The back doors of Britain in a diifferent age

September 2018 - Boaters are probably more nostalgic than most, and canal book shops and tourist attractions are full of histories and memoirs of the cut, often written many years ago but reprinted over and ove. Many will have come across a book called Back Door Britain, written nearly 50 years ago in the early days of canals for leisure.

However Anthony Burton’s look at the canals and their surroundings in the early 1970’s has not just been reprinted – it has been renamed and upgraded to include some colour illustrations of his journey.

Now called Around Britain by Canal – 1,000 miles of waterways, it is another well-produced hardback by Pen & Sword publishers. In the preface Anthony Burton explains: “Because so many books are now ordered online, it has become necessary to include key words in the title that will show up on search engines.”

However, it remains the same, slightly whimsical look at the canals of Britain in the early days of leisure waterways. It was a time when industry was much more in evidence and commercial carrying was still to be seen on the wide Northern canals.

New colour pictures by Burton’s companion on the cruise, Phillip Lloyd, add to the picture painted by his words and it is fascinating to see Birmingham’s Gas Street basin before the bridge was built over Worcester Bar.

The physical canals and rivers travelled haven’t changed all that much but the buildings along the banks and the numbers on the water are very different nearly 50 years on. Burton’s London canals are already suffering gentrification in Islington but beyond Camden they are largely neglected by boaters and developers alike. No mention here of double mooring – just regret that the routes through to Limehouse were so little used.

Rural canals change less and his descriptions of the Shropshire Union are as relevant today as then. It is the cities that change and the industrial areas. The Tom Puddings were still operating on the Nothern canals 20 years ago and on Burton’s journey they were a dominant feature of those waterways.

But major cities, like Birmingham, were only starting to appreciate that the waterways that had served their industries so well were about to become an asset and a developer’s dream.

This snapshot fills a gap in canal history. The waterway-obsessed are often enthralled, by the construction of the system, the working boats and their people and the final years of commercial carrying but there is a tendency to feel waterway history stopped with Tom Rolt.

Although it wasn’t it’s original intention, this book records some of the development of leisure waterways and even the early seeds of today’s living afloat community. It has become an historical source and, as such, is worth adding to your collection of boating books.

Around Britain by Canal – 1,000 miles of waterways. By Anthony Burton
Pen & Sword Books Ltd. £25

Photos: Anthony Burton and his re-titled book.

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