Monday, 12 November 2012

On the deck with Captain Horatio Hornblower

In my teens I discovered the novelist C S Forester, famous of course for his fictional books about Horatio Hornblower, the complex and heroic Royal Navy officer of Napoleonic times, although he also wrote The African Queen, which was made into an iconic film starring Humphrey Bogart. Lesser-known are a string of other books dealing with aspects of war and crime, such as The General, Brown on Resolution, Payment Deferred, Plain Murder, and Randall and the River of Time. They are all marked by an attention to character-study, the often perverse misunderstandings that arise between people, and the profound consequences of chance events.

Forester's writing style was distinctive and one to emulate. I think he believed that single individuals mattered, and could transcend all their difficulties if they were driven by a meritorious sense of duty, or a worthy ambition. I also think he recognised the many weaknesses and shortcomings of the average person, and was much on the side of the plain unvarnished human being, so long as they had courage and strove to do their very best. All this spoke to me during a very awkward period in my life, when I felt socially dysfunctional and yet full of undirected capability. His books were inspiring and consolatory at the same time. In particular I appreciated (and could identify with) Hornblower's introspective and self-critical nature, and the loneliness of his position as commander, even though I was myself anything but 'in command'.

One of the novels, Hornblower and the Atropos, set in 1805, opens with him on a canal barge in Gloucestershire. He is with his wife and child, and because it is winter, and because his wife is very pregnant, he has decided to take the inland route on the Severn and Thames Canal, opened in 1789, rather than sail around Cornwall and up the Channel to London. It is a novel experience for Hornblower, gliding down a peaceful narrow waterway, without a deck heaving beneath him, and so slowly; and himself with nothing to do - although he does take a hand when the one-man 'crew' gets incapable.

At one point they negotiate the very long dark Sapperton Tunnel, between the Cotswold villages of Sapperton and Coates. This tunnel, which is 3,817 yards long (over two miles) and in places as much as 200 feet underground, is without a towpath, and the only way to propel the barge when it was in active use was to push it along with poles, or by legging it, meaning that the bargeman lay on his back on the roof on the cabin, or on a plank at the bows, and 'walked' on the bricks lining the canal tunnel roof or sidewall. Quite a tiring performance in real life, I'd say.

The location had stuck in my mind. And when staying at Cirencester (not far away) in May I'd noticed brown tourist roadsigns pointing the way to the Tunnel Inn and the eastern end of the tunnel. A lunchtime meetup two weeks ago in Oxford with Jenny Alto settled the matter. I decided to go and see what was still there.

Well, from a roadbridge a bit to the southeast of the tunnel, there was the towpath, but the canal was dried-up and overgrown, having fallen out of use in 1933. However, a short section, several hundred yards long, had been partly restored in the direction of the tunnel. It looked picturesque with the trees in autumnal clothing on either side:

I went to view the eastern portal of the tunnel itself. Here it is:

As you can see, weed has gathered near the tunnel entrance, but there is clear water just a little way along, and you feel that it wouldn't take a huge effort to fully reinstate this section. This is the view back towards the roadbridge in the first shots, from the bay that barges could tie up at, if the bargeman on board, or his passengers, were minded to refresh themselves at the adjacent Inn (which of course is a modern-day option as well):

The tunnel is presently blocked by two falls at its western end, and you can't get through to Sapperton. At this end, at Coates, the tunnel entrance is sealed off with a wire mesh gate and padlock, presumably for safety reasons. But given the funding, the tunnel and its approaching sections of canal could be brought to life again and re-connected with the national network of waterways. I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen within my own lifetime.

Worth a revisit meanwhile, anyway, just to walk the towpath and have lunch at the Inn. It was mid-morning when I went, and it wasn't open. I had lunch instead by the River Severn at the Anchor Inn at Epney, en route to Gloucester. If you go there, have their ham, egg and chips. I recommend it!


  1. I was kinda hoping to see a picture of Lucy lying on her back with her legs akimbo reaching up to the roof of the tunnel. Maybe next time.....

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Excellent, you made it! The canal trust used to run an electric trip boat into the end with water, but sadly no longer.


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