Friday 1 October 1971

Halcyon Days - 1970

Halcyon 1970
Stone to Whaley Bridge

1970 saw us back in the Midlands, but time with a change of hire base and a change of direction.

Our craft on this occasion was the Halcyon, another mid cockpit plywood cruiser which were all the rage at the time. We took the boat out from Stone in Staffordshire, so I suspect that means we hired from Canal Cruisers, one of the very first hire businesses on the system and one which is still in business today.

Halcyon of the Macclesfield Canal 1970

Our route took us up through the Harecastle Tunnel in the days before it's long closure and reconstruction, the time when so many tunnels were closed including the Blisworth, Wast Hill and also the Preston Brook (I think). I don't remember the steel doors or ventilation system which draws the air from north to south, so maybe these are later refinements. I do seem to remember that operations were mornings one way and afternoons the other, rather than the repeated switching we have today.

Harecastle Tunnel northern portal with Water Jasmine of Water Travel, Autherley emerging

The key thing was that Halcyon didn't have the fixed windscreen system present on Yorkanaught, which we had wanted to take through two years previously, and had a low enough air draft to let us pass - just. Although I was only ten at the time, I remember the low section clearly, where the roof came down so low we had to sit on the cockpit floor and steer by looking at the sides, there were a mere couple of inches above the cabin top.

We then ventured up the Macclesfield, a shallow canal with margins full of rocks and coping stones which had been undermined by the wash of passing craft. It was on this stretch that we became aware of a major snag with Halcyon. The propshaft appears to have come straight from a blueprint supplied by the Ministry of Crap Design (this venerable Institution is still alive and kicking, adding peverse tweaks into almost any product you care to mention). You see, the propeller was stuck onto the end of the propshaft, which is a very sensible place for it to be. The problem was that the propshaft extended to about two feet from the stern gland and was completely unsupported.

The rocks in the Macclesfield were the downfall of this craft and as we passed Congleton an underwater obstacle knocked the shaft out of true and set up a terrible vibration. We pressed on to Whaley Bridge from whence help was summoned. This resulted in a days delay, when the offending shaft was removed and a new one inserted aided and abetted by a boatyard worker immersed up to the neck in the cut. Its a good job it was the summer!

This delay at Whaley Bridge gave me an opportiunity to explore the weeded up arm half a mile back down the canal. Although I didn't know it at the time, the junction I mooched around in was the entrance to Bugsworth Basin, and had I been a bit older and a bit bolder I could have gained access to the overgrown basins beyond which have recently been restored.

The trip back took us through High Lane and by a strange twist of fate, past the back of the house which Dr D would buy just a few years later. It's strange the way these things happen, a bit like me ending up in Birmingham.

The trip ended with a day or so to spare, which was used exploring the Caldon Canal. In those days there were bottle kilns a plenty and working ones too. How things change.

Sorting these old boat trips into chronological order has been tricky in the absence of written records. However, as I appear in most sequences I have used my growing frame to order the record. This trip appears to mark the last time I wore life jacket.

Friday 3 September 1971

Nomos 3 1969 Oxford

Nomos 3 - 1969
Oxford to Nuneaton

Whilst this circular route is billed as a tough two weeks, we seemed to fairly fly around it. 

We had paused in London, and then took another breather in Oxford. Now you have to remember that this was only two years after the summer of love, and here was a boy from the boonies wandering through the hedonistic university fleshpot town of Oxford. As I recall, everyone looked like John Lennon with loads of hair (see my last post for an image of my own short back and sides), wire glasses and strangest of all, bare feet. It seemed that footwear had gone completely out of fashion and I was fascinated by all those black soled feet - I had never seen anything like it and it look so hip and cool.

The only trouble was that I couldn't tell the boys f rom the girls - very confusiung for an eight year old.

The sun continued to shine as we made our way up the Oxford Canal, eventually joining the Grand Union section and then onto the North Oxford to Coventry. Because Capt Snr didn't know the meaning of slow we added the branch to Coventry into our itinary and went out for an end of holiday meal. This was an unusual event for the cash strapped Ahab's, and I was tempted by the strange sounding "smoked mackrel". Matilda did her best to disuade me, reasoning that Mackrel tend to feed round sewage outfall pipes (no treatment plants back then) so the fish were tainted, dirty and unsafe. These dire warnings encouraged me further and I insisted on smoked mackrel or nothing - and so started a likelong taste for the fish. The same applied to girlfriends as I recall, I ditched one just because my mother approved of her!

And so the epic Thames circle was completed, and I had fallen even further under the watery spell.

Thursday 2 September 1971

Nomos 3 1969 Thames

Nomos 3 
Thames Ring 1969

After a wet trip down the Grand Union the sun smiled on us as we ascended the Thames, the most magical of rivers.

Thames 1969

The weather wasn't the only thing to brighten up, so did my prospects. My delight in messing about on the water was  blatantly obvious and I remember the immense pride when Dad handed me the wheel (and a box!) and told me to steer the boat along the river. I would have been just about eight at the time and I felt so grown up. Either my father or my brother was always nearby but from that time on I wanted to steer at every opportunity. If the truth be told, I still tend to hog the steering but I relinquish the helm with a bit better grace these days!

 Ahab's first stand

The Thames was at it sparkling best with mansions at every turn graceful towns at every lock. Perhaps one of the highlights for me was mooring on one of the eyots (islands) in the river and lighting a fire as it got dark. Real Swallows and Amazons stuff. 

Fire on the Thames 1969 (ish)

We spent about four days on the Thames pausing at Abingdon which looks little different 40 years later. This was a magical time, one of the last long holidays we had with Dr D, my brother, who was well into his 20's and getting stuck into his career. The four of us did share later boating holidays, but never for more than a week, so this trip was something out of the ordinary and a landmark in the family history.

It's a shame that my sister wasn't with us with on these trips with us to complete the Ahab set.

Wednesday 1 September 1971

Nomos 3 1969

Nomos 3 -1969
The Grand Union / Thames Ring

Another trip down memory lane.

Inspired by the success our Yorkanaught journey to Llangollen the previous summer, we returned to Dolphin Marine in  Nuneaton for a second helping, this time in a boat named Nomos 3.

Nomos 3

This was another two week cruise but rather than heading north as we had in 1968, the plan was to complete the Thames / Grand Union ring. We had gone up market this time, but not by much. The main advance was an inboard diesel engine rather than a petrol hungry outboard as we had last year. The outboard left us forever searching for filling stations and then a long walk back to the boat with a five gallon fuel drum dangling between the Capt Snr and Dr D on the boathook, like a pair of latter day Sherpas.

Progress indeed, and a chemical loo to boot. I even seem to remember some sort of space heater which ran off the Calor Gas supply - the sort of thing that would have the boat condemned in today's Health and Safety concious world. 

Thinking of the chemical loo - it was the most basic "porta potty" you could imagine, but with four people availing it of its services regular emptying was an essential ingredient of the daily routine. Mercifully, 'slopping out duties' were accepted by the Captain Snr who could regularly be seen scurrying furtively down the towpath, bucket in hand, looking for suitable hole in the bank into which he could make a deposit. This was a neat counterpoint to my later career which also involved holes in the Bank, but from which people  tended to make withdrawals!. Before you rush to write the Capt Snr off as an eco hooligan I should point out that the system wasn't as well supplied with waste disposal points as it is today and these DIY (Dump It Yourself) tactics were unavoidable.

My memory of this trip is a bit sketchy, but a close examination of the old photos tells me that we headed south down the Grand Union, pausing for a photo at Stoke Bruerne. The  horse boat / butty on display in the dry dock is Northwich, which later became butty to President in the pre Kildaire days.

Stoke Bruerne 1969

Stoke Bruerne with Northwich 1963 - Photo by Chris Clegg

Progress down the GU was a soggy experience as evidenced by the abundance of wet weather gear - some things never change. I do remember Stoke Bruene and it's canal museum. I have never passed this way in recent times but I still remember seeing the back cabin of a traditional working boat and being amazed at the size of it.

Boating 1960's style

The rest of the trip to Brentford passed in a blur, as did the semi tidal reach along the Thames to Richmond, but then the sun came out and with it came the start of hay fever, a complaint which plagued me for nearly two decades. I remember sneezing and sneezing with out a break, but even so I was captivated by the whole boating experience.

Tuesday 3 August 1971

1968, A Year to Remember

That first boating holiday aboard Yorkanaught
January 2010

Because it was so long ago, and I was so young, I can't provide a chronological record of our trip to Llangollen. Andrew Denny recently observed that one remembers things in flashes or snippets and it is very true, especially the experiences gleaned from ones childhood.

Captain Ahab dreaming watery dreams 1968

I think we hired from a  company called Dolphin Marine in Nuneaton, but I can't be sure. We certainly travelled to Hurleston Junction via the Staffs and Worcester and the Shropshire Union canals. The plan had been to make the outward journey via the Trent and Mersey, but Yorkonought had a fixed windscreen which was too high to allow it to pass through the much subsided Harecastle Tunnel.  Instead, it was an out and back trip along the Shroppie, with images of it's endless cuttings seared into my memory. As a teenager I found getting to sleep difficult and my routine was to imagine myself on a canal boat creeping so slowly towards a bridge at the far end of a tree lined canyon, my slowing heart beat matching the pace of the single cylendered Bolinder installed in my fantasy craft. It was ony a few years ago that I realised the image was real and was actually Tyrely Cutting.

Shropshire Union 1968

Beyond that I made little boats out of shaped wood before we set off, and these were trailed behind the boat on string, sliding up and down the wake with a young boy dreaming that, one day, he too would have a real canal boat. Maybe he would even live in the Midlands and explore this watery wonderland to it's full extent. It's little wonder that I am drawn back to the Shropshire Union cuttings for my solo trip each autumn!

Chillington Wharf 1968

The final section of this memorable trip was the journey through the BCN. Whereas today it is quiet and green, the late 1960's presented a very different picture. Factories and founderies lined the route, hissing and spitting foul smelling vapours out of mysterious pipes in walls. And the water was no better. The cut was a stew of noxious filth and the Ashted Locks were a sea of vile oily slime.

Captain Ahab aged eight and a quarter!

The passage of time is a mixed blessing. Sure the BCN is much cleaner, and there are even fish in it's once polluted waters, but what I would give for just one weekend cruising round it as it used to be. Not that we appreciated it at the time. Then the BCN was a worrying and forbidding place, one to be crossed with all haste rushing from the rural safety of Autherley to the other side at Minworth in one long marathon day.

All in all a great trip which seduced us all back to the inland waterways time and time again - and calls me still. Yorkanaught may have been a very basic boat but it's passage in the summer of 68 led to the accumulation of a huge body of memories, and a handful of faded photos.

Monday 2 August 1971

1968 , Time and Distance

Yorkanaught boating holiday, 1968
Nuneaton to Llangollen and back
January 2009

Time and distance seem to have changed with the passage of the years.

A strange phenomenon has occurred on the canals. Travel has actually got slower, and it isn't on account of poor dredging.

Yorkonought 1968 (probably Staffs and Worcester)

These days I moor near the northern end of the Shropshire Union and would consider a cruise to Llangollen to be a good week's journey, possibly six days if I pushed it a bit. Now consider this, in 1968 we took a frail prywood hire boat called Yorkonought from it's base in Nuneaton all the way to the end on the Llangollen Canal and back again, plus a diversion to mooch through the BCN all in two weeks. Now that is going some.

Captn's Snr and Jnr with Matilda

I sometimes wonder about the improbable journeys we undertook, at a time when a crowbar was as essential as a windlass. Some of the one week trips we completed are now billed as a strenous two week cruise, so what has happened?

I put this question to Matilda (mother) and Dr D (brother) and the answer was, it seems, quite  simple. Good old Captain Snr was a boater in a hurry, who didn't know the meaning of a lazy week on the water. Most days started soon after seven am and concluded when the light failed, and even longer if a mooring to his liking coldn't be found. Even now I can hear him saying "I cant stand bump, bump, bump all night - lets try again a bit further on".

But it wasn't just the hours, we fairly flew along. Those little lightweight boats didn't draw more than eight or ten inches and rather than the plodding progress made our new deep draughted boats, the old cruisers got up on the plane and skitted over the surface. I am not saying that this sort of travel was a good thing, nor was it good for the banks which were already in a bad state of repair, but it did make huge distances possible.

Horse drawn trip boat at Llangollen Wharf

The problem of this two speed traffic was that the Captain Snr frequently came up behing slow and heavy ex working boats, who found the shallow waters of the Llangollen far from satisfactory. I distinctly recall one excruciatingly slow boat which was struggiling to reach 2mph near Chirk. We followed this old smoky tub for hours without any opportunity to pass, so imagine our horror when we were about to set off back from Llangollen only to see the "Old Moo's" as they had been uncharitably been dubbed, making ready to cast off themselves.

We were up and off in an undignified haste, trying to get away in front of them. But so fast was our departure that Dr D lost his footing and ended up waist deep in the cut!

Things are uniformly slower these days, and a good job too. Canals are not racetracks and if you want to get somewhere fast try catching a bus. However, If I see a lightweight ply or fibreglass cruiser coming up astern, I remember that they can travel so much faster and let then through as a matter of course.

Matilda with Dr D

It's a bit like golf. The slower your boat or the worse your swing, the more time you get to spend doing the thing you like!

Sunday 1 August 1971

1968 The Summer of Love plus one

Two weeks that changed a life - the Captain's very first boating holiday
Summer 1968

It has been said that if you can remember the summer of love in 1967, you wern't really there!

Well I have to admit that due to my tender age (6) I have very few recollections of the year that free love ruled supreme, but by own summer of love happened 12 months later in 1968. This was the year I first encountered the inland waterways, and an intoxicating experience it was too. Never mind marijuana, I had mud, and weed was the stuff that constantly clogged the prop. It was a heady mix which proved scarily addictive, and from which I have never fully recovered.

Yorkonought on the Welsh Canal 1968

Never mind shooting up the Shroppie, within two weeks I was Main-lining through central Brimingham!

Yorkonought under one of the Llangollen Canal's classic wooden lift bridges 1968

I have recently gained access to some digitised copies of 35mm slides shot during this first two week trip, which saw four of us (Capt Snr, Matilda, Dr D and yours truly) make a trip from Nuneaton to Llangollen and back again. These faded photos brought home the basic nature of boating holidays 40 years ago. Forget fridges, showers, hot water and pump out loos, let alone 240 volt electricity, heating, washing machines and TV's. This was boating in the raw, four people crammed into a 26 foot plywood box called Yorkanaught, pushed along by an unreliable outboard motor with a propensity to shear its split pin every time the prop encountered the least resistance.

Thinking back to the mod cons, all we had was a bucket for a loo, a two gallon jug of fresh water, a two burner gas ring and a 'fridge' called an 'Oh so cool' which was a primitive predecessor of the cool box.

Captain Ahab aged 7

Eh by gum, it were hard back then - modern boaters - they don't know they're born.

Sadly, neither my father nor my brother were profligate photographers, so the records of the trip are intermittent and focussed on the picturesque. It's a shame that they didn't get their cameras out as they passed through the BCN on the way back because whilst views of Grub St Cutting are unchanged by the passage of time, the industrial landscape of Birmingham has been almost completely lost.

Norbury Junction 1968

I have used computer wizardry to restore what colour was left and I will post a selection of these shots over the the next few days, along with a few recollection of that heady first trip.

Happy days.