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on 6 March 2002
It really is a classic. If you are looking for a history of British canals, this is not the book for you. But as an elegy for a world we have lost (the book was written in the summer and autumn of 1939) it cannot be beaten. It should be read in the same spirit as 'Lark Rise to Candleford'. On publication, after the war, it was greeted with huge enthusiasm, as people remembered what tey had been fighting for. As a consequence of it's publication, the Inland Waterways Association was formed, which has managed to transform British canals. If you enjoy the canals, as boater, walker or historian, this is the book that more than any other stopped them from being filled in the sixties. And it is at least arguable that Rolt's writings were highly influential on the early days of the self sufficiency movement, and so, ultimately, Green politics. And it is beautifully written.
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on 25 August 2009
Rolt is an excellent writer, with a good eye for what he sees and good descriptive text, but with massive cultural blinkers.

His description of his travels on board his converted narrow boat Cressy back in the 1940s was to be one of the sparks leading to the foundation of the Inland Waterways Association and the restoration of the British canal network.

In the regard of writing about his journey, and his description of the life of the few remaining owners of horse-drawn boats when he encountered them, he gives many useful details (I'd never known that concertinas were popular instruments among boatsmen).

However, his blinkers come from his conviction that everything of the past is good and everything of the machine age is bad. He says quite seriously that he believes the canals to be the safest form of transport ever devised, but does not spot the contradiction when he encounters a boatman whose daughter had recently drowned in a lock (in fact, drownings and other accidents were pretty common).

He comments on the life span of over a hundred of some old countrymen in the parish records he views and attributes it to their simple life, but fails to spot the high infant mortality in those same records.

He loves his books, but believes that the illiterate boatman loses nothing by his lack of knowledge.

It's a good book if you want to read about the pre-restoration Inland Waterways, complete with the last surviving canal pubs (in the era of real ale served in a jug), but you may find it a touch annoying if you feel that you wouldn't actually want to have lived in Olde England even if it looks very charming in retrospect.
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on 1 August 2011
This is regarded as the definitive work that led to the saving of the canal network in Britain by inspiring Robert Aikmann, among others - and not least Tom Rolt himself - to set up the Inland Waterways Association. Having heard all of this reported by various other sources, I decided that I needed to read the actual words of the great man for myself. Unfortunately, as often happens with many a keenly anticipated treat, I found the book a disappointment. I understood (and agreed with) Rolt's robust defence of the canals and his concern that they were about to disappear in the name of development, but after a while I tired of his incessant idealising of the old ways of canal and country life and his constant carping criticism and rejection of everything that was done to bring about progress and modernisation. It turned out to be a love song for an idyllic rural past brutally done down by modern developments. I did relate to the sentiments of a tranquil and beautiful world under threat, but I couldn't buy into his vitriolic antagonism towards anything even vaguely connected to the modern world. (A bit hypocritical that he was using a fossil fuel-wasting modern engine to power the boat, rather than a horse!) The narrative has the occasional reference to the idea of harmonising old and new, but his intolerance towards development clearly shows through. Most irritatingly, he writes in a rather dated style that is both supercilious and pompous; even his endorsements of the honest working canal folk are delivered from a lofty patrician perch, as if examining a sub-species. All of that said, I do think it is an important book. Written at the time of the second world war, it is an escape from harsh reality and captures a world that is changing irrevocably. Some of Rolt's descriptions of people and places, trades and customs, provide a glimpse of things now gone - a sentimental journey on a narrow boat into the past. It is really a story of a man living in the wrong time and bemoaning the fact. It is very likely that had Rolt not published this book, many of Britain's inland waterways would be long gone by now, because this book served as a wake-up call to the plight of canals as their commercial usefulness was waning. It becomes clear, however, that Rolt was less about taking action to save canals and more about mourning their passing. It would take someone with drive and determination to turn thought into action, which is where Aikmann came in. Rolt, the dreamer, and Aikmann, the doer, became the force that would turn the situation round - and all the better for that. All-in-all, I'm glad I read this book, because I think I understand the man better as a result. I admire the fact that this was indeed the seminal work in a long campaign to save the waterways. Unfortunately, having tuned into his writing, I find that I have grown to dislike Rolt, the person.
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This wonderful book, beautifully written, has been an inspiration to many with an interest in canals. The author, Tom Rolt, captured the imagination of the public when it was first published in 1944 and without this book and its influence, it may be that much more of our canal system, which was facing dereliction at that time, would have been lost forever. Tom takes us on a four hundred mile canal trip and brings to us a whole way of life of the commercial boaters that was about to die. It is beautifully written and now, over 60 years after first publication, has attained the status of an historic classic. Tom was a brave pioneer in choosing to start his married life on the canals with his young bride, Angela, at the outbreak of World War 2. Read the book and tell me if it does not inspire your interest in our canal legacy. First editions now fetch around £100, so treat yourself to a bargain! Tom, who died in 1974, aged 64, had strong views about how modern life was damaging our heritage, and some of his opinions are raised in this book. Nevertheless, it was that concern which was in a large part his inspiration to make his journey and a life on the canals. Without that we would not have been rewarded with this masterpiece, which amazingly was his first published work.
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on 22 September 1999
Considered by many to be a "classic" its prose does not perhaps justify the title. The author and the tale he tells in this book however do!
The tales he tells are of course dated, but if you have a soul and have cruised the same waterways as he does aboard "Cressy" you cannot help but find yourself aboard with him!
Anyone who enjoys the canals today owes a debt of gratitude to Rolt, whatever may have transpired in latter years when the IWA became a hive of politics. Without him (and yes, more like him who have perhaps gone unsung) our canals would not be here today.
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on 10 May 2002
A unique first-hand account of a journey through some of Britain's countryside and towns by canal at the end of the 1930's, painting a vivid picture of a bygone world in a thought-provoking way. The writing style and Rolt's strongly voiced opinions will be a problem for some - remember this was Rolt's first book. Even he describes it as "maybe too nostalgic" in his splendid autobiography, The Landscape Trilogy, which shows Rolt's observant eye and mature prose style at their very best.
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on 11 August 2014
Undoubtedly an influential book in that it inspired many to get involved in canal protection and restoration.
This book has a split personality, part travelogue, part personal philosophical discourse against industrial society. Regarding the travelogue: an interesting if somewhat limited description of the canal and it's environs. With regard to his description of Stoke-on-Trent and pottery working he was clearly deluded as to the industrial methods in common use at the time. I conclude that Rolt didn't take much time to do research, rather preferring anecdote and first impressions.
The big problem for me was that as I would warm to his description it would be dispelled by a rant against the ills of the modern world. I was disappointed by his naive "philosophy" and highly selective view of modern life (for him at the time of writing). Even given that the book was a product of the 1930's, his patronising attitude, class snobbery and highly selective trawling of our pre-industrial history is brought together in an ill-conceived and objectionable attack on English society of the time.
Rolt doesn't acknowledge the hypocrisy of his position, simultaneously praising the nobility of the working boatman's life while distancing himself from it practically and intellectually.
I came away from the book gaining little knowledge about the canals and their social history and having formed the opinion that Rolt's reputation is founded on shaky ground indeed.
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on 23 October 2015
Not sure what I was expecting but it was not a good read in my opinion. I was expecting something about the experience on the narrow boat. That was there but in the background. It was far more a description of the scenery and the buildings of interest on his journey through the canal system.
The use of words was good and painted the relevant picture so the scenery did come to life.
The underlying story seemed to be a rave against something for allowing the canal society (boat people, narrow boats, canal organisation etc) to vanish into Britain's history.
I did read the book to the end but it was not enjoyable to me. I know this book helped to create the Inland Waterways and 'well done' for that but I am amazed it had such an effect.
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on 11 May 2016
This is a joy to read, not just for those fascinated by canals and boats and industrial heritage; but also as one man's suppressed rant against the March of Progress. As an encapsulation of pre-war Britain it can't be bettered - full of loving descriptions of town and country and the sheer beauty of the landscape, as Cressy glides through it at 3 miles per hour. Entirely unintentionally though, it also provides a telling snapshot of the class system and the attitudes prevalent at the time, as the author damns and dismisses the various annoyances he encounters with lofty disdain. He is a man clearly born in the wrong time, in thrall to the craftsmanship and manual skills already slipping away into the past; he stares after them with longing and vents his contempt of mechanisation and modernism at every opportunity. As an antidote to our technologically-obsessed consumer age, this book can't be beaten. For anyone with even a smidgen of nostalgia and niggling doubt that we might all be marching over a cliff in pursuit of money and things, Narrow Boat is full of comforting and alluring possibility.
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on 18 October 2014
Tom Rolt was one of the two founder members of the Inland Waterways Association that became the pressure group that saved the canal system for future generations to enjoy. (the other was Robert Aikman) Before this however, Rolt gave up his job as a mechanic to make a cruise on the canals and write about the voyage. The boat was 'Cressey' which he bought and rebuilt internally before setting out with his recently married first wife Angela. The book is the tale of that voyage and is a classic of the Inland Waterways. It eventually led to the meeting of Aikman and Rolt (and also Hadfield) and the founding of the IWA. The descriptive writing is typical of Rolt and should be read by all interested in how the canal system operated in its last working days pre-war before the post-war leisure boat explosion.
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