Watery M1 By Dr Mcneil
In the very olden times when roads consisted of water-filled muddy ruts along which horses struggled with various loaded carts and wains, and it could take weeks for a cart to travel from one town to another, THE way to go was by water. There are relics of boats found in European bogs which make the Sutton Hoo burial ship seem modern. In those days if you lived near or on a river, or by the sea you were, as the saying goes, laughing.
So it was with my Scottish ancestry. History records that there were periodic influxes of peoples from Asia going west. Whilst the Atlantic Ocean did limit their migrations, it may not have been the total barrier that history books suggest. One may ask – how easy was it for these migrants to travel over land? Would they have used boats on rivers and inland seas to speed their progress? If this was the case, far from representing a barrier the ocean opened up fast communication routes and made the west coast of Europe a desirable residence. By this argument, the migrations ceased as much because the migrants had found Utopia as because the technical requirements of crossing an ocean were beyond them.
Britain is not the cradle of human existence, but it is a desirable place to live by the sea as, a former colleague of mine once said of Leicester, “you can get anywhere from it.” Recent history suggests that the invasions of the Celts, followed by the Vikings, were as much for this reason as merely to extend empires. In fact the Scandinavians of those times had long used the Faroes/Shetland/Orkney route to the west coast of Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland as a trading route. The Romans must at first have been similar to the Vikings in outlook in that they lived by a river feeding into the Mediterranean, and rivalled Carthage across the water. That Rome won was one of the happier outcomes for our history. But then they became ambitious, and really started making roads. In fact Roman roads are still with us –even though the original metalling may have long gone, it survived long enough to convince the future generations that they were worth maintaining.
The Romans then started conquering places. We all know about Julius Caesar, about the ultimate invasion; about the retreat of the locals to the west and the north; and about Hadrian’s wall which was to keep the Picts and the Scots (whom we would now call Irish, incidentally) out. But Rome had by then become a land-based society. What is never considered is that the west and the north are mountainous – the sort of country that did not facilitate the contemporary standard methods of war using roads; previous generations of invaders had failed to control the sea-routes to the west because the inhabitants were using the mountains as a stronghold. When Rome collapsed the updated versions of the invaders came in their long-ships; they did not rely totally on land-based warfare; they could use the sea-routes to invade, and it was the sea-routes their technology required them to hold. It was at Largs, a seaside settlement, where the Vikings were finally defeated, not York.
Times have of course changed, and the Romans are partly responsible. Society became more land-based, yet by the 18th century roads were still not up to any standard, and river transport was still more important. Enter the Duke of Bridgewater and his canal. Once it was realised how useful they were the mania started. Canals were designed everywhere, built by ‘navigators’ – navvies for short – mostly originating either from farm-hands displaced by the enclosure system or from Ireland. Changes in land levels were compensated by lock systems (see Foxton). Access for roads was maintained by bridges. Loading and unloading of barges that used this new system was at purpose- built quays, where often the canal was widened to facilitate turning the barges – the empty barge being returned for a refill, or a load pointed in the correct direction. These quays would, of course, be sited by road-bridges so that a reasonably large area could be served.
In the meantime large estuaries provided harbour spaces for large ocean-going ships which enabled large loads to be transported from one country to another. Such shipping had to be protected – the navy was thus an important service for any nation that relied on the sea for trade. In turn, it could be used to encourage the ‘less civilised, more savage’ peoples that they had to buy these exports. Enter the British Empire. Unlike nearly all European empires in the past, this empire was scattered all over the globe, and was not a concentrated block a la Roman.
The British Empire is mainly history now, yet despite improved roads, railway systems and air freight, the sea is still THE thing to move really heavy loads. Perhaps the loads which once went by barge can be moved faster by train or lorry these days, but the ship has not been replaced for transporting those heavy exports, even (sadly) oil. Aircraft, of course, are used for relatively small loads requiring really fast delivery times, but the bigger the plane the more expensive the carriage. On the other hand, warplanes can sink ships. Life can be confusing at times.