Posts Tagged ‘Canal’

Taking on water

July 20, 2016

It shocks me to realise that this photo, taken almost inevitably on my little Canon Demi, is now 42 years old. A group of us – mostly in what now might get called the ‘Dual income, no kids yet’ group had hired this narrow boat for a week. It was the week before Easter – a week chosen to keep the price down and (hopefully) make sure there was plenty of water for canals in the Midlands. The boat was hired from Penkridge in Staffordshire. I do remember it cost us £47 for the week.

By present day standards it was primitive. We could start with the loo which was just a chemical toilet which needed emptying fairly frequently at designated points along the canal. The motor control was not just the one lever pushed forwards for forwards and backwards for reverse. Instead there was a thumping great forward/reverse gear lever in the middle of the rear deck and a separate throttle. Crises, where a boat suddenly appeared in the opposite direction on a narrow stretch  could be a bit fraught. You had to throttle right back, pull that gear lever into reverse and then throttle up again – travelling forwards all the time. The heat insulation was limited – non existent really – as well. On chilly March nights condensation formed on the ceiling and top bunk dwellers could find bedding frozen to the roof! But it was all great fun.

Let’s see the scene as we moored up to fill the drinking water tank.


The real interest is the bridge. It’s a bit of a problem for all. You can’t see through it to know what might be coming the other way. That crisis might occur. Well actually, in this case one of the team would have walked up to the bridge to give an all-clear signal before we set off so that wouldn’t have been a problem. But now consider the original motive power for canal boats – the towpath based horse.

There is no towpath through the canal bridge. Instead the horse has a separate little bridge hole to go through. But it can’t haul the boat from there. So the horse has to be unhitched and the boat then has to be man powered in some way as it passes under the road. Under these circumstances, there is no real reverse gear should a crisis occur!

Three years later we had lefty the ‘DINKY’ group and canal holidays faded away. Canals are not the best place for children. Bigger boats were now needed and incomes had halved.

Ugly Ducklings?

April 30, 2016

A few days ago we helped take a boat up the Devizes flight of locks and in my blog post I included a swan’s nest.

Now we have helped take the boat back down and the cygnets have hatched out – or a few of them have.


How could they ever be described as ugly ducklings!

They are really very cute little birds and they do what they can to imitate mum.


Mum sucks something by the edge of the canal and so we do as well.

They are just delightful.


The remaining nest was now deserted. Many of the eggs had not hatched.


So these eggs failed, but at least three hatched out.

Locking up

March 12, 2016

Back in 1974 a group of us hired a narrow boat for a holiday. It was the first time we did this although some of us had canal experience already.

Canals, of course, are man-made waterways and need to conserve water. So all sections of a canal are dead level; and if hills are encountered, steps are constructed and have to be negotiated. These steps are called locks and they are containers of water with gates at each end to keep the water where it is wanted and sluice gates (often called paddles) to let water in and out. Water is heavy stuff and you can only open gates if the water level on each side actually is the same.

There’s plenty of scope for making a hash of things so it’s best to be careful and thoughtful, particularly when you start. So rather than using the motor to power us into a lock, here we are using human power.


The boat (don’t call it a barge) is a snug fit in the lock but actually they are usually easy to steer and you soon get used to motoring in.

Once in, the bottom gates will be closed (hence a person on each side and then the top paddles will be opened to admit water. Once the boat has floated up to the higher level the top gate can be opened and the paddles closed. The boat can then leave, but the rule on canals is that you leave things shut so somebody has to close the top gate behind the boat. This was quite a shallow lock. The driver’s eye view can look quite intimidating.


The brick sides seem like cliffs and the space seems narrow. In days of yore, of course, all boats were horse drawn and that footbridge across the lock has a gap in the middle for the rope to pass through – so much easier than unhitching the horse! Sam the dog, one of our fellow travellers, has a commanding view!

Within the next dozen years I probably worked through at least 500 locks. They are all different and should never be rushed. Well, the fact of the matter is you can’t rush them so as locks fill or empty just relax!



September 8, 2014

It’s a bit shocking when your records let you down so I’m going to say we went to Chateaulin in 1973 plus or minus a year. We went camping with friends who kindly provided us with a very cheap holiday in Brittany.

We stayed in several locations of which Chateaulin is the best remembered because we settled there for a while.

It’s a pretty place – a small town on the River Aulne which doubles up at this point as the canal between Brest and Nantes, It’s that river/canal that this post is about.

Chateaulin has a lock.


This is a big, broad lock, quite unlike those tiddly 7 feet wide locks on much of the UK network. This could take a large barge carrying a worthwhile load. Having said that, commercial traffic was pretty well absent.

In the UK we expect a nice hefty balance beam, to rest on whilst the lock fills and then to push on at the appropriate time. Over the channel we seemed to get a pole to pull with.


Yes, that’s me pulling on the pole. Just one slip would see me tumbling backwards into the river, beyond.

The paddle gear was quite un-English as well. There are no open cogwheels or rack and pinion. There’s just a covered red box with a rack passing through it.


Of course, we had no windlass so that was left well alone – as it would have been anyway.

The river, alongside, tumbles over a man-made weir.


There’s a sluice to help control water levels in the event of the river being in spate.

The totally up to date Wikipedia records that Chateaulin is a major place in the salmon business. No wonder a fish ladder was provided to enable the salmon, heading upstream to spawn, to overcome the change in levels caused by man’s interference. When the navigation was built, the gentle flow of the river down to the wild Atlantic had to be converted into a series of weirs and locks to maintain a depth of water for boats. But the salmon, which can actually manage prodigious jumps, were not forgotten.


There’s a series of easily managed jumps for salmon, alongside the weir.

All photos were taken on my little Canon demi using Agfachrome 64 slide film.

Acton Moat Bridge

November 21, 2013

Back in 1974 I was by no means a canal ‘virgin’. My wife and I crewed a trip boat on our local Kennet and Avon Canal and we knew parts of that quite well. But the K and A was derelict at the time. The locks were out of use so I really only had theoretical knowledge of how to manage them as we set off for our first canal holiday. Five of us had hired a 47 foot long boat from Penkridge in Staffordshire. There was a lock nearby so we were helped through that and then we were on our own. I don’t think we experienced any particular problems as we made our way northwards (roughly) up the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. I was straight away taken by the way the bridges on this canal had names as well as numbers, and within a couple of miles I had a photo of the bridge name plate at Acton Moat.


The photo was taken with my little Canon Demi camera using Agfachrome film.

Back in 1974 people didn’t paint these signs but there it was in all its glory, just above the arch and on the rather battered brickwork of the parapet.

The bridge is what I call an accommodation bridge. It takes a track or footpath over the canal. It leads from the village of Acton Trussell, over the canal, then over the River Penk and under the M6 motorway before dumping walkers on the A449 road.

You can find pictures of the bridge by searching on the web. They show a scene which looks very rural – but with a neatly painted black and white bridge sign.

It was a great week – still fondly remembered.

Chirk Aqueduct

July 27, 2013

People who read this blog will know I like bridges. Aqueducts, which carry water over a bridge, are special – and even more special if you travel over them by boat.

Chirk aqueduct is on the Llangollen canal and allows boat traffic to pass some 70 feet above the waters of the River Ceiriog which is on the border of Shropshire, England and Wales. It was designed by Thomas Telford and opened for business in 1801.

My journey was in 1975 but this photo dates from an earlier visit in 1973. I’m fairly sure that’s my dad walking along the towpath with his hands behind his back. We were on an Industrial Archaeology course which he had organised.


We are looking towards Wales and we can see the Chirk tunnel entrance in the background. The more recent railway viaduct on the left rather dwarfs Telford’s canal structure.

I’ve looked at Telford’s older, Longden upon Tern aqueduct on this blog. Both that one and Chirk were really preparations for his masterpiece at Pontcysyllte.

Charlotte Dundas

May 18, 2013

The Kennet and Avon Canal rises up its 29 locks into Devizes – locks which in the bad old days were utterly derelict but from Devizes, heading east, there was a 15 mile stretch with no locks – The Long Pound. This stretch held water but with virtually no flow on it, it was always very weedy. However, it was an ideal stretch for trip boats which could raise money to help save the canal. One such boat was known as the Charlotte Dundas. In the early 1970s, my wife and I were volunteer crew on the little boat which could carry up to 28 passengers.

The name, presumably, was chosen as the same as an early steam boat – the first one that really worked, but Dundas was also the name of the first chairman of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company.

Our Charlotte Dundas was a paddle boat – she could cope with weeds in a way screw driven vessels could not. The power came from a diesel engine and transmission was hydraulic. She was entirely double ended. Turning Charlotte Dundas just involved removing the tiller from one end and walking it around to the other. Here she is in 1980. We are not the crew. My wife and young son are on the towpath looking on.


In fact the boat had been modified a little since our day. The far end had weather protection by 1980. Back in the 70s it had been entirely open to all weathers.

The boat has just slipped away from Devizes Wharf. I guess the steersman, standing on the back is just tidying his mooring rope. Paddle wheel drive and slow speeds made for hard steering. We always had a person ready to assist by reversing one of the paddle wheels if need be. Maybe controls had been altered by this time for when we crewed old Charlotte, one person was always by the central engine house to manage the paddle wheels.

Charlotte had a flat bottom which made her rock and roll very easily.

Times change. Once the canal was open, better boats could do the trip work. I’m not sure where the Charlotte Dundas is now.

A canal side mile post

May 17, 2013

What is it about cast iron signs? I love them. They often give information and tell some history at the same time. Just look at this one, photographed by me back in 1976.


Well first and formost it told me I was five miles from Braunston. That’s a canal junction where the Oxford Canal meets the Grand Union Canal. Braunston is in Northamptonshire.

But this wonderfully long lived mile post was set up by the G.J.C.Co. That’s the Grand Junction Canal Company.

The Grand Junction was the original name of the canal from London to Braunston – now part of the Grand Union.  The first bits of canal, around Braunston, opened in 1796 so there’s a fair chance the old sign dates from the 18th century.

If you search on the web you’ll find lots of these signs – now all neatly painted and properly supported above ground level. They look good, but I like the lost world look of this one from days of yore.

A Grindstone

May 9, 2013

I have a feeling that since I started this blog it has tended to get less nerdy. I’m not sure whether family history is the activity of a true nerd. Perhaps it depends on how obsessive you are in tracking down relatives.

Today we’ll be nerdy and look at something simple and mechanical. Yes, it’s a grindstone and it was photographed by me at the British waterways Board yard in Devizes back in about 1970.


Now I love the simplicity of this device. It has its sturdy wooden sub frame but the top frame is sturdy metal. This is a human powered machine and must date from a time when labour was cheap. It needed two people to operate it – one to provide the muscle and the other to do the required sharpening.

A windlass hangs over one of the sub frame timbers. It’s a massive windlass which must be designed to enable the wheel to turn at high speed. That would have been the job for one person – just winding the handle.

Meanwhile a tool sharpener would be able to offer his tools to the grindstone to ensure they had the best possible edge on them.

This is yet another photo taken on my good old Canon Demi camera – the one that got 72 slides on a single 36 exposure film.

Back on the canal

March 28, 2013

This dates back to 1975.

When canals were built, mostly towards the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th, they created problems. It’s obvious really. People and animals can’t walk over them from one side to the other. Bridges were needed. Very often, bridges in rural areas needed to be cheap and cheerful; structures that might allow a farmer to take animals from fields on one side of the water to pastures new on the other side. A hefty masonry structure was hardly economic – yet the bridge had to allow the boats through so a simple plank bridge wouldn’t do either.

Bridges had to be movable. On that Welsh canal, near Llangollen, the bridges lift.


Here is such a bridge. The canal could be narrowed down to just the width of a boat. A simple plank bridge was hinged at the far side and just rested on the near bank. The overhead structure provided the means to lift the bridge. A chain hangs down from the counterbalance weight on the far side. The additional weight of a person pulling on that lifted the bridge to a near vertical position to allow a boat through. Then the bridge could be lowered to allow land traffic of a light nature to pass over the canal.

So simple! So effective! So attractive!