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Horses on the canals - a mystery solved.

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Since I've been buying and selling keyboards and pedalboards and other bits of organalia (and if there isn't such a word, there should be) on a regular basis, I've met some very interesting people. One such was Robert McKenzie, a volunteer at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. I met him there to collect a pair of organ keyboards I'd bought from him on Ebay. Having noticed that his Ebay screenname was boathorse, I guessed correctly that he had an interest in horse-drawn canal boats, and I hoped if he might be able to answer a question which had been bugging me for some time.

In an earlier age, when a lot of freight was transported on the canal system, a horse and a rope was the usual means of propulsion. That's where the word "towpath" comes from, of course.  My question was this: what happened when a horse-drawn boat going in one direction met another one going in the opposite direction? Apart from avoiding collisions between the boats themselves, how did they prevent the one horse and its rope from getting horribly tangled up with the other?

I knew exactly how I would have solved this problem, if I'd been designing the canal system. I would have provided towpaths on both sides of the canal, and had a clear understanding - just like on the roads - that boats going in one direction kept to one side, and boats going the other way kept to the other. But I also knew for a fact that this was not how it was done at the time. Near to where I live there are canal bridges which cantilever out from each side and have a gap in the middle. The idea was to allow the rope to pass through the gap when the towpath (singular) crossed from one side of the canal to the other.

No, there was clear evidence that only one towpath was provided, so the problem remained. Boats must have needed to pass each other on a very regular basis, so how on earth did they manage it? Did they hold one rope up in the air with poles so the other boat and its horse could pass underneath? Or was it necessary to unhitch one horse from its boat completely, and only reconnect the rope when the other boat had gone past? Either way, it must have been a right pain in the butt!

When Robert told me the correct answer to my question, it was surprisingly elegant and simple. The rope they used was quite a long one, and it was made of cotton, which happens to be denser than water. When two boats met, the one crew allowed their rope to go slack, causing it to sink to the bottom of the canal. The second horse stepped over the slack rope, the second boat floated over it, and then both boats continued on their way. Simples!

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  1. Sandra Brooks

    I am wondering if I dreamt the following!! But I?m sure I read somewhere that extremely fast horses and experienced riders were used on the top paths for some reason (not the big horses that pulled the boat!) but they slept and ate on the barges as part of the crew. I?m sure some old saying was derived from this!! Thank you please help with an answer

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  2. Sarah Waldock

    thank you very much! I just searched this very question for a novel set in 1796. Much obliged!

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  3. Janet salter

    All Aboard has arrived in Australia - we are watching it as I type. My husband posed that very same question, and having my trusty tablet handy to Google your explanation means we can now sleep tonight! Many thanks!

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  4. Heather Godwin

    Also watched All Aboard and went to bed with the same question. Thank you so much for that wonderful explanation. How very ingenious!

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  5. Paul

    Just spent two hours watching BBC Four's All Aboard canal trip programme. Very extraordinary but got me thinking exactly the same thing and also thinking poles must have been the answer. Would never have thought about putting the rope under the other boat. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. david roadley

    My friend Amy and I regularly go for our walks along the canal and toe path, and Amy asked the very same question. My first thought was perhaps the lifting via long poles of the ropes in question, but simplicity is just the answer and so practical. I'm so glad she told me and sent this link.

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  7. Colin Mann

    :D me too Bev. Cheers John! :)

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  8. bev

    You have answered the question that's been going round my head all day after cycling along part of the Leeds Liverpool canal!

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