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

Week­end­ing and re­sist­ing the dis­con­nect be­tween the pow­ers that be and canal his­tory

“Hello Ge­orge,” some­one called to me from an­other boat the other week. I didn’t bother to cor­rect him. Life’s too short and he wasn’t the first. “You’re a long way from Ban­bury,” he added. He was right there. We were up in York­shire. “And from Suf­folk – where we come from,” I added. He looked baf­fled; I smiled and waved him good­bye.

I am, as you know, not called Ge­orge Too­ley. Nor do I have any sons and Ban­bury is not where we are from but rather where our boat Harry was built. I am per­pet­u­ally sur­prised and a lit­tle sad­dened at the num­bers of boaters who don’t ap­pear to know of Ge­orge Too­ley & Sons, Ban­bury and the place the boat­yard holds in the his­tory of the wa­ter­ways.

That makes it all the more pleas­ing when some­one does. Like the charm­ing old boy on the tow­path at Audlem who was the first who ever com­mented on our back cabin sign­writ­ing. “How won­der­ful to see that name,” he en­thused. “Of course I never knew Ge­orge but I did know his son Her­bert.”

I was im­pressed. Roger Wick­son, as he in­tro­duced him­self, is one of those lucky peo­ple who knew the canals when they were still work­ing wa­ter­ways.

His grand­mother was born on a nar­row­boat and, when he was a young lad in the early Fifties, she ran The Three Pi­geons pub by Pi­geon Lock on the Ox­ford Canal.

“It was a sim­ple boat­man’s pub, no run­ning wa­ter, with a bar and sta­bles for the horses,” he re­called. “I loved it – the boat­men gave me lifts down to the next lock.”

How I envy him that: to have rid­den boats and played around canals in that free­wheel­ing era when kids just dis­ap­peared on their bikes for hours and hours and their par­ents didn’t have a worry in the world about it, would have been a dream.

The pub, iso­lated from any proper road or vil­lage, didn’t sur­vive the de­cline in the work­ing wa­ter­ways and had be­come a house by the late Fifties. It re­cently sold for nearly £700,000 – how times change.

As for Roger, he moved a long way from his canal­side child­hood fun; ed­u­ca­tion at Cam­bridge, fol­lowed by a ca­reer teach­ing and 20 years as head­mas­ter of the pres­ti­gious King’s School, Chester. But he never lost his love of the canals; a keen boater un­til re­cently, au­thor of a wa­ter­ways his­tory and, since re­tire­ment, a res­i­dent of canal­side Audlem.

Too­ley’s Yard was, of course, the yard where in 1939 Tom Rolt’s boat Cressy was made ready for his fa­mous voy­age around the then de­cay­ing canal net­work. The voy­age in­spired the book Nar­row Boat and served as the in­spi­ra­tion for the post-war cam­paign to save the wa­ter­ways. All of which I am sure you know.

Tug Harry was one of the last boats built at the yard be­fore it was en­gulfed in the 1990s, like an un­for­tu­nate fly in the glass and steel cob­web of a new canal­side shop­ping cen­tre. By then the last Too­ley had de­parted but the yard was still work­ing and build­ing a few boats – like ours.

For­tu­nately a vig­or­ous cam­paign by the IWA and wa­ter­ways en­thu­si­asts pre­vented Too­ley’s be­ing com­pletely oblit­er­ated by the de­vel­op­ment and, though it’s a shadow of its for­mer self, it is still a work­ing yard with, it’s said, the old­est con­tin­u­ously work­ing dry dock on the in­land wa­ter­ways, dat­ing back to 1790.

In melan­choly mo­ments I won­der if the same cam­paign could hap­pen to­day; there seems a grow­ing dis­con­nect be­tween to­day’s boaters and the her­itage of the canals they use.

A dis­con­nect even be­tween the pow­ers that be and his­tory, too, as the canals evolve into ‘recre­ational spa­ces’ and canal­sides echo with ‘de­sir­able wa­ter­side dwellings’ with nom­i­nal moor­ings – com­plete with ‘no moor­ing’ signs of course, be­cause who wants a smelly boat by their flashy apart­ment.

But let’s not grum­ble. The canals may be dif­fer­ent but they are still with us. To­mor­row some­one will ask me once more if I’m called Ge­orge but this time I will take the trou­ble to ex­plain the his­tory of Too­ley’s Yard to them and help keep a bit of his­tory alive.

‘I was im­pressed. Roger Wick­son, as he in­tro­duced him­self, is one of those lucky peo­ple who knew the canals when they were still work­ing wa­ter­ways’

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