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’