Sonia Rolt OBE – 1919-2014

Sonia2006

Sonia Rolt on the narrowboat Nutfield in the opening parade of boats at the 2006 Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally

Sonia Rolt – known to many on the canals simply and affectionately as ‘Sonia’ – died peacefully in hospital on 22 October, after a short illness at the age of 95. Her death has meant the passing of the last of the Idle Women who was still actively involved with the canals. In her 96th year, Sonia attended the Hay Literary Festival in May, where the 70th anniversary of her late husband Tom Rolt’s great work, Narrow Boat was celebrated in style. The Chairman of the CRT Tony Hales was amongst the many in attendance. Hales then made a videoed interview, which is a fitting testament to her. Then as late as August, Sonia gave an interview to Canal Boat magazine for its back page ‘Twenty Questions’ which appeared in its November issue. For those who knew her, her energy and passion for life never ceased to amaze, and remained with her almost to her end.

Her first husband, the boatman George Smith, with whom she was married from 1945 until 1951 also died recently, in 2012, aged 97. His death ironically also removed another link to the canal past. Born in 1915, he was then probably the last boatman with active memories of post-WWI horse-boating with his father on the BCN, and the General Strike of 1926. He was also one of the few boatmen who still had memories of working the boats as an adult in WWII. Like Sonia, his mind remained clear, almost to his end, and even in his 96th year he attended the opening of the Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally, insisting on joining the opening parade on President and then telling the captain how to steer the boat!

Sonia is principally remembered for her two years or so working as an Idle Woman – the female middle class volunteers who worked as boatmen during WWII. In her case it was with two fellow acting friends – with whom she lived in a flat in Knightsbridge and all of them then working in the converted Hoover factory making parts for aircraft. They saw an advertisement for female volunteers to work as canal boat-women, and saw it as a means of escape. As they had passed the brief training period, which the boatmen had taken a lifetime to learn, they were put in charge of a pair of GUCCC boats, the Moon and the Phobos – which were to become at once their home and workplace for the next two years. Sonia commented, ‘I found the work exhausting but liberating. Perhaps because I was an orphan with a nomadic upbringing, I thought the boatmen had something I hungered after. I soon made friends with the boaters and the people along the bank.’

One of the reasons Sonia & Co did survive was the great help and kindness they received from the working boatmen, and in particular George Smith and his brothers. In her hand-written message read for her at George’s funeral, she said, ‘He always welcomed the new and gained enjoyment and amusement from it. The trainee boat women of the time could vouch for his kindness and helpfulness.’

However Sonia was reticent in speaking more than generally about those days, and never specifically about how she met and later married George Smith on 1st September, 1945, and for six years became a full time boatwoman, nor about how things fell apart. Despite her considerable literary skills, she never wrote about those days.

Sonia is also remembered for involvement with and later her marriage to the author Tom Rolt. Just when they met is questionable. Tom had co-founded the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and was keen amongst other things to help save canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen – something Sonia was already committed to, having campaigned for this in the 1945 July ‘khaki’ General Election.

Sonia in about June 1945 drawing political slogans on the cabin of her GUCCC motor Phobos. It was her political activism that attracted her to the newly founded IWA as being able to give articulate representation for saving canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen. It was through her time on the IWA committee that her relationship developed with the canal author and co-IWA founder Tom Rolt.

Sonia in about June 1945 drawing political slogans on the cabin of her GUCCC motor Phobos. It was her political activism that attracted her to the newly founded IWA as being able to give articulate representation for saving canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen. It was through her time on the IWA committee that her relationship developed with the canal author and co-IWA founder Tom Rolt.

He invited her to join the IWA committee which met in the winter months at co-founder Robert Aickman’s flat in Gower Street, London, where a deep friendship developed, a world away from her life on the canals with the working boatmen.

In 1951 Sonia left George and the canals for her new life with Tom. Their combined energy was extraordinary, and the first major project was saving the Talyllyn Railway, when they lived in a caravan for the first re-opened season, with Tom driving the trains and Sonia manning the ticket office. And there were many other incredible achievements. Though Tom had almost left the English canals, and there is only one record of a later visit which was to the Pontycysyllte Aqueduct, he did continue to write extensively about them, including his Landscape with Canals, published in 1977, which covered his canals years up to 1951, but in which Sonia surprisingly did not receive a single mention. He also wrote books on several other subjects, writing 41 books in all. He lived almost solely off his writings, in which he had the full and attentive support of Sonia.

Tom died in 1974, after he and Sonia had been together for a mere 23 years, and she was only 53. She dedicated her remaining forty years of life working for the causes they had been involved in together.

A change was to happen to Sonia’s life in 1993, when David Stevenson, who was Chairman on the IWA from 1989 to 1994 (the president of IWI from 1997 to 2000) persuaded the Council of the IWA to reinstate as honorary members a number of former members who had been thrown out by the at times Putinesque co-founder Robert Aickman. One was Sonia, and she responded with conciliatory glee, and she was soon made a Vice-President, and was very much in demand.

Sonia was to reward his foresight and friendship when in the Spring of 2011, she invited him to join her and her two sons when she went to Windsor Castle to receive her OBE from the Queen – ‘for services to industrial archaeology and heritage’. Sonia was by then too frail to walk any distance, and attended the investiture in a wheelchair. She afterwards quipped about her condition: ‘I blame it on my seven years on the boats. I was never brought up to do that.’

In December 2012, she also asked David Stevenson to represent her at George’s funeral, and read a neatly hand-written message from her: ‘I am sad to think George Smith has gone […] He was an amazing man, handsome, strong and well set up […] The trainee boat women of the time could vouch for his kindness and helpfulness. I am sure these traits sustained him and persisted throughout his very long life. It will make him long remembered and spoken of. God Bless him!’

Sonia made many friends on the canals, not only in Europe, but also North America and Australia. Amongst her tributes was one from her good friend Tom Grasso, President of the Canal Society of New York State: ‘She was the First Lady of the English canals’.

© Tim Coghlan 3/11/2014
(obituary originally written for the Historic Narrowboat Owners Club)

Rachel Stewart and Paul Leech

RachelStewartMember Rachel Stewart, President of the C & O Canal Association, of Arlington, Virginia, sadly passed away on March 8th. Rachel led the effort to restore the Big Slackwater section of the C&O canal towpath, and accepted an award on behalf of the C&O Canal Association for Excellence in Citizen Stewardship in 2012 from the US Park Service. The Association traces its origins to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who fought against a plan to replace the 184-mile long canal between Cumberland, Maryland, and Georgetown with a paved highway. An avid hiker and lover of the outdoors, Rachel regularly hiked the C&O Canal (including completing the 184-mile Thru-Hike in 2009) and a portion of the Appalachian Trail. She also frequently hiked in Scotland (this picture was taken on St Cuthbert’s Trail, at the England-Scotland border) and regularly took part in the World Canals Conference: Dublin/Belfast in 2001, Edinburgh in 2003, Kingston in 2008. IWI members also enjoyed her company on several canal tours, starting with the tour of Serbia in 2009. She combined hiking through the Cévennes with presence at the WCC in Toulouse and joined the pre- and post-conference tours in September 2013. She will be sorely missed. Our deepest sympathy to family and friends.

PaulLeechPaul Leech passed away peacefully on March 6. A lifetime campaigner for the English canals, Paul was a Civil Engineer and enjoyed a long career within British Rail and latterly with Interfleet working on both the national and London Underground networks. On the waterways, he promoted the work of the Inland Waterways Association, the Wendover Arm Trust and the Bedford to Milton Keynes Waterway project amongst many others. He had only recently taken on the task of chairing the Wendover Canal Trust. He was a regular cruiser both on his own narrowboat Katherine and on organised tours around the world. He is seen here in an open trip boat on the canals of Ghent during the tour of Belgian Waterways organised by the Canal Society of New York State, IWI and Euromapping in October 2012. Following a small gathering at the crematorium in Southend, a memorial service will take place on Friday March 21 at 1:30 pm at the Methodist Church, Thorpe Bay, Southend on Sea, Essex

Strasbourg expo on D-O-E

Czech president Milos Zeman will be at the European Parliament building in Strasbourg on 26 February 2014, to lobby for inclusion of the Danube-Oder-Elbe water corridors in Europe’s ‘core corridor network’ for transport infrastructure investments.

Ostrava-based MEP Vojtech Mynar has invited interested parties to a round table with experts on the Danube-Oder-Elbe Water Corridor in the ‘Swan Bar’ gallery of the European Parliament building at 16:00. The meeting is aimed mainly at MEPs from the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. A parallel exhibition on the 100-year-old project will be on display at the venue throughout the week.

The Czech organisers, who have already established close collaboration with Poland for the Oder branch, observe that the newly adopted priorities of the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) do not include the international project for the Danube-Oder-Elbe Waterways (called ‘water corridors’ to highlight the non-navigation functions of water management), despite the significant contribution these waterways could make to meeting the EU’s objectives in reduction of road transport, emissions and job creation.

To take this project into consideration, the European Commission has already advised the Czech Government that it needs to have a relevant feasibility study and statements of the Member States concerned. The aim of this event is to discuss preparation of the project with politicians and experts, and to conclude with a common statement.

NOTE to editors: IWI has already supported the D-O-E water corridor project by writing to the then President Jan Fischer on 14/07/10, as well as to key ministers, before a critical vote in the parliament. If the motion had been carried, the land reserved for these waterways could have been sold off, making it virtually impossible to build the links at any future date.

Invitation to opening of the exhibition organised by Czech MEP Vojtech Mynar in the EP building in Strasbourg

Invitation to opening of the exhibition organised by Czech MEP Vojtech Mynar in the EP building in Strasbourg

N.B. Entry to the European Parliament building in Strasbourg for this event is restricted to invitees.

 

Water conveyors and waterways in Lombardy

A sense of urgency permeates the air in Lombardy as well as in neighbouring Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto regions, regarding Italy’s network of navigable canals and rivers. What reality will be revealed to the world of inland waterway specialists and advocates, meeting in Milan on September 1st for the 27th World Canals Conference? It is a reality of water conveyors and waterways, in places going their separate ways, but often combined within the same bed. Waterway cross-roads, intakes, siphons, spillways, aqueducts are the nodes of an intricate network spun across the Lombardy plain, and nothing is simple. Even Italy’s second biggest Alpine lake, Lago Maggiore, is used as a reservoir and drawn down by as much as 1.50m to secure irrigation water supplies during a dry summer.

Article in La Stampa

The ambitious project to restore navigation between Lago Maggiore (Locarno) and the river Po is regularly covered by the regional and national Press. This article focuses on work to start soon on a new lock at Porto della Torre, on the Piedmont bank of the Ticino

It is nearly 20 years since IWI’s founders attended a conference in Milan on the ‘civilisation of water and waterways’ and the heritage left by Leonardo da Vinci and other great Italian engineers. At that time a grouping of Rotary clubs in the Adda valley was actively promoting restoration of the locks on the Adda as well as the Naviglio di Paderno (followed by the Martesana towards Milan). The campaign sadly lost momentum after the president Mario Roveda died of a heart attack in 1997, but IWI, represented in Italy by industrial archeology expert Edo Bricchetti, has constantly been supporting the regional initiatives in favour of a navigable system serving ‘slow’ tourism and appreciation of the extraordinary heritage and environment of the canal corridors.

Navigli Lombardi was founded to drive these efforts, but does not manage the canals themselves; that is the prerogative of the Consorzio Villoresi, which has the concession from the Region to manage the water resource and supply the many needs of agriculture, industry and the population. This means that the ‘water conveyor’ function has priority here, in the same way as it has priority on another famous southern European canal, the Canal de Castilla in Spain.

Despite this priority, politicians in Milan and across the plain, including the neighbouring regions, are massively in favour of restoring and adapting the 1000-year legacy of canals and controlled rivers, to make navigation once again a regular form of mobility in both urban and rural areas.

Turbigo spillway

This spillway in Turbigo is only one part of a complex junction between the ‘industrial canal’ and the Naviglio Grande

Achieving this goal means compromises and concessions. As climate change increases the pressure on water resources, it is likely to become increasingly difficult to obtain management of water channels that is compatible with navigability, even by professional helmsmen. Another difficulty faced by all players in Lombardy is a certain degree of confusion in the minds of Milanese citizens, possibly even some planners and architects, between water conveyors and waterways. This is only the briefest of introductions to a fascinating story that will be told here in the coming days and weeks… background notes for the discussions during the World Canals Conference and the pre- and post-conference tours. (to be continued)
David Edwards-May

Tribute to canal man Glenn Millar

Glenn Millar

Glenn Millar, economic development manager at the Canal and River Trust

Inland Waterways International as a body and its members as individuals were saddened to hear that Glenn Millar, friend and supporter of inland waterways, passed away in September 2013 after a long illness. Glenn was the economic development manager at the Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways), and enthusiastic leader of European cooperation projects on inland waterways. He kept working until 2012 and the successful conclusion of two recent EU-funded waterway projects ‘Waterways Forward’ (Interreg IVC) and ‘Waterways for Growth’ (Interreg IVB, in the North Sea Region).

Glenn, from Northern Ireland, was an ambassador for the waterways and was made Canelero de Honor by Spain in 2006, the same year he was chosen to present a model narrow boat to Mary McAleese, President of Ireland. His networks were prodigious and relationships lasted long beyond the project or committee where they were originally formed. People valued Glenn’s insight but also valued his company and friendship

The portrait reproduced here, by courtesy of the website BoatingBusiness.com, was named ‘Europe Comes Together’; that is a fitting tribute to Glenn’s vision and achievements.

A tribute has also been printed in the new (4th) edition of the European Waterways Map and Directory, published by Euromapping, which is dedicated to his memory.

Boats and sewerage: game over?

The subject is not totally taboo, but in 40 years of activity on the inland waterways, a ‘world of its own’, I have found that people prefer to avoid it. ‘The less said the better’, seems to be the motto ! Confronted with two conflicting ‘politically correct’ opinions, Euromapping decided to undertake a detailed survey, starting on March 1st 2013, to get a precise overview.
It is hardly a caricature to say that ‘canal folk’ justify their direct discharge into the canal by arguing that the environment easily absorbs the effluent load. On the other side, landlubbers are horrified by the idea that tourists are free to ‘do it’ in the canal and shocked by the fact that this ‘public convenience’ is used free of charge.
Historically involved in development of the waterways in SW France, Euromapping is ideally placed to conduct this investigation and assemble reliable data on the Canal des Deux Mers, despite the reluctance of players to address the subject.
All are aware of what is required by EU and French law. The manufacturers know better than anyone, since they fit their boats with the necessary holding tanks, but marine toilets are still the norm on many boats.
The questions are straightforward :
– How are boats equipped for sewerage ?
– Do trip boats, hotel boats, etc. have separate holding tanks for grey water and black water ?
– What is the storage volume ?
– Are pumps integrated on board ?
– What is the interval between pump-outs ? Where are they done ? and by what methods ?
These are followed by qualitative questions designed to note the sensitivities of users and their willingness to pay sanitation services, for those who today have no alternative but to discharge into the canal.
Canals as ecosystems : a session at the World Canals Conference – to be held in Toulouse on 16-19 September – is devoted to this murky subject. It was time for the consulting firm Euromapping to clarify the stakes, with its partners.

Parks Canada’s heritage canals saga continues

The saga of the Canadian Heritage canals managed by Parks Canada grinds on. In the early New Year Parks Canada introduced a new fee schedule for using the locks on its three major historic canals; the Rideau, The Trent Severn Waterway and the Quebec Canals.

Not only was Parks Canada proposing a whole new way of charging for the service offered, but also increasing these fees substantially. So for a boater, the cost to use the locks and moor increased well beyond any form of a reasonable increase. This was fuelled by the earlier changes to the navigation season service offer (see earlier posts). That exercise left many boaters, business people, communities, tour and rental boat companies and users very angry. The Government did keep its promise not to reduce the length of the season (see overly optimistic announcement posted here October 23, 2012) however, the devil was in the details, and as it turned out they reduced very substantially the hours of service within the season, the amount or degree of service in the shoulder seasons and reduced operating staff substantially.

So, then in the New Year out came a new fee schedule and format, which caused a firestorm of reaction along the canal corridors. It was so intense that within a couple of days Parks Canada started to make changes most likely in response to the number and intensity of comments they were hearing from the public. Since that time and well before the final date for comments, they have made further changes to their proposals in trying to deal with the shortcomings of the original plan. However, even with these changes the fee rate is increasing substantially. Most users were willing to see rates increase, but something within reason and based on some type of a business case which has not been forthcoming after many requests.

What is sad is the impact it has had on Parks Canada’s credibility as an organization that knew how to operate canals and understood their importance from a cultural, natural or economic perspective. However, the accumulative impact of the changes for lockage fees plus the reduction of service level will without a doubt diminish the use and opportunities which in turn puts more pressure on the increased revenues versus costs ratio that the government seems to be demanding of Parks Canada. It misses the point and doesn’t take into account that these heritage waterways are economic drivers for their communities and they contribute substantially to the GDP of the country. As an example; the Parks Canada Economic Impact Study of the Rideau Canal 2010/2011 determined that the $10.5 million spent on the Rideau, generated $44.4 million to the GDP and supported 641 full time equivalent jobs, and this was only visits to lock stations. It didn’t include the people who visit resorts, restaurants, stores, marinas, museums, etc. that are prevalent up and down the corridor.

So, there are still many unanswered questions. What will the final fee schedule be for the coming navigation season? What will the fall out be on visitation and use of the canal at a time when the government is pushing for economic initiatives to keep the economy healthy? What will the cultural and natural heritage impacts be for these canals after major changes in how they are organized when the number of specialists in these fields has been greatly reduced and are not necessarily on site?  Will the water management function have the capability, knowledge and experience to meet the demand and intricacies of the operation and not seriously jeopardize public safety and is it sustainable? Will all of these changes work over the long haul or will public safety, the heritage values and canal use be in jeopardy? Sadly only time will tell and by then it may be too late!!

David Ballinger

What future for Canal du Midi?

VNF’s summary report on its activities in 2012 devotes one of its 10 chapters to the tree-replanting programme and corporate patronage approach to funding the €200 million restoration of the Canal du Midi’s characteristic landscape.

VNF's new logo

VNF has a logo which keeps the old, enriching it with evocative graphics by Philippe Apeloig

VNF reports (in its New Year press release) that it felled 1668 plane-trees condemned by canker stain in 2012, and replanted 68: the uninformed reader immediately sees a ‘deficit’ of 1600 trees. This sad statistic, however inevitable in view of the experimental nature of the first replanting operations, is like a wake-up call. The tree-felling and replanting debate – and the questions surrounding the should not become an excuse for inaction in other areas.
This is one of many concerns expressed by the Toulouse Waterway Information Network, a grouping of waterway interests in SW France. The network (Réseau Fluvial Toulousain) is challenging local and regional politicians to come up with a robust and workable plan to develop the waterway economy. It is convinced that France in general – and in this case SW France – possesses unique skills, resources and capability to make the canal economy more vibrant, and create more jobs, generate more income.
They say this is what the World Canals Conference* should be all about, and call for a debate to be held in the context of this international conference, a debate which should leave no stone unturned in the search for viable management models and economic development for our canals and rivers.
A properly-planned future for the Canal des Deux Mers should be an issue in the 2014 municipal elections, and the réseau hopes that candidates will state their positions in their manifestos.
* Salons Vanel, Toulouse, 16-19 septembre 2013 – see the WCC web site

Oise to be upgraded to Class Vb

Vive VNF under its new statute as a public administration! Following the successful public consultation process, the State body is expected to start works on enlarging the Creil-Compiègne section of the river Oise to European Class Vb capacity. The works are needed to harmonise navigable dimensions throughout the Seine-Scheldt waterway. The public consultation was completed successfully in 2012, and aspects of the project were then debated at three “post-consultation” workshops in December. The first covered all hydraulic aspects, the flood risk and highest navigable water level, the second was devoted to the various uses of the inland waterway, while the third discussed all environmental aspects.

Unscrambling Pierre Paul Riquet

Aside

Banner outside the Canal du Midi Museum at Saint-Ferréol, to be visited during the 2013 World Canals Conference in Toulouse

The Google Streetview automatic scrambler of peoples’ faces has indiscriminately defaced the creator of the Canal du Midi on a banner outside the canal museum at Saint-Ferréol. This delightful quirk of automation of image processing suggests a new form of request to be made to our omnipotent and omniscient provider of images of the planet: ‘Dear G, Please unscramble the image of Pierre Paul Riquet. He died in 1680, so you’re safe from any legal action!’