The Early 70s
My Canal story started in February 1972 when my Mother bought the wooden narrow boat ‘Heather Bell’ built by Nurser Brothers at Braunston. I was aged 17 and had just left boy service in the Royal Navy as a stoker. We used to often stop, not far from the area where I grew up in in North London on the Grand Union canal between Uxbridge and Tring summit.
Then in 1975 when my Mother told me that she had met Derek Armstrong and that he wanted a horse boy on the “Hostel Boat Pamela”. I went over to see him in the house where he gave guitar lessons next to Batchworth Lock in Rickmansworth. He took me over to the boat showed me around and then gave me the job just like that! And then he said ‘We leave in two weeks, can you fix the floor and do some work on the fore cabin?’ I started that afternoon. I was twenty years old, and had done carpentry at school.
So I left my Job with the Council collecting and emptying dustbins which a few of us who were there together living on the boats tied up at Rickmansworth did at that time. The dustcart driver Ron Aldridge was from a traditional boating family. It was he who showed me how to make my first fender and the way the canal boatmen tied up there boats, this was on my Mum’s boat the ‘Heatherbelle’ in 1972.
Soon afterwards I packed my bag to set off on the journey of a lifetime.
The day had come when we were ready to untie and leave. We got the horse Jim ready polished his harness and brushed him down he looked really smart. He leant in to his collar pulling the boat behind him and we set off up the Grand Union Canal towards Watford where we stopped on the first night. There we could put Jim in a common field at Hemel Hempstead for free. He was fit as I had been exercising him and toughening his shoulders up by rubbing my urine on to them ready for the hard work that lay ahead for him that wonderful summer on the English & Welsh canals.
It was amazing navigating Casio Park near Watford on the Grand Union canal with it's landscaped bridges and the sudden ninety degree bends. You had to be quick sharp and nimble to handle a heavily ballasted horse drawn Butty. It was exiting and exhilarating watching the boat cut deep through the water as Jim pushed hard in to his collar and pulled it round the bends with a few helping pumps of the tiller and the towing line dropped over the bow tee stud to help pull it around more easily.
I was quickly learning a few new ingenious tricks that Jeff Parrot the captain was showing me. I had also been out before with a different horse that Derek had used to pull the Butty “Hyadies” for the day trips he ran. Unfortunately some drunken passengers had rocked the boat and pulled the horse backwards into the Cut once near Harefield.
They had quite a job getting him out!
The Mid 70s
Anyway, we were now heading north up the Grand Union and reached Braunston a few days later having legged through two tunnels and worked through many locks to get there. Here I met Arthur Bray a famous “number one boatman”. He gave me the privilege of showing me his way of making Tipcat fenders on a wooden barrel on board his wooden Butty “Raymond” where he still lived alone. I also had a chat with him about the bygone horse boating days. At times he spoke in a forgotten language of the Cut and it was not so easy to understand.
After Braunston we went down to Stratford on Avon, it was very different working the narrow locks and slipping the towing line through the gaps in the split bridges. We stayed there for the weekend and let one lot of passengers off and then received a new bunch the next day. Then we set of north to Bourneville near Birmingham. It was industrial and the tow path was missing at times and Jim had to walk in the Cut to tow the boat which was dangerous and that used to happen to us often. It was my job to be in with him always and there was no insurance in those days! There were many sections of tow path missing and many other hazards and obstacles along the way such as tow path barriers that were there to stop motorbikes and horses. We had to phone British Waterways in advance for them to come out with a hacksaw and move them to one side. They were replaced after we passed through.
Next we passed through the heart of the ‘Black Country’ (the BCN) where the tow paths were good and the water black but the wooden planked bridges had long since gone rotten and were dangerous for Jim to walk across. He always looked and sniffed them before going over. I wondered what would happen if one collapsed as there was no road access in these places. But we were always lucky and used and relied on Jim’s judgement. Whilst travelling across the BCN we saw the last commercial horse drawn boat. Cagy Stevens had a horse and still used him a lot. Don Payne worked for him and it was he whom we met that day. Nearby at Smethic an old blacksmith came out of retirement to put some new shoes on Jim.
Soon we were working our way up the Shropshire Union with it's red sandstone locks and got to Chester where we found another horse boat (a day trip boat) the ‘Bettlejuice’ that Jim Marshal operated with his wife Jenny. They took us out on a trip and taught us some of the tricks they knew about horse-boating, especially the different techniques specific to the “Shropie”.
After the season ended I went back to work with Alf and made fenders at factory locks on his workshop boat “Fiddlers Green”. Sleeping on his Tug “Hexa” that pushed not towed it when he moved around with his fenders. He clamped the two boats together so it was like a full length boat when he moved around. Alf taught me a lot about horse boating. As a boy he used to go out with his Uncle usually around Tipton where his family lived. The boatmen there had a day job and walked home at night sometimes the horses around Birmingham and the Wolverhampton would drag the Helm through the streets to meet a new boat.
Also, after the long season ended we went back down to Rickmansworth and I bought the horse Jim off Derek who then sold his Hostelcraft Company and taught the guitar instead. Soon after my first wife Linda and myself set of in the ‘Selemnos’, my mum’s boat, with Jim pulling it from a top mast bolted to the cabin top and a wooden rudder extension clamped on to the steel rudder to help it steer better.
Next spring I went back to Tipton to be with Alf and then we went down to Cut End for the summer. That’s when I bought the Joey of Stewarts & Lloyds for £350 in an auction, I called it Jim it was No3 in British Steel’s fleet it had a metal badge plate bolted onto it with the number.
Horse boating today cannot be done in the same way. This is because the locks are different. The bollards are different and in new positions. The lock gates used to have a strapping post on top so that you could slow down a horse boat with no brakes and shut the gate at the same time by teasing the stern line around it to give a bit of friction and not jolt the boat. Also, there used to be various hooks and pulley wheels that used to help get the loaded boats out of locks, making it easier for the horse. Also, there used to be steps so Horses could climb out if they fell in. Many features still exist of course and the bridges all have the deep rope groves often found in metal rubbing bars formed from the towing line rubbing. The towing line was usually 90 feet long, different thickness sold by weight in ounces. It was cable laid construction white cotton. Once broken a line was not good to join with a splice because it would always get caught in bridge and lock groves but it made good decorative rope work or fenders.
Horses over fourteen hands were a bit too high for the bridges and Jim was an example of this. He would often scrape or catch the top of his collar on the underside of bridges, I had sawed the ‘Hames’ of short to avoid accidents.
Jim, ate a good varied diet. He always had a fresh pick of all sorts of grasses and plants along the way. We also fed him pony nuts mixed with bran and oats, which anyone with horses would sell us some along the way. Blacksmiths were more tricky and involved careful planning and trips to the phone box (no mobiles then). Working mainly on soft tow paths Jim’s shoes did not wear out so fast, unlike with road work, but we had toe grips fitted and heels to help him pull the boat out of the locks where there usually was old smooth brick work. We also did boat in winter so had ice to contend with. We could only travel then by following another boat before the ice refroze.
Tunnels were a different challenge often the foot path over the top where I led Jim was badly overgrown and had disappeared. Sometimes a road or other obstacles challenged our journey. There were also rusted and seized iron gates closed decades ago it seemed. I can only recall getting lost once. Remember, some tunnels are over one mile long so it’s often longer over the top than through.
Jim was the sort of horse that preferred to be driven rather than ridden. Also, he did not like to go inside very much. He put me in a good position to get to know many people well as he was so popular. Many people knew and loved him as we made our way up and down the canal system, many had met him a few times before. One of his favourite tricks was to put his head and shoulders right thought the side hatches and into the boat for toast and marmalade during breakfast each morning. If there was enough on the tow path next to the boat. We also had to worm Jim every three months with powders we would get from or horse or farm shop. Mixing them in to his food. He never seemed to notice. However, he was fussy about the water he drank and would sniff suspiciously at tap water. He liked canal water it probably contained a lot of nutrients and flavour. If the canal was polluted I was careful and he had to drink a bucket full of tap water. If he had worked hard and was in need of a drink he could manage almost three buckets in no time. Usually when we moved I had been up early to fetch him and brush him down and pick out his feet and then get the harness polished up all nice and shiny. Boat harness is pretty basic and you can get it on a horse including the Blinkered Bridle and cotton rope reins in just a couple of minutes.
Next, I ran the ‘Fender shop’ near Banbury at Broadmoor Lock for 10 years.
2000 to the Present
Then moving to Wales in 2003 I worked near Newcastle Emlyn from a large brick garage for five years and then moved to the next valley building my present workshop which overlooks the river Teifi which I built in my garden in 2009. Still making fenders most days I now learn Mandarin whilst I work.