It is said that most of us in Britain live within five miles of a stretch of canal. Many of these have fallen into disrepair. Some have been built over. Thanks to the work of enthusiasts, however, many remain navigable. There are now more boats using these manmade waterways than in their working heyday.
In 2016 Jasper Winn was approached by the Canal and River Trust – current custodians of the canals – about becoming their first Writer in Residence. His brief was to spend the next year making his way across the two thousand or so miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales – on foot, bike, boat and canoe – exploring their history and learning the stories of the people who live, work and play there. A partnership between the Trust and Profile Books would enable his findings to be published, providing an account of Britain’s canals including their culture and wildlife.
To start things off, the author spends three days as an apprentice on a narrow boat, discovering the basics of canal navigation. He then travels to the Exeter Canal – built to solve a local problem before there was apparent need nationally for the transport option provided.
“Sixteenth-century England didn’t have enough high-value, bulky cargoes to move around; there was no need to build anything national”
“For the 200 years after the Exeter Canal was built, the majority of the goods and materials people used, consumed and aspired to were produced locally.”
This changed when the industrial revolution increased the need for coal in city and other locations. Canals were built, underground as well as overground, to shift commodities from source to factories. The wealth generated along with increased migration changed the economy – ergo the population’s consumer habits.
The author purchases a fold-up bike and sets out to cycle along the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal which is regarded as the first canal of the modern age. The history of this and subsequent canals visited makes for fascinating reading. As well as detailing the engineering achievements there is social and economic history – and a snapshot of what remains. Text is enhanced by the inclusion of many pictures showing canal life and key features.
The author also travels the canals in his kayak, navigating coast to coast in the north and along the route of the Devizes to Westminster race. He joins a litter picking party using paddleboards to reach detritus. He runs a half marathon along towpaths. To round off his year or so of exploration, he hires a narrow boat with a group of friends.
Interesting tidbits are interspersed with facts gleaned, such as: why towpaths change banks on long stretches of canal; why there are occasional ramps leading from canal floor to towpath; how, on a busy working canal, passing boats dealt with crossing towropes.
The author delves into the lives of those who built the canals – the navvies – as well as those who worked the boats and supported the industry and network. He writes of the dangers of life on the waterways, but also that it could provide a decent living. As he walks, cycles and kayaks he talks to those who use the facility today. He sleeps alongside towpaths in his bivvy bag. He enjoys the canal side pubs, especially those with live music.
Although the advent of the railways took much of the trade from working waterways, many remained operational well into the twentieth century. It is thanks to the vision of those who saw the potential of canals as leisure facilities that many were saved. Working boats were converted into houseboats offering affordable if peripatetic accommodation. As demand increased, costs rose, but canal dwellers still form an atypical if largely friendly and helpful community.
Any Cop?: Across fourteen engaging chapters the reader is provided with views of life on the canals across time and from a wide variety of perspectives. It made this prospective have-a-go boater rethink the wisdom of ever hiring a narrow boat. Nevertheless, it brought to life many aspects of the waterways I have long enjoyed touring.