelia Ann Horsall

A description of a visit by the family in 1977, the first time Adelina had been visited by the Horsfalls in 12 years, seen through the eyes of 15 year old Amelia.

Selina, James, Christopher and I held onto one another, terrified of falling into the murky depths of the Basingstoke Canal. I could see the lights of the floating homes now, their warm, soft rays illuminating the muddy towpath. I began to feel a sense of excitement at seeing my first, and floating home.

The light cast mysterious shadows on everyone's faces, illuminating some of the features and casting deep shadows on others, resulting in grotesque facial masks. So this was the Adelina. At last the weathered but colourful sign board in our home had come to life.

The light emitted by the Adelina was sufficient to see her by. She was a long and narrow boat, with seventeen windows running down each side. Some of the windows were dark, others emitted light of various degrees through curtains. I wondered which windows had been the bedroom of Selina and myself.

We all stood in an almost respectful silence. In a sense, we had come 6 000 miles to see a boat that had been raised from the depth of the Erewash Canal and until now, had little meaning for us four children.

I wondered how my father was going to be received, for we did not know who the present occupants were. Adelina was still moored in the same position as Daddy had left her some thirteen years previously.

He walked up a somewhat precarious looking gangplank and knocked on the cabin door.

"Yes?" the man enquired.

After a brief introduction, followed by a "Welcome Aboard" from the present occupant, Daddy lowered himself into the Adelina as if she were still his very own.

We all squeezed into what could be described as an entrance hall and went into the main cabin. So this was the Adelina, the boat I had heard so much about; this was where the newspaper cuttings, the photographs and collections of canal paraphernalia had stemmed from.

The main living cabin was charming, and simply furnished. The windows were covered with orange and yellow curtains, each giving a separate framed picture of the surroundings when opened. A sofa and easy chairs were arranged around a solid fuel heater and television set. Pictures had been artistically arranged. A brown carpet covered the floor, with rugs strewn casually over it. The whole cabin had an air of a peaceful, contented existence.

The Adelina is both unusual and strange to those who know nothing of life on a floating home. I was too young to remember life aboard her, but spent five weeks cruising the canals in '73 and thus know the sensation of being gently rocked to sleep to wake up to a water world.

The galley was tiny but compact. The prow of the boat was fitted with cupboards. A table had been squeezed next to a stove, sink and a fridge.

Two sleeping cabins and a bathroom, and that is the Adelina. Cosy, peaceful and a life which is difficult to understand or appreciate if you are a confirmed landlubber and have never experienced something of this nature. It is a sad thing that a grand era of transport, family life and travel is slowly being forced out and giving way to faster and more practical means of communication.

And as we made our way up the muddy towpath, the mist engulfed us, as the lights of the Adelina became fainter and fainter.

Adelina (16K)


1. No Pudding at the Top: in course of preparation.

Last updated April 2006