Heart of England by Waterway by William Bliss


In total William Bliss wrote four books, three on canoeing and one “Pilgrimage of Grace” an autobiography of his early life. This book, his first, wasn’t published until 1933 when Bliss was already 68. It appears that Bliss took up the pen following his retirement from the law.

The subtitle to the book is A Canoeing Chronicle by River and Canal, but you should not be under any illusions this book is mostly about canals. Bliss just loved canoeing along canals because of their vistas and landscapes. There is a most wonderful passage in the introduction that has already been partly quoted by Mick of Old Waterways Books. It describes a journey along a section of the south Oxford Canal. I will quote it at length because to me it says it all about the joys of boating.    
“I remember-I shall remember always-one such place upon the Oxford Canal somewhere between Oxford and Banbury-somewhere about Heyford, I think it must have been, or Steeple Aston. It was an early Easter -March or early April-and I had come up from Oxford in a canoe to find the Spring. It had been cold when I started, a north-west wind and even a few flakes of snow, but when I had come about sixteen miles and it was, I suppose, a little after midday or towards one o'clock, the wind fell and the sun came out suddenly warm and caressing, and great blue patches opened in the clouds. I was paddling quietly round just such a bend as I have described, the rounded grassy slopes leaned down and closed me in on my right, but on my left the meadows fell away and all was open country, with the young Cherwell showing here and there among its willows three fields away in the valley bottom. I had breakfasted very early in Oxford and thought of lunch, and as I let my canoe come to rest against the sheltering bank a heavenly scent of Spring came to me on the sun warmed wind, and I looked up at the bank to see, just above my right shoulder, a colony of white violets. I had found Spring and would celebrate the discovery.”
 
Bliss then takes lunch with “a Nuits St. George, not greatest of burgundies, but quite good enough for outdoors..” and then goes to finish with “but the point I wish to make is that I had seen and experienced something which I have seen and experienced only from a canal; no  river could have given it to me”.
 
 
Presumably Radcot Bridge, Upper Thames

As you can tell the style of  writing is “of its time” but his enthusiasm and the quality of the prose make it a book that is a joy to read. The book even has light moments - I have already quoted the section relating to the Red Lion at Cropredy.  
 
Bliss also describes one of the last passages through Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames and Severn Canal.

 
The book has nine chapters and three are related to the River Severn. Given the title refers to England a fair amount of time is actually spent describing journeys in Wales with sections related to Welshpool and Vyrnwy.  
 
You could get the impression that this is book is all about canoeing but Bliss and his companions travelled along the Severn in 1899 using a randan – a rowing boat with one person sculling (two oars) and the other two rowing (single oar). This meant they had more draught than a canoe, and occasionally went aground, but they found the boat very useful when they had a difficult moment negotiating a bend in the Ironbridge Gorge.
 
If the book has a flaw it is that ends abruptly without any conclusions or resume. It simply finishes with “The distance from Ludlow to Worcester by river, I judge to be about 50 miles”. After such a wonderful introduction I would have expected something better.
 
This book must have had some modest success at time because Bliss went on to write three more books, including a handbook on canoeing published by Methuen, but his books became “forgotten” during the post war era even by canoeists. In terms of its impact on the waterways this book cannot rank with the likes of the books by Tom Rolt, but it in terms of enthusiasm for the landscape of canals this book cannot be beaten. Copies of this book do become available on the web but in my experience they are not cheap.