If it hadn’t been for the ‘canal-busters’ of the late 20th century, Britain might have lost its canals. Using a loophole in transportation law, they forced the government to keep these waterways open by using whatever craft they could to fight their way through barely-passable channels and near-derelict tunnels in order to maintain ‘a right of navigation’.
Today the 2,000-mile network of canals is busier than at any other point in its history. Jasper Winn cycles, walks, boats and paddleboards his way around it; hitching lifts, gleaning stories and sleeping in a bivvy bag beside the towpath. The level of research is impressive, turning what could be just an amiable stroll around Britain’s backwaters into an in-depth understanding of their history and geography.
Canals were the physical internet of their day believes Winn. By the early 1800s more than half of England lived within five miles of one, creating an interconnected watery highway that allowed for the distribution of ideas, goods and people in a way that had never been possible before. Without them, the industrial revolution could have been reduced to a whimper. They converted horse power into a more efficient unit – one animal could pull 40 to 50 times more on water than it could carry on land, and fragile items such as crockery were more likely to arrive in a useable condition.
Winn ponders why they have few devoted folk songs and observes their new postmodern uses – as commuter routes; cheap housing (11,000 of the 37,000 boats registered on canals are full-time liveaboards);for the new sport of magnet fishing (pulling metal debris from the water using high-strength magnets); and as a stand-in Ganges for Britain’s Hindu communities.
More than a charming travel book, this is a roving miscellanea of engrossing canal facts and lore.