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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 4]

by Bournemouth Libraries

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Bournemouth Libraries
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Mrs Jean Peters
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13 May 2005

The height of the funnel was like nothing I had ever seen. A shining funnel of brick with a tiny brilliant patch of light at the top. The boats went technicolor as they passed through the daylight; and I was ever after glad that I looked then and my curiosity was settled, because I was blinded for about five minutes and that would have been difficult if had been steering! There are seven airshafts in two miles of tunnel and it takes forty-five minutes to traverse. We looked back; the entrance to the tunnel was a tiny arc, an intense little picture that looked as if it had been taken with a sepia film. Gradually it lessened to a spec and vanished. Nothing but our swinging arcs of light and the roaring engine echoing from the shining walls. A tiny orange dot appeared in the distance, "Boats" said Kit "But they are a long way off yet." For sometime they stayed at the same size and then suddenly seemed to grow. Kay slows down to a crawl and bumps along the wall, I notice her chimney lays flat on her cabin roof and the water can is in the centre. Suddenly a counter throb fills the air; and the cratch and bows of the approaching boat slides into view past the motor, headlamp flaming. They have no electricity and are using the big heavy paraffin lamp supplied by the company. Kit steers her butty bows into the wall as they tend to be drawn towards the motor wash. The man on the motor visible for a moment against the light of his butty-shouts at Kit and we shout back that we have just left one ready. The engines roar again and soon we see another growing picture at the other end of the tunnel, just as it becomes appreciably larger and the colours become less intense, two tiny boats swim into view and like a silent picture we watch their silhouettes enter the tunnel and their tiny orange light slide towards us. The same procedure for passing; we suddenly find ourselves gliding into the light and the engine goes small and thin. Kay turns round and waves cheerfully; We switch our lights out and stretch realising with a shiver just how cold it had been. I take the butty off Kit. Miranda comes over to demand a needle; she has unwrapped the bandages and discovered the splinter still intact. Rugby with its seven deep heavy locks and its series of friendly lock keepers. A good looking chap at the bottom has a scarf of red and purple silk that I envy, he walks between the locks talking earnestly to Kit. Norton Junction at the top and another Cut shop attached to a pub. We are gauged at the Norton fork and there are letters. Many for Kay and some from Jerome, she is pleased and radiant. Miranda has airmail from her husband in Italy and reads them steering the motor. . There are some for me from home and one of all The tragedies slips out of my fingers and into the water, so near and yet so far, it slides past the butty and Kit grabs but its hopeless and I feel as if a major tragedy has occurred. Through Braunston tunnel, this has waves in the walls at one end, which makes for tricky steering. Down Braunston locks - the Oxford Canal a sharp turn to the left- devil 0 f a turn I decided too late, hitting it with an almighty crash-and seeing Kits furious face!

The butty slaps the motor in the rear and we richochet round uncomfortably me having a nasty time trying to stop the short straps getting into the motor blades. On round ghastly bends, we get stuck more than once and have to shaft our heavily loaded boats off the mud. A backbreaking job, not to mention carrying a forty-foot shaft down the sheeted top planks. I spent a lot of time with my heart in my mouth. Eventually we reach a very sharp bend where we leave the Oxford Canal for the Birmingham stretch. Ichington, Radford, Warwick, Hatton, the new locks. Built on an entirely new pattern and very quick filling, but with paddles covered in and exceptionally hard to lift. Also one had to watch anxiously at a small gap in their steel hat for a bronze ring to appear before one can be certain that they have dropped. That means" running round a lock every time to drop the dam things as one cannot see them. The gates are exceptionally heavy and by a system of wires, two open at once. Everything about them is white concrete or is painted white and one needs an enormous windlass. I take a firm dislike to them, which I never lose. There is wild scrubland bordering the canal and a lot of sheep. In the distance the slagheaps of the mines raise skywards, a soft pink or a slate grey. Everything seems gold white and blue. The locks are white with touches of black-the sky a vivid blue- the grass a dry rustling yellow by the lock sides and on the canal banks. The canal is extremely muddy and we crawl churning up black sludge. North Country lockkeepers now, taciturn mostly; down Ichington and Radford-Gawd help us. Long pound through Leamington Spa. It started to rain that morning and it rained solidly till eleven, when it drizzled and then cleared up. I went shopping and did a hair-raising thing getting Kits bike off the motor as we went through a bridge. This was Leamington Spa. I had always imagined a place of great beauty. The canal entrance is one of the most ugly and slurry possible, the squalor is revolting. Tiny houses below the level of the canal filthy and ugly. Dirty children crawling and paddling in the mud on its banks. Corpses of small-drowned things float past bloated and revolting. Railway lines overhead, a great tangle of sheds, where filthy and degenerate looking men and youths seem to be doing something with scrap metal. We pass an enormous gasworks where Italian prisoners and English workmen wave and yell indiscriminately, we wave back and go even slower---the mud being unbearable hereabouts. The towpath is worse - I got my shopping and heavily and unevenly balanced tore after the boats, tangled in my Mac on that high Victorian sit up and beg bike. I
wavered under narrow bridges splashed through puddles and swept round hair raising holes in the path for two miles, the rain getting into every crack, my greasy hair plastered across my brow and my seat in an unbearably tender state! I eventually caught up with them at the next locks when they callously enquired "Why the hell where you so long?"

Words were beyond me and anyway we were about to be precipitated up Hatton's twenty-one consecutive locks so I ignored it. We ate a hasty meal and thereon went into a "Hatton coma". There is a rhythm about locks if you go on long enough-that one can't help in the course of twenty-one. You go singly up the first ten, and breasted up the" thick uns" where lock follows lock almost at once. There is a pause near the top for oiling at Hatton works and we breathed deeply and wearily. At the lower half of Hatton, the canal runs past a vast lunatic asylum; but I can honestly say I simply didn't notice it that first trip. Behind you the view is glorious out over Warrick to a-blue distance. Looking down, over the black and white locks and the burnt yellow grass, dark pines away to the left stretching away to the distance. It is very beautiful. Up the last five; we breasted again; then a three-hour pound to the "Black Boy" where we were to tie for the night. Anything after Hatton is a rest. We bought vegetables from the last lockkeeper, bade him farewell and equipped with mugs of tea and bread and jam sailed off. Next day was Saturday, we came into Birmingham through woodlands = after completing Knole the five heaviest locks on the Cut. The tall trees' arched over the Cut in a stately green tunnel and we drifted through a green world. There are stretches of suburban house but it's mostly trees till you suddenly swing under a bridge and there is the entrance to Tysley Dock. A long straight wharf flanked QY boats loading and unloading, waiting or tipping under the cranes. To the right a muddy towpath, a corrugated iron fence and a factory, one can hear rather than see with a constant whirring and jarring series of sounds. There is much shouting, lorries backing, picking up steel in great stacks-stacks of aluminium and lead, the first silver the second a dull pink and the steel a dark orange with rust. The lorries take the steel off the dumps and the cranes pile it on from the boats. It is a hive of ceaseless activity, noise. We were to be unloaded almost at once. The drizzling rain had started again-we reversed the process of our sheeting up at very great speed. Then as one boat was unloaded, we changed them over; swept the first clean. We got hot and wet with the rain and were tired and irritable. The dockers here were more friendly and Kit went off to report our arrival with a cheery arm round her waist. In the afternoon" boats were cleaned and tied. We went into Birmingham, were there were wonderful Public Baths, very Victorian. You each had a cubicle, with a bench to put your clothes on and a huge white enamel bath. You filled it from the taps, hot and lovely-pure bliss-if the water began to cool, you shouted "Hot water for number four!" and a lady would bring an enamel jug full of hot water to top you up! We went to town after and saw "Bing Crosby" in a film about a priest. We sat in a packed cinema feeling clean" well washed and comparatively tidy, what a relief! !
Sunday, we laid late, and moved to Camphill late in the evening. Camphill is the top of the Bottom Road. Kay and I\ate a large supper and had our first real heart to heart. Funnily enough on the subject of "Lesbians " a book Kay had recently read. It being the first time I had ever heard of them. I was very interested and curious and decided" there are more things in heaven and earth"! Next morning we woke to a driving cold wind, a low grey sky and rain spattering in the air. Kay went off lock wheeling. Single locks these; the motor goes down all six alone and waits for the butty at the bottom. The lock wheeler has a ghastly time, lock wheeling for both boats, dashing about like an agitated wasp. The butty is towed by hand with a long cotton line attached to the mast and behaves like a young and unmanageable whale, which is very much what she looks like! Just as the butty was ready to enter the lock we observed a barge coming up, escorted by a crew of little old men in coats green with age and fantastic hats.” Dickens" they looked indeed - we gave them precedence. Get over to windward Missy we're pretty high!" shouted one and they all laughed heartily. We did, but only as the most ghastly stench filled the air -- the boat rose slowly to the surface of the lock and was observed to be filled with entrails and bones! "Proper bad it took your young lady down there" chuckled another, "Fair turned 'er stomach it did" "H'up there "! and the decayed and ancient horse moved sadly on-- the boat whistling off in fine fettle! Knowing Kay's tender heart where animals were concerned I could imagine her reaction. Poor Kay. We were glad to pull the butty after that and away we went into the Blackest of Birmingham foundry districts.

The filthy smoke, the rain, the heavy pulling, the strange stunted creatures on the coal boats coming up. Whether they were young or it was hard to tell. The roaring foundry entrances looking like entrances to hell. Tiny dark figures, against the light. The friendliness of people as filthy as their surroundings. The pall of yellow smoke like a mushroom over everything and the chimneys of the Black Country. "Its impossible "I thought as we tramped bent double, the butty swinging to our steps and the rain trickling through the coal on our faces. It isn't human" - the oil on the water, more tins and corpses-a deserted boat in a lock, half sunk, just dumped there. Coal boats just lie about there and drift halfway across the Cut till ones motor swings them right across and no one appears to own them or care. The oldness of everyone even the young was the worst thing and their thinness and obvious hunger-the scrawny horses plodding lifelessly Kay remarked that morning was so apt. "Today is going to be so awful, it just isn't possible!" We went down Saltby, another six locks. Round a bend where you shaft like hell to get round and on-miles of railway lines, mud, rain, low bridges, echoing tunnels and slums. Our cabin was hopeless--the stove was out, the floor was a pool and the head of Kay's bed was soaked. We mopped it up and made belated cocoa that was very good. We contemplated the fire, we had tried to light the fire on Sunday and had had a grim time as it smoked like hell. Kay had retired to the hatches in oilskins and pyjamas and streaming rain in order to breathe, while I lay on the floor proving the point about the regulation three inches! More locks and mud. The "Bottom Road", Camphill to Coventry is poorly dredged, empty boats having no weight to slide them into the shallow centre channel stick like blazes the moment they get off course. So we stuck and we shafted and we stuck again time after time-Kit dancing with rage. Kay and I gazed at a young bull on the towpath. "Christ I hope we don't stick here" and did promptly. The bull remained neutral and unmoved though we were so truly into the bank, that Kay had to leap off and push from there in in1minent danger of not being able to get back in a hurry. More butty pulling down Curditch, twelve strung out locks. Eventually, Coventry after Atherstone, Nuneaton and exhaustion. We were loaded at Longford, a clean and excellent loading place, where Bill, a ponderous and kindly pale-faced countryman, talks weightily of his pigs, and loads our boats from a hand tip with beautiful precision. The lorries fill the tip with coal in an unending stream, from 8am till 3pm when loading stops and the collieries are rumoured to stop too. We were half sheeted for the return journey with a "Broken back". The way a boat is sheeted, you can tell where it has been loaded. As the type of loading is altered by the method used. For instance at Longford, where they have to go under the tip; its impossible to put ones stands up straight and they lay sideways made firn1 by the “Peas, nuts, or beans." The top planks are then laid on and the side sheets strapped over them, giving a rather graceful, broken line. At Bedworth, one is loaded from trucks and the coal is shovelled into ones boat by hand. So, before loading, you put up your stands and top planks in their nom1al position and the coal slides in underneath. Peas, nuts or beans. The top planks are then laid on and the side shuts strapped over them giving a rather graceful broken line.

At Bedworth one is loaded from trucks and the coal is shovelled into one’s boat by hand. So before loading you put up your stands and top planks in their normal position and the coal slides in underneath. The only disadvantage of Longford as a loading place is the fact that you cannot wind or turn your boats where they are loaded and therefore have to wind them empty before you come to the last half mile arriving backwards. The best thing about Longford is a little fleet of snow white Aylesbury ducks that skuttle cheerfully around ones boats winter and summer alike. Also its proximity to Coventry the baths and the flicks. Our home run was easy — there was however one glorious incident in Coventry, while we were waiting at Bedworth for orders. We spent the evening there and Kay went off for her customary beer saying cheerfully “I’ll just nip over and get a pint” when there was a God Almightly splash and sounds like a whale blowing. I flew on deck and found poor Kay had definitely got her pint! We fished her out and the cabin turned into a welter of towels and water and hysterical laughter.

The water here isn’t very deep but is very muddy and neither of us liked to think what would have happened had she gone a little deeper, especially as neither of us could swim and we both detested water! She looked at me beaming “Of course you haven’t been in yet have you!” Kit was worried — we’d had a very good trip and very few accidents and none of us knew the correct procedure for accidents if and when they happened. We just thought we were good! Plans for the trip, when, magic words “We had our own boats” began to mature.

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