Wednesday 21 April 2010

Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt.

It's a hundred years since the birth of Tom Rolt and so I decided it was time to read again his classic "Narrow Boat". I  picked up my first copy a few years ago whilst boating on the Shroppie on a Chas Hardern hire boat. I loaned it to someone and it never came back. So recently I purchased a second copy from Amazon.

The book, Narrow Boat, is an account of Rolt and his first wife Angela's honeymoon journey around the canal system of the English Midlands. However, it was not their first time on the canals as Tom and Angela first had  a trial cruise on a hire a boat named "Miranda" just to whet their appetites.

Tom Rolt was the first person to draw attention to the continuing value of our canals for transport and latterly boating for pleasure. The canals, which had been so important to fuelling the industrial revolution in  the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, had almost been neglected and forgotten by the twentieth. The canals were eventually nationalised in 1947, but they were exhausted from years of neglect. Canals helped to fuel the embryo Industrial Revolution which began in mid 18th century. There was a significant demanded for a way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. Some canals proved to be both economic and reliable. However, some canals only made a loss. The later canals were designed on the basis of where goods needed to go, not where a river happened to be.

With each reading of narrow boat, I find more insight and thought provoking passages. The book tells the tale of a voyage around the declining canals of the Midlands. The canal folk that he met. The book tells something of their way of life. All done aboard "Cressy" which was a 70ft long wooden narrow boat. Rolt later spent a further 12 years living afloat.

In his book, Rolt puts on display his obvious dismay at the changes taking place on the cut. Their fall into dereliction and decay. Canals being abandoned was rife at this time. Rolt writes at length about the canals  long slow decline. He also rails against the changes in working practices on farms - in the canal side industry and what he sees (with some insight) as the spectre of the modern roads system.

Narrow Boat is a book that highlights a snapshot in time (1939) and it is also a book of mixed messages.

I had first come across LTC Rolt as a writer some time in the late 1960 when I was given a book to read called "Red for Danger". It covered the history of railway accidents. The book told of how accidents happened and the tiny mistakes that have caused disaster or skin-of-your-teeth escapes. In my younger days it was often given to railway footplate staff as a reminder of the danger implicit in their job.

Rolt was obviously a very complex, well read and knowledgeable man.  Strangely, he was an engineer who seemingly abhorred change (modernisation) in working methods and practices. He sees the railways for the threat they had become to the canals. Yet he was general manager of the Talyllyn Railway. He writes of his dislike for the roads system, yet he was a founder member of the Vintage Sports-Car Club.

I would love to have a conversation with Rolt. I would talk for hours about the horse drawn barges he saw being displaced by motorised vessels. The skills and the craftsmanship of the canals being eroded away. Skills and knowledge - dying with the old men of the boatyard. Rolt was able to witness and chronicle some of the changes on the cut, changes in our environment, our ethos, our history. If Rolt were alive today (he died in 1974) I wonder what he would think of the changes that have taken place since then. Especially the increase in the number of motorways and the number and size of the heavy goods vehicles on our roads. The increase in leisure boating and the restoration successes of many canal groups.

The Narrow Boat book also lead to a first meeting in 1945 between Tom Rolt and Robert Fordyce Aickman and the eventual formation of the embryo Inland Waterways Association. The subsequent history and machinations after this meeting would put any TV soap opera to shame. Rolt was a co-founder and the first honorary secretary of the IWA. However, Rolt was later to be expelled from the IWA as a direct result of internal disputes with Aickman.

Tom Rolt is buried in the churchyard of the tiny medieval church at Stanley Pontlarge. There are no headstones in the churchyard, but a plan inside the church identifies Rolt's grave.


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