The Canal by Dr D A C McNeil

The Canal by Dr D A C McNeil

As it so happened I was five minutes early. My destination? The Peter Le Marchant Trust H.Q. on Beeches Road, Loughborough. Since about 1976 the Trust has been providing especially fitted canal barges for disabled people and their carers for trips along the Grand Union Canal. There are three barges. Two of them are fitted with sleeping accommodation and are available for longer trips around the canal system; the third – the Symphony – is a ‘day’ boat which plies between Loughborough and either Mountsorrel or Normanton. The normal timetable for one of these trips seems to be a prompt 10 o’clock start, lunch at the destination, and a return trip arriving back about 3 o’clock. At least the two times I have been on one that was the arrangement. 

The Symphony is in shape a typical canal barge; a high deck at the bow and stern, and a long ‘cabin’ which once would have been used for cargo. Now there is a lift for wheel-chairs fitted in the front of that cabin, and low-set windows all along its sides so that passengers have a clear view of the countryside. There is even a central heating system for winter, and a sliding roof for summer. Tea/coffee and biscuits are served by the crew during the trip, and there was a singer with guitar and mouth-organ to entertain. Be it recorded that the Geordie lass sitting next to me (remember Beryl Reid?) clapped and jigged all over the place. 

The history of canals is of some interest. In general let it be said that rivers flow. Life may be easy going with the flow, but difficult against it. If the river bed was absolutely level there would be no flow and life would be much easier. Also, rivers meander all over the place. You can, with any luck, straighten and thereby shorten the trip by building a canal or ‘cut’ to iron out loops. The problem comes when the river bed becomes steeper, as the flow becomes faster and it is shallower. To change levels on a canal one must remember that it must remain level. Thence the lock, which allows water levels to be changed to raise or lower the barge. The principle is simple. The canal is dug up to the drop, then continued at the lower level. These two parts are joined by a deep pit which is dug so that it can be filled to the level of either to the upper or lower canal, with sufficient depth to accommodate the barge. This pit is sealed by upper and lower gates, the lower ones being of sufficient height to contain 

the water when it is level with the upper canal. Let us assume that the water in the lock is level with the lower canal: when a barge approaches the lock from the lower canal, the gate is opened to allow it in whilst the other is sealed. Next the entry gate is sealed and the exit gate is unsealed allowing the lock to fill up. When it is full the exit gates are opened and the barge continues on its way. When a barge approaches on the upper part the procedure is reversed. Clearly, if the water were level with the upper canal when a barge arrived at the lower one the lock would have to be emptied before the barge could enter. To supervise this each lock had its lock-keeper, and often the cottage where he lived is still standing. Of course, if the drop was too big for one lock, adjoining locks could be built, working on the same principles, though a flight of locks could only accommodate one barge at a time. 

Draw-back: every time you use a lock a lock-full of water is transferred from the upper level to the lower one. This would mean that the top level could dry out. Answer: make the locks as narrow as possible to conserve water (thus the term ‘narrow boat’ to fit into the narrow locks), and build a reservoir for the top level. That was what the builder of the Charnwood Forest canal did. The canal was opened in 1794; in 1799 the reservoir, the dam of which was made of mud, burst, flooding Shepshed. The canal was last used in 1801, and officially abandoned in 1848. There is still one place with water in that canal, near Nanpantan. Alternatively using a canal to iron out bends and drops in rivers could be built, such as that on the Soar. This arrangement did not have the problem, but you had to have a river that went where you wanted to go. This was the cause of the Bridgewater canal, the very first commercial canal built in this country to the order of the Duke of that name. 

According to my computer, in 1634 a certain Charles Skipworth obtained a grant from Charles I to make the River Soar navigable. Nothing else happened. Wine, women and song? In 1797 a canal was planned linking Leicester and Northampton, which got as far as Kibworth Beauchamp before the money ran out. It was formed by a series of ‘cuts’ straightening the route along the Soar. By 1809 it reached Market Harborough, and in 1814 was linked to the Grand Junction canal. At this time coal was flooding’ down the Erewash canal and, via the Trent, passing on to the Soar navigation which made this the richest stretch in the country. At the mouth of the Soar an arrangement was set up so a chain could be locked across the river at night to prevent skippers from sneaking their barges through without paying tolls - thus ‘Chain Bridge’. The coming of the railways bit into this profit. A move in 1886 to have the locks widened so that wide boats with higher capacity could use the canal came to nothing. I remember one commercial barge still using it in the 70’s; now it is virtually a pleasure craft cut. In 1931, incidentally, it was merged into the Grand Union Canal, under which name it is still known. 

From Beeches Road the canal runs along the back of a series of old factories, none of which it ever served. It sweeps round under the Great Central Railway and makes a right-angled junction with the cut running to Loughborough Wharf. At this point in a high wind it can be difficult to manoeuvre a barge without hitting the banks. The canal then seems to go on forever behind a vast industrial estate until it reaches Bishop’s Meadow lock, shortly after which it joins the Soar for the final run into Normanton. The wild life is not without interest, which must include those humans who, seeing water, think weeping willow – to the detriment of the blind gentleman sitting opposite me. There are yellow water lilies everywhere; in one place I noted persecaria; giant willow herb abounds. Birds seem at their most numerous near human habitation, the ducks almost tripping you up as you land at the Normanton pub. We saw one heron. It saw us, flew up the cut, settled, and repeated the performance when we caught it up. Otherwise the usual crows and wood pigeons, though sadly no kingfishers. The only oddity I notice, far out into the wilds of the Soar, was the song of a Cetti warbler. 

It must be said that we had an excellent lunch; one or two had rather a lot to drink and were rather raucous on the return trip. I suggested to one of the crew that the singer should sing ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailors?’ The member had other ideas, and these were rather more than walking the plank... 

It’s 6.30! I have to be the other side of Loughborough by 7o’clock! I shall be .... but all that is another story for another time.