Articles by John Liley
Yet again, something extra was needed to impress the news trade. Every Yachtsman’s Buoyage Guide had been done by a competitor. So had give-away tidal calculators (known as throw-away calculators by those who tried them). Someone suggested a competition...
There were those amongst us, however, who, for reasons within company politics, vowed that the project should founder. Failure from then on verged upon certainty, since the rules became so complex only those with legal training looked likely to enter. It was not I who plotted this, but someone known to me did, aiming to discredit various troublemakers elsewhere in the building.
Navigation was the theme: a set of exercises in which, given wind speeds and tides, our readers were asked to predict where a vessel might finish. In the interest of balance, however, one of the series centred on canals. There, of course, other variables were needed: locks unprepared, craft coming the other way.
I contacted Michael Streat, who, in acquiring the docks at Braunston, inherited also what proved to be the last regular contract for coal. A pair of his boats would be passing by shortly. I and Eric Coltham were welcome to join them, as far as Whilton Wharf. How long might this journey take?
The narrowboats of Michael’s Blue Line Company were models of their kind. Immaculately maintained, they were photographed so often that, as Michael put it, the steerers could spot a Nikon a mile away. “Perhaps it’ll take their mind off bothering me,” he added. “It’s Fairyland here sometimes.”
”Mister Streaks,” a voice had bellowed out of his telephone one morning. “We’re up near Arristun and the sponger’s gone in me crutch.” Arristun was Atherstone, loading point for the coal, and the plunger had gone in the clutch. “It gie a graunch,” the message continued. “Now it won’t ‘old back.”
There had been the incident, too, with the new engine in one of the fleet. Seeking to improve matters further, those on board had caught the stern on the cill in a lock, so they could whack at the blades with a hammer. “’Olds back better now,” they reported, but the installation shook. So did Michael.
Michael chose for us a crew he felt could cooperate: the Collins family, with motor boat Stanton and butty Belmont. Jim and Doris Collins did not rush as if some maniacal wrath was upon them. They were courteous people with a balanced view. This made plotting the competition even harder. The set-up was daft enough already without such as “outside the Admiral Nelson, Jim saw his old friend Harvey Whittleshawe and went to talk to him about the weather.” We spent three minutes in one lock, but thirty at the next because there was a pleasure boat there and we helped pull netting off the propeller.
In Braunston Tunnel we met a pair of Willow Wrens, traveling empty to the coalfields. The steerers nodded, slowed again as the butties passed, then headed away. The Willow Wren company was struggling now, successively losing contracts, but failing to gather new ones. Since no one, in decades, had established beside the canal a business dependent upon it there was no such traffic to be had. Meeting them should have been an event, yet none of the Collinses seemed to feel it. Pleasure boats got in the way, the canal ought to be dredged. Otherwise, the life would continue. It didn’t: the Blue Line contract ended a year or two later, in 1970.
Predictably, the competition was a disaster, and there was ridicule in the corridors of power. Oddly, the canal part, which I had to fudge, was better subscribed than most. Eric and I enjoyed it, too. Absolutely.