... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Monday 3 May 2010

Romance - at last!

Thanks to Paul H. (will chimney pics tomorrow do Paul? I just went out and took a load, then realised that I've only got one usb lead and it's currently connecting my computer to the phone on account of the router finally having thrown all its toys out of the pram and awaiting the attentions of a fat man with a greasy pony tail)... Anyway, thanks to Paul, I just bought a copy of Roger Alsop (and Graham Dodkins)'s book Working Boats: Reliving the Romance of the Last Days of Commercial Traffic on Britain's Canals, published by David and Charles in 1988.

Roger Alsop worked (briefly, it seems) for Willow Wren in the mid-1960s, and the book describes his attempt, 21 years later in 1985, to recreate a typical trip, to see whether it could still be done, and in the time demanded by the company. He tracks down the original motor (Comet) and one of the butties he used (Barnes) and persuades their owners to allow them to take part in the adventure. The book is then an account of the 1985 trip, interspersed with flashbacks to the 1960s, comparisons with then, and little nuggets of information. It's striking to think that another 25 years has elapsed since he made his nostalgic journey. It's a slim volume, easily read at one sitting, with lots of superb and moving photos. If the text does sometimes get a little confusing as to whether we're in 1964 or 1985, that's a small price to pay; it's well written, very atmospheric, and above all affectionate. Romance? Well, it seems bold to put that in the title, when we're all supposed to know that there's nothing romantic about seventeen hour days, backbreaking labour, and coal dust in everything, but in a way it is honest; there will always be something romantic about something that's been lost, no matter how appalling it was at the time. Just look at coal mining.

The book's primary recommendation was that it has a picture of Chertsey on page 22. I have pored long and hard over this, and yes, it certainly could be Chertsey, loading coal at Gopsall Wharf in 1970, bound for the papermills on the Grand Union, in the very, very last days of this traffic. The photo is one of a series taken by Harry Arnold, of which a couple of others were reprinted in the HNBOC newsletter before last (2009/4). I wrote to Harry Arnold to enquire about acquiring copies, but as he runs a commercial photo library, the cost and copyright restrictions (both perfectly understandable) made it hard for me to justify the outlay. However, he seemed certain that the photos are of Chertsey, and I think I will get back and ask him if it is actually positively identifiable in any of the shots. I'm not sure it was even displaying a name at the time though!

I do now have one nice A5 size copy, in the book, and it raises a few more questions. If it is Chertsey, what happened to the pigeonbox? Is that a Lister badge on it, and if so, was this the mysterious intermediate engine that left unaccounted-for patches in the roof panel? Likewise, when did that oil pressure guage (if that is what it be) disappear? Where is the exhaust? When were the castles painted on the back doors? Because the roses are there in the photo, pretty much as they are now, but the top panels just seem to be peeling. Other things in the photo do look very much the same as the Chertsey I know now, but could equally be other boats - the engine breather vent; the gear wheel; the dents in the counter are consistent with Chertsey's, but possibly with a number of other boats' too. The cabin is still clearly the old ply one; the rear gunnels and cants appear still to be wooden. In a nice touch, there is a tin of Brasso on the roof of what is overall a very tatty looking boat. Of course, you will have to have your copy in front of you to make any sense of that, as I dare not risk Mr. Arnold's ire by reproducing the photo. (I think the front cover is fair use...)

But even if it hadn't had this fascinating photo, the book was still a wonderful read, and thoroughly recommended. Abebooks were showing quite a few copies, at least one other one priced, like mine, at 65p. Very well worth it - many thanks for the tip Paul.

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