The Other Sixty Miles
By Richard Chester-Brown
I have been searching for a reasonably priced copy of this booklet ever since I became aware of it's existence at Christmas. The trouble is that it is quite a rare item these days, and those that I could find were asking silly money.
I finally tracked down a copy to the on line Canal Shop in Lapworth, but wasn't entirely sure what to expect.
This work by Richard Chester-Browne is a record of his survey of the abandoned canals of Birmingham and the Black Country from the time he was a student in 1974/7 and first published by the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society (BCNS) in 1981. A number of revisions were made over the years by local enthusiasts and my copy was its final second 1991 incarnation.
It is no coffee table book, but it is a very comprehensive study of all the abandoned bits of waterway, but more a reference work that a rattling good read. It dosn't contain much history apart from 'built' and 'abandoned' dates, and it's period photographic collection is less expansive than I had hoped for. However, it does record the state of the lost sections in great detail as they stood in the 1970's and 1980's.
The text is supported by some very good hand drawn maps, which include an almost encyclopedic record of the hundreds of short arms which radiated out almose everywhere. These maps were drawn by Marcus Boudier who sadly died in a boating accident in 1986 and to whom the book is dedicated. This series of maps represent a very fine legacy to canal hunters.
Viurtually every arm, loop and deviation has been painstakingly recorded for posterity and serves as a benchmark for future surveys.
Taken as a whole, the interesting thing is the subtlety of the changes over the last 20 years, compared to the wholesale losses witnesses between abandonment in the 1950's and 60's and the first survey undertaken in the late 1970's. Back in the 70's it was all partially infilled ditches of reed and mud with "20% in water, 25% of the lock chambers intact and 30% impossible to trace".
Compare that to 2010 and I would say that the proportion in water has remained remarkably constant, but that the passage of two decades has seen virtually all the lock chanbers lost, as well as many of the bridges. However, whilst 30% pof the lines were untraceable, the advent of Google Earth has opened up a wealth of opportunity to "fly" over an area and follow old routes using subtle changes in the vegitation, road layouts and boundaries to track the course. This mixture of ariel clues allows a line to be identified with great certainty, much more so than an on foot explotation alone.
Perhaps the surprising change has been that far from losing the old lines completely, builders and town planners have been reluctant to construct directly on canal beds, preferring to use them as linear open spaces for recreation by local residents. Far from losing the abandoned sections, I would say that they are more visible and accessible than ever before, providing you know where to look.
This book is going to prove to be a trasure trove of information and you can expect to see much cross referencing in my ongoing exploration of the remains as they exist in 2010. The one big difference is the power of the web and digital photography. In the 1980's Richard was limited to the constraints of text and the print medium, whereas the internet based blog format allows ongoing research to be drip fed out as bits are visited on a self published basis. Much easier and much more accessible.
Richard, if you are out there, what do you make of the contrast so far?
This book was self published by the BCNS, and as such has no ISBN number.
Copies are availablle here and there via internet bookshops and the Historic Narrowboat Owners Society.