One of the finest ways to enjoy the outstanding beauty of Britain’s countryside is to take a slow, meandering cruise along the network of canals and rivers that make up Britain’s waterways.
Chugging along tranquil waters, you may reflect upon the serenity of the countryside as you travel in relative luxury where willows dip their fronds into dappled waters. Having taken a step back in time, you may even feel envious of people who spent their lives living and working on the water. What better way to observe the glory of the changing of the seasons than from a boat on a canal?
But what was it really like for the families who first lived and worked on the canals?
The boats on the waterways today are a far cry from the original narrow boats that carried loads of up 35 tons of coal, steel and iron ore, wood, sand and cement from all over Britain to the ports, shipyards and factories in our major cities.
The first narrow boats, built in the 1770s, were 70 ft long and 7 ft wide, (10 ft longer than the bendy-busses once seen on London streets, without the benefit of the ability to bend around corners). Locks were 14 ft wide and 70 ft long so the boats were designed to fit the locks. The boats were not designed for comfort but to provide maximum carrying capacity for cargo, stored in open holds along the length of the boat.
Unlike today’s leisure boats the families living on the cargo carrying narrow boats lived in the small stern cabins. The five-foot high cabin measured approximately ten-foot by seven-foot and housed the stove, cupboards, storage space, a table and benches that could be converted to beds for sleeping.
When steam engines were introduced in the 1850s boat owners could tow a ‘butty’, (a second boat) carrying additional cargo and providing extra living space
However, the engine took up room in the lead boat and it required an engineer to stoke it, so it was of limited benefit to the family.
There was a hierarchy of boats. Fly boats, carrying up to 10 tons and moving faster than regular boats, had precedence until the coming of the passenger-carrying Packets. Packets provided an opportunity for ordinary people to travel long distances at reasonable cost, a privilege previously afforded only to those who possessed their own coach and horses.
Life on the boats was harsh and unrelenting. Long gruelling hours of labour brought little reward. The boat people were regarded as ‘water gypsies’ and lived insular lives cut off from people living in the towns and villages. They were, for the most part, uneducated but had their own strong moral code: they didn’t steal from each other.
It is difficult today to imagine how busy the canals were
Thousands of boats used canals that were as congested as today’s motorways. The boatmen often had to wait several hours to go through a flight of locks which must have been as stressful and frustrating as sitting fuming in a miles long traffic jam today.
Life on the boats wasn’t all bad. Work, home and pleasure all merged into one with the added bonus of passing through Britain’s glorious countryside with your family always at hand, seeing the hedgerows bursting into bloom in spring and later admiring the same hedgerows’ coppery autumn glow.
Boat owners were as colourful as their boats and very proud of their prowess at boat handling
The traditional Victorian designs, painted on the outsides of the boats in vivid colours, passed down through generations. The living quarters were similarly decorated with Victorian lace-edged plates and fitted with brass and copperware, polished daily.
Canal Carrying Companies had their own distinctive livery. Pickford’s was one of the first canal carrying companies, starting up in the 1780s with ten boats but quickly growing to over a hundred with up to four hundred horses to pull them. Cadbury’s also had a canal carrying company and Pickford’s and Cadbury’s continued to use canal boats right up until the 1960s.
At the height of its popularity canal transportation provided jobs for thousands of people, not just the boatmen but the clerks and warehousemen in the counting houses and on the docks not to mention the boat yards. Nowadays the canals are used mainly for recreational purposes.
However you decide to enjoy the countryside you will never be far from a river or canal
Whether you take a relaxing walk along a canal path, a leisurely cruise or holiday on a canal boat, spare a though for the men and women who lived and worked on the canals. Without their vision, enterprise and stoicism, it is doubtful whether the countryside would have developed the way it has, giving so much pleasure to so many people.