Strong River Flows in Spring

Last year at this time we planned our trip around the Thames Ring. On March 2nd last year I reported that there were lots of red warning boards on the RiverThames stopping boating. This year it appears we have the same.

Our plans this Spring don't include the River Thames but they do include other rivers such as the Warwickshire Avon and the Severn. Let's hope things improve.

Last year stream conditions improved a little in early March but heavy rains in early April caused us to break our journey at Oxford and wait about two weeks. I will probably use the Thames warnings as a general monitor. We may have to consider a canal-only cruise.

Boating Blogs

I see that according to the UK Waterways Ranking that Granny Buttons is no longer top of the waterways blogging heap. Once again No Problem is the most popular. Presumably this is because Granny hasn't posted for nearly two weeks. Andrew must be very busy with Waterways World. Albert has never ranked very highly, mostly around 25, but it is interesting to see what gets readers.

Camping by Water - Noel Carrington & Patricia Cavendish

My collection of waterways-related second-hand books has at its core books related to the canals and navigable rivers. However, some of my collection has extended to more unconventional waterways literature covering other modes of transport, for example I have a copy of Solo & Duet by Sir John Squire which contains a description of his 1938 canoe journey with William Bliss along sections of the Oxford Canal, Grand Union and River Avon. I have yet to review this literary tome because it is not an easy book to summarise, being more about the author’s views on a whole variety of subjects than about their journey. To call it rambling would be an understatement; but then I am also digressing!

Camping by Water is a delightful practical book published at an important point in the life of our inland waterways – 1950. I recently bought a good copy via an eBay auction for a reasonable sum (less than £20). It has 140 pages with numerous line drawings and some photographic plates. I think there was only ever one edition.

To use the advertising cliché, as it says on the cover it is about camping using the waterways. Transport is assumed to be mostly by canoe although details of sailing dinghies, and the hire of cabin cruisers & open narrow boats are provided.

The book was published just after canal nationalisation. The historical significance of the period hit me immediately when I read the foreword by Peter Scott who was then vice President of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and his then wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, was its part-time secretary. Scott begins his foreword to Camping by Water with an eloquent promotion of the importance of water in the landscape and ends with this plea for support of the IWA:

"The indefatigable unpaid workers of the Inland Waterways Association are putting the whole nation in their debt by their unceasing efforts to promote the restoration of all British navigations to the good order which the law has all the time required, and the subsequent full use of those navigations for both trade and pleasure boating. The Waterways are an asset which must no longer be wasted, but they stand, at the moment, in grave danger. In the main they have been nationalised, they belong to us all and what is done with them is our decision. We must decide wisely and at once."

You would, however, be wrong if you think this book is all about campaigning for the waterways. Far from it, it is a very practical book explaining how to get access to our waterways heritage at a time when it was far from easy and their future was in doubt. It is more of a Nicholson Guide than a Narrow Boat. The first author Noel Carrington was involved with Oxford University Press and originated Puffin Books. He was a noted book designer which might account for the charming embossed illustration on the book cover.

Early chapters cover the choice of craft, tents and equipment. These provide a fascinating insight into boating in post-war austerity Britain. However, the bulk of chapters include descriptions and maps of rivers and canals that can be navigated by small craft. These chapters also give details of where boats of all sorts and sizes can be hired.

The section on the Shropshire Union gives the following advice:

"The Welsh Canal passes through Whitchurch, Ellesmere and Chirk up the valley of the River Dee to Llantisilio, which is a mile beyond Llangollen. It is navigable at all times for boats drawing up to 3' of water. It passes through some very beautiful country, but it is unfortunately very shallow and weedy. Nowadays there is no commercial traffic on this canal to help clear the weeds, and technically the L.M.S. Railway obtained powers of abandonment in 1945. Actually a certain amount of maintenance is still done as the water is needed, being taken in from the Dee at Llantisilio as a feeder to the main canal. But the upkeep of bridges has passed to the local District Councils and there is some danger of their substituting flat bridges on main roads for the present hump-backed ones."

It was only just before this was written that Tom and Angela Rolt had finally managed to cross the Pontcysllte aqueduct with narrowboat Cressy after years of trying.

There is a chapter covering the Broads by Peter Heaton and several chapters about rivers such as the Wye and the Arun that in canal-boat terms we would consider not to be navigable. Given the book has a foreword by Peter Scott, the final chapter in the book is very apposite; it covers waterside wildlife and is written by EAR Ennion who was the warden of Flatford Mill Field Centre.

All in all, a charming historically important book that is very evocative of its era. I am delighted with it.

Film of Sister Mary Ward

I recently posted about Stoke Bruerne's Sister Mary Ward. When recently browsing the British Pathe News video clips about waterways, I discovered that some film of her carrying out her duties in 1949.

Classic stuff! I hope you enjoy it. It is unfortunately labelled the Bargee's Doctor! There is much more on the British Pathe site that will interest those with an interest in modern social history.

Click on the image below to run the clip. You may have to tolerate an advert before the film loads.


The River Runs Uphill by Robert Aickman

With the intended change in status of British Waterways to charitable status the ideas of Robert Aickman, the founding chairman of the Inland Waterways Association, for a National Waterways Conservancy have become more relevant and certainly more discussed in the waterways press than of late. Indeed Waterways World recently ran a series on Aickman.

So what of Aickman’s most significant waterways book – The River Runs Uphill? I picked up a first edition late last year on ebay, read it, and then pondered long and hard before writing a review. From this you might guess that it hasn’t been easy to sum up my feelings about the book and you would be right.

The first thing to note is that this book is largely Aickman’s views of the early history of the IWA and it was only published posthumously in 1986, by Michael Pearson, after it had lain gathering dust at another publisher for several years. It was published to help celebrate the IWA's 40th anniversary.

The early years of the IWA were full of conflict between those who supported Tom Rolt’s more “pragmatic views” and those who supported Robert Aickman’s crusade. As a result you might have thought that the book would provide a fascinating insight into what occurred by one who was deeply involved. However, you would be wrong. The book is largely a mixture of the author’s philosophy of operating a campaigning organisation and historical notes abstracted from early IWA Bulletins. It does contain some interesting passages, particularly associated with the famous 1950 Market Harborough Rally, but even this section omits important details and skirts around several issues; a problem that runs throughout the book.

Michael Pearson, in his publisher’s note, appears somewhat at odds with the book, almost apologetic. He points out the Aickman heavily edited his original manuscript and that it contains “serious flaws” – not much of an advert. He expects the reader to “take the book as he or she finds it”. He does however claim it to be a minor masterpiece of its genre.

What are the flaws? Firstly, the key relationship between Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman is very sparsely and unevenly covered. He speaks highly of Rolt’s book “High Horse Riderless but not much else. Reading this book doesn’t provide any more revelations concerning the well-known difficulties that the two had; they are covered better elsewhere. Secondly, Aickman often name drops or at least appears to be cultivating relationships with the “great and the good” at what appears to be the expense of growing a mass membership for the IWA. Maybe because this is because he considered the IWA to be primarily a campaigning organisation and he was operating under the principle “it’s not what you know but who you know that’s important”. However, reading the book I became more and more annoyed at his attitude and by his elitist philosophy.

There is no reference at all to Robert Aickman’s wife Ray, who appears in plates in the book and was with him when he met Tom & Angela Rolt at Tardebigge. She is “airbrushed” out of the manuscript. He does however mention in adoring terms Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was then married to Peter Scott. Aickman was clearly besotted by her describing her as the most beautiful of women and like a creature from the Arabian Nights.

Several passages in the book are also devoted to ghost stories; Aickman published collections of ghost stories and wrote several. The stories don’t fit well in a book which essentially describes the early days of the IWA.

So what are its good points? Although the description of the Market Harborough Festival is less than adequate, the book highlights the role of theatre in the event. I for one did not realise the importance of this. The famous voyage in the wooden cruiser Ailsa Craig on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is well described in an interesting and enjoyable manner and the black and white plates, presumably selected by the publisher are very good.

Oh and the dust jacket, if you can find a copy with one, it is very attractive. Praising a book’s dust jacket must say something about a book. Pearson stated that “at worst the book frustrates attempts to read between the lines”. I got frustrated and I wasn’t reading between the lines.