The term ‘canal busting’ has cropped up in recent issues, referring to those occasions when some waterway in less than pristine condition needed to be entered to prove such a thing was possible.
The voyage of Robert Aickman, Elizabeth Jane Howard and the Sutherlands into the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is the classic case; but there were others. The arm to Coventry Basin survived because of a rally in the 1950s. A decade later the Stourbridge Canal was saved by people clawing their way into it when those in charge – a government body, deplorably – tried to say this should not be done.
The ‘Campaigning Rally’ had become a feature: in Macclesfield, at Aylesbury and several points between. In 1964, at Stratford-on-Avon, came the celebration when the case there had been won. By then the notion had developed that to take your boat to such an event was to support the cause, to demonstrate that such and such a route should not be written off, to show those who lived there that what was once regarded as a stinking ditch had a liberating future.
Gradually, though, as the tide began to turn, rallies became self-defeating. They took a deal of organising, and running. Well-intentioned folk worked themselves to a frazzle, when they might have been writing to their MPs. Craft began to clutter up the system in the going there. Increasingly, the purpose of it all became clouded.
On the cusp of this process was the Rally of the Inland Waterways Association at Leicester in 1967. The route through there, a blend of the old Grand Union empire and the River Soar, with the confusing involvement of the City of Leicester itself, was certainly seedy. So the gathering was still a Good Thing. As we in the narrowboat Swan queued at the locks to get to it, though, the seeds of doubt were sprouting. Was this what really lay ahead? The waiting, and the waiting again: did it really need several hundred vessels to attend this gathering together in order to make the point?
Until the later stages we had enjoyed the voyage, though. The Arcadian journey along the summit level of the Grand Union’s Leicester Section was balm to the soul. There were the pubs as well, those village inns at which we could play skittles before tramping back woozily beneath the stars. So, it was a memorable trip … A pity about those other boats at the end.
As to the rally itself, it followed an increasingly familiar pattern, an echo of Stratford in which the grit of canal travel came to be exchanged for the flannel of a banquet. The smart set of clothes, mandatory at the time, despite being carefully stowed, had, in the atmosphere of Swan’s damp hold, assumed the composition of a Dead Sea scroll. Then, in the reception area for the dinner itself came a row with a manager figure from British Waterways, in practice a lobbyist for all that was wrong at the time, a bamboozler paid by the Government to be so. It was scarcely the prelude to an evening of fun.
And, at the dinner itself: no wine. “We don’t normally get people asking for wine,” said the waitress, looking harassed. But those at the Top Table had some. With refills. Enthused by this, they kept on proposing toasts: to the Association, the future of the waterways, to one another. At which all present had to stand, raise their empty glasses and try to look enthusiastic. This might have passed, had not the seating, in the manner of large halls, been combined together in groups of four or five chairs. Push one back and the entire row falls over. A noise as of rifle shots punctuated the ceremonials. Was it all worth it? Yep, I suppose so. But the effort! The glitches, the confusion of motives, and the crowding. Maybe I am not a party person (though I do like good company, in circumstances unconstrained) but I did feel, then, that such events had finally run their course. We met Graham Palmer afterwards, canal-digger supreme, sitting in the local pub. “The dinner? I never go to those things,” he said. “Too posh.”
Yet … Reading recent issues, about the junk in the Rochdale Canal, and so forth, there may be a reason for a bit of Canal Busting once again, expeditions into troublesome areas in order to show a waterway’s value. It could be a worthwhile idea, with publicity the intention. But to the wider public, please! The problem with the earlier rallies was that, as the numbers grew, and the gatherings themselves grew their own complexities, the notion of promotion came to belost. It was not just the wine that came to be forgotten, it was the explanations to the press, and on TV.
A leaner, more purposeful kind of demonstration, though, has something to be said for it. With a cap on numbers; with the Publicity Officer being the most important person there, not just some appointment that is made as an afterthought. Canal busting “rallies” yet again? It could be a worthwhile idea. But not, as an aim, for those who know about waterways already. This has long been a weakness of the waterways movement: that it promotes largely to itself. It is the other 99 per cent that needs to be reached.
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