Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Some 50 years ago, I was cycling along the towpath of the Basingstoke Canal behind two friends, who were twins. On a narrow stretch the middle cyclist lost his balance and fell gracefully into the duckweed covered ditch. He struggled out (with help from neither me nor his brother) and I can still remember the moment that the smell hit me. We continued our ride, now with the stinker last in line. When we reached his home his mother, who was watering her garden, burst into laughter, then turned the hose on her son as a first stage of a lengthy cleaning process.
I had grown up near the canal, and it formed a backdrop to many childhood memories. When the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society was formed with the aim of restoring the Basingstoke Canal, my father was one of the early members.
Dad was mainly involved in the engineering aspects, such as advising on the feasibility of the A331 Blackwater Valley relief road aqueduct, now known as the Ash Aqueduct. At the time, the roadbuilders thought they would pass the canal under the new road with three locks down and three locks back up. I remember Dad calculating the pumping requirement for two lockfulls to be lifted each time a boat passed through the planned locks. The roadbuilders hadn't planned for that, as they thought that when a boat goes up through a lock, the water went up with it!
Much of the canal was blocked by weed and silt, so needed dredging. The steam dredger Perseverance had been used on the Kennet and Avon canal and lay "resting" just outside Reading. The K&A had finished using it, and so we just had to overcome two problems. Apart from craning it out of one canal and into another, the boiler needed recertifying. This meant retubing the boiler, and this task fell to may Dad and another steam enthusiast in the society, Ian Cripps. They needed someone to get inside he boiler, and as a titchy teenager I was just small enough to climb inside the boiler and drag out the pipes. This work was done with the dredger alongside in Reading, and when the boiler was fully retubed, it was pressure tested in readiness for work on the Basingstoke.
By the time Perseverance was in use, carving its way out from Odihan Wharf, I had started university (and discovered girls) so my involvement pretty much ceased. Dad continued working with the society, including restoration of a dragline excavator to empty the mud barges.
The photo below shows the dredger, a tug and two mudbarges. The dredger was in fact narrowboat width with two half-narrowboat pontoons strapped to the sides. The 14ft beam was no problem in the broad Basingstoke Canal, but it did allow the dredger to pass through narrow locks should the need arise.
Courtesy Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society Limited
All that was 50 year ago, but now that my wife will let me have a narrowboat of my own, what else could it be called?