Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Canal Cruising in the Sixties is the copyright of Jim Shead - First published in Waterways World February 1994
Canal Cruising in the Sixties
Working boats pass the author's hire boat at Braunston on 17th June 1965.
How often do you look at your photographs of past canal cruises? The answer for most people is very rarely, if they can find them at all. The realisation that my first canal holiday was thirty years ago prompted me to dig out the pictures and recall some of the events that occurred on those holidays between 1963 and 1969.
My family's introduction to boating holidays was a week on the Broads in 1953. Having been bitten by the boating bug we progressed to the Thames, in 1957 and 1961, and then on to the canals, a pattern followed by many in these comparatively early days of canal holidays. I was 19 when we picked the Atherstone from the Maid Line Cruisers 1963 Brochure. The boat was a 24 foot, 4 berth, cruiser, owned by the Tardebigge Boat Co., and powered by a Lister air-cooled Diesel engine.
Reference to my father's account book shows that the cost for the two week holiday for four people was as follows:-
To plan our route we had purchased a copy of Know Your Waterways by Robert Aickman (8/6 post free) and decided on a circular route: south down the Worcester and Birmingham from Tardebigge to Worcester; up the Severn to Stourport and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal; north to Haywood Junction where we join the Trent & Mersey as far as Fradley Junction; south along the Coventry Canal and Northern Oxford Canal to Braunston; up the Grand Union to Kingswood Junction where we join the Northern Stratford-on-Avon Canal to take us back to the Worcester and Birmingham at Kings Norton. The whole route contained 191 locks in 191 1/2 miles.
Caldwall Lock on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal in 1963. The cottage was demolished a few years later.
When we arrived at Tardebigge and saw the Atherstone we realised just how small a 24 foot boat is, for four people. Our last boat on the Thames was just 4 foot longer and 14 inches wider but seemed to have much more space. When the boatyard owner took us down to the Tardebigge Top Lock the difference between rivers and canals became very obvious. First into the 580 yard Tardebigge Tunnel and then ahead of us the longest flight of locks in the country.
At Tardebigge Top Lock, one of the deepest narrow locks in the country, our Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Monty, fell into the empty lock. He swam around as the waters rose, then the boatyard owner climbed down the lock gate, grabbed Monty's collar, and flung him onto the lockside. None the worse for his 14 foot fall and abrupt rescue, Monty shook himself spraying all within range. We decided to keep him shut in the cabin at locks in future. After a few days the call of "lock" would cause Monty to run to the cabin, as the rest of the crew reached for windlasses and mooring lines.
Atherstone top lock in 1963. The roving bridge has now disappear and has been replaces by new houses.
It took us almost eleven and a half hours of solid cruising time, over a day and a half, to do the 16 miles and 56 locks to Worcester. We moored at Diglis Basin to visit Worcester Cathedral and then went through the wide Diglis Locks to the Severn.
Diglis, like the Severn locks, was in the charge of a lock keeper, which was fortunate for the occupants of one of the cruisers with whom we shared the lock. The boat was only being held by a single rope and had drifted so that it was spanned the width of the lock. Unfortunately the boat was slightly longer than the width of the lock and the cruiser stuck as the water level fell beneath it. The situation came to everyone's notice as the lock keeper called to his assistants and one set of paddles were quickly dropped, while those at the opposite end of the lock were raised. The most remarkable part of this incident was the complete lack of concern shown by the boaters who so nearly met with disaster, they remained completely nonchalant as panic broke out around them.
What were the main differences in canal holidays thirty years ago? Firstly fewer boats, it was not unusual to cruise a whole day and see only one or two other boats on the move. Canal side facilities were also less frequent; fewer boatyards, pubs and waterside shops. Many of the canalside features from the commercial era have been lost since that time; warehouses, lock cottages and roving bridges over disused arms. On this trip we passed through the 130 yard Armitage Tunnel that was later opened out, due to problems with the roof hewn from the natural rock. The other major loss is, of course, working boats. These were fairly common in the early sixties but had considerably declined by the end of the decade.
At Hawkesbury Junction we emerged from the stop lock to find dozens of working boats moored on both sides of the canal, leaving a channel with only a few inches to spare. We navigated this long narrow corridor, hoping we would not have any mishaps with so many professional boatmen looking on.
We all thoroughly enjoyed our first canal holiday and on our return we started saving for our next canal trip. Our 1965 trip was on a slightly larger scale, and cost over £80 more. Our party was enlarged by the presence of my sister's future husband. For this trip we hired the Maid Mary-Shauna from the Maid Line base at Brinklow, near Rugby, on the Northern Oxford Canal. This was a 43 foot cruiser with centre cockpit control, plus both forward and aft cockpits. It also had every modern convenience that could be found on a canal hire boat then.
On this trip we went to Oxford, knocking pieces off the boat on the awkward lift bridges that are found on the southern Oxford Canal, but enjoying the scenery and the delights of Napton, Wormleighton, Upper and Lower Heyford, and many other places on the way. We also explored the Leicestershire Section of the Grand Union as far as North Kilworth, a total of 181 miles and 108 locks in the fortnight.
We moored one evening just above Braunston Top Lock. Here we spoke to a family from a pair of working boats, arriving just after seven. They said they had started at three in the morning that day from Marsworth, some 50 miles and 30 locks away. Life on a working boat was not all roses and castles.
In 1968 we hired a similar boat to the Maid Mary-Shauna, the Maid Mary-Sheila. Our party this time consisted of my mother and father, their Staffordshire Bull-Terrier pup, my sister and her husband, their 6 month old daughter, my future wife and me.
This time we took a circular route from Brinklow via the Leicester Section, to Trent Lock then back along the Trent & Mersey to Fradley and retracing our 1963 route back to Brinklow. This was a total of 152 miles and 98 locks.
Loaded narrowboats near Hillmorton in 1968.
It is fortunate that our plans for this trip were more modest, in terms of miles and locks covered, as the Maid Mary-Sheila proved rather unreliable. The main problem was the hydraulic transmission system that took the power from the engine, under the centre cockpit, to the propeller. This tended to leak which meant that the canal was covered with oil and all power was lost. On these occasions we had to bow haul the boat to the nearest road bridge and call out the boatyard.
Picture the scene: I am steering while my father and sister pull the boat with a mooring rope attached to a central point on board -
Man on the towpath - Have you broken down then?
Dad - No we ate the horse for breakfast.
My last "sixties" canal holiday was in 1969 when I spent a week in what was described by one of the party as "a floating shoe box", but was hired out by Blue Line Boats of Braunston as a camping cruiser. These strange craft consisted of a punt like base with twelve thin poles holding a plywood roof. Privacy and protection against the weather was provided by roll up canvas walls, the whole thing being powered by an outboard engine.
This trip was organised by a colleague at work. My wife and I were invited along to fill some spare places. Five of us spent an enjoyable week on this small craft. Facilities were limited, although the boat had a small gas stove for cooking there was no toilet, this meant that often the entire crew could be seen at 10.30 in the morning waiting for a pub to open.
Looking back at these trips has made me aware of several things: the value of keeping logs of the trip and old brochures; the improvements in colour films that have gradually occurred over 30 years; the need for the cataloguing of pictures before there are too many; the changes to the waterways, some losses, some improvements; but most of all the number of things I missed and have now gone for ever. I have few pictures of working boats, no picture of Armitage Tunnel or of many of the other canalside features that have now disappeared.
My message is to keep a good record of your waterway cruises, in years to come you will find hours of pleasure in recalling long past times, enhanced to perfection by the filter of time and memory.
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