canal society logo (3K) Booklet Archive


- 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.


Over the next month, whilst both boats were locked in the frozen canal, weekly visits were made to Shardlow to utter a few words of comfort to the forlorn pair, and to tidy them up to some extent. As a result, a degree of civilisation manifested itself. A couple of empty oil drums were made into a stove, the fuel being broken furniture and old timber, indeed anything capable of combining exothermically with oxygen.

The heating system was extremely efficient, as most of the products of combustion were discharged directly into the cabin — in terms of gradually evolving technology, I suppose Adelina was about at the Viking level. But the soul craves satisfaction as much as the body demands its comforts: even the Viking, once he had warmed his dwelling, began to think of Art, and a narrow boat owner can have similar aesthetic aspirations.

"Mod" cafe proprietors, seeking something eerily different to attract the teenage crowd, would have spent thousands to achieve the effect that Adelina attained unconsciously; but man is never happy with his lot. Despite owning a unique combination of the Hesperus and a charcoal burner's hut, I longed for suburbia. Visions of a neat, well painted and curtained dwelling crowded before smoke sore eyes in the murky interior.

A lick of paint achieves wonders in brightening a place up; but 72 foot boats require pretty big licks. Fortunately the columns of the Exchange and Mart revealed wondrously cheap sources of supply. The E&M is a magazine to which I have been devoted for years; and certainly as far as furbishing Adelina was concerned, she would have sunk (literally) without it. An order sent to a firm specialising in ex-government paint stocks resulted in the arrival at her mooring of a large drum of something costing about 10p a gallon.

After covering up the thirty four window gaps with bits of swollen hardboard removed from the walls and then burning the rest of the furniture, the cabin became warm enough for an ungloved hand to hold a paint brush. The atmosphere even became warm enough for the wood to dry a little, suggesting the walls might enjoy a fleeting relationship with the paint. Because the boarded up windows kept the sunlight out and the smoke in, seeing where to apply the stuff was difficult, but in her then condition, more or less anywhere was improvement.

The paint, which turned out to be of a sickly yellow colour, had the curious property of never drying, and I have long suspected that the fluid was really redundant fly­paper covering; either that or a vital ingredient was left out. Maybe the second drum missed the train. The colour effectively identified those brave souls who had spent a weekend (usually only one) on the boat. The paint was also almost irremovable from garments, but ran freely from the walls. As time went on, the number of people with yellow paint-stained clothes—who made a point of ignoring my invitations to come and have a spot of boating — became large enough to form a club.

At the office, recreational pursuits tended to follow trends: vintage car restoration would be succeeded by wine manufacture which in turn gave way to trombone playing; and grubbing about Adelina became for a time the "in thing". If, in the process, she became known as the Dry Cleaner's Friend, at least for a while she was quite a social centre, bringing one's own Wellingtons, woollies, coffee, tar remover, cup and paint brush being the simple entrance requirements: I provided the boat.

However, over-abundant enthusiasm on any subject can create nausea in the most devoted friends, and my unending expatiation on the beauties of canals and canal boats produced a backlash. Bored friends decided to get a little of their own back. In the National Coal Board, notices of vacancies were issued in a standard format, generally known as the "Jobs for the Boys" list. The document contained details of the job content, range of duties, salary (starting and attainable given fair life expectancy), and method of application.

I arrived one morning, ready for yet another round of battles with the intractable problem of removing dirty water from small coal — the current project — to find the latest Jobs for the Boys list lying on the desk next to mine. That was a subtle touch! Glancing idly down the list before clambering into overalls, revealed a vacancy that made the eyes, as Hamlet's father might have observed, start from the head like quills upon the fretful porpentine. There it was, the' Job of Jobs, the Nirvana of Waterways Hopes, the sort of thing that could have been penned by the Duke of Bridgewater had he required an assistant, etc., etc.

Ever since becoming interested in waterways and joining the coal industry, I'd sought to convince anyone who enjoyed a tirade that the NCB policy of deliberately running down their canal trade and running up their use of road transport was wrong; but at my lowly level, influential listeners were few. Maybe not so few though it seemed, for here was the NCB advertising for someone in his twenties, with an interest in waterways traffic and having a technical background; to be appointed immediately to a new post the Board intended to create with the aim of getting as much coal traffic back on water as possible.

At my present weight, the whole thing would have provoked a coronary and that would have been that; but then, being lighter and fitter, the prospect unleashed un­bounded energy and enthusiasm. The immediate consequence of the adrenalin flow was a visit to the boss to tell him that I had just received the Call, and would he mind if the problems of Bickershaw's washed smalls were delayed for a few hours whilst I composed a suitable application, saw the Director, said goodbye to friends and so on. He enthusiastically agreed, after reading the advert, that it was Just Me, and should be applied for without delay. I later found he had written it, and a year's acute observation had been put to good effect in an excellent cap-fitting job description.

From then on, the day was a mixture of righteous parading of the fact that the Board had at last seen the light over canal traffic, the still small voice had got through; the country, long before the dawn of Hair was about to enter the Age of Aquarius; and the nobly expressed promise that I would think kindly of my former colleagues whilst visiting the coal loading basins in my mobile office. The suggestion was made by those colleagues that Adelina should not be that office in her leaky condition. Her sudden submersion in a busy basin, friends argued, might result in traffic having to cease for days whilst divers raised the diva; which would hardly assist a "back to the canals" drive for traffic.

Ignoring such frivolity, I set to work on the application, attempting to combine the inspiration, if not the grammer, of a Brindley [1] with the persuasive "the "unlettered but heaven taught genius"; out but hinting at hidden depths, the document took shape, and if it had ever got to the people for whom the application was supposedly intended, maybe they would have decided to make the job official.

The completed application was taken to the boss, who suggested one or two refinements and then came the visit to the Director. There was a brief pause whilst he excused himself, and then the blow fell: faked advert, no job; but all in good sport. I think he was a little uncomfortable about the incident, and readily agreed to my suggested plan of action, formulated after the in­itial disappointment (which was all too apparent) had diminished. We agreed the tale would be spread that, full of enthusiasm I had been unable to resist the chance of an imminent departure of a service van for Head Office, so that the missive had irretrievably left before the denouement.

The result was hardly "collapse of stout parties", but there were indeed a few worried faces around for the next day or two, until I was induced to let them off the hook and reveal the application had not really gone. Before the de-hooking took place, the hint was casually dropped that there had been an interesting telephonic response to the letter from the Personnel Division, which confessed that the particular vacancy had escaped their attention but they would look into my request for a transfer carefully and let me know the result as soon as possible.

Perhaps the Devil looks after his own, but a few weeks later there was quite an in­teresting sequel to the event. As written above, my project at the time involved removing water from washed small coal. Washed Smalls as preparation engineers jocularly call the grade of coal (and are so fond of the term that included in the Coat of Arms of the Coal Preparation Society at one time was a pair of dripping knickers), were loaded into a bin, and these particular tests consisted of vibrating the mass to get the water to the top, from whence it could be drained. That part worked very well indeed.

The unfortunate aspect of the process was that the coal became solidly packed in the bin; so the next phase of the project required trying to get the coal out. One bright spark suggested putting powerful air jets in the bottom, producing at a given signal a mighty blast that would, like Eno's, move anything. The jets were duly in­stalled, and came the day of testing. Such had been the frustrations of the project that many of the technical staff stood around on the day of blast-off.

Although they undoubtedly wished to see the coal come cascading out of the bin as dry as though it had been in a tumble dryer, perhaps a few expected a Saturn rocket-like take off as the coal shot downwards and the bin upwards. The conspirators of the advert were among the crowd. I pulled the lever to activate the air inlet: there was a brief, uneasy pause, and then something happened. The coal below the jets was so solidly packed it refused to budge so the frustrated but mighty air current took the only way out possible: upwards — carrying with it a mass of coal and water, both black. The column surged up and out, a great inexorable soggy fountain, falling, rather more forcefully than a gentle rain from heaven, on the surrounding crowd. Newton was right.

Though nobody was hurt, most people were pretty well plastered, and whilst the innocent suffered with the guilty, I hope it was not imagination that made me think the layers were thicker on the latter than the former. As activator of the lever, my position was in a little metal control cabin, which completely protected its occupant from the fall-out; but we were soon all on speaking terms again.

Came the thaw and true nobility of friendship asserted itself. Adelina and Anne were unlocked from the ice and could once more be on the move. Sweating friends came to grab towropes and pull the great creature along. The owner claimed to be the only one who understood the rudder and so of necessity remained at the helm. It says much for the devoted band that they didn't end up harnessing the self-proclaimed skipper (who couldn't even drive a car) to the rope, letting him swim along pulling his pet behind him.

Some night navigation was attempted, but abandoned after finding a lock (Stenson Deep) failed to fill because, in the pitch darkness, a tail gate had opened and was letting the water out as quickly as all the paddles were letting it in. One Sunday, a month or so after we had left Shardlow and after weekends of slowly inching along the canal, Adelina steamed — the steam came from the towing crew — into Horninglow Basin; which was very convenient as the next day I was due to start work in London having been transferred to Hobart House (NCB Headquarters) in the interim. The immediate questions were, could Adelina be transferred as well; and had the builders of Hobert House given any thought to its access to an inland navigation?

On the first point, the journey from Long Eaton to Burton, a distance of say fifteen miles, had taken three months; which gave an average speed of about 0.1 miles per hour. Additionally, perhaps mainly on the basis of wanting to be able to say to their heirs and assigns that they had done it (rather as one might murmer that a stone was personally donated to and laid on the Pyramids) there had been no lack of helpers for that short stretch. To move both boats from Burton to London, another 150 canal miles at least, at the same average rate would take a year and a half! Moreover few people could or would be able to take part in such a long-distance haul.

On the second point even if London was reached, residential moorings were said to be impossible to find. I later discovered that had the journey been undertaken a century or so earlier everything might have been a lot easier, as the terminal basin of the Grosvenor Canal stood more or less where short-sighted posterity sited Victoria Station. A pub still stood opposite the station, the Grosvenor Basin, jolly and Victorian and a mute reminder of former navigational glories. The factors all added up to the really difficult problem of getting an unpowered narrow boat a considerable distance with not much hope of being able to live on her once she had arrived. It all seemed too much to contemplate, and the temptation to sell her was very strong.

However, the demon that had compelled purchase in the first place refused to be mollified and the decision was taken to transfer both self and future home. The decision was a curious one, to the uninvolved; why bother to sweat and toil over such a difficult and cumbersome creature? I'm not sure of the answer, but by that stage I'd grown quite affectionate towards the old girl; the "love at first sight" syndrome was real; and to abandon her (purchasers would have been hard to find) would have been as flinty-hearted as it would have been anti-social. Why should a mere hundred miles or so come between me and my ungainly but faithful girl friend?

A particularly helpful friend, Christopher Redfern, had taken a great interest in the project from the start (such zealots were readily identifiable not only by yellow paint but by near-permanent rope weals in the hands) and agreed to participate in moving Adelina in stages. Each stage would require leaving her by some access for public transport; but fortunately the unfair trick of the early railway builders in establishing their tracks alongside the well established canal trade routes was of utility.

In addition to being untiring in his ability to move unpowered narrow boats, Chris was gifted with a whimsical sense of humour. That, in fact, was probably the reason he came along on the expedition, as the whole operation was really so absurd. His only demand was that Adelina should not look too much as though she was en route to the breaker's yard.

In deference to such good taste more ex-WD paint was purchased, this time of a dirty green shade. Naturally the colour led to ribald comment that she was really being camouflaged. Happily this paint dried rapidly, as did the bituminous paint applied to the hull. For the first time since she had been raised on this latest occasion, Adelina began to look smart.

Although the commercial about inner cleanliness coming first was reversed, her cabins were not completely neglected in the spring clean. Before commencing the journey we spent a fair amount of time making her comfortable enough to stay on during the hauling weekends. The average speed indicated there would be many of these. Both the engineless state, and the uncertain canal-worthiness of the hull suggested an extended journey.

A vision of Adelina being pulled to her unknown destination by a coal preparation engineer in a bathchair was quite difficult to dispel. Nor was the destination the only unknown: so was the likelihood of Adelina arriving there without disintegrating en route. As it turned out, the hull was basically very strong, for a boat built to have thirty tons of coal thrown in, far from gently, day in day for fifty years must be soundly constructed. Once a hull has retired from active service, to the uninitiated it may seem to be in quite poor condition but in reality be very long lived in its new regime and give many years of trouble free service.

Such turned out to be the case with Adelina; but in the early stages, never having had a narrow boat before (they come but rarely in a lifetime), I tended to fear the worst whenever possible. This apprehension was increased by a gratuitous and, as it turned out, entirely erroneously depressing opinion pronounced shortly after Adelina was made fast at Horninglow. One afternoon I was attempting to heat the cabin, in a feeble effort to dry the yellow paint.

There was suddenly a banging and clattering at the entrance end of the boat: this was not particularly worrying as most visitors fell over the wood as they came in. As the clattering was not followed by imprecations and the dramatic entry of a dusty creature complaining of torn trousers, it was clear that one of the usual visitors was not involved and investigation was called for, so I went into the aft cabin. There was the old father of a boat owner at the canal basin, poking about in the hull with a penknife. To say he was testing the strength of the hull was probably an exaggeration; the octogenarian ex boat-builder had located the worst part of the hull and was basing his examination and opinion on that.

The use of chalico in Adelina's toilette has been noted, and as a section of almost pure chalico was being inspected, objective opinion was difficult. After he had prodded about for some time, each stabbing motion being followed by a disdainful withdrawal of the blade more eloquent than any words, I plucked up courage to say "Well, Sir, what would you do with her?". "Burn her!" was the authoritative reply, and with that he arose and clambered out. Such was the auspicious beginning to our marathon voyage to London.

Ch 3: Hitting The Trail

1. [the "unlettered but heaven taught genius"]


Last updated April 2006