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PETER FROST comments on the foundation of The Canals and Rivers Trust.

Maggie Thatcher’s frenzy of privatisation in the 1980’s stole our railways, our telephones, our waterworks, our power stations and much else.

Even that well known Bolshevik, ex Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan described Maggie’s foolishness as ‘selling the family silver’. If it was the family silver then at least the second best fish knives remained in public ownership.

I’m talking about more than three thousand miles of canals, rivers and other inland waterways nationalised in 1948 and still under the control of The British Waterways Board (BWB).

Sadly not for much longer. From this summer our canals will be run by a charity, The Canal and River Trust and the government is rubbing its hands in glee at the thought of another step towards the perfect capitalist market economy where volunteers will work for nothing and take the place of redundant workers.

It’s been a long struggle with anyone with any feelings at all for the future of the waterways realising that Cameron and his Defra waterways minister Richard Benyon are trying to do it on the cheap with no long term realistic future funding being put in place.

Over the decades the canals, surely the greenest of our transport infrastructure arms has lost virtually all commercial carrying business to the voracious road transport lobby.

Despite this canals have often brought a ribbon of the pleasant green countryside into the grimy heart of some of our major industrial cities.

Strange too, in drought ridden Britain we have never fully realised the potential of our canals as ways to shift vast quantities of that important resource water all across the nation.

However today canals are still an important leisure facility. Anglers, boaters, canoeists, birdwatchers, industrial archaeologists as well as cyclists and simple walkers are among those who enjoy the waterways and the whole network is in many ways a huge linear nature reserve and country park.

Let’s take a little tow path stroll and I’ll explain what I mean. Although built as a major artery of commerce the Grand Union Canal around Braunston near Daventry, often described as the heart of the English Canal system is a beautiful, quiet and peaceful place – full of both nature and history.

Water lilies and tall velvety reed mace – you might know them better as bulrushes – soften the water’s edge. Look, there is a grass snake swimming with its head out of the water; for all the world like some miniature Loch Ness monster. The snake is hunting frogs and newts; both common inhabitant of these clean still waters.

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Colourful dragonflies flit among the waterside plants. All that frothy towpath blossom in the hedgerow promises a bumper crop of sloes and bullace. We’ll be back to harvest them in Autumn to make sloe gin and bullace brandy that will warm our Christmas tippling.

Ah, quiet now. Hear that plop, and see that little ripple. It’s Vole – the water vole (Arvicola amphibus).

You remember, Vole was Mr Toad’s best mate in The Wind in the Willow’s. He is a very rare beast indeed on today’s waterways”.

Once common, these aquatic mammals are now scarce and a seriously threatened species because they and their home haven’t been too well looked after over the years.

All too sadly it seems, tomorrow in Cameron’s brave New Britain, that might be just be the fate of our entire waterway system.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star July 2012

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