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.


Our emergence from Horninglow Basin in Spring 1959 was evocative of a trans continental expedition, for Adelina, rejoicing in her new coat of dirty green paint an freshly tarred hull, was festooned with ropes, fenders, cans of water, and provender. Obsessed with the idea that we would spring a sudden and unlocatable leak, the supplies had been organised so that as little as possible was kept inside the boat, in order that incoming torrents could be quickly traced. Tiny Anne pulled Missfully; but even more effective were two friends heaving on towropes. The progress of a towed narrow boat is stately and impressive, the great bulk of the vessel moving along silently and irresistably; but one couldn't help feeling that as pulled by a couple of straining mortals, Adelina must have looked like a tame reluctant diplodocus being taken out for an evening stroll.

From Burton-on-Trent westwards, the Trent and Mersey canal changes its character. From Trent Mouth to Burton the canal is navigable by 14' wide barges dimensions no doubt necessary because of the vast casks of noble Burton brew sent down the Trent; but from Burton westwards, the canal is narrow, and navigable only by 7' wide narrow boats. This presented no special width problems as Adelina was built for such waterways, but the narrower bridges, together with her high superstructure, created hazards. The cargo carrying narrow boat sits low in the water, and even when unloaded the steeply sloping tumblehome of the bridge presents little menace. When, however, a boat is converted into a dwelling by covering in the hold, providing reasonable headroom in the cabins can give a dangerous projecting superstructure.

That bridges hit boats (never the reverse) all too commonly can be seen from the battered sides of both of them. Even the cabin of the working boat gets the occasional clout as it glides by, judging by the insurance built into the chimney arrangement. The chimney serving the boatman's cabin is detachable, but fastened to the cabin top by a length of chain. In the event of a bridge coming rather too near, resulting in a close encounter of the third kind with the chimney, off the latter falls, but remains dangling from the chain, permitting swift retrieval before the occupants are smoked out of the miniscule cabin.

Tiny Anne pulled missfully (12K)
1. Tiny Anne pulled missfully.....

Two friends pulling on towropes (17K)
2. Two friends pulling on towropes.....

Adelina's chimney had no such safety device, being simply an overlong piece of asbestos pipe, and a strangely magnetic attraction between the pipe and a bridge soon reduced the former to size. By this stage the double oil can smoke generator had been replaced by a splendid old coal-fired cooking stove purchased, in a dismembered state, near Adelina's original mooring. The components were assembled and installed prior to embarking on the journey to London. Equipped with oven, hot plates and back boiler, the stove gave an air of luxury to the vessel and happily brought out the culinary instincts of the various birds who came along from time to time for weekend manoeuvres.

Adelina's lack of a hot water system was solved by connecting an open-ended oil can to the back boiler with pieces of rubber piping. Water could be ladled into and out of the can, which ensured a constant supply of boiling hot, slightly greasy and usually duskily pink water. The pink came from rust on the cans. Such was the enthusiasm of the stove, which obviously burned to show gratitude to those who had put the lonely fragments back together again, that it boiled water with almost missionary zeal.

During the night, the heat often evaporated a couple of can-full of water, which would condense on the ceiling and wake up the sleeper in the main cabin with a sort of internal rainfall. In order to prevent the boiler from immolating itself once all the water had gone, an alarm clock was set to go off a couple of times in the night, so that one could get up and refill the can. Whether the sequence: smell of burning rubber — impending alarm — get up and fill can — gave rise to a conditioned reflex is difficult to establish, but the alarm eventually became superfluous. However, whilst in use, the system was an early example of the curious complexity of just about every contrivance on the boat.

Something that wasn't complex was made either of solid stone, or of solid cast iron; and even objects in these categories had their moments. This all-pervading animating spirit reached its full flowering some years later, when as a matter of routine one had to empty a bowl of water down the sink before lights could be turned on in safety, but that is a later part of the saga. For the time being, shattered asbestos chimney smoking, steam billowing from the cabin windows, and a tarry sulphurous smell emerging from the aft door, Adelina was a fine sight as she ambled contentedly along the cut. In fact she was more like an amiable dragon than a dilatory diplodocus.

Our intention was to pull her along the lesser used canals until she reached one of the busier commercial waterways. At that time, a fair canal mileage still carried regular narrow boat traffic, and loaded boats transporting coal, gravel, tar and grain were a common sight on midland and southern waterways. There was no traffic on the western part of the Trent and Mersey, but on the Coventry Canal, a little further south, pairs of boats were often seen taking coal from the Warwickshire coalfields to London. Pulling Adelina a few miles each weekend, we managed to get both vessels to Hartshill, the British Transport Waterways maintenance depot on the Coventry Canal.

The cluster of old buildings grouped round the complex of basins adjoining the canal, was like a little Shangri-La of the waterways, and positively begged to be visited. The activities in progress revealed that a major clear-out of unwanted ironmongery was under way, resulting in a jumble of bits of scrap being piled up by one of the basins to await removal by boat. I had long wanted, for wholly indefinable reasons, one of those old office nipping-presses in which the pressure is applied by a lever with brass knobs on each end.

Waiting patiently amidst the wreckage for transport to the nearest scrap-yard stood the old Coventry Canal nipping press, used in former days to impress seals on permits, copy letters, probably compress chewing tobacco, and so forth. A rope fender changed hands, the press came on board, and a useful addition for future bookbinding activities had been obtained. Arrangements were also made to leave both boats at Hartshill for a couple of weeks, pending the outcome of negotiations to secure a suitable tow southwards, which I hoped to get from Willow Wren. That organisation was then a well known and expanding company operating carrying craft on the narrow canals.

moored narrowboats (16K)
3. A fair mileage still carried regular narrow boat traffic.....

narrow boat (16K)
4. And loaded boats were a common sight....

Like so many developments relating to the inland waterways, Willow Wren's origins were as curious as its later success was remarkable. In the early days of the Inland Waterways Association, Robert Aickman (Founder of the Inland Waterways Association) began to receive, from time to time, a series of reports on the Warwickshire Avon. They were hand written on what appeared to be the first piece of paper that had come to the author's hand, and as he was canoeing the river, the assortment was odd indeed. The reports were acknowledged, politely, and eventually the writer and the Founder met.

It transpired that the note writer, Captain Vivian Bulkeley-Johnson, was a director of Rothschilds, his wife was connected to the Vanderbilts, and his experiences with the waterways had given him the desire to do something of significance for them. After his introduction to the Messianic campaign of the Inland Waterways Association, one thing led to another, and eventually Captain Bulkeley-Johnson decided to found his own carrying firm: and so Willow Wren was born.

I later got to know Captain Bulkeley-Johnson slightly, when I became a member of the IWA's Council, and recall him as a soldierly, elegant, kindly, and yet commanding man, who exuded a genuine air of philanthropy and could truly be described as the "fine face of capitalism". The Bulkeley-Johnson Salt is still presented annually by the Inland Waterways Association, naturally enough to the person making the greatest contribution to the furtherance of waterway transport in the United Kingdom. This is as to be expected from a trophy originated by the founder of a company established when the decline in trade on the canals had reached alarming proportions.

Most of the carrying fleets were nationalised along with their parent navigations and at Vesting Date, a busy and well-run array of boats was taken over by the Transport Commission. The Commission's waterways limb speedily adopted a policy that apparently caused its main energies to be devoted to its own extinction, and the once proud and busy fleets were quickly depleted and laid idle. The official reason for each cut-back in carrying services was that the fleets on the narrow canals were losing money hand over fist, and entrusted as the Commission was with public funds, such a situation could not be allowed to continue.

The losses were certainly impressive; the sort that in commercial life make a financial director head for the nearest skyscraper with an open window on the top floor. However, careful examination of the accounts revealed dubious grounds for even ordering red ink, let alone using it, so far as the boats were concerned. The carrying fleets, both the narrow boats of the south east and the broad, higher capacity barges and compartments of the northern waterways, generally made handsome working profits on their operations. Such profits were made after all the working expenses including maintenance, wages, fuel, in fact everything but toll charges had been paid.

The surplus was then eroded by the imposition of toll charges, that is the waterways operating limb of the same organisation charged the fleet a hefty price for the privilege of using those waterways. The tolls appeared to be calculated in a haphazard way, varying not only with the commodity carried but also dependant upon the route traversed. The levying of some form of charge was fair enough; quite apart from the necessity of the fleets making a contribution to the upkeep of the system, internal transfers of this sort are common in business. Usually they are carried out with the aim of sustaining an enterprise, not destroying it, which seemed to be the intention so far as the waterways were concerned.

The toll charges on the narrow boat fleets were so high that their handsome working profit was turned into a substantial loss; and on those grounds, ruthless pruning of the fleets was effected. The real monetary contribution of the carrying operations to keeping the canals in good trim was not taken into account.

Inevitably, fewer boats travelling on the canals meant that there was diminishing incentive to maintain them in navigable condition. Poorer maintenance led to smaller loads in already undersized craft; smaller loads obviously generated lower profits, so quite quickly the carrying fleets showed real losses, i.e. they were unprofitable even before tolls were imposed. The whole concept once initiated was self accelerating, the fleet, in effect, going round in ever diminishing circles until it vanished completely.

This vicious little circle had been going on for years, and Aickman's dictum that the canals would be profitable as a co-ordinated system, with carrying an integral part of the whole, was never demonstrated more effectively than by this example. I did take the whole investigation to British Transport Waterways South Eastern Offices, to be met with bland acceptance of the critique but the rejoinder that it was far too late to do anything to reverse the situation. By that stage the fleet had become too small for it to be resurrected. Those who are interested should try to look at the relevant published British Transport Waterways accounts for the late fifties and early sixties, when the decay was galloping rapidly, if they want to check these assertions.

Willow Wren's management appreciated the true situation and large numbers of redundant carrying boats were purchased by them, until the company eventually became the largest transport group on the narrow canals. The Manager, Leslie Morton, was an ex-deep-sea sailor, a survivor of the Lusitania disaster and notable for being the first person to spot the torpedo that ultimately sank that unfortunate vessel. He entered into interior navigation with tremendous gusto and flair, his qualities in execution matching the deep commitment to the inland waterways campaign shown by the firm's founder.

Leslie was able to command language that inspired respect in the most obdurate boatman and he soon developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the whole canal carrying system together with an ability to smell out potential cargoes that verged on the telepathic. He and his assistant Stan Argent between them made their offices overlooking Brentford Dock the real centre of freight carrying on the southern and midland network. I had known Leslie for some time, and when we met to discuss the possibility of Willow Wren providing a tow to bring Adelina to London, he entered into the scheme with enthusiasm.

A formal quotation of £12 was given for towing Adelina from Hartshill to the London area. The agreement was that she would be taken as far as Harefield in Middlesex on the first leg, wait there until a mooring had been found in London, and then be towed to it from Harefield. Harefield was then the scene of something like a waterways scandal: although on reflection one would have had to search hard to find a place anywhere on the waterways system that at one time or other did not feature in the Bulletin as a scene of some barbaric happening.

For reasons best known to themselves, British Transport Waterways dumped large numbers of their working vessels in the "flashes". The flashes were large expanses of navigable water alongside the Grand Union, created by flooding old gravel workings. Simple breaching of the canal bank enabled the working boats to be towed into the flashes where they were sunk and completely obliterated by being covered over with some sort of ash filling, before a sharp-eyed IWA member spotted a number of abandened hulls whilst navigating the GU. The whole argument had been simmering for some months, with newspapers referring to the incident as the "Barge Scapa Flow". My decision to leave Adelina was not by way of admitting defeat and adding to the ship's graveyard.

Parts of the flashes were used for pleasure boat moorings, and the fairly constant stream of visitors would hopefully mean her being untroubled by vandals. I went on at great length to Leslie about the condition of Adelina, and it says much for him that he agreed to take her at all, for the picture painted was of a boat so delicate that too much bow wave from a passing craft would stave in her sides. He listened to all this with a look of polite disbelief on his face (he had rounded Cape Horn in a sailing vessel) but did put the Smiths, Willow Wren's skilled boatmen, on the job.

Boatmen varied greatly in their approach to navigation and some professional crews adopted even more cavalier attitudes to the waterways and associated works than the careless or unskilled pleasure boatman of today. Closing top gates by running water out of the lower paddles, and using the might of a pair of boats to ram gates open when there was still a 6" water level difference were not unknown features of commercial carrying life; but the greater number did treat the canal with respect.

Captain and Mrs. Smith really knew how to handle boats, locks, and fidgety owners of recently resurrected narrow boats. They picked us up (Christopher was back on board) at Hartshill without even stopping; slowing down and shouting instructions as they approached; and by the time their laden butty was drawing alongside we were all ready to take their line, tie on, and be off. The plunge into the commercial world was nerve-wracking, to an extent from the strain of wondering whether Adelina would survive the shock of being re-united with her playmates, but mainly from the fears of the traffic hold-up there would be if she didn't.

The journey was surprisingly calm, once settled to the smooth, powerful motion of the boats. Being about 40 yards from the motor boat, her engine noise was almost inaudible to Adelina's crew, so the resulting motion was closely akin to sailing. The Smiths knew every turn in their watery path, knew where to pull in to the side to find the deepest water, which bridge holes were particularly difficult to negotiate, and where good moorings for the night were to be found: these generally by a favoured pub.

The speed of travel, after the mile per hour crawl attainable when we towed by hand, was alarming; but the worried, shouted warning from Adelina's crew that there was a bridge ahead and could the convoy slow down please, only brought the rejoinder from the Smiths that they had seen the bridge, it was about the widest on the cut, and they were already being delayed by towing Adelina along.

From time to time as we glided along, Mrs. Smith at the helm of the butty would look back and give a friendly wave, her amiable gesture being answered by a palpably trembling paw raised in feeble salute. Clearly, Adelina's crew, accustomed to bow-hauling, were unused to high speeds. The rapidity with which the Smiths went along was astonishing, their lock technique in particular being impeccable.

Watching the operation objectively, their teamwork conveyed the same air of practised ease as that generated by a group of seasoned musicians essaying often played and much loved chamber music. Without the slightest scrape along the lock walls, the "breasted up" pair of boats would glide in, somehow halting just short of the gates without any of the frantic engine revving so often heard at this stage in locking procedures (either frantic revving or a solemn thud as the boat hits something). Captain Smith would leap off and close the gate on one side, Mrs. Smith the other; then quickly but unhurriedly each would attend to their respective sluices to start the lock emptying. Without further attention the boats sat in the lock, the engine idling.

At precisely the right moment Mrs. Smith stepped back on board; Captain Smith opened one gate and then Mrs. Smith using the boat's power to create a gentle drawing action, opened the other. The boats smoothly chugged out, the skipper jumping on nimbly as they went past.

Use of ropes was remarkable: with the correct length of rope and a special knot looped onto the bollard, unattended boats entered the lock and checked themselves, leaving a two-man crew to get on with the job of locking. When the boats were being locked up, the pair could be left unattended in the lock, with just the right amount of engine power to prevent the boat being affected by the turbulence arising from the incoming water. Anyone thinking canal transport slow and haphazard should spend a week with a working boat family.

Mrs Smith at the helm of the butty (11K)
5. Mrs Smith at the helm of the butty ...
Ethel at Adelina's helm (12K)
6. Ethel at Adelina's helm...

However, the strain on Adelina's crew of the unwanted 4 miles per hour was beginning to show and Mrs. Smith, at one of the locks, asked if we would like help from a member of the family. The offer, though eagerly accepted, seemed a bit mysterious, as so far we had seen only the Captain and his wife. Mrs. S marched to the butty and called in a voice fit to wake the dead Ethel! Short pause then Ethel appeared: tousle-headed, decidely on the plump side, and aged just eleven.

The obvious surprise of Christopher and myself on seeing the offered help made no impression on Mum who simply told her daughter that "these two men were a bit nervous on the canals as they'd only just got their boat", and, "she was to look after it" (and by inference, them) "and to treat everything, marine and human, gentle like". Ethel then padded onto Adelina and we were off, debate ended.

Actually the briefing session was more of a monologue than a debate. Neither of us was particularly keen to relinquish command of the steering, but Ethel had been told by her Mum what to do and she did it. She simply advanced into the tiny stern well: we had either to retreat onto the deck or jump into the canal, and gained the distinct impression Ethel didn't care which exit was used provided we got out of the way. "Funny sort of elem" (helm) "you've got", was the sole comment made as she grasped the tiller, and, pausing only to give orders for lunch, implied that she'd seen enough of us. Most kids given such a job would show off: not Ethel — for her steering was just part of everyday life, and she would no more have thought of showing off than a landborn contemporary would feel impelled to show fancy footwork when using a vacuum cleaner.

Mum simply told her daughter (14K)
7. Mum simply told her daughter...

The motor boat had grounded (13K)
8. The motor boat had grounded...

Christopher and I were dismissed, relegated to the role of children sent out to play whilst grown-ups were busy with serious matters. We were allowed to help with locks, Ethel preferring to remain static when they cropped up, and also to prepare food, but no more steering was permitted. If we asked to take over for a while as a treat, Ethel remained watchfully on guard, and I know, as a result of that, just how my thirteen year old son feels when I let him change gears, but keep my hand idling on the lever.

Helmsmanship had hitherto been a totally involving activity: had it been possible to suspend breathing on the grounds of its lack of relevance to steering, we would have done so and inspired solely when moored. Meals were normally eaten only when Adelina was at rest, the taking of sustenance en route being discouraged. This was neither as a mark of respect to the elderly dame, nor a means of preventing the onset of canal-sickness. Abstention arose from recognising the practical possibility that a moment's distraction caused by the helmsman struggling with a chip or trying to spear a pea might make him head for the weeds or go straight for a bridge.

Christopher and I could easily commit either of these faults, unless we concentrated fully on the task of steering. As far as Ethel was concerned, steering was so normal a part of life she could eat, chat, play noughts and crosses, do anything in fact and still preserve her unerringly accurate path down the waterway. I suspect that when steering their own boats she could cat nap as well; but knowing her present supercargo's proximity to hysteria decided against losing herself, however briefly. Her helmsman ship was a remarkable demonstration of juvenile skill.

The boat people seemed to be untiring, carrying on well into the night with the motor's powerful beam cutting through the gloom. Still placidly steering, Ethel added acute nocturnal vision to her list of obvious accomplishments: maybe then she took the chance to have a quick snooze. We moored close by one of the pubs — the voyage was not continued for so long that it cut seriously into opening hours — caroused briefly with the large numbers of boatpeople crammed into the bar, and were soon off to bed. Up again at 5:00a.m., we were off by 5:30; Ethel once more on board Adelina.

Shortly after passing through a bridge hole, the motor boat ahead suddenly came to a halt in the middle of the canal: she had grounded. Ethel brought Adelina skilfully to rest in the boat length between the craft, we moored and went to investigate. Sustained pulling of the motor boat with help from bystanders did nothing to budge the stuck craft. This particular spot was apparently well known, for on going to a nearby 'phone to get in touch with British Transport Waterways, the friendly voice on the other end knew all about the problem even before the message had been delivered in full. Saying they would be along soon, he hung up.

g src=adelina23b.jpg width=300 height= (12K)
9. Taking advantage of the enforced pause...

A couple of men got to work on the winch (14K)
10. A couple of men got to work on the winch...

I went back to the boats, where everyone was taking advantage of the enforced pause to have a meal break. That breakfast had been served only an hour before made no difference to our helmswoman, who demolished a couple of sausages, a few potatoes, and a helping of cabbage which had somehow escaped detection the previous evening. The BTW van appeared and all helped to manhandle a large winch out of it. The winch was chained to a nearby tree, the ravaged trunk of which betrayed that it had been used as an anchor post fairly often; and a couple of men got to work on the handles. The engine of the motor boat was started, everyone who could hang onto a rope heaved, and with a bumping and grinding sound that made us wince, the vessel slid off whatever had been engaging her hull.

Grounding of this sort was a fairly frequent occurrence on the canals at that time, even those carrying quite heavy traffic. To prevent it happening, loads were decreased to diminish the draught, but even when well below their designed (and legally permitted) loads, these time-consuming stoppages still occurred. The situation was quite typical of the formidable array of problems confronting the boat owner, the sum total of which virtually ended narrow boat carrying on the canals. Not only had boat owners to pay excessively high tolls — a subject already referred to — they couldn't use the canals properly even when those tolls had been paid.

This was a marked contrast to the life of relative ease enjoyed by lorry owners. They travelled on tracks well maintained by the state, for nobody would put up with a major pot-hole in the middle of the motorway for long; were able to get a licence on an annual basis that enabled them to ply their craft as often as they wished without complex and archaic payment systems related to goods, tons and distances; and finally enjoyed a guarantee that the system was going to survive for a very long time. Theirs was indeed a secure way of life.

How curious that at a time when growing congestion on the roads was leading to bypasses to relieve congestion on bypasses, traffic regulating methods should have specifically encouraged more use of the already overcrowded routes! In a society with nationalised transport methods, regulators can be applied in one form or another to ensure a freight burden is spread evenly over all forms of transport, resulting in goods going by the most appropriate means. A look at the roads and current fuel bills of the United Kingdom gives a pretty good idea of the success of the transport policy, if such it could be called, in the nineteen sixties and earlier.

Passing through Braunston Tunnel, a new method of towing was adopted and this did nearly cause the complete collapse of Adelina's owner. In order to maintain a straight course in the tunnel, Captain Smith suggested that Adelina should be between butty and motor, like the jam in a sandwich. Unlike jam, which gets squeezed when the sandwich is eaten, I was worried that Adelina might get stretched.

Another obstruction on the canal bottom making the butty stick would simply result in the motor charging on ahead, pausing briefly, if at all, whilst Adelina's hull was rent in twain. The Smiths assured me that Adelina was in far better condition than I gave her credit for being; but the remark "burn her" still rang in the ears. I conceded that tunnels are more or less protected from small boys who like to throw old beds in waterways, so even encountering a serious obstruction was highly unlikely. After much discussion we decided that it would be all right; by which time, as Adelina was about half way through the tunnel in the mode suggested by Captain Smith, disagreement would have been singularly ineffective.

The string of boats went through the tunnel without touching sides, even passing another pair when part way along the subterranean navigation. The oncoming craft were unladen, and in the darkness their prows seemed enormous, bearing down on us in the headlamp's beam. The noise, as the boats actually went past, was ear-splitting in the confined space. Ethel looked bored during all this: she had relinquished the helm as Mum and Dad were steering for her; but stayed on board to keep us company and help finish off some cold boiled potatoes. In spite of the smooth passage through the depths, it was a relief to get out into open air again.

At Braunston came a sight that can still be recalled with ease. Then as now, Braunston was a centre of narrow boat activity; but the boats were working and those of the Samuel Barlow Coal Carrying Company Limited were much in evidence at the extensive wharves later operated by Blue Line Cruisers. About half a dozen pairs carried regularly and boats were being built as well as repaired and decorated. A visit to the wet covered dock was arranged; and there on glorious display was the latest addition to the Barlow fleet: an oak and elm butty just off the stocks. Named Raymond, the butty was the most beautifully painted boat I have seen to date, glowing in traditional colours, having just left the hands of a master painter.

Very much in command was Mrs. Bray, and her pride in the new domain was as radiant as the painting; so much so there were almost tears all round. Raymond was perhaps one of the last traditional-style working boats built, and during our inspection something of the feeling came through that it was the end of an era. Mrs. Bray observed that she'd heard no more were to be built; Raymond was the last and she and Mr. Bray were immensely proud to be given charge of the boat.

I saw Raymond many times subsequently, and the Bray's affectionate care was obvious. A narrow boat in full plumage was like a floating rainbow, and the thought that anything so lovely could be used to carry coal seemed outrageous. But carry coal it did and stayed clean on the job, providing a noteworthy combination of beauty and utility. Memories tend to fade over the years, but the memory of that glowing example of the boat painter's art, richly iridescent in the dock at Braunston, only seems to get brighter with the passage of time.

The Brays in return had a look inside Adelina and thereafter, with the apparently total recall of the boat people, mentioned the occasion whenever we met again; though forgetting Adelina at any stage of her career would have been difficult. They were too polite to say what they thought of the sight, but wished us all well.

Raymond became a familiar sight on the Grand Union Canal. Invariably steered by Mrs. Bray, who would lean comfortably on the cabin top and contentedly exchange the time of day with passing crews, the ever smart livery of the boat remained a constant tribute to pride and watchfulness. With Mrs. Bray's death in the early seventies, the water­ways lost one of its best known figures. Mr. Bray continued to live on Raymond after commercial carrying ceased, and moored permanently at Braunston.

The sight of the boat many years later still sent a reminiscent, pleasurable tingle down the spine. Due to the method of travel, conversations with the Smiths were initially infrequent, but increasing confidence in Ethel's ability to manage did allow the Smith's invitation to travel on their boats to be accepted. Most of the conversation was on the topic of canals, canal personalities, boats and loads, and most of it has been forgotten. I do recall, as we passed the entrance to the Buckingham Arm, barely recognisable as a waterway, Captain Smith recalling that he had navigated it with a load of stones some thirty years earlier.

Apparently the loaded boat towed an empty boat behind, into which part of the cargo was progressively transferred as the increased silting prevented the boats moving. He also recounted the names used by the boatmen for some of the locks we encountered. Most locks have names and numbers, both of which may be listed in the cruising guides.

As a good many of the skippers and crews operating the working boats couldn't read or write (of the Smiths only Mrs Smith could do so) some of their own evolved terminology owed nothing to the official names. Lock 30, officially Slapton, was known as Niells, 31 (Norton) as Polls, 32 and 33 (Ivinghoe) as Calcott's Two, whilst the elegantly officially named Seabrook Locks, 34 to 36, were known simply as the Nag's Head. Two isolated locks at the end of the Mars worth flight, numbers 37 and 38, had the highly evocative name of Idlebilly's Two, in tribute to a long dead lock-keeper well known in his time for his reluctance to come out and help passing crews.

Hopefully someone has chronicled all these alternative titles: the well known Cowroast lock at the summit level is probably an officially accepted boatman's term. Considering the whole inland waterways ethos, with its essential quality of individuality, a few more departures from conventional nomenclature would augment the individuality and add yet more zest to inland navigation.

At Croxley, the Smiths had to unload their cargo of coal, and we helped. Here was another instance of the way in which the absence of simple reliable facilities made narrow boat carrying inconvenient and ultimately uneconomical. The working boatman was paid by the load: the more loads the more pay. For the boatowner, the high cost of craft and repairs meant that the more his floating overdraft could be kept on the move, the better its chance of keeping the owner afloat financially.

Imagine therefore a boatman arriving at a factory wharf, after not inconsiderable work to get there, to find that the coal had to be taken out by shovel and wheelbarrow. There might be some sort of rudimentary unloading device; but the chance of it being out of order was significant, and then — back to hand power! In contrast, the sweating boatman would look at the factory, which often showed every sign of having been the recipient of lavish funds to make it efficient, clean, and pleasant for the employees. Only the means of getting lifeblood into the place in the form of fuel — if it came by canal of course — tended to be pretty well neglected.

Coal handling on the scale required was simple, suitable equipment readily available and the cost far less than that of hand labour. When the Smiths arrived the mechanical device was out of order (a fairly frequent occurrence, they told us), and fifty five tons had to be hand unloaded. Coal was shovelled into barrows, which were wheeled up plank ramps to the wharf, then across to the coal dump, emptied, and then taken back to the boat; the whole process being repeated until fifty five tons had been transferred from one spot to the other. Small wonder that in spite of the enthusiasm and skill of firms like Willow Wren, commercial carrying has almost ceased on the narrow canals. Of a once prosperous and busy method of transport, only vestiges remain.

We reached Harefield in the late evening and were cast off, the Smiths and pair vanishing into the gloom with a friendly wave; a faint "Goodbye" mingling with the receding throb of the engine.

Although Harefield was well known to anyone interested in waterways, our landfall was the first visit for both of us. We quickly poled Adelina to the nearest mooring, a derelict but still floating dredger, tied her up, and had a look round. There were several converted narrow boats in our part of the very extensive flashes, lights in a few of them showing their owners were afloat for the weekend.

The owners of one boat strolled over to inspect the new arrival. They were members of the Spratt family, people who were to become close and good friends in the years ahead, and on whose boat, Stirling Castle, we spent several very enjoyable! holidays, after Adelina and Anne had become immured up on the Basingstoke Canal. Inveterate working boat helpers and spotters, they had heard the pair approaching and popped out to see if it was skippered by any of their friends. Mildly surprised to see the large shape of Adelina become detached, almost as though abandoned in mid-voyage, they all wandered over to find out what was happening. Hot drinks were provided for us, experiences of working-boat life exchanged, and then everyone retired for the night.

We didn't see our new friends next day as they were off early, but they told us of a safe mooring. After bedding Adelina down in the recommended berth, we were away ourselves, Christopher to return to Derby, I to London.

Before departing we had another look at Stirling Castle: she was a well fitted boat, the sort of thing Adelina aspired to be, with commodious living quarters and all mod cons. She was "hog backed", that is, slightly bent upwards in the middle (or bent down at the ends), due to a previous owner having mounted a heavy water tank at the prow and a heavy engine plus fuel tank in the stern. Tromp d'oeil canal painting had come to the rescue, with a cleverly drawn line down her side suggesting straightness. When she was in a dry dock for repairs, the once straight line curved upwards in a smile, echoing that of her owners, for they were (and are) one of the most amiable groups of people it has been my pleasure to meet.

Mrs. Spratt, her two sons Colin and Martin, friends and relatives such as Kate and Candle Ends (so called because, like the character in the Hunting of the Snark, no-one could remember his name, or pretended not to) made a closely knit group that, given a project, handled operations in double-quick time. Later on, when working parties were in action on the Basingstoke Canal, the portion of pound being tackled by the Spratts could always be readily distinguished by their rubbish heap being higher than all the other heaps; and a very tidy heap too as the ladies of the party insisted that the gentlemen carefully piled the old bicycles and bedsteads in a neat heap.

Years of clearing away used crockery from the dining table had left their mark; so that when a lorry came to collect the labours of the day, one accumulation of dredgings could always be loaded on with ease. Much later they assumed responsibility for despatching Windlass, a magazine of one of the Inland Waterways Association branches, and gave the impression they could have done the same for a national daily and still had plenty of time available for boating capers.

The next immediate problem was finding a mooring in the London area. Locating a residential mooring there is like prospecting for gold, but with rather less hope of being successful. People love living on water and once they have found a good safe spot within easy reach of transport, shops, and so on, little short of dynamite or a series of holes drilled in the hull will persuade them to move along.

Naturally the quest started with an examination of a detailed map of the canals and their environs. The obvious choice presented itself of a basin more or less in the City rejoicing (the verb seems apropriate) in the name of Horsfall's Basin. A few maps referred to the offshoot as Battlebridge Basin but they were clearly erroneous.The only problem was that no-one appeared to own the basin, or know who owned it, and could therefore give mooring rights. The waterways have a number of such ownership curiosities, one of the strangest being the Basingstoke Canal, described in a later chapter.

When problems of an ownership nature, coupled with a request for mooring occurred, people always seemed to have a legal right to say no; often asserted, if maybe was unavoidable, that they really couldn't say; and rarely were able to interject a ready yes into the conversation. Quite apart from whether mooring in the basin would have been possible, the important question of how to get to and from Adelina remained unanswered.

The land around the basin could only be approached by water or via a series of quite impenetrable looking factories. Whether any of the factory owners would have welcomed a boatman at the bottom of the garden really became quite irrelevent beside the question of access. The awesome anti-entry precautions taken at locking-up time formed equally effective anti-exit barricades. To get out during non-working hours, a wharf-side resident required either a rowing boat or a helicopter.

Even if so equipped, the next problem, that of parking the two last named social aids in central London or at least close to an underground station, didn't bear contemplation. The alternative would have been total incarceration over the weekend with the need to catch fish if the larder became empty. The idea had to be abandoned, but I would really have liked to have lived there: the direction on an envelope D. W. Horsfall, Horsfall's Basin, London had an exclusiveness not possessed by even, say, a jetty positioned on Buckingham Palace lake.

Walking along towpaths spying out likely spots became almost obsessive but every mooring was either full, or for reasons chronicled unobtainable. Eventually in a state of desperation I took a stroll along the Hertford Union, or Duckett's Cutt, as it was popularly known, the canal built by Sir George Duckett (a man of major achievement on the Lea and Stort Navigations) to connect the Regent's Canal with the River Lea. The waterway, just over a mile long, typifies the popular idea of a canal, being completely straight; at first glance passing through wholly industrial scenery; and of rather grubby aspect.

On closer inspection Ducketts' turned out to be quite a pleasant location. The factories and wharves were only on one side, the other bank being bounded for much of its length by Victoria Park, a popular and attractive recreation centre for the East End. From the towpath an apparently empty wharf was visible, serving a timber yard. The yard was clearly in very busy use, but whether the timber still arrived by water was not obvious. A visit to the yard manager elicited the information, most amiably imparted, that the yard's wharf was in use, as timber still came by lighter.

More significantly, the furniture factory next door didn't have lighters but did have light fingered visitors in the form of burglars. The opinion was expressed that the factory owners might welcome the opportunity of obtaining a permanent unpaid, indeed paying, night watchman service. A conversation with the charming owners of the factory, Mr. and Mrs. Evans, confirmed the absence of barges and the presence of burglars; and endorsed the attractiveness to them of someone living on the premises.

The mooring consisted of a single berth against a narrow wharf; the narrowness due to the proximity of the factory to the canal. The area appeared to be well protected from intruders at one end by a sort of barbed wire entanglement, whilst the other end abutted the timber yard, where a permanent night watchman service operated. Mooring Adelina there was permitted and certain rather strange rights of access to the wharf given to us. To cap everything, only a modest mooring fee was requested.

In moving Adelina from Harefield to Bow, once again Willow Wren came to the rescue. Leslie Morton this time arranged the services of Jack Munk, a well known Willow Wren skipper who is probably still navigating the canals. Calmness in every emergency and a face-splitting grin characterised Jack: qualities which must have been essential on the trip we saw him undertaking a few years later. His pair had been temporarily turned into a floating youth hostel with a large number of pre-teenagers on board. With that sort of cargo, rather than pretty well-behaved coal in the hold, calmness and a sense of humour are as important as a steady hand on the helm. The kids were leaping all over the boat with careless abandon, dancing in the holds and apparently cooking where they pleased. A cry of "man overboard" might almost have been greeted with relief.

A further characteristic was his large family, that seemed to be built up on the conveyor belt system: new ones always coming along to replace those maturing and leaving the nest, giving a curiously unchanging appearance to the whole group, as the average age never seemed to alter. Adelina was shafted out of Harefield, picked up by Jack and his crew; and we were off on the final leg. The entourage stopped only to have a look at Bull's Bridge, then still quite a busy centre of narrow boat repair activity.

This was about the time that British Waterways experimented with their new type of narrow boat, the main features of which seemed to be very ugly lines and hard blue plastic covers. In retrospect, the criticism those boats encountered when they first appeared was overharsh: they were at least a form of development, and did represent an attempt both to make covering up the cargo more convenient than sheeting up with canvas covers, and to prevent pilfering. Huge outboard motors supplied the motive power: again quite a good idea as the capital cost of an engine is high.

To be able to keep a boat's engine in use, whilst the boat itself remains moored for a lengthy period being loaded or unloaded, makes good economic sense. Equally, engine repairs could be carried out without the boat being rendered immobile for the duration of the service. The new design should have led to quite significant reductions in operating costs, but somehow the concept never worked. One criticism was that the plastic covers took a good deal longer to put on than canvas, and gave the fingers a good nip in the process. Moreover, as the boats' outboard engines only had a fairly small rudder, and relied mainly on thrust to impart direction as well as motion, the craft could not be steered without a fair amount of power being applied. The boatmen didn't like them at all, even though the living quarters were roomier and better equipped than those on the traditionally built boats.

I chatted to a couple of skippers whose boats were be­ing repaired and was staggered to find that the average repair bill for a traditional type motor boat was rarely much short of a thousand pounds. This emphasised that the crippling costs born by independant canal traders were, to. a large extent, the result of poor maintenance standards on the narrow canals.

Excitement increased when we finally reached Little Venice. Like most people interested in waterways I had been on Jason and visited John James in his floating residence; but quickly realised the impossibility of getting a mooring in that delightful little community by the Toll House. However, as we had left Burton in some doubt as to whether the supposedly delicate Adelina would ever get to London, it was a triumph to get to Little Venice; mooring or not. In triumph, therefore, Jack took his flotilla round Browning's Island three times, just to let Adelina see what a clever girl she had been.

Jack was taking a cargo to Regent's Canal Dock, so he cast us off at the entrance to Duckett's, and out came the tow ropes. By this stage I had been joined by Robin, one of the more hardened Burton Rope Pulling Brigade. An amiable fellow, who had known the resurrected Adelina since the time fish could be taken live from her bilges, he was accustomed to her peculiar smells and habits. The mingled odours of tar, sweat, bilge water, and creosote, with a soupcon of burning rubber; the boiling-over stove and the migrating timbers; the leaks that added so much interest to the normal tedium of domesticity: all these spelled "home" to him.

Maybe he thought that better smells were round the corner, that more efficient ways of curbing the stove's impetuosity than pouring water on the fire would be found; and maybe (most unlikely of all) the leaks would one day be located and plugged.

He had left Burton for the Great Wen, unerringly finding the centre of it in the 72 foot by 7 foot bit of mobile real estate he had helped to pull so many miles. He 'phoned me at the office and came out to Harefield, clearly intrigued that Adelina — last viewed by him about to be torn apart by working boats on the Coventry Canal — was still afloat.

Charmed by her proximity to his East End job, he asked if accommodation could be found on board for him. Finding anything on board was difficult after the journey, but it did seem feasible that another bed, knife, fork, and spoon could be crammed into the series of cabins. In fact the prospect of having someone else on board was most agreeable, as I didn't fancy being the only boat resident within a two or three mile radius. Well, the ships in the Thames were closer than that, but were not even in sight, let alone pump-lending distance, in the event of a sudden emergency. Even worse, what if the burglars came in pairs? The basis of sharing was simply splitting living expenses.

A certain amount of effort was needed to get Adelina to the mooring, so "no key money, only sweated labour" may well have been in Robin's mind as we started to pull our large charge from where we had parted company with the Willow Wren boats. But bowhauling was now a pleasure compared with our winter stuggles in the frozen north. There were no locks, no weed or mud, and the day was warm; best of all, from where we had been cast off to the factory was barely a thousand yards. The factory had once been the home of Waterlows, printers of banknotes, so there was always the hope of finding a few lost ones stuck in crevices to spur us on to the end.

We reached the mooring, poled across to the wharf from the towpath side, and started to settle in (us, not Adelina). Attention was paid to thirst in the pub' opposite, and plans soon started evolving for turning Adelina from floating junk heap into floating bed-sitting room. We found planning a happy business, for though a narrow boat does not offer quite the same possibilities as say a Cunarder, the pleasure of speculation is just as great. The very confines impose disciplines that create their own art forms, and lead to the exercise of ingenuity that remains latent when a larger home is being planned. The Erewash orphan's good vibes were clearly beginning to have an inspirational effect.

Ch 4: All Mod Cons


Last updated April 2006