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Our Inland Waterways

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Where the bare downs of Dunstable and Ivinghoe Beacon carry westward the line of the Chiltern Hills, the motorist, from Leighton Buzzard to Tring and Berkhampstead, slides swiftly from chalk and close-bitten turf to stately beech-woods. Here, not far from Ashbridge and Aldbury, stands, in a glorious glade, facing the northern slope of the Chilterns, a monument to that Duke of Bridge-water who is regarded as the father of our inland waterways. But though the Bridgewater Canal in Lancashire, designed in collaboration by the Duke and Brindley, his engineer, inaugurated the most important era in British canal navigation, Britain owes its first canals to the Romans.

It is generally assumed that these Roman canals were made simply for water supply or drainage, and this theory finds support from the fact that the canal lock, by which routes having great alterations of level are made navigable, was not invented until the fourteenth century. These Roman canals are indistinguishable from broad dykes, and indeed in nearly every case they bear that name. The most interesting remains of Roman inland waterways are to be found in the neighbourhood of Lincoln. Here is the Foss Dyke, which linked Lincoln with the river Trent. The proud boast of the Roman engineers that they built for eternity finds some justification from the fact that seven or eight hundred years after their departure this canal was still in existence, and was deepened and made partially navigable in the reign of Henry I.

The longest Roman canal linked up the river Nene, near Peterborough, with the river Witham some three miles south of Lincoln. This was the famous Caer-dyke, or Car Dyke as it is given on modern maps. The motorist, if not discouraged by this ominous name, can still visit these remains by taking road 15, from Peterborough to some five miles north of Bourne, and then turning up route 1177 to the neighbourhood of Rippingale station. Altogether this canal was forty miles in length - a stupendous piece of work for the period.

The first ship canal was the Exeter, and it was constructed in 1572. From then onwards until the advent of railways, schemes for inland waterways were proceeded with apace. In the hundred years between 1730 and 1830, over ninety canals were constructed, bringing the total length of the canal system in England to 4,700 miles. This represented a capital investment of some fourteen millions. Its effect upon the business economy of the country can be seen from a few figures. To take coal from Worsley to Manchester by pack horse (in 1750 the only means of conveyance) cost eight shillings a ton. The canal barges carried a ton for half a crown. More remarkable still, the Bridgewater Canal charged only six shillings per ton for goods, where the transport by road from Manchester to Liverpool had been previously forty shillings a ton.

It was something to be a shareholder in a canal company in those days. The proprietors of such waterways as the Trent and Mersey and Oxford received as much as 30 per cent, on their invested capital. For them September 15, 1830, was a day of doom. The opening of the first railway between Manchester and Liverpool figured to them as a substitution of swiftly navigable rivers for their sluggish waterways, and, fearful lest they should lose their capital, they attempted to coerce the railway companies into purchasing their canals. They were so far successful that the railway companies, by no means averse to stifling future competition, secured over 1,200 miles of our inland waterways. By 1883, when a Select Committee considered the situation, the Rail way Companies had almost succeeded in strangling the whole of the inland water communication. The result can be seen in the number of abandoned, derelict canals that intersect the countryside.

An economist may mourn; a student of the follies of human nature may extract many arguments in support of his favourite thesis; but the mere casual wanderer will find much the same delight in these derelict canals as he does in the ruins of ancient monasteries. Here nature has improved upon art - softened down the hard lines - mellowed the bare towpath with trees and bushes, and painted the mouldering locks with the magic of moss and fern and lichen. To the naturalist they should prove a never-failing source of interest, for in these lonely spots, hardly ever frequented by man, there is being created a reserve for all the hunted wild life to be found in the neighbourhood.

Some of them are, indeed, used for the breeding of water-fowl. The Wendover Junction Canal, for example, when it was abandoned, was leased by the late Mr. Alfred Rothschild of Halton Manor for this purpose. Here, where mouldering barges, sunk by time at their moorings, lie in the mud, duck and waterhens now rear their families.

To see a derelict canal at its best the traveller should visit what remains of the Wey and Arun Junction Canal. This canal was originally constructed to link up Littlehampton and Southampton with the Thames. As far as Guildford it is still possible to make that journey by water, but beyond that town there are stretches, between Broadford and Loxwood, where the would-be navigator must now take to the road for a mile or so.

Where the canal passed the watershed which runs east and west across Surrev. it was carried from the valley of the Wey to the valley of the Arun by a long series of locks. These locks are now simply memorials of a glorious past. The water supply that came from Vachery Lake has long been cut off, and though still some ordnance maps mark the original line of the canal in blue, there is nothing to be seen there but weeds and trees and grasses. The lock gates are rotten and gaping.

If the traveller stop at Laker's Green, he can not only see the ruins of this once famous engineering feat, but he can visit, a little to the northward, what remains of the canal - now a series of pools, blocked by banks and as beautiful as a virgin forest. For a canoe the Arun is still navigable from a few miles south of Rudgwick to the open sea at Littlehampton.

It is possible, therefore, with only a gap of seven miles, to make the journey from the Thames at Kingston to the English Channel. The beauty of the country - the strange remoteness of the scenery - is the reward of much patience required in contending with obstacles. And there is no experience more delightful than to strike at last, after many hours' paddling, the moving waters of the Arun on the last rush seawards. At dusk the trees thrust themselves out, their shadow and their substance merging into one. The banks seem to lie flush with the water - only a darker shade distinguishing the river from the land.

Beneath the overhanging trees no light is visible, until a bend shows the cheerful gleam of some village; and there is no sound save the ripple of the water and the occasional hurried flight of a frightened water-fowl. And at Amberley one meets the sea, and the ebb tide will carry you with the minimum of exertion past Arundel, with its stately castle, to Littlehampton.

Only a few years ago the ordnance maps recorded the existence of the Chichester and Arundel Canal, originally cut during the Napoleonic Wars for the more rapid transport of troops and supplies to Portsmouth. The oldest Freeman of the Waterman's Company cannot recollect, however, the canal when it was in use. Nowadays, if you pause on the river three miles south of Arundel and climb the bank, you will find the cows browsing on what was once the bed of the canal. It remains a monument of man's past industry, but few motorists will view it without reflecting what excellent motor roads might be constructed out of our derelict waterways.

It would be a mistake to imagine from these beautiful relics that: the inland waterways of Britain have had their day and played their part. Though the system is still chaotic - to get from the Mersey to the Humber, for example, ten distinct waterways have to be traversed, with lock gauges varying from 212 feet by 22 feet by 9½ feet on the Aire and Calder to 50 feet by 14 feet by 4½ feet on Sir John Ramsden's Canal; and though since 1872 Select Committees and Royal Commissions have been sitting on our canals, there is evidence that, in spite of all this discouragement and the modern competition of road transport, they are showing signs of revival.

This is largely due to the invention of the internal combustion engine. It is becoming the exception rather than the rule to see horse-drawn boats. "Monkey Boats" as these barges are called - they are usually 70 feet long and 7½ feet wide - are now towed by Buttys - boats fitted with motor engines.

The classification of the British waterways gives a clue to the romantic country which they open up. Five of them form a network which links up the basins of the Mersey, the Thames, the Humber, the Wash and the Severn. In the course of a month's exploration it is possible to visit all these rivers and inspect the country which they drain. Given the patience, you can make Devonshire or work your way across the Border. Here and there your route may be impeded by the weeds of derelict canals, but the journey can be done.

Perhaps the most beautiful of these sections of the canal system is the Thames group. This is partly due to the fact that the Thames itself is the central artery from which these veins of water radiate. Of these the longest and most important is the Grand Junction Canal, its only rival being the Thames Navigation, 120 miles in length, which links up the Thames with the Severn by two routes - part of each route being owned by the Great Western Railway Company. For a trial run the would-be canal explorer cannot do better than make a preliminary voyage to such a place as Aylesbury.

Starting at Brentford - which is the Mecca of the canal navigator, where an organized effort is made to cope with the educational problems of the children born aboard Monkey Boats or Buttys - he will be rewarded for some preliminary dullness by the beauty of the scene near Watford. He will be carried through a gap in the Chilterns, past Tring, into the vale of Aylesbury, and a day will land him safely in the county town of Buckinghamshire. Between sunrise and sunset he will have sampled a life un-guessed at by the vast majority of the population, and will have come in touch with a people whose existence continues to be as remote from ordinary civilization as that of the Romanys.

One characteristic that these canal folk share with the gypsies is their love of colour. It is a curious circumstance, and one of which it would be interesting to trace the origin, that the skipper of a Monkey Boat or Butty has the same passion for gold and orange and flaming reds as the dweller in the caravan. Perhaps the nomadic instinct can only find satisfaction for certain of its latent emotions in these outbreaks of primitive colouring; perhaps it is merely a tradition from some bygone years that has survived, like the figure-head on the bows of some sea-going vessels. The elaborate ornamentation of these canal craft must cost a considerable amount of money, but even in this material age a self-respecting skipper would not dream of taking the water unless his Monkey Boat were decorated like a fair merry-go-round.

With the exception of the London and Hampshire Canal and a few others of little importance, which act as their own carriers—that is, provide the Monkey Boats and Buttys for the transport of goods - all the other canals are navigated by skippers who are the owners of their boats. The inland waterways which they traverse merely charge fees for the use of their canals. The skipper is paid so much for loading and unloading .his cargo, in addition to receiving a fee for transporting it from one inland port to another. His family, born and bred in most cases aboard, is therefore an asset which enables him to do without hired labour.

For these skippers and their families the Monkey Boat or the Butty, with its cabin hardly seven feet wide, is home. Here the children are born, here on the long, narrow decks they begin to walk, and here, too, they learn early to dodge the school attendance officer.

Within their own limited circle their life is curiously gregarious. There are, indeed, codes of social intercourse which seem to have hardened into convention. A Butty is towing a string of Monkey Boats along a canal. According to the rule the skipper, when he is in the mood to take exercise, marches on the tow-path alongside the bow of his boat. His wife, according to the same convention, trudges parallel to the stern, 70 feet away. When several Monkey Boats are being towed, therefore, the wife of the skipper of number one Monkey Boat walks in friendly communication with the skipper of number two Monkey Boat, while the latter's spouse exchanges the news of the day with the skipper of number three Monkey Boat. For the wife of this last there is always the gossip of the locks and the shouted comments from boats passing in the opposite direction.

The pay is good, especially if the skipper has a large and active family, the life in the open air is healthy - and our canals breed some of the rosiest-cheeked and strongest children. Holiday-makers and lovers of the country, from Stevenson onwards, have often imitated the nomads of the roads and the open heath, but comparatively few people have yet sampled the joys of a canal holiday. Yet, given the weather, it would be difficult to find anything that could be more delightful.

There is, indeed, no more ideal camping holiday than one spent on the inland waterways which are to be found all over Britain.

Such a holiday will take the adventurer in search of new explorations into parts of our country which he is never likely to see in any other set of circumstances. For in such a tour he will discover little lost villages, stretches of open country hardly even touched by by-roads; he will see nature at her best, and enjoy views at sunset which will be unequalled. All these rich and memorable experiences await the explorer of the inland waterways of Britain.

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Pictures for Our Inland Waterways

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