What have the Romans ever done for us? – Guest Post By Ian Hutson

Some people write on paper, I write on water. Writer types are a discrete but diverse species, and live in a variety of dwellings. Doubtless some live in mud huts and one or two probably live in castles or palaces. I got the chance to live on a boat and I jumped at it (not literally). It’s alright though, it’s my boat, I’m not a stowaway or anything.

It’s taken me a year of hard searching, organising, downsizing and finally just plain horrible DIY to achieve my current status as a happy water-rat, and I’d like to share some of the ups, downs, ins, outs, highs, lows and hammer-smashed thumbs with you. First though, I ought to set the scene, and explain why my boat, nb Cardinal Wolsey, measures 57’ long but only 6’ 10” wide, and has a cruising speed of just 2 to 3 miles per hour – and how I am able drift through deep countryside and cityscape alike, far from the ocean wave.

England, home of the quaint, the quirky and the really quite quintessentially polite queue, has a system of canals – two thousand miles of ditches, dykes, aqueducts, locks, sluices and tunnels. Better yet, these man-made canals also form links between navigable rivers and some of the truly monumental drainage systems such as the Norfolk Broads. Even given that England is only slightly larger than a small gentleman’s informal-wear pocket handkerchief, that’s quite a lot of water to roam around on.

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The first of these canals was built in 120AD – one thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven years ago. I don’t know the exact time, it was probably about two in the afternoon. Thus, if anyone ever puts you on the spot and asks ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ you can be ready with the answer ‘Well, they built the Fossdyke canal that connects the River Trent to Lincoln and then on through to the Witham Navigation to Boston, for one’. Ruddy Romans, with their straight roads and their square houses, central heating and indoor plumbing. When they set sandal on English beaches they brought with them portable, flat-packed fortress kits (I kid you not) and they brought spades.

If you look carefully there is Roman graffiti scratched into the stonework all over England. Usually it is along the lines of ‘Cito Caesarem venit; Carpseris ligonem et respicere occupatus!’ [Look out, Caesar’s coming! Grab a spade and look busy!]

Mind you, they didn’t build the Fossdyke canal very well because it needed refurbishment only a thousand years later, in 1121 during the reign of King Henry I. Even further sundry improvements were reluctantly undertaken roughly five-hundred years after that, in 1671 when Charles II was having a bit of a sit down on the throne. These improvements included a new lock at Torksey, and supplementary warehousing and wharves in the city of Lincoln. You can never have enough wharves, I say.

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The vast bulk of the canal system only dates back to the eighteenth century though, and the Industrial Revolution, a mere couple of hundred years. Industry and commerce took off like industry and commerce had never taken off before, and raw materials and finished goods needed moving from every corner of England to every other corner, sometimes twice or even thrice. Horse-powered load-carrying boats were simple, cheap and, for their day, a relatively fast way of moving coal and cotton and sugar and pottery and just about anything else required by the up and coming industrialist about town for his new-fangled mills and factories.

However, up and coming industrialists, even those about town, were not known for flinging their money about as though it was confetti, and so they built what their factories needed, no less and no more. This resulted in a smidgen, a soupcon, a smattering of variety about the system – wide canals, narrow canals, contour-hugging canals, canals full of height-adjustment locks, canals urban, canals rural, canals deep and canals shallow. Some canals are just one narrowboat wide, others can carry ocean-going ships.

Narrowboats – and you must never refer to them as “barges”, for a barge is quite a different kettle of fish – generally measure 6’ 10” wide and anything up to roughly 72’ or so long. Older or “working” boats are often a couple of inches wider than the modern boats. The width is limited by the parsimonious width of a lot of the locks on the system (locks are mechanisms where the level of the canal changes to match the contours of the landscape). Early boats were of wooden or what is now known as “money-pit” construction, more modern ones are, mostly, steel from bow to stern.

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Peasants led big, beefy horses on the tow-path, big, beefy horses towed the boats, the boats carried the goods from mill and factory to warehouse and port and vice to versa. Very heavily-laden boats moved goods day and night through summer and through winter and through any season that was either, neither or both. After all, this is England – four seasons in one day, sometimes twice each before lunch. Entire families lived permanently on-board – if they were lucky in perhaps a ten foot cabin at the stern. It all worked very well indeed, for a while. The horses that dragged the boats along and the boatmen remained very fit but as poor as church mice, and the fat-cat industrialists creamed the dosh, as is the usual way of things.

Setting the Romans aside, in a way that my distant forefathers apparently could not, and putting things in proper royal context, as one should in England if one wants to remain wholly acquainted with one’s head, the story goes roughly something like this. George III, George IV, William IV and Victoria The One And Only presided over the rise, the consolidation and the heyday of the canals. A heyday that lasted until we meet that damnable invention of The Devil; the steam locomotive.

Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and yet another George, the VI, presided over the initial stumbling and the decline of the canals into dereliction and limbo, a fate finally sealed by the monstrous rise and rise of the lorry, or the euphemistically-termed “heavy goods vehicle” (foreign types may call them “trucks”). These gentlemen really cannot be blamed, since they had other things such as two dirty great world wars and the music of Ivor Novello to contend with.

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The current throne-warmer, Elizabeth II – by her Royal Assent to Parliament’s various shenanigans – has commanded and watched over the re-invention, restoration and re-purposing of the system. I don’t think that ma’am owns a narrowboat herself though, although one can never be sure; there are plenty of queens on the system, and lots of folk who behave like (ill-mannered) minor royalty.

During the decline not just the boats, but the canals themselves almost disappeared completely. Closed for business, some were filled in by man, others were filled in by nature, and the grand infrastructure of locks and tunnels and sluices and wotnots ossified and crumbled. A lot of my family have been filled in over the centuries, and only last year my doctors pronounced me “ossified and crumbling”. Canals and I have much in common – obscurity, utter neglect and a screaming, meteoric decline. Perhaps that’s why we have gravitated towards one another?

Anyway, after World War II, when everyone was really bored and were wondering how to amuse themselves now that they weren’t getting shot and bombed on a regular basis, some very fuddy-duddy, very square types indeed began to kick and scream and fight to breathe life back into the canals. The wheels of politicians – and if you look closely, most politicians are on small, swivelling castors to allow them to be easily moved from one silly notion to another – these wheels grind exceedingly slowly, and thus it was not until the nineteen-sixties that government began to recognise that perhaps a fantastic system of inland waterways ought not to be thrown away entirely.

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Wonder of wonders, while the London set were swinging, staggering up and down Carnaby Street in feathered boots, mini-skirts and Vidal Sassoon crops, the usual steaming piles of grey officialdom were set up – National Boards of this and Acts of Parliament for that and so forth. Everyone decided to have a damned good go at the resuscitation of (some of) the system for leisure purposes.

That campaign is why there are still roughly two thousand miles of canal in existence, and why the network still stretches from Lancaster and Liverpool across to Ripon and York and down to London and Bath.

It took the whole country half a century to bring the canals back to life. It’s taken me a whole year just to simplify, rationalise, re-wire, re-plumb and re-model just my boat. I’ve even re-named him (and, you’ll notice, changed his sex too, eschewing the more usual “she”). All of that done, I can now put down my lump-hammer, paintbrush and adjustable spanner, and I can sit in my nice, new study area and reflect on the trials and tribulations of getting afloat.

The list of things to reflect on is a long one. If The Story Reading Ape indulgently allows me back here after this, I’ll tell you all about everything. Laughs, tears, hard work, superstitions, boater’s curses, officialdom, my first mooring looking something like the Normandy Landings – and even my three-boat crash on the Inland Waterways Helmsman course (only one-third my fault, possibly not even that).

Is a narrowboat on the canals a great place for a writer to live? I can’t think of anywhere better. Starting about now I can put it to the test.

Ian Hutson

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59 thoughts on “What have the Romans ever done for us? – Guest Post By Ian Hutson

  1. Loved your story! You are a great writer. My descent is English.My surname is Barnes. I come from a city in southern Ontario called Peterborough.(living in Tofino now) We have a canal system of our own, no doubt built by the same men who built some of your canals. It’s called the Trent-Severen canal system.Peterborough also has the highest lift locks (at one time) in the world! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trent–Severn_Waterway
    I would love the life style you have but must admit that my soul soars in more remote regions.I would love to have a large boat (wider of course because of ocean waves) & cruise around exploring!
    Congratulations on your accomplishment!

    Liked by 2 people

    • If I could change two things about England’s canals it would be to have many more of them, and for them to connect up with other canal systems around the world. A tunnel under the English Channel, a tunnel to Eire, a trans-Atlantic tunnel, and maybe even a way to get to the canals of India (restored to the condition and extent that they were supposed to be – and without mosquitos)! The canals are a nice compromise for me, I love the water but I’m far too much of a wuss for the ocean wave, so inland waterways it must be. Many, many thanks for your kind words.

      Liked by 2 people

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