Wednesday, 3 November 2010

A forgotten book from the 1930's.

The gentleman who appears to be asleep sitting in his canoe in a lock on the Thames & Severn canal ,is one of my favourite canal writers. Actually I think he is probably reading or perhaps making notes for the book he is about to publish - 'The Heart Of England By Waterway'; a book that I have read many times for the sheer enjoyment of the quality of the writing.

The literature of the early years of British canal voyaging for pleasure is peppered with accounts of canoe cruises which for obvious reasons were the chosen means of voyaging through UK waterways in the latter half of the 19th century. In fact canoe touring enjoyed quite a vogue for many years after its initial popularization with the publication of the 'Rob Roy' series of books by John MacGregor. One such voyager and probably the most vociferous proponent of canoeing for pleasure during the 20th century was William Bliss.

His book whose full title is 'The Heart of England by Waterway - A canoeing chronicle by River & Canal' was published by Witherby in 1933. If you have got this far in reading this article and have decided that books on canoeing and canoeing technique are not your cup of tea then I beg you to persevere for there is little in the book on these subjects.
Title Page 
My copy of this book has a signed presentation note in the authors hand. The mame of the recipient has been erased but the inscription continues'......(to) a lover of England and of English Country from the author - who loves her too. William Bliss - 15 Nov 1933.'

This presentation dedication sums it up really - Bliss was a lover of the English countryside in general and of Canals and Waterways in particular.
The book is a delight to read because as I have said his descriptive prose is second to none. The man is obviously a romantic and what lover of waterways is not.His book is full of anecdotes and reminiscences from a long boating life written in a compelling and utterly charming way. The voyages in many instances took place over canals which are now derelict, so there is lots of contemporary interest here.
The author seems to have been born in the 1860's (I can find few references to him anywhere), so he must have been quite a young man when he canoed over derelict waterways like the Thames & Severn and Wilts & Berks canals. A flavour of the man is found in the first paragraph of the introductory chapter - 'One by One our English Canals are becoming derelict; each lustre sees another go. Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, it was possible to travel all over England, north, south, east and west, by river and canal; there was not a county you could not visit, hardly a town you could not reach by water, if you liked and if you were not (and what lover of boats and rivers ever was or will be?) in any particular hurry to get there.'  Again later in the same chapter he writes ' ........but these canals have long been derelict, and only here and there a line of sedge or a patch of golden iris or a tangle of alder or a row of willows, looking lost without the water at their knees, mark its course. They are going one by one, and I am writing thus about them before they go, so that anybody who reads and who has never yet experienced the peaceful beauty, the sleepy contentment that is peculiar to these English waterways, may do so before it is too late.'

     It sounds rather like the state of the canals when I first started boating! However the last paragraph quoted illustrates, I think, the fact that along with one or two earlier 20th century writers; Bliss was that rare thing at that time - a visionary for the possibility of canals for pleasure and recreation, although he does not preclude the possibilities of their resuscitation for trade.

I hope the couple of quotes already given illustrate the fact that we have a man of some sensibility here, and an educated man (References to Oxford University life are not uncommon) but its not all serious stuff, far from it. There are comic  (especially for 21st century eyes) moments in the book as for instance when voyaging up the Oxford canal he discovers a patch of white violets -' I had found Spring and would celebrate the discovery. I had provided for lunch , I remember, a fillet steak, cooked over-night and cold with bread and salt and a bottle of Burgundy.......'Sun and water and a Cotswold wind and beef and burgundy and white violets'........ I was thinking how well the scent of white violets blended with and enhanced the scent of burgundy (it was I remember, a Nuit St George, not the greatest of burgundies, but quite good enough for out-of-doors)...'  There are other comic references, as for instance when he encounters the bell ringers in the Red Lion at Cropredy. Some of the prose may be archaic to our eyes but it is of its time and class and as such, for me any way quite charming.

'You must cart your canoe from Chalford to Cricklade'

The book had but one edition and has never been republished as far as I know.The 9 chapters deal with the Thames above Oxford and Cotswold waters, River Severn, Gloucester & Berkely canal, Stroudwater canal, River Cherwell, Oxford canal, Warwick & Napton canal, River Avon, River Teme & Thames & Severn canal. There are three photographs and a folding map.

Its incredible to think that in his youth Bliss had canoed over the Wilts & Berks and Thames & Severn canals. It was whilst he was travelling on the latter and had camped at the mouth of Sapperton tunnel that he took a twilight walk and attracted by the heavy scent, found a huge patch of Butterfly orchids (now a very rare native plant).
I wonder if they are still there?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Wartime Ephemera. 'The War Illustrated'. April 1944.

'War Illustrated' April1944.

'War Illustrated' was published weekly throughout the second world war and was a popular morale raising magazine of war events and news.The cover illustration shows a butty belonging to the Grand Union Canal Co with two of the famous 'Idle Women' posing for the photographer. During the early days of the war the GUCC ran a recruiting campaign aimed at attracting female workers to man the boats in their fleet as many of their male employees had enlisted in the armed forces. The National Service badge that these women wore had the initials I W (Inland Waterways) as part of its design, but this was soon given the derogatory title of 'Idle Women' and the name stuck

The recruiting campaign started in 1942 and was organized by Eily (Kit) Gayford who went on to write about these years in her book 'The Amateur Boatwomen' published in 1973. Emma Smith's 'Maidens Trip' and Susan Woolfitt's ' Idle Women' , both published in the immediate post war years are books based on the authors experiences whilst working on this scheme.

The caption underneath the cover photo reads ' Handling her boat hook like a professional bargee is this girl now training under a Ministry Of War Transport scheme designed to make still greater use of our inland waterways for carrying vital supplies when the Allied Western Offensive opens. Barges work in pairs, with a crew of three each; six pairs of boats on regular runs are now operated by women. An average round trip takes 16 days, and crews sometimes work a 16 hour day'. Those looking for an article inside the magazine will be disappointed but if you do come across the item it looks very good mounted and framed and provides an unusual topic for conversation!

In recent years the invaluable war work of the 'Idle Women' has at long last received the recognition that it so justly deserved. Talks, interviews with the survivors and even the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in their honour has ensured a place in the history of Britain's canals and in the wider context of our countries war history.

The two ladies shown in the photograph are believed to be Audrey Harper (holding the shaft) and Evelyn Hunt (in the cabin doorway). The obviously posed photograph was one of a series taken at the end of March 1944 when there was a big press call to back the recruiting campaign. I am indebted to Mike Constable for this information (his information on the I W's is truly encyclopedic).