Thursday, 26 April 2012

It’s a safe life on the cut

As a result of yesterday’s posting, I thought it apt to post the following which is an account of a trip down to Wendover to bring boats back.  I had posted this before elsewhere but I just thought it worth re-posting here.

With the start of the collapse of the Braunston based Willow Wren Canal Carrying Company in 1966 many of the craft, which they had had on hire from British Waterways, were repossessed by BWB for after many years of hard work, some were in a very poor condition.  At this point they were taken into Braunston reservoir for storage and to await disposal.  During their stay here their condition further deteriorated by having almost anything that was loose --doors, hatches, planks, stands, masts etc., etc. removed by third parties.  Until such time as BWB made a decision to have all the boats removed and transferred to the Wendover arm at Tring near Watford to be sold off by tender.
The successful purchase of three of these craft by friends of mine-- Battersea, a large Woolwich motor boat,    (with half a Petter engine) Hyades, a small Woolwich butty and Carina, a small Northwich butty, resulted in me spending nearly a month of my school holidays on the Grand Union Canal.  Traveling down to Tring on a single motor, staying aboard alone on the Wendover arm for the two weeks prior to removal, so as to ensure nothing else was removed, in fact also to purloin anything else that happened to be lying around!
The purchase of these boats brought about other new experiences for me ‘deep water’ ‘wide locks.’  In fact most of the ‘day boating’ techniques I had so far mastered now no longer applied for I was now in places I had only read about such as ‘Cow Roast’ and ‘the dreaded steps to heaven‘ Hatton 21, all of which soon became ‘every day’ for as have already mentioned, I was keen to learn and I was boating with ‘hard taskmasters’ who insisted on things being done ‘to the book’ except there wasn’t a book!.

I had arranged to meet for the trip down to Tring by Fishers Bridge in Oldbury and so by 4.00pm on the Friday all was ready.  So we set off three handed (well two adults and me a 9 stone wimp) on a single motor for the 150 mile journey.  In fact according to Bradshaw’s 151miles and 152 locks all to be completed that weekend for both Cliff and Clive had to be back at work by Monday.   I often smile to myself now when I read of cruising guides which talk of ‘out and back’ trips or ‘such and such rings giving time scales in WEEKS--and complete it we did, arriving at Tring by tea time on the Sunday--now that’s boating!
In the main the trip down went off without any ‘major events’, apart from taking great delight in stopping the traffic to open the many swing and lift bridges south of Kings Norton.  It was in the middle of the night and pitch black when we arrived at the top of Hatton and a decision was made to stop long enough to have something to eat and drink.  We tied up and stopped the engine, silence descended and I walked 100 yards down to the top lock to take a look at the view in the half light. I sat for a moment on the end of the balance beam and soon fell fast asleep.  “Blossom --tea” The call woke me and I returned to the warmth of the back cabin to swill down the cheese and onion crusty cobs with a huge mug of strong sweet tea----proper food!
No sooner had the three of us finished our food and drinks we felt the boat start to move from the forward swill of an oncoming boat. Cliff arose from his perch on the cabin step and standing on the coal box, poked his head out of the hatches. In the distance could be seen the feint glow of a boats headlight and in the silence could be heard the engine ‘hammering on ahead’. As the boat got nearer we could see it was another single motor so the engine was fired up in readiness. When the boat finally pulled into the now open lock friendly greetings were exchanged as it was ‘Brummagem motor boat’ the Otley, a large Northwich motor operated by its owners, Doug and Jane Greaves along with their Woolwich butty ‘Bodmin.’  They were also on their way down to Tring to fetch motor boats ‘Beaulieu’ and the ‘Aquarius’ back for Glynn and Rose Phillips.--
This chance encounter with Otley made the work down Hatton a lot easier with six of us to work the breasted motors through.  In the last lock the boats were un breasted in preparation for singling out and as the water levels equalled, with both Doug and this other guy pushing on their gate they opened their side first.  As soon as it was open Jane opened up the motor and filled the chamber with smoke and rattled off at a ‘right old pace’ while I was still struggling with my gate. As he jumped onto the rapidly disappearing motor Doug turned and with a wry smile shouted “see ya down there “ One thing I learnt over the years was that Doug hammered everywhere and always had to be in front.

When we finally arrived at Tring the motor was winded at the junction and reversed up the arm to the start of the moored craft.  Cliff and Clive walked down to Tring to catch the train back to the midlands, I, on the other hand collapsed into the bed ’ole with exhaustion.
Next morning I awoke and after a cup of tea, (I was still dressed from the previous day/s) emerged from the cabin to start the chores I had been set. That was to get the three boats we had come to collect down the arm ready for the return journey.  This was going to prove harder than I first thought as boats were moored from bank to bank as far as the eye could see.  I had never seen so many proper boats in one place before, except perhaps for the first time I went by boat to Coombs Wood Tube Works on the Dudley No 2 canal where there were hundreds of open day boats of all descriptions being used to move and store tubes about the works.
The first week at Wendover was spent shuffling boats around trying to release the three I was after.  It was a bit like playing a giant version of that game where you have a board containing many moving squares on with a picture on the face of the squares when you have them in the right order with one empty space and all the other squares are juggled around! The next weekend I met up with another chap who had come down to fetch boats back.  He was a large, deep voiced, fiery red haired captain with the Anderton Company called Georgy Page, who I had met about a year earlier delivering piles to the BWB workshops at Norbury aboard the motor boat ‘Grenville’ but more of that later.  During the second week he showed me how to ‘sort ‘em out’ armed with no more than a cabin shaft.
As Tring reservoirs are pumped into the canal at the end of the arm there is a continuous, quite fast current which flows back to the main canal so “Those you don’t want just untie them and let ‘em go.”  This I suppose was logical as all the boats would eventually have to be taken back to the junction! And so it was that between us, over the next few days both his and my boats were moved down the line of boats in the arm and tied up together at the start of the queue.  From here I could keep an eye on them and be ready for Cliff and Clive’s arrival on Friday to start the return journey. I only left the boats once the whole time and that was one evening to find a pub to get cigarettes for all the time I was there an almost continuous stream of people arrived day by day removing what little was left of value, so I hate to think what would have happened to the full complement of running gear all three boats in my care had!!! (plus a few spares even.)
I had everything prepared for our departure just as Cliff had told me with the two motors breasted first and the two butties breasted up behind.  That is until the arrival of Glynn Phillips on the Friday morning.  He took over the situation saying it would be a good idea to get all the boats (including his of cause) down the arm to the junction.  Although I tried to say that Cliff had given me exacting instructions as what to do it made no difference.  With Glynn being an adult I had no say in the matter and he proceeded to start the motor up untie her and reverse into the remaining boats and fix ropes to both Aquarius and Beaulieu and extract them from the huddle.  By this time I had untied all three of our boats and fixed a line from Battersea’s stern to the bows of the Hyades. I went and stood on the bows of the Battersea as Glynn approached with the RN going ‘full chat.’  As the back end of Aquarius came past me I dropped a turn over the rear stud and off we lurched.  I immediately jumped down into the hold of Battersea and ran the full length of her hold ducking under straining chains and stretchers on the way, then climbed out at the back end.  Round the cabin and onto the counter, from where I jumped up onto the bows of the Hyades and repeated the monkey run all the way to the back end of Hyades.   All this was performed at breakneck speed and without a safety net and with Glynn now heading off at full belt resulting in me getting to the back end of Hyades just as we were passing the back end of Carina.  I just about made the jump across to Carina with only a cabin string in my hand, between the rapidly separating butties. I knew that if I just threw turns around the dolly the string would snap like cotton so, at full speed I tried to let a single turn slip and gradually take up the strain.  Unfortunately for me I was unable to stop the rope slipping and instead of letting go I held on and my hand went round the stud causing severe pain as well as abrasions. As I ran out of rope I finished off by dropping the spliced end loop over the stud and thinking ‘F**k it’ if it breaks it breaks.  And so our train of six boats headed off closely strapped together down the arm with the last butty on about a 20 foot line and me nursing a very sore hand.  All went well until we came to the 90-degree turn in front of the flourmill. All boats played following my leader in the footsteps of the previous tow, that is except the last butty which I was on.  As she hit the turn, the 20 foot tow line meant she just carried on in a straight line towards the blue brick edging of the canal while the rest of the tow headed off at right angles and the pull was now sideward.  Carina heeled over then there was an almighty snap as the tow gave way.  Completely out of control and unable to do anything, I just held on ready for the bang as we hit the mill wall directly in front of us.   It was at this point that I realised that the mains electrical supply for this flourmill ran along the outside of the walls on the edge of the building and canal in cables as thick as my leg.  As Carina’s stern post hit the wall it trapped one of these cables I remember hearing a bang and seeing a bright flash.  This was followed by all the lights inside the buildings going out and the sound of heavy machinery winding down.  Obviously we had blown the lot and I for one was not going to hang about to face the consequences.  And so I ran to the bows of the butty, which were now against the towpath side, and jumped ship.  Running the 100 yards to the next bridge I jumped onto the back end of the last butty thinking “I’ll go back for it after when it’s drifted down the arm a bit further! 
On arrival at the junction with the boats, Cliff and Clive who had just walked up from Tring station greeted us with cheery smiles as they came round the corner from the main line.  Cliff smiles soon disappeared as he took stock of the scene.  He was absolutely livid and his anger was directed at me when he saw that Carina was not there.  I tried to explain the events and how I had tried to tell Glynn but all to no avail as now he had become volcanic as he realised that he would have to reverse the motor all the way back up the arm to fetch Carina.  By the time Cliff returned, Doug had arrived from Bulbourne yard with Otley and their two boats had gone which made matters even worse as it meant we now had to follow their ‘bad road’ all the way back.

The return trip back to the Midlands was more of a leisurely affair with six of us working the two pairs back over the next fortnight.  In fact with Clive’s wife Pat ensuring that we all ate properly (and washed!) things could not have been better. Mind you it was hard going when we got to locks where we had to bow haul the two butties through.  One thing of interest worth noting as well which we found out when working the two motors breasted towing the two butties I think around the Stockton area. As we passed the Blue Lias pub we found out that you cannot get two empty Grand Union bows through the bridge whilst breasted up. We tried, and there was such a clatter as the boats bashed into the brickwork of the bridge, only to be bashed moments later by the following butties.  All this in the dark too for it was about 10.00pm at the time.  In fact, it caused such a clatter that the landlord of the pub came out to see what was up.  By this time we had decided to call it a day and were set about mooring up outside the pub.  A quick scrub up and we were all in the pub enjoying a pint and a trusty cheese and onion crusty cob.  One thing of note about the pub that I remember was the landlord had what I can only describe as a Biggles type RAF moustache and smoked cigarettes in a short bamboo cigarette holder and spoke just like on the old films.  The room we sat in had walls that were adorned with pictures of old bi-planes and flying ‘things’ and just before closing time the gaffer came over and asked “would any of you gentlemen require further liquid refreshment before I close up”.  So a final round of drinks were ordered, after which he came over and asked if we should be requiring any bread, milk, eggs etc. in the morning before we left.  But we explained we would be off very early in the morning.
For most of the return journey, Pat all but mothered me all the way back as I ‘was onny a babby’ and the men used to pick on me ‘making me work too hard’.  A lot of the time on the way back was spent in the well of the butty Hyades gas bagging with Pat.  I had all the time in the world to observe the goings on at various points of our journey which up until now I had only read about, passing pairs running coal to the ‘Jam ‘ole’ for Blue Line.  The ‘Bray’s, on Roger and Raymond I remember thinking how big Ma’ Bray appeared in the hatches of the butty as we passed, the immaculate Ian and Lucy in the charge of the Whitlocks, even their cloths were scrubbed almost white!  We laced our way through the remainder of the Willow Wren fleet tied up at Braunston with pairs lining both sides of the canal.  We stopped here for the night as I remember for the next morning Keith Steel sneaked onto one of the hire boats that was awaiting new customers for the week and had him a shower and a shave. Eventually we finally finished tied up at Worcester bar lock on the Saturday dinnertime.  From here everybody left, Keith Christie, who had left his car at Farmers Bridge, ran Pat and Clive back down to Wendover where they had left their land rover, while Keith Steel went off to New Street to catch a train back.  This left just Cliff and me and we went up Gas Street, over Broad Street to the ‘Tow Rope’ cafe for a ‘Truckers’ style all day fry up then back to the boats for the night.

By 10.00 am on the Sunday we were up and off ready for the four-hour trip back to Tipton along the New Main Line.  With the boats all close towed on cross straps and the canal as straight as a die for most of the way, there was no need for a steerer so I stayed on the backend of the motor boat with Cliff.  Half an hour into our morning trip, as we approached Rotten Park Road, we were greeted by a group of ‘ boys in blue’ on the towpath one of whom,  on seeing us approach, raced along the towpath towards us shouting.  Unable to hear anything above the engine exhaust, Cliff cupped a hand around his ear, pointed to the exhaust and shook his head.  The copper, in response to this gesture, stood almost to attention, raised one hand vertically with palm towards us and yelled “Stop”--Now Obviously not a sea faring fellow and not being informed that narrow boats are not fitted with breaks in fact a motor boat towing three others has virtually no ‘breaks or steering’ for that matter.  Straight away Cliff chucked the engine astern and the ‘caravan’ of boats zigzagged wildly across the width of the canal pushing us a further 100yards to finally halt just short of the main group of  ‘Brummagem Bobbies’.  Boats secured, we both wandered up to find out what was going down.
What appeared to be going on was a police Land rover had been backed up to the towpath, the rear of which was loaded with all sorts of oddments of rope, about half a dozen coppers were hurling a grappling hook, big enough to anchor the Titanic, three parts of the way across the cut, then retrieving it very slowly only to remove all sorts of scrap iron and rubbish.  “What have you lost?” Cliff asked of one of the officers who looked in charge. ”It’s all right” was the reply “It’s nothing to worry about” again Cliff asked “Is it a body?”  “No sir, it’s really nothing to worry about, we’ll try not to hold you up too long. If you’d like to go back to your barge” So we did, made a cup of tea and sat on the cabin top watching the carry on and discussing the possibilities of a body being spiked on one of the ‘prongs’ of this huge grapple!
After about an hour of further furtling and dredging, one of the ‘dredgers’ came over to us and enquired “excuse me sir, have you got a barge pole we could borrow?” “No” Cliff replied “but I do have a narrow boat shaft!”  Cliff disappeared into the hold and returned with a long shaft and asked again “what’s it for “  “Oh, we are just trying to find something that’s been thrown into the canal.  We followed him back to the group assembled on the towpath as they proceeded to furtle about in the channel  at the full length of the long shaft away, about 20foot away.  Again Cliff asked “If you told me what it was I might have some idea of how to get it out.”  The copper with all the ‘pips’ on his shoulders who appeared to be in charge came over, looked all round to ensure nobody was about to hear him, and whispered into Cliffs ear “Actually sir it’s a safe.”  Several thoughts sprang to mind:-
No 1 -- Safes are usually made of metal
No 2 --Metal safes are heavy.
No 3 --Heavy metal safes cannot be easily projected 25foot across to the middle of the canal
No 4 --Safes are usually dumped straight off the edge of the towpath from the back of van or lorry.
A quick prod about by the edge of the canal resulted in a metallic ‘clunk’.  “Blossom, go and get a keb” Returning with the ‘made for the job’ rake, Cliff soon managed to get a grip on one corner and move the safe.  Immediately a curtain of bubbles popped on the canals surface followed by a flotilla of invoices, cheques and other paper work (but no money Bah!) which were eagerly fished out by the ‘dredging crew’ and laid out on the copings to dry.  Eventually a rope was secured around the safe and with a combination of shaft, keb and rope the safe was hoisted clear of the water onto the towpath to reveal it had no back. Within minutes it was loaded into the rear of the police Land rover and the happy bunch of Bobbies ready to depart. Finally, the police chief turned to Cliff and said “Thank you very much for your assistance and I hope this will cover your delay” He had handed Cliff a fiver which within 2hours had been converted to liquid in the ‘Old Bush’ at the top of Factory Three.  All in all a very rewarding trip over the last month what with all the new skills like --thumb lining, breasting up, double locks, and  new friends like --Georgy Page, new territory like --The Grand Union and it’s double locks and lots of opportunities to:
bang 'em about


  1. Bloody hell, that's a good read Blossom. Even more so now I know some of the people you're talking about! But a nine-stone Blossom???

  2. I know it's hard to believe Sarah, but even when I was in my late 20's I only weighed 10 1/2 stone!

  3. Hello, I came across this when googling "doug greaves narrowboat" which was prompted by a chance conversation I had yesterday with a bloke who was obviously still living on the boats at Gas Street. I don't know who he is, as when I mentioned to him that the said Doug Greaves was my Uncle he didn't seem that interested in continuing the conversation. Thanks for your post especially the bit about Hatton locks that made me giggle. You were spot on about his attitude that remember well when I was a teenager. I think he's mellowed a bit now. Cheers Paul Greaves