Articles by John Liley
The vessel in question was deemed to be a sixteenth of an inch too wide. One wonders if the judge was properly familiar with the nature of canals, the mixture of generalised information, bum maintenance and the need for improvisation by which they muddled along for so many years. A sixteenth of an inch! A thirty-secondth on each side! The thickness, perhaps, of a couple of coats of paint. Would that there were rubbing strips, down which, with an angle grinder, the difference could have been shaved away. Presumably there weren’t any.
The working boats of the 1930s were built beyond a 7ft beam, despite the insistence in Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers that this was a maximum width. When narrowboat Swan got stuck those many years ago, she had spread to something around 7ft 2in. We had the occasional adventure; but broadly – excuse the pun – we got around the system well enough.
To return to recent times, while out for a walk at Hurleston Locks, where the arm to Llangollen begins, I came across the same thing again. There was a hire boat there, stuck between the walls. Those on board, inexperienced themselves, were touchingly grateful when temptation overcame deference, and I intervened. It was impossible to resist… Rev the engine, to get a wave going. Turn the tiller hard from side to side. Open a paddle, if needs be. Anything to achieve movement. And once a boat is moving, up or down, she will generally slide forward. So it proved. As it happens, this lock was the very one at which the vessel in the court case failed to get through. Hurleston has long been known for narrowness. It was so way back in the 1960s; it is disconcerting that nothing has been done about it since. Other trouble spots I recall area lock near Worcester and one in Cheshire – as referred to in Laurence Hogg’s admirably explanatory letter.
“Seven feet” was the generalised term for the width of the locks on the English canals. As a precaution, usually, they were built a tad wider to allow for slippage or plain miscalculation. When it became apparent there were inches to spare, boat builders took advantage.
The same happened in France. “Five metres” is the standard width, morphing over the years into 5.05; but the majority of locks were built to 5.20. As trading conditions became tougher, the operators, in search of extra cargo, pushed towards the limits. At Marseilles-lès-Aubigny, near Nevers, one of the locks there had bulged enough to bring the width down to 5.11.
Cue the arrival of a Dutch péniche, built larger, as most of the later vessels were, and measuring 5.13 (a difference, incidentally, a good deal greater than a sixteenth of an inch). Having brought a load by another route from Rotterdam, she was traveling back light, to pickup 250 tons of grain from a point just beyond M-lès-A. I happened to be there when she stuck. Netherlands captains do not take kindly to the Gallic shrug, the gestures of nothing to-do-with-me-guv. The air was electric. A sluice was opened, the engine went full a head, to build up the water astern. With a change of gear, it was sucked between the vessel again. Soon, she was surging up and down, then edging forwards. In Dutch, the general gist was that those in charge should sort their perishing lock out. As, perhaps, they should.
A worrying feature of the recent case is the suggestion that canals ought to be trouble fr ee. It is if all the stiles on a country ramble should be built to the same height. Perhaps one day they will be, and people can sue over the presence of nettles.
By coincidence, I was out for a stroll again the other day. Our youngest had been taken to Alton Towers, a roller-coaster park too terrifying for those of my advanced years; so I left him and his chums to its consequences, and went for a hike by the Caldon Canal.
And there, at Consall, was a vessel that was stuck. She was a narrowboat, possibly a mite oversized but she had, nonetheless, got that far without trouble. Here, though, beneath the bridge, the towpath had been extended in the form of wooden decking, projecting – needlessly so - a bit too far. Once again those on board looked helpless. Once again …. “Mind if I have a go?” Put the power on, and then take it off. Go astern for a spell, then forward again. Get a wave going. Push the tiller hard. In one direction then the other. Sure enough, sawing this way and that, the boat went through.
When, later, another craft came along, the one in the photo, she sailed by without a qualm. So, the one that was sticking was, possibly, of the larger-sized variety. But … she got by didn’t she?
My sympathies are with the boat builder. A sixteenth of an inch, by golly – at the tightest lock in the country. Are we really in such a protective society as this?