Since I moved full-time to London, I never cease to be amazed by just how much there is to do on my doorstep, often at little or no cost. Today was a case in point, as we embarked on a visit to the very reasonably-priced London Canal Museum, followed by a pleasant stroll along the Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock.
The museum itself is located in a disused ice house, where once Mr Carlo Gatti (a leading manufacturer of London ice cream in the Victorian era) took delivery of huge chunks of Norwegian ice imported by sea and then by canal boat. You can still see one of the huge ice cellars beneath the ground floor, and those less fearful of heights than I am can even climb down into them!
Alongside the history of ice importation and ice cream, the museum also of course tells the story of canals across Britain. Some of this I vaguely remembered from school history lessons, but to be honest I had forgotten just how extensive the network of canals was, and how crucial it was particularly for the delivery of heavy goods such as coal.
What I’m fairly certain I never knew before today was that, despite increasing competition from rail and road, canal transportation managed to survive (albeit in diminished from) until as late as the 1960s, when ultimately a particularly severe winter froze much of the network and killed off this already crippled industry.
Now I wouldn’t want to glamorise the life of a canal boat family in the nineteenth century or even the twentieth. The museum made it pretty clear that living conditions were cramped, fairly basic, and tough, especially in the cold winter weather. But what struck me as very interesting was that canal boat operation was not just a job – it was a way of life.
You lived and worked on board throughout the year, and it was a livelihood which often involved the whole family, from the old right down to the very young. The museum has a particularly remarkable photo of a young child quite literally roped to the roof of a boat to prevent them falling off, which today one would imagine provoking a lively discussion between health and safety officials on the one hand, and child protection on the other!
Today, we talk a lot about work:life balance. It’s a phrase I have always had something of an issue with, presupposing as it does the need to weigh against each other two competing demands. I can’t help but feel that we might manage the whole thing rather better if we didn’t see work as something we did when we weren’t living our lives to the full; or conversely view life as something we get on with when work isn’t somehow in the way.
I recognise, of course, that a more integrated approach to work and life is easier with some jobs than with others. But I can’t help but wonder whether those hardy canal workers, engaged in tough and frequently perhaps quite uninspiring work, might have been able to teach us a thing or two.