Canal holiday 1963

Dad’s first known encounter with canals was in 1962-3. Maybe this was not the first, but here much will have to come from my memories and those recorded via cine films and stills that Dad himself took.

Dad’s first canal holiday was in August 1963, but there had been other minor encounters with canals. One that I recall was a walk along a section of the Lancaster Canal north of Preston. The family had been invited to spend the day with Hilda Moore, then vice-president of Ladies Circle (the female wing of Round Table; she would be National President in 1963-4); she lived north of Preston. We went there for lunch and tea, and it was presumably suggested that we walk a section of towpath in the afternoon. I was there with my sisters and the Moores’ two children.

Mum’s later memories were that the canal was heavily reeded at the sides, and, with the sun shining, it felt to her to be quite a romantic afternoon. We walked to the north of the Jolly Roger Café at Catforth. This stood by the canalside, and was, it seems a destination for young men on motorbikes in the 1950s; perhaps one reason why we did not go in, although motorbikes and their owners were often seen as quite “respectable” at that time. Our walk took us through at last one bridge before returning to Catforth. I think that there were pleasure boat moorings there; there certainly were later on.

This was probably the early autumn of 1962 – The Shadows’ Guitar Tango was playing at the café. When I revisited later, in the 1980s, that café had gone, but later a new one opened.

Whether Dad was inspired by this visit is unclear – Mum was unsure about this – but there were two further influences. One was his business partner, who had taken holidays on the Norfolk Broads. The other was a fellow-Round Tabler, a Wallasey dentist called John Cooper. He and others had hired a canal boat, and this provided, he said, a wonderful holiday – great fun. Dad was impressed, and may have hired from the same firm as Mr Cooper.

There was one final influence, which rankles with me even today. Dad was keen to get away from the telephone, but felt impelled to always answer it. On holiday, if someone phoned, he would assume it was bad news from work. Going to hotels meant that he could still be reached, and there were quite different problems with caravans (something I will write about). But, on a boat, no one could find you.

Dad’s diary suggests that the holiday began on Saturday 16 August 1963 and ended two weeks later. He hired Kingfisher from Ernest Thomas at Gailey, by the A5 in Staffordshire. Ernest Thomas was one of a small number of canal boat carriers who branched out into the hire of pleasure boats; in this case, in 1959. Kingfisher was, it seems, one of the more luxurious craft, and purpose-built. It was 4-berth (I’m not sure where I as the youngest of a family of 5, slept!), and was 41 feet long. We travelled down the A41 and joined the A5 (part of the M6 had opened north of Stafford, but we did not use it). Ernest Thomas had supplied tins of food and other supplies, and one of his assistants showed us how to work a lock by partly-emptying that adjacent to the base, and showing Dad how it was filled. He then came along with us to the first bridge, from which he presumably walked back along the towpath.

We had no idea that this level of tuition was unusual – many hirers just get shown how to start the boat engine and little else. We also had no preparation – as this was a holiday, my parents were in best clothes, as were we children. Photographs of other hirers at this time show something similar – collars, ties and jackets…….. it was truly a different era.

Our first night was spent near Bridge 6 on the Shropshire Union Canal, a section then very rural, but later affected by the building of the M54. There are no special memories of the journey there, but the narrow cutting known as Pendeford rocking was noted. At Autherley junction, where the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal met the Shropshire Union Canal, we encountered out first lock – a “stop lock” with very limited rise, placed there to protect the water supplies to the Staffordshire & Worcestershire. There was a  long line of boats waiting to go through this lock, but on the bank Dad espied a man in a semi-nautical uniform (something we saw a lot of in the 1960s) with a  peaked cap, and he assumed that he was a lock-keeper. He therefore ignored the queue and headed straight into the lock, on what appeared to be the “lock-keeper’s” signal, and went through. Someone told him there then when we came to locks that had a more substantial fall, grouped in flights, we would have to pull the boat through the pounds between locks. This was mischievous, as Dad would find out. Bridge 6 provided a mooring just on a bend – we had been instructed to moor on the offside to avoid fouling the towpath, and this provided a reasonable place, with a narrow path and a hedge. It was necessary, as often proved on this trip, in quite a deep-draughted boat, to moor using a gangplank to reach the side.

Thus ended our first day on board…..

Begun 12 October 2017; more 26 February 2018 and 23 July 2018; to be continued