Fortitude – a lesson from the canal builders

Crick canal tunnel_edited-1At the weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a few days on a narrow boat belonging to friends.  Despite the weather’s attempts to put a damper on things a great time was had by all.  As we were chugging along you have lots of time to think and being on the canals I was thinking about the vision of the people who designed and built them.  People who pushed the technology of the day to its absolute limits and in a relatively short time connected most of England (at least industrial England) with a network of canals locks and tunnels.  Because without a large network what would have been the point?  So in the end there must have been many visionary people willing to take a risk on this latest adventure of engineering.  The word that came to mind to when describing these people is ‘fortitude’.  They seemed to have it in abundance

There seemed to be no obstacle that they didn’t believe they could overcome.  On this trip there is a hill that they must have thought was too big to go around and following the contours of the land wasn’t possible.  But they didn’t give up, they planned and dug a 1.5 kilometre long tunnel.  Despite problems meaning it had to be re-routed after some work had already started, it was opened in 1814 having taken about four years (not long considering what they dug it with) and needing two million bricks to line it.

Llangollen1On another trip on the Llangollen canal a few years ago we crossed the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and again considering the technology of time any of the stats you look at are breath taking (  It took ten years to build, opening in 1805, it is 126ft high and stands on nineteen arches and when you’re crossing with nothing beneath your dangling feet but a long drop you appreciate the work that must gone into it and the determination of those that imagined it (Thomas Telford and William, Jessop) in the first place.

I just wonder if we’ve lost something of that ‘can do’ mentality.  If perhaps we bind ourselves up in red-tape and committees that seem more interested stopping projects than enabling them.  That we seem more interested in dwelling on what might go wrong than the benefits.  And here I don’t just mean the financial benefits, but what it means to us humans to be always pushing at the boundaries of what is possible.  I know there have to be checks and balances and life for those digging the tunnel was dangerous and poorly rewarded.  But perhaps we’ve gone too far in the direction of safe and comfortable?  I do see things that give me hope such as the Philae project, crossrail in London and the renewed talk about Mars missions and possibly missions to Venus.  I guess I just wish as a science fiction writer, for the last two, weLlangollen2 were doing a bit more than talk about them.

Anyway, next time I get stuck on a plot or I feel like giving up on a project I’ll look at the photographs and think of those pioneering engineers.  Then I’ll tighten my braces, ram that top hat down on my head, light a cigar (metaphorically of course) and tell myself to get on with it and stick at it.  That most of the time success is based on hard work and good old fortitude.

As always comments, views and questions are appreciated.

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

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