National Geographic : 1940 Aug
Britain Just Before the Storm A Canadian Canoe Threads Old English Waterways Athrob with the Midlands' Industrial Life BY AMOS BURG With Illustrationsfrom Photographs by the Author EARLY on a summer morning I stood be side a lock leading out of Regent's Dock Basin in London and accepted from the Grand Union Canal Company the "key" to England's longest canal system. It was an iron crank tied with pink ribbon, to open locks where there were no keepers. Engineer Hadlow presented the all-important gadget ceremoniously, while Harry, my com panion, paddled our Canadian canoe Song o' the Winds into oak-gated Commercial Road Lock, first barrier on our northward water route (map, page 191). Warning us to be out of Limehouse before twilight, when gamins shy stones at passing craft, the Grand Union's representative bowed and vanished. At last we stood at the thresh old of a web of freight canals spreading up over England to the rugged Pennines. Across England by Water In the next four weeks we were to paddle and crank our way clear across England, from London to Birmingham and Liverpool. War had not yet burst upon Europe, but its mutterings were growing near and these century-and-a-half-old waterways serving the industrial Midlands were crowded with motor boat-towed barges bearing the raw materials for a rearming England. Paddling through the back doors of Britain, we saw a side of her character shown to few the sturdy life along hedge-hidden canals, the very existence of which is unsuspected by the casual traveler. These waterways were built about 150 years ago to carry the coal, machinery, and other bulky traffic of the adolescent iron and tex tile industries and to keep the bright promise of the Industrial Revolution from bogging down in muddy, deeply rutted roads. Then came the railroads-and horse-gaited canals, their usefulness eclipsed, retired mod estly behind their hedges. For almost a cen tury only crumbs of cargo fell their way. In the bustling nineteen-twenties, how ever, these somnolent waterways were revived to ease the strain on overtaxed highways and rails. Eleven old canals were united into the Grand Union system in 1929. Large sums were spent on dredging, restora tion, and modernization of locks. Through a network of old canals ran a quickening to new life, later to be stimulated by the rearmament program (pages 189, 192). No Place for a Leisurely Canoe IttookmeaweektogetapassontheGrand Union from London to Birmingham. Hun dreds of barges parade up and down its reaches. I was told my canoe would be about as popular on that busy waterway as a free-lance handcar on the Broadway subway track. But since I had come with Song o' the Winds 6,000 miles from Oregon, permission finally was granted. Harry, my companion for the trip, was chosen grab-bag fashion from a list of stranded Americans in the office of the United States consul. He consented to go with me as far as Birmingham. We spent a day shopping for camping equipment, got Song o' the Winds out of storage at West India Dock, and rattled in a lorry over the Limehouse cobblestones to Regent's Canal Dock (Color Plate I). With Yankee emphasis on speed, we ex pected to launch our canoe and get under way immediately. But no Grand Canyon rapid ever looked more formidable to me than that basin, a seething caldron of shipping activity. Long, narrow canalboats were being loaded and unloaded with scrap iron, steel, and copper for mills and foundries of the Midlands. Brit ish rearmament had skyrocketed the demand for metals. Foreign barkentines, schooners, steel freighters, Thames barges, heavy canal boats moving to moorings under dinosaur necked electric cranes-all drifted and crowded together like ice floes (page 190). In vain we looked for a clear lead across the basin to the canal entrance, and at last we gave up the attempt in favor of an early start the following morning, before port traffic awoke. When we arrived at the docks they appeared deserted, but before we were launched the port activity that had continued uninterrupted since Chaucer was controller of customs was swirl ing about us. We beelined for Commercial Road Lock, racing with a pugnacious-nosed, heavily laden Thames sailing barge.