Misgivings and the joy of canals

Chairman Keith Coates with Todmorden Mayor Michael Gill and speaker Diana Monahan
Chairman Keith Coates with Todmorden Mayor Michael Gill and speaker Diana Monahan

Misgivings, was what Todmorden Mayor, Michael Gill felt, when contemplating the title of the talk due to be given at the October Todmorden U3A general meeting. Michael was a guest of the U3A, where the speaker was Diana Monahan on Canals in My Life. His worship (do we still use that form of address?) later confessed he didn’t find the title very promising, when presenting the usual token of appreciation to Diana at the end of the meeting. Her talk included a history of canals, the workings of locks and canal restoration,

Diana became acquainted with canals early in life as her father took her and her brother to the Pocklington and Cottingham canals as children. The family also holidayed with Anglo-Welsh Narrow Boats. It affected her life considerably, she said and went on to entertain her audience, including the Mayor, in the telling. An early anecdote concerned trying to get her A level results while on a boating holiday. The nearest phone box had one of the old A and B buttons and it was quite a trial for her to effect the call. Another concerned her brother encountering an on board shower for the first time. He couldn’t turn the water off and succeeded in pulling the head off as well, making things worse. She tried to assist and they frantically bailed at the same time. In the end it needed their father to determine they’d been trying to turn the tap the wrong way.

After marrying, Diana and her husband had a narrow boat honeymoon. There were still a number of working boats in those days but few guide books for those boating for leisure. Diana related another mishap as she had borrowed a guide book from the library, one that was out of print. The book found its way into the canal on a number of occasions, its resulting wrinkled condition necessitating them to purchase it from the library.

Diana and her husband bought their first boat, “Monty”, in 1977 and painted and refitted it. Their next purchase was a butty boat, Madeley, without engine or accommodation as these were the barges that were towed behind another barge as a means of transporting a greater load. The back end had been crushed by a swing bridge. They shortened the boat for use on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, built a traditional back cabin and fitted an old Lister engine, one of the last of its kind.

Diana then related how she secured a place on a training course in Birmingham. Her husband managed to get a work transfer from Leeds to Birmingham and they moved the boat to Gas Street Basin and lived there. The course over, they went back to Leeds and moored by the station for six months after which they sold their house and took Madeley, to back to Gas Street Basin. They stayed there long enough to attend three boat weddings.

Diana learned fender mending and they bought another butty boat – Argo and offered Argo Canal Services. They were the first to have diesel to supply other boats and carried sand, gravel and coal and also Marston’s beer in barrels. In 1984, Basin Street Basin was drained for cleaning for the first time in over a hundred years and the boats all had to move to Wolverhampton. They got as far as Tipton when the canal froze and all were stranded. There was a highlight for Diana in that Tipton had wonderful Victorian baths where she could not only swim but was able to regularly luxuriate in a hot bath. The boats finally got to Wolverhampton but were frozen-in there for a month.

Diana and her husband returned to a redeveloped Gas Street Basin with not just a noisy nightlife but a noisy early morning one as well. So a move to Curdworth was undertaken before returning to Yorkshire. It became too costly to moor three boats as fees were going up by 20% each year. They decided to sell up their business and retire, keeping only Madeley. They found a small house at Macpelah with a mooring and have been happily going all over the country, stopping to explore small towns.

Diana invited her audience to join her in being a volunteer with OWLS – Observer of Waterways Length. Owls keep an eye on a length of canal and pick up litter and dog muck. Diana’s talk was illustrated throughout and she also brought Madeley’s traditionally decorated water can and a boatwoman’s bonnet.

A questioner asked about holidaying on a boat with children. With younger children, Diana replied, it is better to choose a canal that is not heavily locked. An option for older children is to go down the Grand Union to London, affording the opportunity to go into Town and take in the sites and museums, etc., that London has to offer.

In moving the vote of thanks, Mayor Michael Gill assured Diana that his misgivings were misplaced, thanking her for an interesting and fascinating talk. A view shared by the audience judging by their response throughout as well as their applause at the end.

Report by John Bouttell. Picture by Roger Howard.