Get­ting down to the nitty-gritty his­tory

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

We spent a few days re­cently in Bugsworth Basin at the end of the Up­per Peak For­est canal. It’s one of my favourite mooring spots in the whole sys­tem. Here, nestling in the folds of the glo­ri­ous Peak Dis­trict hills is a place that seems like the re­mains of a lost world.

We are sur­rounded by ru­ins of stone build­ings, by wharves and basins. It’s like liv­ing in the cen­tre of an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site. And one with an ex­cel­lent pub, The Nav­i­ga­tion, on hand, I should add.

It is a lost world and yet one only rel­a­tively re­cently lost – the re­mains of a mas­sive lime­stone pro­cess­ing and trans­port hub that 200 years ago was one of the largest in­land ports in Eng­land, where narrowboats were han­dling over 600 tons of lime­stone a day.

Lime was a sub­stance in huge de­mand in the early 19th Cen­tury, used in ev­ery­thing from agri­cul­tural fer­tiliser to mor­tar for build­ing and tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing. A prime source of it was the lime­stone hills of the Peak Dis­trict. And the only way to trans­port it from there was by the newly de­vised canal sys­tem.

So Bugsworth came into ex­is­tence as a basin where lime­stone was brought down from the sur­round­ing hills by tramway, crushed, or burned in huge kilns to pro­duce quick­lime, and then trans­ported away by the newly built Peak For­est Canal. And then, of course, along came the rail­ways. Bugsworth’s im­por­tance de­clined rapidly and it closed in 1927. This vast place with its ware­houses, kilns, rail­way tracks and of­fices then de­cayed into an un­recog­nis­able jun­gle as stones were taken away for other uses, un­der­growth claimed the wharves and the canal dried up.

In 1968 vol­un­teers be­gan the mon­u­men­tal job of re­claim­ing it from dere­lic­tion and get­ting the wa­ter­way fit for boats again: it only fi­nally opened in 2005. (The work partly funded by the EU we’ll soon be leav­ing, in­ci­den­tally).

It’s won­der­ful to be in a place that was at the very heart of the canal sys­tem. It res­onates with his­tory. And yet it’s all too easy to ro­man­ti­cise the past. As pe­riod pho­tographs show, in its work­ing days Bugsworth was noisy, smelly, filthy, full of smok­ing chim­neys that polluted the sur­round­ing area and men there worked phys­i­cally hard in dan­ger­ous con­di­tions for poor wages.

Dur­ing a sum­mer spent on the north­ern canals we’ve passed any num­ber of old stone mills and ware­houses, some con­verted into of­fices or flats, oth­ers ly­ing derelict.

It’s sad to see – es­pe­cially as in many towns noth­ing seems to have re­placed the wealth, the civic pride and the work these mills pro­vided. And yet the rose-tinted spec­ta­cles of nos­tal­gia blind us to the smoke and squalor of our in­dus­trial past.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to lose touch with the past and I wish we still had man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries to be proud of as we did then. I think it’s vi­tal that to­day’s boaters in our shiny, mari­naliv­ing boats un­der­stand the his­tory and sig­nif­i­cance of our canals and the part they played in kick-start­ing the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion. So I’m full of ad­mi­ra­tion for the vol­un­teers who spent so many years at­tempt­ing to res­ur­rect Bugsworth Basin: what an ap­palling thought that it might per­haps have be­come a hous­ing es­tate or a su­per­store’s carpark.

But let’s not for­get the gritty re­al­ity of life for the work­ing boat­men and women of the day and the in­dus­tries they served. I en­joy go­ing to historic boat ral­lies and see­ing en­thu­si­as­tic owners dress­ing the part as they pa­rade their spot­less craft. And, as I said, Bugsworth is one of my favourite spots.

Yet it’s a spot I would never dream of go­ing near if it was still noisy, smoke-rid­den and dan­ger­ous. So, as we en­joy our pa­rades, re-en­act­ments and liv­ing mu­se­ums, let’s not for­get that for many, the past we feel so sen­ti­men­tal about was in many ways a tough and ter­ri­ble time.

‘What an ap­palling thought that Bugsworth Basin might per­haps have be­come a hous­ing es­tate or a su­per­store’s carpark’

The lost world of Bugsworth

KEVIN BLICK From car jour­nal­ism to the canals was a change of pace, but liv­ing on board tug Harry is a con­stant eye-opener

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