Slowly through England

Last year I reviewed Jonathan Coe's The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim. I may have been rather ambivalent towards the novel itself, but there were two very good results of reading Coe's novel. The novel partially revolved round the life of Donald Crowhurst, and L.T.C. Rolt's account of life on a narrowboat in the shadow of war, Narrowboat.

As regular Bookhounders will know, I reviewed an account of the life of Donald Crowhurst, and now it's time to look at L.T.C. Rolt's Narrowboat. It's a beautiful, ironic read. In the late '30s Rolt discovered the vanishing world of the English waterways. Horse drawn barges were still used to move haulage across England, but they were rapidly vanishing. As they were vanishing so were the canals. These former arteries of the industrial heart of England were becoming polluted by the industries they had formerly served. Ironically as the canals were dying so too were many of the industries that had formerly depended on them.

Rolt met a young woman, who was also obsessed with the waterways. They married, and spent the early part of their married life on a canal boat, Cressy, travelling in a wide loop around the English Midlands. As they spent an idyllic summer travelling along the forgotten waterways meeting the last of the bargemen to make a living from the canals, meeting people who had been born and married on the canals, dramatic changes were on the horizon, as England slid into war.

Ironically the war was to temporarily improve life on the canals, as they became a vital part of the war effort, moving freight across the country, and fighting fire from fire barges in the inner cities. Post-war the situation rapidly worsened.

By the 1960s many of the canals were badly silted, dirty and impassible. But Rolt's book, first published in 1944, became a testimony to the importance and beauty of canals. He was a founder member of the Inland Waterways Association. His writing was fundamentally important in the resurrection and protection of British waterways. The fact that more people than ever before now use waterways both for leisure and as homes is down to L.T.C. Rolt and the people inspired by him.

Narrow boat is a swansong, a paean to a lost way of life. There's both a sadness about it, and a great deal of beauty, in the writing, in the countryside, in the minutiae of day to day life in a time that is remarkably near, and yet incredibly remote. For any lover of history, nature, and tradition, prepare to be enchanted by L.T.C. Rolt's Narrow boat.


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