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A Winter Journey by D. L. Turner -
A Journey He Took On NB Hyperion

A Winter Journey - Writen as an article in the English Electric apprentice journal, ‘Willans Lines’, in 1944.

During the war there was a shortage of boat crews on the canals. In much the same way as the Land Girls, women and children were called in to help. One of these was a girl I knew called Christian. I was there-fore very pleased when one evening, early in January, 1944, she rang up to say that she and her mate were stopping in Berkhamsted, my home town, for the night, and, as they were short-handed, would I like to go with them and help?

Next morning was fine and frosty with just a few ice floes on the water when I cycled up the tow path in my oldest clothes to join them. I overtook them at a lock about two miles north of the town and as the boats were just approaching the lock as I came up I went ahead to get it ready. It is usual practice for each pair of boats—the Motor and the Butty towed behind—to have a crew of three; one to steer each boat and one, a lock wheeler, who goes ahead, usually by cycle, to get the locks ready. I will not bore you with a detailed description of the process of negotiating a lock—you can see it any time at Hillmorton. I shall just content myself by saying that there is a great deal more to it than meets the eye.

After passing through three or four more locks we reached the summit level—the highest point on this part of the canal. Here the canal runs level for about three miles before it begins to drop again, which gave a good opportunity for lunch as one member of the crew was free to get it ready. Lunch was always rather a disorganized and sketchy meal. It would usually consist of something of the stewy nature that could all be cooked at once, and when one is cooking in the cabin and steering the boat at the same time, as often happens when passing locks or if the third member of the crew has gone to the nearest town to shop, one is not tempted to serve complicated meals! The serving of the mid-day meal is awkward too as no one ever stops for meals. In locks it can be easily handed from boat to boat, but in a long reach (or "Pound") one can only get off or on while the boat is passing through a bridge, where the canal is narrow. To get from the Butty to the Motor means jumping off at one bridge and running ahead to the next before the Motor arrives.

Soon after dark we tied up having covered about twelve miles and passed through fifteen locks. After supper, the main meal of the day, we went over to the pub for a drink and then to bed.

Next day was much the same. We were roused by the alarm clock at about half-past six. After breakfast Christian and I went into the engine room to start up while the third member of the crew washed up and tidied. These boats are powered by a two-cylinder National Oil Engine of, I believe, about 12 horse-power. They are started by turning the engine over by hand with the inlet valve held open until a good speed is got up,when the lifter is suddenly released, the inertia of the flywheel carrying it over the compression. The engine then fires and starts. At least that is what is supposed to happen. As our engine had leaky valves (and, as I have said, it was freezing) the starting procedure was rather different. First we gave the fuel injection pumps a really good prime to form a layer of fuel oil over the piston crown, thus both reducing the leakage and in¬creasing the compression ratio. As the engine still refused to start we poured a little lubricating oil on the inlet valves; perhaps an unorthodox method of upper-cylinder lubrication but in the end we always managed to get the engine going.

After about six locks from our tie-up there is a long pound to Fenny Stratford lock (near Bletchley). This lock has a drop of only about six inches and beyond it is another long pound. The story goes that this length of canal was built from opposite ends and that a mistake was made in the surveying. The engineer committed suicide, but whether for this reason is not known. Perhaps he drowned himself in the offending lock!

The next lock, which we did not reach until the following day, is at Wolverton, where the canal crosses the Ouse on a cast iron aqueduct. This can just be seen from the railway to the north of the town. From here it is about ten miles to the seven locks at Stoke Bruerne, which we reached about tea-time. It was here that our first major mishap overtook us. Just as we were leaving the top lock but one the Motor suddenly ceased to pull. The engine was still running but was obviously not driving the propeller; so we pulled the boats through the last lock by hand and tied up to the quay. We soon found that while the drive was entering the gear-box it was not coming out, As we felt that anything wrong with the gear-box should be left to the fitter we rang up the depot for him. We spent the rest of the day splicing tow ropes, which are all too easy to break by taking up the strain suddenly when leaving a lock. We spent the next day generally cleaning and tidying up the boats as the fitter failed to put in an appearance. He finally drove up in his van as we were washing up breakfast on the following day.

As it turned out that the gear-box coupling had only lost its bolts he soon put it right. We had suspected a coupling—they are a frequent cause of trouble—but this one was hidden under part of the gear-box so I did not realize it was there.

Almost as soon as we started we dived into Blisworth tunnel. Going through a canal tunnel is an experience not to be missed. As the boats enter the noise of the engine rises to twice or thrice its normal level and, as the light fades from the walls the green circle behind quickly shrinks. After a few minutes, when one's eyes have become accustomed to the dark, the pinprick of light that is one's goal appears. The head¬light of the motor throws a wan light on the walls of. the tunnel leaving a black hole into which one attempts to steer a steady course. Every five minutes or so a ventilation shaft swings past overhead, letting in the bright glare of day for a moment, then making the darkness seem even more intense. In the wall of one of these shafts there is a spring from which water splashes down into the centre of the tunnel soaking the unwary boatman. All things come to an end and before long the point of light begins to grow; slowly at first until in an instant the booming sound of the engine falls away. The tunnel is passed. That day we went through a second tunnel at Braunston just before we tied up for the night at Braunston top lock.

In the morning we did not start until after full daylight as the alarm failed to go off. This earned us some angry words from a boat coming the opposite way which wished to pass, as we had tied up right in the mouth of the lock blocking the way. At the bottom lock we passed the Braunston dry dock in which a boat had been laid up for three weeks with a broken stern tube. This dock is alongside the lock so that it can, be drained easily by letting the water flow out into the lower pound. This was the last day of my trip as I had to be home that evening. It was also the day of our worst accident.

At Napton junction the Oxford Canal goes straight on while the route to Birmingham branches off sharp right; over the branch is a new concrete bridge for the tow-path. I was steering the butty and the third member of the crew was in the butty cabin beginning to get dinner ready. When we came to the turn I misjudged it, taking it too wide. When we were half-way round it was clear that we could not get through the bridge—I could do nothing but wait for the bang. We hit the wall squarely, coming to a dead stop. I leave it to you to work out what force is required to stop thirty tons travelling at three mph in next to no time. That force was enough to stop the boat but it did not stop the oil stove or my mate in the cabin, or the cargo of steel bars. The stove flew on to the floor and burst into flames, the mate went through the front door of the cabin breaking the bolt on the way, and the bars moved forward about 18 inches. We soon got the fire out and, after tidying everything up, did not find a lot of damage. The tea cloths were almost completely consumed, a few cups and plates were broken, and the bedding was a bit singed. Not till long after did I hear that they had had to spend all that evening shifting the cargo back, as the boat was so down at the bows that she was shipping water in locks.

Little more of note happened that day and at about four o'clock I reluctantly left them outside Leamington to catch my train home.

D. L. Turner.

Postscript, 2011.

My skipper was Christian Vlasto whose portrait was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to represent the women who crewed the canal boats during the war. An honour she shared with other representatives of those who efforts had contributed to victory. She later married Ghulam Abbas and moved to Pakistan.

Bernard Hailstone painted Christian Vlasto, "a Canal-boat Woman" In 1944. Click on the following link to see the image. (We are not prepared to pay the licensing fee for reproduction of digital files). The painting is © crown copyright. Imperial War Museum Reference: IWM ART LD 4950 - The painting shows a three-quarter portrait of Vlasto, seated with hands on hips, slight sketch of a canal boat in background.