Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Canal caperings....

Over the weekend I had lunch at the Salt Barge on the side of the Trent and Mersey Canal and enjoyed our very early 'summer', wonderful weather which I hope will last until October. A visit to the narrow boat of some friends was not to be missed either - the combination of good weather and a narrow boat is guaranteed to bring out the gypsy in my soul........

In times past the canal system was very busy transporting salt from the region to the port of Liverpool along with pottery from the Midlands. On the return passage the narrow boats would bring coal for the salt pans and also raw material for the 'the Potteries', the region where Wedgewood and Doulton ran their enterprises.

The boats were usually privately owned and operated by a husband and wife team who took great pride in the appearance of their floating home. Before the advent of the steam and diesel engine the boats were pulled along the tow path by horses, usually under the control of a younger member of the family.
The term "narrow boat" refers to the original working boats built in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries for carrying goods on the narrow canals (where locks and bridge holes would have a minimum width of 7 feet) . The term is extended to modern "narrowboats" used for recreation and occasionally as homes, whose design is an interpretation of the old boats for modern purposes and modern materials.

Modern narrow boats are used for annual holidays, weekend breaks or as permanent residences. Usually, they have steel hulls and a steel superstructure, and are usually powered by a diesel engine, and are fitted inside to a high standard. There will be at least 6 feet (1.8 m) internal headroom, with similar domestic facilities as a small landward home: central heating, flush toilets, shower or even bath, four-ring hobs, oven, grill, microwave oven, and refrigerator; quite a few also have satellite television and internet-connection via a mobile phone.

Externally, their resemblance to traditional boats can vary from a faithful imitation (false "rivets", and copies of traditional paintwork) through "interpretation" (clean lines and simplified paintwork) through to a free-style approach which does not try to pretend in any way that this is a traditional boat.

They can be owned by individuals, or shared by a group of friends or by a more formally organised syndicate, rented out by holiday firms, or used as cruising hotels. A few boats are lived on permanently: either based in one place (though long-term moorings for residential narrowboats are currently very difficult to find) or continuously moving around the network, perhaps with a fixed location for the coldest months, when many stretches of canal are closed by repair work.

By the latter part of the 19th century it was common practice to paint roses and castles on both narrow boats themselves and their fixtures and fittings. Common sites include the doors to the cabin, the water can or barrel and the side of the boat along with ornate lettering giving the boat's name and owner. The origin of the roses and castles found on canal boats is unclear.

For some time a popular suggestion was that it had some form of Gypsy origins however there does not appear to be a significant link between the Gypsy and boater communities. Other suggestions include transfer of styles from the clock making industry, the japanning industry or the pottery industry. There is certainly a similarity in style and a geographical overlap but no solid proof of a link. There are similar styles of folk art in Scandinavia, Germany, Turkey and Bangladesh.

Have a grand week all....from me and Mr Mole.


  1. Hello Michael,

    Some colourful examples. I went on a commercial boat tour on the Regent Canal in London a couple of years ago and found it very interesting. You could see where the tow ropes had worn grooves into the stonework of bridges. Being over six foot tall, however, I don't think I could live on one!

  2. This was so much fun to read! I usually see these boats in Abingdon, near Oxford, or at least I believe they are narrow boats. Once I have finished my week long riding vacation at Cumbria Heavy Horses ( an absolute dream expereince for me), this would be a fine way to relax! Thanks for the vacation ideas!

  3. How charming and unique! I've never heard of these. I'm with Derrick, I think I'd be mighty claustrophobic.

  4. Thank you for the grand tour as it were. I would assume the length of a long boat is also rigidly determined by the length of the locks. An yest it does seem from the pictures they can be very long indeed.

    Great post. My regards to Mr. Mole.

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  6. Now you're in my territory - the water. Lovely, and I love these boats too. Nicely decorated this one of your friends as well.

  7. What charming boats. I'd love to mosey on the water for who knows how long in one of these. As usual, a great post and lovely pictures. :)

  8. (better late than never.. very busy last week) I love the canals... and since moving down here.. and alongside (well its a short walk away) from the stratford canal I've become very interested in the history. So lots of useful info here. My sister is renting one later in the year... so I'm going to be spending a few days boating around Devises.