Here we are - AD2003 and coal is still being delivered along the Shropshire Union Canal by narrowboat. An easy enough task one might think. Hard work heaving bags of coal about perhaps, but pleasant enough nevertheless; obviously better than a proper job! Let me put you right.

Jenny and I usually load Roach, an ex F.M.C. motor boat, at Awbridge on the Staffs and Worcs Canal with around 20 tonnes of assorted solid fuels, most of which is ordered by regular customers. After loading, it generally takes the best part of a day to battle our way through the silt, mud and rubble of the Staffs and Worcs to the "cut end" at Autherley. This is where the "Shroppie" begins.


Once out of the stop lock at the junction the canal is deep enough to get along at a good pace with no wash. (A well-loaded narrowboat produces almost no wash when "gettin' 'head" in deep enough water). The first bridge hole soon puts a stop to this. If I were driving a car I would have acquired a flat nose from hitting the windscreen with the suddenness of the stop. Ho hum - pass the cabin shaft, we've got supermarket trolleys to remove once the boat has been reversed off the obstruction. Again these first few bridges out of Wolverhampton are always the same - always full of junk.

The stop gate narrows beyond Wolverhampton Boat Club presents a different problem. Silt builds up here to such an extent that we almost always have to resort to the "Tirfor" winch to pull us through, a most laborious operation. From here to the bottom of Audlem locks the canal is absolutely full of mud; fully laden "Roach" operates more like a plough than a boat! There are a variety of other obstacles to negotiate too. The landslips at Drayton Rockin' can be entertaining for the unwary, some are obvious as spoil is protruding above water level, but there are also one or two hidden ones which can suddenly send the fore end of the boat sideways across the cut. Unnerving, especially for the pleasure boat approaching from the opposite direction.

Old bridge parapets are a common feature in bridge holes, together with masonry and rubble from demolished bridges (a Middlewich Branch speciality). It should be noted that an empty carrying boat draws almost nothing at the bow, and so by the time an obstruction is felt most of the boat is already over it. The stern end generally follows by bouncing over whatever obstacle is present. A well-loaded narrowboat behaves somewhat differently. One of two things normally happens; either the boat stops dead in its tracks, in which case the obstruction has to be fished out or manoeuvred aside with a shaft, or the offending trolley, motorbike, lump of masonry or whatever is bulldozed out of the way, sometimes with hardly any discernable bump felt at all.

One particular hold-up occurred last September whilst we were on our way northwards. Roach, and Starling, (an ex Cowburn and Cowpar motor boat) were both loaded with coal for delivery to Middlewich and beyond, when the leading boat, Starling, stopped dead in a bridge-hole just south of Nantwich. It transpired that a water main, which crosses the canal by the bridge, had burst and washed a load of spoil off the field and into the canal. The contractor employed by Severn Trent had only removed the offending muck to a depth of two feet and then departed. Being the first boats through of any depth, it fell to us to discover this obstruction. We were held up there for a day and a half as the country was scoured for an excavator with sufficient reach to dredge the offending spoil out. We were particularly annoyed to discover the fact that British Waterways had no idea that the job had only been half done.

Life on an old coal boat is not all obstructions, stoppages, gripes and grumbles. It is highly satisfying to be boating along, using the canal as it was intended, brasses shining, decorative rope work scrubbed white, Jenny in the hold bagging housecoal! It is also satisfying to know that most people one meets are pleased to see the old boats still in use.

The main reason for working as we do is the people that we meet. Every night is spent in a different place, and therefore, a different pub! It is a very sociable life and definitely none the worse for that. Delivering solid fuels in this way is actually quite efficient and lots more enjoyable than driving around in a lorry.

A lot of people assume that our life is "romantic, living in that little cabin with all them plates and all that brass, travelling through lovely countryside all day." It is nice, but it's hard work. We bag most of the coal ourselves, handball all the coal on and off the boat ourselves, and even clean our own brass. Even in the rain! The "romance" also includes living with the same facilities that boatmen enjoyed a hundred years ago: water in a can on the roof, coal fired range for heating and cooking, bucket (albeit a posh one) in the engine hole, no fridge; no bed bugs either, mind. Audlem Locks are also very "romantic" in the pouring rain, especially in the dark, the time we usually seem to end up doing them. It's a good job there are three pubs by the Town Pound!

Speaking of pubs, we are often asked for our recommendations. Try 'em all - make your own mind up. We do tend however, to patronize the ones that patronize us.

All in all, we like the "Shroppies' cut", we'll be back. © John Jackson 2014