The Grand Union Canal cuts through the south western edge of Hemel and is a source of great pleasure. Too constant an enjoyment to be called a fleeting pleasure but it nevertheless has to be mentioned.
If you want a marker of the social change in Britain in the second half the the Twentieth Century you could do worse than look at canals. At their beginning they were a facilitator of early industrialisation, carrying raw materials, goods, and linking towns and factories. But their dominance was short lived as they were overtaken by the railways and they fell into decline then disuse. They tended to cut through the back end of towns, close to smoke grimed workshops and narrow streets, so neglect meant they were often dark sinister places; places you wouldn’t want to visit for a leisurely stroll.
The Inland Waterways Association was not formed until 1948 and it is from that year we can date an increasing interest in restoring what had been lost, recognising the romance of their history and seeing a future for carriage and leisure. It is amazing that sometimes a group of committed enthusiasts, at the right time, can change the world and we owe a lot to those who fought to preserve our heritage from unimaginative, or economically circumscribed bureaucrats. In the 1950s the British Transport Commission saw canals only in terms of commercial potential and as there were other more efficient ways of carrying goods that was a difficult role to sustain. Indeed in 1955 there was a proposal to downgrade and dispose of 771 miles of canal. Such an outlook and such proposals can only be fought by enough people getting together to influence the argument, drum up support, and show practical commitment. The IWA carried the day and the subsequent opening up of the waterways for both for leisure and an environmental amenity is their legacy. Canals are now highly valued facilities.
This improvements however goes hand in hand with the deindustrialisation of the country, better air quality, the redevelopment of redundant factories, gentrification and more leisure time. From the towpaths we can see all this. Along my home stretch there are two clear examples: land that was once owned by the pioneering paper manufacturer John Dickinson. Their first mill was built at Apsley in 1804 and it was soon followed by another, a short distance away, at Nash Mills. Both are now gone, as is this once great company, and the land has mostly been turned into housing (though the Apsley site also contains a retail park, which is another sign of the times). What was once industrial has become a place to live and the canal has been opened up.
Last year we walked the canal to Birmingham and saw an even more stark reminder of an industrial past that has now gone. We were near Sparkbrook, Small Heath and got to talking to an old boy who was out for a walk. He pointed and said: “See that? That is where they made motor bikes. It’s the old BSA factory. It used to extend all over this area.” There were decayed factory buildings and an area that had been redeveloped as an activity park with climbing wall and zip lines. But the mere mention of the name BSA was nostalgic. They were once the largest motorbike manufacturer in the world who somehow managed to lose any advantage they had and go bust.
So that is today’s fleeting pleasure: not the canal but those moments when you can sense the past, what has been lost and what has been gained.
P.S. The picture is of the pub sign on the redevelopment of the John Dickinson site. The picture comes from the company archive and shows what the mill looked like at its peak