Bringing the canal home

If you can’t get to the canal, then the canal can come to you. Read on for our recommended books, magazines, music and films that will bring the outdoors in.

An i;illustration showing a silhouette of a person filled with streams of water

Illustration by Paul Reid

Words by Peter Watts

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You don’t have to be outdoors to experience the benefits of being by water. Just sit back, relax and experience waterways through the magic of literature, film and music.

The Canal & River Trust will be adding new footage of canal trips, images and plenty of features to its website, so do keep visiting it here.

Film and TV

YouTube has a huge selection of canal-related videos, including films made by boaters as they drift along the cut. There’s Robbie Cumming’s Canal Boat Diaries, where you can see him cruising along the Chesterfield Canal or the Upper Peak Forest Canal as well as get a more general sense of boat life through his regular vlogs.

Episodes of Timothy West and Prunella Scales’s magnificent Great Canal Journeys are on YouTube and All 4, and YouTube also has several long slow journeys made by boaters, featuring extended real-time journeys through the countryside, such as this three-hour cruise along the Grand Union Canal.

Two recent rather different but entertaining feature films about boat life are Finding Your Feet, with Imelda Staunton, which stars Timothy Spall as a boater in Maida Vale (currently streaming on Amazon Prime); and Anchor and Hope, about a lesbian couple on a boat who have an unexpected boat guest. The latter is available to rent on the BFIplayer.


Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker prize for her elegant novel Offshore, about an oddball community of boaters living on the Thames in 1961. Several decades earlier came AP Herbert’s enjoyable romantic-comedy The Water Gypsies, about life on the rivers and canals of England. For those who prefer something more brooding, Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam, set on the Scottish canal system in the 1950s, is an intense murder-mystery.

Another highly recommended book is Ramlin’ Rose by Sheila Stewart, a moving fictionalised account of the life of a boatwoman on the Oxford Canal in the first half of the 20th-century.

The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust produced a series of poems about the canals. These can be seen on the Waterlines website along with podcasts and film poems.

If you prefer non-fiction, this is the perfect time to settle down with Tom Rolt’s classic Narrow Boat or its contemporary equivalents Water Ways by Jasper Winn, Danie Couchman’s Afloat and Helen Babbs’ Adrift. Rolt founded the Inland Waterways Association and his secretary was the novelist Elizabeth Howard, whose short story ‘Three Miles Up’ about a ghostly waterway is a classic of canal literature. It’s included in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories.

The Waterfront website contains six years worth of great reading material covering all aspects of canal life. And, of course, you can go back to copies of the print edition of Waterfront, packed with engaging stories from our community.


Rob St John’s Surface Tension is a wonderful ambient journey along the River Lea that begins with the sound of gentle birdsong and lapping water and the changes in tone and rhythm as the river passes through environments. Close your eyes and drift along. You can stream or download it from St John’s website, or purchase an edition that comes with a beautiful book.

St John has also recorded a series of soundscapes for the Canal & River Trust at locations such as Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Glasson Dock.

Songs of the Inland Waterways has compiled more than 200 songs related to the British canal system, including classic folk tunes like ‘The Tommy Note’ and ‘The Greasy Wheel’. There are also complete LPs of waterway-related recordings, such as the BBC’s ‘Narrow Boats’, which has a mix of spoken word and music, and ‘The Story of England’s Canals in Song’, a 1975 collection of 18 recordings detailing the history of the canal through song.

Posted on 30/03/2020