Worcestershire by L.T.C. Rolt

Tom Rolt was living aboard Cressy at the top of Tardibigge Flight when he wrote Narrow Boat, then titled A Painted Ship. He wrote it without having a publisher and when completed it joined High Horse Riderless, his then unpublished philosophy, in a suitcase under his bed [1]. 

However, during 1943 things were about to change. Correspondence with the rural writer H. J. Massingham on the effects of modern technology and economics on world ecology transformed Rolt’s publishing career. Massingham was taken by Rolt’s ideas and suggested that because Rolt was living on a boat that he write a book about English canals. Rolt explained to Massingham that he had already written one so Massingham helped him find a publisher. Massingham then went on to suggest that Rolt write a book for a new series about the English counties – Rolt chose Worcestershire the county of his residence. Massingham must have had some clout in publishing circles because, without Rolt having a published book, he was given a contract without any guidelines and not even a proper word limit (anything from 70-120,000 was considered acceptable). All of a sudden Tom Rolt had a book accepted for publication and a commission for another.
Eckington Bridge, River Avon

Worcestershire was therefore written whilst Rolt was developing his philosophy and exploring his ideas of ecology. He disliked the romanticised views that most contemporary books of rural England had and set about writing “something of more moment than a mere guidebook”. His choice of Worcestershire was brought about partly because he could combine research with his paid job with the Ministry of Supply and partly because he viewed it “more than any other shire, to represent a microcosm of England”. 
Fladbury Mill, River Avon

So the reader shouldn’t expect a guidebook and, although it is not by any means a treatise on ecology, it is all about the role of man in the environment and full of examples of skilled workers producing goods using methods that Rolt believes are in harmony with the “natural order”. Rolt set out to write two journeys through the county, one in time and one in place, and to present his philosophy. His training and background in engineering, that was to dominate his later writing career, does however shine through. His love of waterways and railways is clear in the book. I am sure that very few other writers would have given them that level of prominence. 

Water transport on the River Severn
Coracle built by Harry Rogers, Coalbrookdale

The book is an interesting read but in places Rolt takes his ecological arguments a little far for me. He alludes  to “enlightened scientists” who are concerned to answer questions on soil health but "may be opposed by powerful financial interests" and describes changes in agricultural that he considers regrettable. Massingham helped found the Soil Association, so I presume Rolt held similar views to his mentor. 
Horse-drawn boat on the Worcestershire & Birmingham Canal
(note the child with the horse)

Tom Rolt originally wanted Narrow Boat illustrated using Angela Rolt’s photographs but the publisher wanted a more "rural style" and asked Denys Watkins-Pitchford (BB) to provide the wood cuts that are now very much part of the earlier editions. Worcestershire, on the other hand, is well illustrated with forty nine monochrome plates by various photographers including Angela Rolt. Many are landscapes, which is not surprising given the subject of the book, but Tom Rolt’s enthusiasms come through. There are scenes of water transport on the River Severn and Worcester & Birmingham Canal and rail transport in the form of “Big Bertha” the LMS engine that for years acted as a banker on the Likely Incline close to Tardibigge. There is a wonderful selection of photographs in the book illustrating craftsmen at work, many using skills that have long gone. My favourite is of the making lockgates at Tardebigge using a shell auger. 

2290 "Big-Bertha" the 0-10-0 banking engine for the Lickey Incline

My first edition of Worcestershire, purchased through eBay, was not expensive and it included a renovated dust-cover. A book to look out for, particularly if you have a copy of Narrow Boat as its companion.

[1] Background details for this review came from Landscape with Canals by LTC Rolt which can be obtained as part of the Landscape Trilogy, the autobiography of Tom Rolt.