"Captain Ahab" on Wand'ring Bark recently posted a review of "Canal Mania - Over 200 years of Britain's Waterways" and after I left a comment on his blog he invited me to review it too. So I have done, and I've pinched the photo from his blog to illustrate the post too!
Like the Captain, I received my copy as a birthday present and, to tell the truth, I was initially disappointed. I dislike "coffee table books" and at first sight that's what "Canal Mania" appears to be. Its partly because of Michael Taylor's colour photographs, which although of excellent quality and outstanding technical merit are a bit too arty for my liking, such as the one which purports to be of bridge 26 on the Macclesfield Canal but which includes just the numberplate and about 75 of the several hundred stone blocks that make up the complete structure.
The black and white photos, from the British Waterways archive include well-known staples - Tom Rolt's "Cressy" at Tardebigge, King's Norton guillotine lock etc - but also some less frequently published ones including a superb shot of ice-bound boats on the Rochdale Canal from around the turn of the previous century. The Captain wasn't too keen on Peter White's line drawings that complement the photographs, but I warmed to them, particularly when I discovered that Mr White was BW's Chief Architect for 20 years and was responsible for writing the Waterways Environment Handbook that has governed BW's management of building, maintenance and engineering since 1970 and developed standards for signage, planting, colour schemes and, er...., bollards (presumably now superseded).
But the work isn't all photos. The text takes as its theme the canals built during the peak year of the late eighteenth century canal mania, 1793, - 200 years before the book was written. But its not a standard history - no lists of miles, locks and tonnages carried. It tells you more about the "why" of canal building than the "how" and relates the past to the present by describing how decisions taken two centuries ago still influence what we see today. A section on canalside pubs sums this up the author's style and is worth quoting in full:
"The desire of the holidaymaker to feel part of the old life of the canals is understandable - the mistake is to believe that one is experiencing anything even approximating to that life. It was the people that gave the old pub its charachter. Take them away and it could, to modern eyes, seem a cold cheerless place. Many a canalside pub has managed to preserve the balance between the good, honest boozer and the no less honest modern pub. Some have gone too far, whilst others have abandoned the waterways' past altogether - and one or two actively discourage anyone with a boat from using the place at all."
Whilst I don't think I would have paid the cover price of £19 (for a hardback book with 240 pages) and I now realise that the person who gave me my copy might have been shopping in a remaindered book shop too, I was, in the end, pleased to have been given it as a present and now that I've been reminded of its existence I might even read it through again.