With my edition published by The History Press in 2010, its a testament to both the quality of the writing and the subject matter that this has been reprinted at least nine times since its first publication in 1944.
On the surface, an account of a lengthy journey undertaken by the author and his wife around much of the canal network as a kind of honeymoon, doesn’t thrill with anticipation. The year however was 1939, and the slow pace of the journey around the back doors of England, coupled with the authors’ acutely observational style and philosophical bent mean this is compelling and thoroughly enjoyable, especially after seventy years have elapsed.
Structured logically, (and beautifully illustrated by Denys Watkins-Pitchford), beginning with the redesigning and fitting out of Rolt’s narrow boat Cressy, each chapter passes through distinctly different stretches of canal. From Banbury, through Leicester, the Trent, the potteries, Nantwich, Shropshire and Lichfield, he comes full circle. Along the way he celebrates not only life on the boat, but the lives of other boating families, toilers by the cut, and the farms, landscape and wildlife encountered. An insightful and thoughtful writer, he seems to have something of a crystal-ball.
Today the talk is all of planning, and there are many who would plan and control the country from the town. The fact that this is seriously contemplated is a measure of the gulf which divides the countryman from the urban philosopher. For the land is not a food factory to be exploited by large highly mechanised ranches run by businessmen and mechanics, and the ruinous effect on fertility of this conception of cash-crop farming is already evident in other countries. The land needs husbandmen, not machines and their slaves; it offers us a way of life, not a source of profit.
He goes on..
There are two courses open to each man in his brief lifetime: either he can seek the good life, or he can struggle for wealth and power; the former emphasises spiritual, the latter material values.After the war the choice will be ours, and if it be the good life, the land awaits our coming. If on the other hand, we continue to pursue our material obsession, the urban bureaucrats are ready to plan our lives from cradle to grave and we shall become the slaves of a scientific “Technocracy’.
Rolt was clearly something of a visionary, and what he saw has become the norm; I suspect he would be rather disappointed with what we have chosen or what has been chosen for us. This book is not merely a gateway into the relatively recent past, but into a very different world, one which it is a pleasure to share with L T C, and dream of a now that might have been, but in a present where we can celebrate his legacy.