One of the many joys of slow adventuring along the canals for a year was researching curious, or plain odd stories about the waterways. Some were folklore, some strange footnotes to history, whilst more revealed aspects of the canal world that were surprising to me. Here are six that were enjoyable discoveries.
In a number of towns along the canal network, from the north of England to Wiltshire, there are folk stories about ‘raking for the moon,’ which in Slaithwaite on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is celebrated in a biennial Moonraking Festival.
The story originates in canal crews using their boats to smuggle and distribute contraband goods along the waterways. Seeing approaching excise men, one crew heaved their contraband overboard and sank it in the canal’s waters. Coming back later in the night with rakes to pull the goods ashore the boaters were again surprised by patrolling excise men.
Feigning daftness the smugglers claimed that the reflection of the full moon in the water was a round of cheese which they were trying to drag ashore. The patrol laughed at their idiocy and rode on, leaving the crew to salvage their duty-free booty, likely rum or tobacco.
Tom Rolt who, along with Robert Aikman, established the Inland Waterways Association was an early live-aboarder. In 1937 he bought the converted horse fly-boat, 'Cressy' from his uncle who had fitted the boat with a steam engine which was later replaced by a Ford car engine.
Rolt and his first wife, Angela, had the boat extensively altered to make it comfortable for year-round living. Working boat people found it eccentric that anyone would turn the cargo area into ‘rooms.’ They would have been even more disbelieving if they knew that there was a full-sized bath on board, raised on a podium so that its plug hole was high enough to drain into the canal.
In the 1750s the Duke of Bridgewater and his land agent, John Gilbert, conceived their idea for a canal – arguably Britain’s first ‘true’ canal – to bring coal from the Duke’s mines at Worsley to the growing industrial city of Manchester.
They employed James Brindley, a young and precocious engineer, who suggested, (in this his first foray into canal construction), that rather than using locks to overcome the differences in height along the route, they carry the canal across the River Irwell on an aqueduct.
Nothing of the scale Brindley was proposing had been seen in England to that point and there was widespread scepticism as to its feasibility. Brindley was sent to London to present his project to the committee who would advise Parliament on whether it was sensible to grant the act needed to authorise the canal’s construction.
The resourceful and practical Brindley demonstrated his design by carving a model of ‘his castle in the air’ by carving a model of the aqueduct from a block of cheese. The act was granted and the Barton aqueduct was built in under a year, remaining in use until its demolition in 1893.
Despite popular thought, relatively few men who worked digging and building the early canals were Irish, rarely forming more than ten percent of the total workforce, though many of them were the elite of skilled labourers who moved along with the canal as it progressed mile after mile until it was completed.
Far more workers were drawn from the local farming communities along the waterway’s route. Agricultural labourers would leave their regular jobs for better paid canal building, returning to their farm employment when the canal work had moved beyond the distance it was practical to walk from their homes.
So great was the draw of the navvy life that in 1793 a motion was proposed in the House of Commons to ban canal building during the harvest season to ensure that labourers remained on the land. It was defeated.
The long waters of the canal system are, at the same time, as still as ponds and as extensive as the longest of flowing rivers. They make a network of interconnected ‘corridors’ for wildlife of all kinds to live in and move along.
In the past, as working ‘water machines,’ the majority of canals, particularly around the industrial and urban areas which they served, were polluted and all but dead, but today the waters are overwhelmingly clean. They are home to a surprising number of fish species, from grayling to pike, and harbour such insects as caddisfly larvae and great diving beetles.
Dragonflies hunt along the waters, as do sparrowhawks who often dash along towpath hedges in the hope of surprising small birds. Otters and voles are increasing in numbers, and use the waterways to move into new areas. Kingfishers, herons and grebes are common, but the interconnectivity of the canals, and especially their junctions with busy sea ports such as London and Liverpool have allowed the introduction and spread of many invasive species.
Zebra mussels multiply rapidly blocking sluices and lock paddles, Chinese mitten crabs burrow deep into banks causing erosion and even breaches, whilst mink are ruthless assassins of water fowl and fish. Fragments of Japanese knotweed and the seeds of giant hogweed are spread for miles along slow moving canal waters, and floating pennywort can clog a whole waterway in incredible spurts of growth in warm weather.
Llangollen Wharf horse boat trips have run since 1884 when Captain Samuel Jones, an actual sea-going captain was ‘pensioned off’ for being drunk in charge of a vessel at sea. With a sharp eye for a business opportunity and perhaps reckoning that the canals of Wales would be less challenging he bought a pair of ships’ lifeboats and some steady draught horses and began running tourist trips up to the source of what is now the Llangollen Canal where water is drawn from the River Dee at the Horseshoe Falls.
At the end of the 19th century, the canal basin at Trevor was the transport hub for the many industries in the surrounding valleys. Boats were loaded with chemicals including explosives, cast iron, quarried stone. The local slate was particularly prized for morgue tables, and tiles made from marl clay.
Llangollen, only four and a half miles away by canal, was an attractive and tranquil town and Captain Jones' boats were kept busy with Victorian tourists. The horse drawn boats have run ever since. For long periods during Wales’ ban on Sunday drinking, the boats fulfilled an important social function, carrying locals on a ten mile pub cruise, over the Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts and through several tunnels to reach the pubs over the border in England.
Author, photographer and broadcaster Jasper Winn has been appointed as our first ever writer in residence. He will be blogging about the stories of the people living, visiting, working and volunteering on our waterways.
Author, photographer and broadcaster Jasper Winn has been appointed as our first ever ‘Writer in residence’. He will be blogging about the stories of the people living, visiting, working and volunteering on our waterways.See more blogs from this author