The book that saved our canals

When Narrow Boat was published 70 years ago it inspired the restoration of Britain’s canal network. Chris Bond looks at the book’s legacy and why our canals are so popular.


THE world moves at a dizzying pace these days. Technology allows us to communicate with folk on the other side of the world in an instant, while news that once took hours, if not days, to reach people is now beamed into our homes in the blink of an eye.

But there’s a nagging feeling that rather than making our lives easier, our increasingly digitised world is actually making it harder to switch off. Perhaps that’s why we look back longingly to what was a slower, simpler way of life.

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Perhaps, too, this desire to step off the treadmill is one of the reasons behind the resurgence of interest in our canals in recent decades. While these watery arteries were once the lifeblood of Britain’s industry they have a different kind of allure, offering a view of the country that those who travel by car or train never get to see.

Today, our canals and waterways are a source of great pride and a boon to tourism. But back in the 1940s it was a different story with our entire canal system in seemingly terminal decay.

The catalyst for its salvation came in the unlikely form of a book called Narrow Boat, by LTC (Tom) Rolt, and 70 years after it was first published a limited anniversary edition has been produced to mark the occasion.

Jo Bell, an industrial archaeologist and the inaugural Canal Laureate, has written a special foreword for a book she believes changed the way people viewed these precious waterways.

“It’s an anthemic book,” she says, speaking from her narrowboat Tinker. “It describes a very natural way of living and a country that people had almost forgotten existed. It’s also driven by a compulsion to explain the canals to those who don’t yet know them.

“Rolt was a missionary for the canals and he wants the reader to feel the connection between land and water, between then and now, and also between people and water.”

Rolt was co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association as well as an author who wrote biographies of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Telford and the Stephensons. He was also passionate about Britain’s industrial heritage long before it became fashionable.

In 1939, Rolt stepped on board his boat “Cressy” and embarked on a gentle odyssey that took him over 400 miles along the network of canals in the Midlands through to the Trent and Mersey before finishing in Oxford.

In his subsequent book he recounts how he and his wife fitted out the boat as their home and celebrates the lives of the working boatmen they encounter and the hidden corners of England they discovered on their travels.

Narrow Boat quickly became a success, striking a chord with a nation that had grown weary of war and yearned for peace and tranquility.

But as Bell, who was born in Sheffield, points out, he travelled along England’s canals when they were in a ruinous state. “After the First World War our canals fell into decline and at the start of the Second World War they really were in a state of disrepair. By the time Rolt came to write his book many had become derelict.

“Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is famous in this country as the longest canal tunnel, but it slipped out of use in 1921 and closed in 1944.”

In the postwar period there was a sudden desire to explore the countryside. “People started to have more leisure time and they wanted to explore their own country through things like rambling and the canals were part of this.

“The canal network we have today is solely used for leisure and it was Narrow Boat that started the movement to restore it. People realised what the canals had to offer and how wonderful they were.”

However, restoring this vast network of waterways didn’t happen overnight. “Because of the poor state many of them were in it wasn’t really until the 1970s before you see them starting to be brought back to life.”

Up until that point the idea of going on holiday on Britain’s canals was decidedly unappealing. “Our canals had been full of industrial rubbish and nobody wanted to use them.”

Bell’s passion for them started in 2001 when she took a job with British Waterways’ Working Boats project. “Gradually, through working with boatmen and getting to know more about canal life I started to appreciate how rich and peaceful it is.”

The UK has more than 2,000 miles of canals and waterways and Yorkshire is home to some of the finest. “If you take the Calder and Hebble Canal it’s different from any other. It goes through Hebden Bridge and the vista with the lush green hills is stunning.”

But it’s about more than just the views. “If you’re travelling by boat on a canal you’re only moving at three miles an hour, which is walking pace, and you get to see the changing architecture and hear people’s accents change. You get a real sense of going through your own country and experiencing it in a different way.

It’s not all a rural idyll, of course. Many of our canals run through some less than salubrious parts of our towns and cities. But they also cut through some of the country’s most majestic landscapes. And then there’s the peace and quiet. “You can go for days without really seeing anyone.”

Yorkshire has some of the country’s most stunning routes although they can require a bit more concentration. “You get great views but canal people don’t always like it because of the hills which means more locks.”

Yorkshire is home to Standedge Tunnel, at the top of the English canal system and at 16,500ft it takes around two hours to go through. “It’s immense and if there was such a thing as the seven wonders of the canal world then that would be one of them.”

Bell is part of Britain’s canal “community” which numbers around 150,000. “It’s like a small town that’s constantly on the move,” she says. “You recognise faces and you find yourself bumping into people six months later in a different part of the country.”

There’s little sign of people growing tired of our waterways as new generations discover their charms. “They’re part of our heritage and allow us to see the history of our towns and cities.

“But there’s also some really interesting parts of our towns that most people don’t see and there’s a very strong sense of glimpsing a secret Britain, the places that people who only travel by road know nothing about.”

In her foreword to the anniversary edition of Rolt’s book Bell writes that a canal “is a place of small miracles - a heron in the housing estate, a family working a holiday boat slowly through a lock ...

“Much has changed in seventy years but it may still be true, as Tom Rolt reports in the words of old boatman Jack, ‘If no-one went faster than I do, there’d be a sight less trouble in this world.’”

• Our canals are home to over 2,700 listed structures, 50 ancient monuments and five UNESCO world heritage sites. The Aire & Calder Navigation, constructed around 1700, is considered as Britain’s first industrial waterway.

At more than three miles long, the Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is the UK’s longest canal tunnel.

The oldest canal is the Roman-built Fossdyke Navigation which connects the River Trent to Lincoln.

In 1912, a cow called Buttercup fell into the Leeds-Liverpool Canal by the southern entrance of Foulridge Tunnel. But rather than wade out, she swam the 1,640 yards to the northern end, where she was revived with brandy by drinkers in the nearby Hole in the Wall pub.

• Narrow Boat, published Canal & River Trust in conjunction with The History Press, is out now priced £14.99