Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Mr Burt’s Unique Canoe Trip in 1906.


‘A Unique Canoe Trip’  Published in Frys Magazine,July & August 1906.

The late Nineteenth century saw the first tentative explorations for pleasure of the UK’s Inland Waterway network. With the emergence of a new middle class with money and the leisure to enjoy it, spare time was often spent ‘messing about in boats’. The Thames became enormously popular for boating excursions and gradually the more adventurous travelled further afield sometimes either camping alongside or on their boat or alternatively staying at waterside inns overnight.


Londoners intent on recording their trips for posterity the route –Thames – Thames and Severn Canal & back via the Kennet & Avon was very popular and this was the route that Burt took. A variation on this was to travel – Thames – Oxford Canal – Warwick & Worcester Canals – R Severn & then back via the Thames & Severn Canals. This latter canal & the Kennet & Avon were of course scenically very attractive, had little traffic and were in close proximity to the great metropolis. The Grand Junction Canal on the other hand although nearer to London had the disadvantage of still being comparatively busy commercially and for the fair eyes of these early voyagers  the countryside it passed through was not so memorable.

One of the earliest magazine accounts of one of these round voyages that included the Thames & Severn Canal was ‘The Strange Adventures of a Houseboat’  by William Black which although a work of fiction was obviously based on a first hand knowledge of these canals. This was first published as a series in The Illustrated London News in 1886.

William Bliss canoed these routes several times in the 1880-90 period and the author Temple Thurston did an identical journey in his well known book ‘The Flower of Gloster’  in 1911.

So we can see that unfortunately Mr Burt’s trip was far from unique. Yet in another sense it was’  for the account is illustrated with over 50 small thumb nail photographs. This must be something of a record and shows also a pioneering use of photography. In fact I cannot recall another British canal book before this time that used photographic illustration.

Mr Burt and crew of one chose to stay in waterside inns during their 350 mile trip. On arrival at Inglesham they found the entrance lock to the Thames & Severn to be closed forcing them to carry on up the shallow Thames to Cricklade where they portaged across to the Canal. They carried round all the locks in the Golden Valley as these were all closed for repair too (a not unusual event on this canal). On reaching Sharpness they managed to have their canoe taken downriver on a dumb barge towed by a tug. Frighteningly they nearly missed the mouth of the Bristol Avon when cast off from the Tug at 5am in very rough conditions and being swept up river with the tide.

Of the Kennet & Avon the author readily attests to its beauty and its semi disuse at this time can be judged when he states that they only passed one boat during their journey from Bath.

Monday, 4 March 2013

To The West Of England by Canal (1912).


Those who like myself love and collect old waterway books will be pleased to see that Steve Parkin has decided to find out a little more about one of our earlier UK Canal book authors. I had been gratified but a little perplexed as to why an earlier blog of mine ‘ A Forgotten book from the 1930’s’  published in Nov 2010 had been getting a lot of recent hits. Turning to Steve’s blog I found that he had mentioned my site in the first of a series of articles he is writing about William Bliss who is one of that neglected band of early canal travel authors and about whom little has been published.
So I for one will be looking forward to reading the results of Steve’s researches. Thinking about these few early authors and turning to my own collection I remembered a thin paper back published in 1912 which was probably the first ‘canal travel’ book in the 20th C to be illustrated using photographs although I have seen magazine articles from c1906 using photographs to illustrate accounts of canal voyaging.    
‘To the West of England by Canal’  by Robert J Finch was published as a small thin paperback in 1912 by the school text book publishers J M Dent & sons in their ‘Educational Journeys’ series of books intended for teachers leading school educational visits to places of interest etc. The author seems to have been the senior Geography master at Hornsey County school who had led a party of senior children from his school each year from 1907 – 1911 on journeys along the Kennet & Avon Canal. So it seems that school outings & educational visits/holidays are not just a part of a modern school curriculam at all and indeed judging by this evidence they seem to have been an established facit of school life at the turn of the 20th C. Certainly I have not come across any other evidence before this time of canal travel by schools and Finch’s annual trips on the K&A are pioneering in this respect.
Pioneering too was the authors use of camping boats i e narrow boats. The party was large with 60 children travelling and sleeping in hammocks on 2 boats.
The book is primarily a guide to the local sights –literary,archaeological,historical topographical that might be visited from the canal which the author states ‘ is practically disused for commercial traffic’. The preface contains hints and tips for camping on boats and this is followed by a history of the K&A and canals in general. Strip maps of the canal accompany the text throughout.
I have illustrated the most interesting of the pioneering  photographs. I particularly like the top one which shows a pair of the camping boats breasted up at the entrance to the Savernake tunnel . I wonder whether they went through it still breasted?
The bottom photograph shows the boats again breasted up outside the famous tea gardens at Brislington on the Bristol Avon (which amazingly are still there & in themselves must constitute some record for longevity). The boat on the inside of this picture seems to have a conversion or at least a hard top as does one of the boats in the tunnel picture. Both boats have bow cabins.
Looking at these photographs taken so long ago I wondered how many of the young men probably of sixth form age that can be seen in various poses about the boats would return from the carnage of a war that in a couple of years would break out in Europe.!!
A rare little book & I have only ever seen the one. I can find no copies for sale on the internet.
Next time I hope to show the earliest English canal voyage illustrated by photographs that I have in my collection and in future articles talk about other early forgotten canal voyagers.