The Great Towpath Walk - Brian Bearshaw

Long time since I posted. I've been busy on various non-waterways projects and the months just rolled by. However, I was still active reading and buying waterways books so you can expect a few such posts in the near future - and we do intend boating during the summer.

Cover featuring Foxton

One of my recent finds followed on from  my post on The Towpaths of England by Brian Bearshaw. You may recall that I noted that in that book some individual canal-side walks were featured but the centre of England appeared neglected. This book is different and consists of one long walk through the centre of England from London to York. It therefore covers many of the canals that were "missing" from his earlier book including the Grand Union. I say earlier because this book was published in 1988 following Towpath Walks which came out in 1985. This book follows the author walking from central London via the River Thames and then along the Grand Union to Leicester followed by walks alongside the Rivers Soar, Trent and Ouse.

Route of the walk (back cover)

The walk was obviously a considerable undertaking requiring careful planning. Each chapter is basically one day's worth of walking - making this a 16 day walk. As with Towpaths of England, this hardback book is beautifully illustrated with stylish black and white drawings by David Chesworth.

A typical map for a day's walk

The text is more interesting than Bearshaw's earlier book with more content related to the people he met on the way. I suppose that is more of the nature of long distance walking as opposed to walking on single days because overnight stops are required. Most evening stops are only alluded to in the book and it is not that easy to work out where the author spent each night, although there are clues.

Copper mill, Harefield 
The inn is now The Coy Carp

Windmill in Milton Keynes

On most occasions Bearshaw was fortunate with his overnight stops but on one occasion his source, presumably a guidebook, let him down badly. This incident was of particular interest to me because firstly the location is very well known to us, but secondly the way Bearshaw recovered from his predicament. He was weary, and it was getting dark, when he met Brenda Walker who ran Anchor Cottage Crafts at Long Buckby. We knew Brenda in the 1990s when we often stopped at her shop and browsed her wares. We also knew her son who lived in our village. Bearshaw was obviously so grateful for being taken in for the night by Brenda because she not only gets plaudits for her breakfast but she also is the only character he meets that is mentioned by name - she obviously made an impression on him. Strangely, she doesn't appear in the books index which only lists historical characters.

River Soar
I found it a good book to read during the winter evenings. Although thirty years-old most places mentioned are still very much the same so it still has relevance for today's boaters. Making comparisons, particularly with some of the boats illustrated is a fun pastime. It is particularly interesting to note the changes that have occurred on the River Trent; when the book was written it was still a busy commercial waterway.

River Trent scene

Bearshaw makes a number of off-towpath diversions during the walk, notably along the Trent and at York but his focus remains the towpath and the history of the areas passed. The River Trent chapters certainly opened my eyes to some of the historic areas that the river traverses.


When reviewed Towpaths of England, I likened it to a guidebook and noted they didn't produce books like that any more. The Great Towpath Walk is is less of a guidebook and more of a travelogue and they are a very popular form of non-fiction. I can just imagine Michael Palin taking this journey along with a camera crew and writing a spin-off book. Of course today's travelogues are usually gloriously illustrated coffee-table books with colour photographs and not modestly sized books with hand-drawn monochrome illustrations, but therein lies its charm. I suggest you look out on the usual on-line suppliers for a copy which should be available at modest cost.

Stern Fenders

Albert has (unusually) sported four stern fenders for some time. When we originally bought Albert back in 2003 the stern had a single tipcat and a single long extended button braced by turn buckles. Both had seen slightly better days so I renewed them in 2004 with the usual arrangement of two standard tipcats and a button. After some time a realised that the fenders didn't actually cover the whole of Albert's ample rudder, probably because the tipcats were not particularly deep and they had also started becoming compressed. I therefore took the easy way out and six years ago I added another tipcat to the stern array, making four fenders in total.

Albert's Three Fenders 2017

With the passage of time this arrangement became more and more scruffy and the fenders became more and more compressed making adjustment a regular process. Just before Christmas I decided enough was enough and I would start again with a complete set of new fenders. Again I went to Tradline Fenders in Braunston and after some discussion I decided that a normal "working boat" arrangement of two wide deep-bellied tipcats (26 and 24 inches) and a long button would suffice. They arrived last week (there's a waiting list) and today they were installed on Albert. I think they look the part and they certainly cover the rudder.

Albert's Four Fenders in 2011

Towpaths of England by Brian Bearshaw

Nowadays I rarely get second-hand canal books given as presents since most of my friends and family find it difficult to find books that are not already part of my collection. However, for my recent landmark birthday a friend of ours managed to discover an interesting book that was not on my radar.

The book is Towpaths of England by Brian Bearshaw.  Hard backed leisure books like this were already a dying breed when it was published back in 1985 and nowadays they just don't feature. Most modern travellers would simply log on to walking web-site, or even try Canal and River Trust web pages for the sort of information it provides. The book is organised into a number of walks (twenty -six in all) with details of sites local to the canals concerned. The narrative provided by the Lancastrian author is interesting but of necessity draws on many familiar historical texts.

The local colour provided by the text has, of course, changed a lot over the 30 years since this book was written. For example, the Kennet & Avon walk rarely includes much about boats because of course the navigation was not fully open when the book was written. The text reports what a daunting prospect the Caen flight would have been during the days of canal carrying and notes that restoration is required since the flight was closed in 1951.

All the walks are along canals (no river navigations) and the emphasis is on northern waters which is no surprise given the authors background. However, some southern walks are included, notably the Regent's Canal and the Chelmer & Blackwater. Stretches of the Grand Union are included but the author fails to cover the Grand Junction and concentrates on the Market Harborough to Leicester section, a section near Solihull and the Northampton arm.

The jewel of this publication just has to be its illustrations. It is very well illustrated by some excellent pen and ink drawings by David Chesworth. To me its the drawings that make the book. Many illustrations are of locations that don't often get recorded and some are just great pieces of art.

Examples of the book still appear to be available through the usual channels, and for not much cost. If you enjoy good drawings of canal scenes then this book is definitely worth considering.    

Another watercolour - but not of Albert

We are partial to watercolours, particularly those that represent boating subjects. When I reached 65, Maggie bought me a lovely watercolour of Albert crossing the Iron Trunk by Peter Bowtell as a present.

Last week, when I reached the three score years and ten milestone, she surprised me with another watercolour, this time a scene of the Grand Union near Marsworth by Brian Robinson, an artist who lives near Berkhamsted. We visited his gallery a few years ago and admired his series of paintings "Boats and Water".

Winter Afternoon near Marsworth by Brian Robinson 

I particularly like Brian's treatment of the reflection of the trees and the smoke rising from boat chimneys. It makes an evocative scene.