Foxton

We have been through Foxton many times but in recent years we have rarely stopped to look at the inclined plane. Locking always appears to take priority.

Top Lock with Keb
 
Working up the flight with CRT Volunteer
 
Sculpture of boy and 'orse
 
Entering a lock on the staircase
 
However on Monday we visited Debdale Wharf by car to discuss having some work done on Albert - blacking. It was a glorious early spring's (late winter's) morning so we stopped off at Foxton and visited the inclined plane and its museum. We used to visit Foxton in the 1970s when living in Loughborough so the changes we have seen over the years have been great. The new access road, car parking and signage all make it quite different from the times we spent searching in the undergrowth for evidence of the plane.

It was also helpful that I had recently read the new book by David Carden which tells the tale of both the plane and its designer Gordon Thomas.


 Top of the inclined planes showing the devices for compensating for buoyancy
 
Twin rails to compensate for buoyancy as the lower caisson enters the water



View down the plane to the lower basin
 
 
The museum is small but interesting. The one exhibit that caught my eye was the genuine tunnel lamp complete with side windows to illuminate the legging boards. A bit different from today's lamps! They also had a good collection of old Buckby Cans. 
 

Tunnel lamp complete with side windows and a legging board

Water-Music by Sir John Squire (dedicated to William Bliss)


Although written by Sir John Squire this book was essentially my introduction to William Bliss. It is an account of the canoeing trip by Bliss and Squire along canals and rivers in the summer of 1938. I purchased the book as Solo & Duet a reprint published in 1943 which also contained The Honeysuckle and the Bee. I suppose wartime printing restrictions might have had a role in these two books being reprinted as one.  The fly leaf of Water-Music gives a clue as to its nature because Squire notes, in his dedication to his companion, “This narrative as vagrant as our meandering streams” . And meander it does!
Sir John Squire in 1935
(National Portrait Gallery)

The narrative starts quite straightforwardly with Squire discussing the books Bliss has written on canoeing but Squire admitting that he hadn’t been canoeing apart from the odd short journey down a backwater. Bliss, obviously not a man to let the grass grow under his feet, immediately suggested a week’s canoeing up the River Cherwell, Oxford Canal, portage to the Avon at Warwick, and then back down the Thames.
They left on May 20th 1938, or so it says in a letter to Bliss that Squire reprints. This date will have some significance in a later post. They hired their canoe from Salter’s at Oxford.   It is worthwhile noting that at this stage neither was young. I calculate that Squire was 54 and Bliss 73. Bliss had just had published four books, his Heart of England by Waterway 1933, Canoeing 1934, Rapid Rivers 1935, and his autobiography Pilgrimage of Grace 1937. Squire, a member of the Bloomsbury set, had been editor of the London Mercury magazine and was reviewing for the London Illustrated News. Some of the episodes in the book originally appeared in Punch. He was a literary figure with a reputation for drinking, being credited with the classic one-liner I am not so think as you drunk I am”.
Their journey began with Squire visiting Bliss at his home at Lane End, Buckinghamshire in the Chilterns near High Wycombe.  They promptly set off in a car but not before Bliss had purchased a jug of cider from the Peacock Inn, which is still in business. They managed to take the jug in the boat throughout their adventures without breaking it or drinking it! Their journey is full of interruptions and leisurely, but given their ages I suppose that is only natural. Bliss, being a devout Roman Catholic, breaks off to attend mass, and both have contacts who must be visited along the way. This creates a lot of natural diversions in the text but Squire makes it even more rambling by his literary diversions. You could be forgiven for thinking that this is reminiscent of Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, the uproarious story of the cheese comes to mind, but it is not. The diversions are amusing but literary and this makes it difficult to follow at sometimes. 
I will relate, as an example, one diversion which will give you the flavour of the book. Bliss and Squire are staying at the Crown Hotel Bicester, which unusually had a cinema attached. It is Sunday so Bliss goes to morning mass and they have a late start from Aynho. They are ferried to the Oxford Canal by a car belonging to a friend. They eventually get moving about 4 o’clock and only get as far as Banbury where the locks are shut. They dump the canoe for the night and have dinner. It is then that Bliss announces that he is off to see a friend. Left on his own, Squire rings up a friend who picks him up. Squires’ friends are playing cards at a nearby house. This leads Squire to recall card games in Switzerland and on a ship in the Baltic. He then recalls his visit to Monte Carlo in 1923. Several pages of discussion about gambling later, he recalls that at the roulette tables he sat next to a woman with a heavy accent who introduced herself as Zazel the “‘uman cannon-ball”.  It turns out she had been a very famous celebrity in Victorian England who, as a young girl had thrilled the crowds nightly at the Royal Aquarium which stood opposite Westminster Abbey. According to Squire she had her portrait painted by George Fredric Watts OM.
After this diversion, you might expect Squire to return to the job in hand, describing the journey. Instead he has a discussion with a demon about the meandering nature of his text and he then goes on to discuss the raising of goats, Czech and Irish names, and his passion for poetry.
The book continues in this vein with boating incidents, friends who provide entertainment and accommodation, and many changes of plan. They manage to get back to Oxford in one piece and with the boat intact. Although the journey was not long the reader is taken on a extended journey to far most reaches of John Squires mind!
It is a book for the literary enthusiast who enjoys the English countryside and is nostalgic about the period between the wars, or perhaps for a William Bliss enthusiast - like me.

Fishermans Friends


We went back to the north coast Cornwall in 2010 and stayed at Port Quin. We spent one memorable night on the beach at Port Issac listening to the Fisherman's Friends. Earlier this week I played their album. How sad they have suffered a terrible tragic accident at Guilford.

Fishermans Friends appearing at Port Isaac in 2010


William Bliss: canoeing author and waterways pioneer


I reported back in 2011 on the book Camping by Water by Noel Carrington & Patricia Cavendish published in 1950. It was my first venture into reviewing early books concerned with canoeing rather than motor boating. In that post I noted that my book collection had already been extended to more unconventional waterways literature because I had also obtained a copy of Solo & Duet by SirJohn Squire which contains a description of the author’s 1938 canoe journey with William Bliss along sections of the Oxford Canal, Grand Union and River Avon. I also reported that I had yet to review this literary work because I didn’t find it easy to summarise, the book being more about the author’s views on a whole variety of subjects rather than about their waterways journey.
What I didn’t realise at the time was where the Squire book was eventually to lead me, and what a rich vein of old waterways literature lay in front of me. It took me some time to discover it, and also sometime to appreciate it fully, but I now feel that I should start posting about some more early canoeing books. These books all come from the pen of William Bliss who wrote about canoeing and who loved the waterways, particularly the canals, with passion. His 1934 book Canoeing has a preface by no less a person than that great inland waterways champion A.P. Herbert which begins with the words “Canoe! Canal!! Magical words”.
I had always promised myself that one day I would investigate the mysterious “Bliss” that Squire often refers to in his book, but I failed to do much about it until around a year ago. Squire describes him as being a famous author of books about canoeing, and gives some details of his life, but I was unaware of how strong was Bliss’s commitment to inland waterways in general and canals in particular.
William Bliss isn’t exactly a name that comes to mind when discussing the leisure use of waterways in the early twentieth century. I had wrongly assumed given the popularity of canoeing that Bliss would perhaps be a household name in that world, but that turns out to be wrong. Even in canoeing circles he appears at most to be an “unsung hero” and is often unknown.  A recent posting on a discussion forum dedicated to books on early canoeing said " William Bliss seems to be a forgotten figure in British Canoeing. It seems that he may have been one of the true pioneers" 
However, he isn’t entirely forgotten in waterways’ circles because the Old Waterways Books blog site reviewed Bliss's book Heart of England by Waterway some time ago and Mick, who runs the site, owns a signed copy of the book.
 
Frontispiece of Heart of England by Waterway by William Bliss (1933)
Presumably of the Author reading his notes while resting in a lock
 
So, what did I do about researching William Bliss? My first step was to obtain a copy of Heart of England by Waterway. I am now a proud (perhaps very proud?) owner of a good condition first edition (1933). It is without any inscription or dust jacket. I read it cover to cover and found it one of the most evocative waterways books I have ever read. It is just fascinating and the language is wonderful. I suggest that readers find the excellent post on Old Waterways Books where it is reviewed and some of the best passages in the book are quoted. Readers may also recall that I included an amusing anecdote from the book in my post about the Red Lion at Cropredy.
I then moved on and purchased a first edition of another Bliss book - Rapid Waters (1935) which, as the name suggests, is about canoeing on rivers rather than navigations. Although perhaps less interesting to a canal enthusiast, I couldn’t help buying this copy because it was signed by the author and it has an intriguing dedication. This copy has suffered water damage, although I thought that this was apt given the subject matter – did it fall overboard from a canoe?!
Finally, I purchased a first edition (1934) of Canoeing: The Art and Practice of Canoeing on English Rivers, Navigations and Canals, with a Description and Tables of Distances of the Canoeable Waterways of England and Wales. (What a great subtitle!)
These three books by Bliss, and the book by Squire about his travels with Bliss, have made me a confirmed William Bliss enthusiast. By using references from these books, searching some web-based sources, and visiting the area where Bliss lived, I have managed to piece together something of his life. I have also made an uncanny connection between Bliss and the navigation notes that Mick of Old Waterways books found inside his copy of Heart of England by Waterway.
What I intend to do is to post reviews of all four books along with a further post about what I have discovered about the life and waterways journeys of William Bliss. This post is effectively a preface to this series.