Water Ways by Jasper Winn

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Roads are now king. Almost everything is moved from port to warehouse, warehouse to store or most commonly now our home. Before the roads, rail was the most important way of moving people and goods around. You have to go back a long way to find the previous method of moving goods and raw materials around and that was water. It was loaded onto boats and moved along the coast or upstream as far as the river in question was navigable.

I thought the first canals to move bulk materials from place to place were cut in the 1700s, but it turns out that the first recognizable canal was made in the 1560s. This short stretch was to bypass a weir and was on the River Exe. It even had locks. For Winn, it seems to be the best place to start his exploration of the canal network, but he thinks getting a little experience on a boat would be useful. Thankfully being appointed writer in residence for the Canal and River Trust gives him plenty of contacts and he finds himself on the towpath on the Oxford Canal where he will be joining Kate Saffin for a short course narrow boating.

His travels will take him from coast to coast, through tunnels, and along towpaths on his foldable bike. He will speak to fishermen, discover why some people are now throwing magnets into the canals, spend time with a couple who provide fuels to narrowboat owners. He follows the people (nutters) who are tackling the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, joins in with the signing on a boat called the Village Butty and sinks quite a few pints with friends new and old. There is some history in here too, outlines of the brilliant engineers who designed and built the canals and the people in the 1950 and 1960s who couldn’t bear the thought of the network being filled in and worked tirelessly to save them.

I really liked this book, it brought back happy memories as I grew up very close to the Basingstoke Canal and loved cycling along the towpath. I have no recollection of ever falling in, but I am sure that I must have got the odd bootful of water occasionally. We are all supposed to be really close to a canal, but as far as I know there are no canals in Dorset. Winn has obviously fallen for the canal life too judging by this book. He writes with warm affection and a genuine interest for the places and people that he meets on his 1000 mile journey along the towpaths. I like the way he writes too, he has good attention to detail and shows how much these linear waterways mean to the people that use them for leisure, work and living. He has a light touch with humour and the maps on the endpapers are wonderful.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    This looks lovely! He’s written others about canals, hasn’t he – was this his first?

    • Paul

      It was. His other book was about kayaking around Ireland.

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