Canals cross the United Kingdom. Historically, these inland waterways had a relatively short working life before being usurped by the railway but are today resurrected within the leisure market. Not only are they home to modern water borne travellers, but their banks provide access for anglers, cyclists, dog walkers, hikers and the modern day magnet fishers.
Three Points of the Compass has walked hundreds of miles along canals enjoying their banks and wildlife, a good few miles of canal are included on the route of my Long Walk. There are a small number of books within my modest library that provide more than a modicum of information on their history and add a smattering of interest to any walk along a canal.
Narrow Boat by L.T.C. Rolt is credited with kick-starting the interest in English canals. The author recorded his work converting a dilapidated wooden narrow boat Cressy in to a liveable abode on which he and his new bride set forth on a four month trip, taking in a variety of canals, pubs and encountering a mixed bag of characters. It was a strange and changing world, at the outbreak of World War II, when the future of the canal system seemed rooted in decrepitude. Yet publication of this book in 1944 led directly to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association when it was founded by Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman in 1946. From this the restoration and use of canals for leisure eventually became assured. My faded volume was published in 1946 and later editions are easy to find. It is an older style of book and I enjoyed it immensely. If published today as a new product it would probably excite little interest and it can be difficult to appreciate today just what sort of impact it had at the time.
A later account of a similar length of journey by narrow boat across the English Canal system, taken in 2001, was written by travel writer and TV Presenter Paul Gogarty. As befitting his background, The Water Road is a well written and informative volume that understands, with the hindsight that the intervening decades have provided, what the reader wants. Part history, part ‘narrowboat odyssey’, part observational anecdote.
It seems to have been no less a strange and awful time when Paul Gogarty’s journey was undertaken- the UK was undergoing a B.S.E. epidemic from which many communities never recovered, Salmonella was in the news and as the trip drew to a close- “I would return home just in time to watch the Twin Towers crumble. The apocalypse was alive and kicking”.
Three Points of the Compass has included a good few miles of canal walking on the Long Walk commencing 1st April 2018. Tow paths can be useful for crossing the country quickly on often good paths. Though these can also be overgrown, muddy and, frankly, boring at times. Also it can be difficult to find wild camping spots along their length in places. But still, I am quite looking forward to some parts of my forthcoming walk that incorporate canals. Most canals have a book or two (or more!) dedicated to their history. There is one in particular that I was keen to add to my book shelf in order to learn a little more.
Exploring the Edinburgh to Glasgow Canals is somewhat different to the aforementioned two books, it is not only a history of the canals (though missing out of more recent developments) but also tells of the towns and industry that were served by the canals in their working life. I am also encouraged by the fact that the author, Hamish Brown, is an accomplished walker and outdoors writer. This then, is not just for the boat dweller, but for those who amble the lengths of canals but want to know more on what they pass.
For a few years, I was fortunate enough to work with/for the author of another little volume that sits on my bookshelf that provides a fascinating and accessible concise introduction to one of the most noticeable facets of the canals; namely, the boats and craft used for trade, industry and upkeep. Tony Conder has illustrated the modestly priced Shire volume Canal Narrowboats and Barges with dozens of photographs from his personal collection. These and his text provide a wealth of information on boat construction, propulsion, their cargo but little of the people that lived and worked their lives on the canals. For that type of information it is best to visit one of the waterway museums listed in the book. The author was curator of the British Waterways Collection for twenty five years and opened the National Waterways Museum at Gloucester in 1988.
Narrow Boat, L.T.C. Rolt. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1946
The Water Road, Paul Gogarty, Robson Books, 2002. ISBN 1 86105 515 3
Exploring the Edinburgh to Glasgow Canals, Hamish Brown. Mercat Press, first published 1997, revised edition 2006. ISBN 978 1 84183 096 4
Canal Narrowboats and Barges, Tony Conder. Shire Publications Ltd. 2004. ISBN 0 7478 0587 3