falling in love again
a slightly landlocked canal tale
It's been a bit over fifty years since I first stood in the derelict house alongside Shipton Weir lock on the Oxford Canal. The love of all things waterways related started there, and I feel I did the long gone building some justice by letting it live again in my fictional writing. To fall for one moribund structure is probably not that bad a thing for a ten year old but I now find, at the age of sixty-two, that something pretty similar has happened. Last year I spent some time exploring the remains of the Lancaster Canal in Preston which includes a “temporary” tramway that never became a canal.
This part of the system opened in 1805 and was supposed to last just six years and, whilst most of the route is hard to trace, the section that took it from Preston basin through to Carr Wood has mostly survived due to a land deal done between Preston Corporation and the railway company that then owned the canal. After over sixty years of use, the bridge changed its purpose from an industrial transport route to being a part of the grand southern entrance to the town's (then new) Avenham Park. An avenue of lime trees was planted along the line of the old plateway embankment and the bridge was refurbished to better than new condition. This started the new phase of its life which began in 1872 and continued up until February of this year when the bridge was closed for safety reasons.
I remember watching the river from the centre span, my old Carlton bicycle propped against the railing, as I absorbed the general timeless feel of the area. Of course this was not the original bridge deck. That had been replaced more than once in wood, and finally in 1966 (a year before I set foot in Shipton Weir lock house) in concrete. The trestles that support the deck were replaced (again in concrete) in 1938 after some serious flood damage, but it is still the same bridge even if no laden wagons crossed the current iteration to be hauled up the Avenham incline. Their echoes were there though and I was very sad to find the barriers blocking what looks like a solid path across the river. I spoke to some people who had arrived at the bridge that day, and each one of them had their own memories of it. I was unaware of the magic that this special piece of marginally landlocked canal history was speaking to me as well, and befriending me as it did. I rode alongside the river, over another crossing, then through Avenham park to the other end of the bridge where, looking up the incline to where the old engine house once stood, I could picture the sounds and smells of the old plateway in its heyday as the horse drawn wagons were assisted up the slope by a continuous chain. In short I was as hooked as one of those wagons.
It was a couple of days later, at the weekend, that I felt a little bit low about the closure and decided to see if anybody else felt the same way. The best way to do that was to start a little support group on Facebook. By the end of the day I had thirty seven people that felt the same way as me about the situation. By the end of the weekend there were nearly three hundred. Now there are more than fifteen hundred, a petition with heading towards five thousand signatures and a rather confused me. This is a few lumps of reinforced concrete that are not really that significant in terms of their architecture. It crosses the river at a low level and is pretty unassuming in all ways. But I'm not the only person that fell in love with it. People have told me that it has played a part in youngsters falling in love with each other in the days before mobile phones. The railings on the bridge back then provided several little spaces where notes could be left for the intended recipient to pick up on their way across the river. I imagine assignations being arranged, romance starting and wonder how many children have come into the world as a result of a lasting relationship that started with a meeting on the insignificant re-purposed structure that is our much loved Tramroad Bridge. That begs the question of what makes for significant or otherwise in this world. Yes, the thing wasn't meant to be there, it should be an old aqueduct but, due to the canal company running out of cash, that never happened. It's not that pretty but it means so much to so many. Walks across it to the ice cream shop that stood near it are a fond memory of its last days as a wooden structure. Just standing and contemplating life, absorbing the history from the centre span. All of these little events have seeped into the pores of the concrete that now forms the bridge. All part of a history that goes back well over two centuries. I learned recently that the first baptisms of the Church of the Latter Day Saints took place in the shallows by the bridge. A race was run across the foot-ways alongside the tramroad with the first child to arrive from the other side of the river being the first to be baptised. Each tale leaves its mark on the atmosphere of the area in which the old Tramroad Bridge is at the heart and therein lies its significance both as an historic river crossing and a piece of architecture. I would say that falling in love with what was originally a temporary bridge is probably a bit on the strange side but, over the centuries, there are thousands that, like me, have done just that. To radically alter the way it looks, or simply destroy it would be beyond sad.
©2019 Michael Nye
Michael Nye is a writer of waterways based fiction. His published work consists of the 'Mayfly' books, the latest being 'The Ballad of Masie & Linda'. He also writes a waterways blog, and has a Mayfly Facebook page.
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summer of love - a canal tale
(Published Spring Issue 2019)
In mid July 1967, the Nye family set off on their summer holidays which, since 1964 had been a trip up the Thames to Lechlade by boat, and then a return trip. The first two of these holidays were in a hired boat from T.W. Allen and Sons of Molesey. In the spring of 1966 a small windfall allowed us to get a 16 foot “Rutland” cabin cruiser which we again took up the Thames and back. I remember hearing the winning goal of the World Cup on a Ferguson transistor radio outside of Sunbury lock.
summer of 67
My dad had a few extra days to add to the summer holiday in 1967 and had the idea of introducing us all to the rest of the inland waterways system via Dukes Cut and the Oxford canal. This was pretty much the first I'd really heard about the canals, and it interested me. Turning into Duke's cut and the really strange lock (that was then known as Shuttleworth's) got me even more curious. I was ten, and had my first glimpse of something that would, a year later, be considered for remaindered status, only scraping into the classification of being a “Cruiseway.” I remember walking along a narrow, sloping and potholed towpath from Dukes to Kiddlington Green lock, taking in the area and the peace, which was something I really needed (even then) in the run up to the dreaded Eleven Plus exam. That fascination with the approaching onset of dereliction has stayed with me over the years, and I can't help feeling sorry for buildings and engineering works that have simply been left, as many of the lock houses on the Oxford had been. I have it noted, in the diary I kept, that a lengthman allowed my brother and I to look inside the disused house at (I think) Hardwick lock. I also remember seeing the house at Nell Bridge lock all boarded up.
Of all the disused and crumbling buildings, it was the house at Shipton Weir lock that caught my attention. Unlike the others, it was a bungalow of rather nice proportions that, when I let my thoughts run on, I could have imagined living in. Given that nobody was there to grant permission, I took a look through the open, the kitchen and main room, losing myself in thinking of how the place must have looked when occupied. Later research tells me that the house was last used to live in before I was born, which would account for its poor condition. My thoughts and musings on that day were cut short by my being called back to the boat to move on.
I don't remember us stopping long anywhere along the route to just dawdle and take in the atmosphere of what could very soon have been gone forever. We just moved and worked our way to the destination that was being aimed at, so the glimpses that I did get have stuck in my mind as stolen moments to be treasured. I never talked to anyone about them at the time, partly because I doubt anyone would have understood but also because they were rather private and I wanted to keep them as exactly that. The travelling was pretty good though and, at the time, you could be travelling for a whole day and perhaps see just one other boat on the move. On the day we went through the famous Fenny Compton “tunnel” we had the slight misfortune of meeting our “only boat of the day,” this being a seventy foot ex work-boat that a troop of boy scouts had been let loose on under the able direction of their Akela, Skip, or whatever. The scouts were a bit unruly and the leader just a bit on the inept side. Our little plywood boat would have stood no chance if it had been hit, but this didn't seem to worry the steerer and leader of the scout pack who simply told my dad that everything was under control as he passed with barely a sheet of toilet paper's thickness between it and us. What my dad said to the guy in reply is not printable in a respectable publication.
Eventually we got to Napton, and the very interesting engine house arm that I'd really wanted to walk the length of but was vetoed for some reason or other. We stopped there for a day before returning the same way as we'd come, and thence to the Thames, to Lechlade and back home to Kingston. The impression the Oxford Canal left on me has been lifelong. Every time I see a derelict building I can't help wondering what was there and attempting to reconstruct it in my mind's eye. I wonder what the tunnel at Fenny Compton looked like when it actually was a tunnel. I have only recently found out that there was a house at Aynho Weir lock, a very pretty one as well. The strongest memory is of that house alongside the octagonal chamber of Shipton Weir lock though. It is long gone now of course, but I feel permitted to re-incarnate it in my fictional writing, all of which has Canal water running through its veins.
a lifetime of love
The summer of 1967 has gone down in history as the one where counter culture became mainstream, happenings, love-ins and various dubious substances were used with gusto and the world was changing forever. Whilst a lot of people dispute it, I do believe that the period was special for a lot of reasons. It was also special to a somewhat stressed ten year old me as I stood inside a disused bungalow and slowly fell in love. Not with a person, but with the inland waterways of the country that I was born in. The Eleven Plus, and me messing up on it good and proper, is a distant and disturbing memory. The canals have thrived and that last bit makes me a happier person. ©2019 Michael Nye.