A timeline of canal literature

FROM THE VOYAGES OF ECCENTRIC late-Victorian travellers to post-war classics and humorous accounts of travel on water – Sarah Jasmon traces the history of canal writing.

An illustration of books rested on a grassy bank. In the background there is a beautiful rural scene.

Illustration by Jenny Hoare

Words by Sarah Jasmon

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If you have an interest in boats, then you probably have at least one canal-related book on your shelves. Between the Nicholson guides and canal histories, there might be a memoir or a popular novel with a towpath background. I’ve been collecting canal books, in a casual way, since I first got my boat 15 years ago. But, as I keep finding out, there are always more to discover.

Writing about canals comes in regular waves – there’s the eccentric traveller of the early 20th century dipping a toe in the exotic world of the working boatman; the post-war end of an era as canals ceased to be a working proposition; the travelogues of the new leisure boating world of the 80s. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the books that I know and love…

Early 20th century
Jerome K. Jerome’s adventures on the River Thames in Three Men and a Boat comes just before this, showing how river-life-as-leisure was somewhat ahead of canals in late-Victorian Britain. The turn of the century, however, saw canal writers begin to emerge. In The Flower of Gloster (1911), Ernest Temple Thurston, a prolific novelist and screenwriter, hires the eponymous narrowboat to travel between Oxford and the Midlands, retreating in some horror from the smoking industry of the Black Country. Along with C.J. Aubertin’s A Caravan Afloat (1916), he provides a picture of the beginning of the end of the working waterways.

The post-war period
L.T.C. Rolt moved onto his soon-to-be iconic narrowboat Cressy just as war was about to break out. His account of this time, Narrowboat (1944), has never been out of print and holds a special place in the heart of the boating world. It also, of course, led to the founding of the Inland Waterways Association, with sometime-associate, Robert Aickman. Aickman is best known for his unsettling short fiction, but an autobiography, The River Runs Uphill, covers the early post-war years of the IWA, though it wasn’t published until 1986, after Aickman’s death.

Significant novels
If you’ve not yet discovered Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald’s enchanting 1979 Booker Prize-winning novel, then you’re in for a treat. Nenna lives with her two daughters on a ramshackle barge, moored on the Thames. This is before canal living in London became a lifestyle choice: other than the spotless converted minesweeper, Lord Jim, the boats of the small community are always on the verge of sinking, along with the fortunes of their owners. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling (1999) also takes place along the canal, though not drawing on her involvement with Robert Aickman. Instead, it follows Daisy and Henry, both in their late middle age, as Henry manoeuvres himself from borrowed canal cruiser to Daisy’s country cottage.

Into the 2000s
Terry Darlington’s Narrow Dog to Carcassonne (2006) was the first mainstream book to chronicle the new leisure age of the canals. His bestselling memoir was followed by a flow of accounts of life afloat and could perhaps be seen as the forerunner of today’s popular television programmes about travelling the slow way, from Tim and Prue’s Great Canal Journeys to this year’s Canal Boat Diaries. More recently, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal has formed the backdrop of my own novel, The Summer of Secrets, and Claire Knight’s Everything Love Is takes the reader on an immersive journey along the French canals. Helen Babbs explores the London waterways in Adrift, and Alys Fowler takes to an inflatable canoe around Birmingham in Hidden Nature. Finally, waiting on my shelf is Water Ways: A Thousand Miles Along Britain’s Canals, the result of Jasper Winn’s year of being writer-in-residence for Canal & River Trust.

Sarah Jasmon lives on a canal boat in Lancashire, which is also the setting for her two novels. In The Summer of Secrets, which unfolds along the banks of the Leeds & Liverpool canal and You Never Told Me (out in March). Look out for our review of Sarah’s upcoming novel in the next print edition of Waterfront.

What are your favourite canal-related books? Let us know by emailing friends@canalrivertrust.org.uk – we would love to hear from you.

Posted on 31/01/2020