The British canal system was an important waterway to transport goods around England in the 1950’s. The product was mostly coal on the nearby canal when I lived along the Great Northern Road close to Hemel Hempstead. The road to York was quite famous, especially for a seven year old boy. This was the road where the highwayman Dick Turpin carried out all his robberies and coach hold ups. For a time he was notorious and very successful, but was finally caught and hanged for his crimes. There were two particular items of interested for me in those far off days, trains and barges. The main train line ran along the same route as the canal going North and South. I often spotted the Flying Scotsman roaring up the tracks heading for the Highlands. Young boys, me included, followed the hobby of train spotting and collecting engine numbers. Reference books were available in which we could trace the number to the actual name of the engine. It gave bragging rights at school when we could claim to have seen the more famous trains like the Flying Scotsman. On the other side of the rails was a busy canal. I would sit along the tow path and watch the horse drawn barges slowly pass by. Sometimes I stood at the lock gates and watch the barges rise or fall to the next level. It was really fascinating trying in imagine what it would be like to live on a barge, at the time I truly believed it would be an exciting adventure. Today, older and wiser I can only imagine it would have been a dreadfully boring and uncomfortable life. The barges had no motors and were drawn along by a horse walking the tow path, usually a large Belgium or Percheron. The barges looked nothing like the photo I have posted, they were dirty with coal dust and years of grime. Usually run by a husband and wife who lived in a tiny cabin section at the stern. A small coal stove inside the cabin provided a means for cooking and heating. I can only guess what the toilet and washing facilities were like, probably just a bucket and using canal water. The canal was always busy and it seemed to me that they travelled day and night until they reached their destination. I can’t recall seeing a barge stopped for the night along the canal, of course at seven years old I was usually home and in bed too early to be sure? Hard to image in today’s society of people who expect everything fast!!! A few years ago whilst walking along the banks of the Stratford on Avon I came across several barges, they had all been transformed into luxury vessels. People lived on them during the summer, some had been converted to businesses such as a restaurant or art shop, All very nicely appointed and a far cry from the old horse drawn barges of my youth. Yet they could still captured my imagination with their strange and compelling fascination. Just a memory now, yet its sad that such a slow but interesting system of delivery has passed away.
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