What would Tom Rolt think?

Leisure on the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Summer 2024

David Cheetham ponders what the celebrated waterways writer and campaigner would make of the contemporary canal and river scene

This is our free-access sample article from the Summer 2024 NarrowBoat

A young Tom Rolt in a railway carriage.

I once heard a story about celebrated canal restorer Sir David Hutchings who, having accomplished what many thought would be an impossible task in returning the southern Stratford Canal to navigation, one day returned to the scene of his accomplishment. While proudly looking out over the water, he noticed a tired pleasure-cruiser pootling along the canal and its helmsman wearing a pirate’s hat and swigging from a can of lager. He was left questioning, out loud, if his efforts had been worth it.

While that tale may be apocryphal, it says something about canal restoration in the 20th century. It was very easy to know what you were saving canals from – abandonment, dereliction, obliteration – and not quite so easy to know what you were saving them for.

May 2024 marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of pioneering canal campaigner and author, Tom Rolt. As something of a fan of his canal-related works, I have often wondered what he would make of the contemporary waterways scene – a scene he ultimately helped create.

What would he think of the Crick Boat Show, for instance? Or large-scale marinas? Or London’s congested canals? Or those luxury new boats selling for £200,000 a pop. Well, I think I know the answer…

Tom could be hilariously forthright in his written work: Stratford-upon-Avon is dismissed as “a factory of Shakespeare”, cinema as “artificial entertainment” and even a group of people harmlessly playing a riverside gramophone incurred his wrath. In truth, even as a young man Rolt was rather an old soul. His passions were for rural tradition, craftsmanship, engineering and a world that was rapidly disappearing. He disliked much about modern life back in 1939, so it stands to reason that he wouldn't appreciate many elements of our contemporary waterways culture.

Yet, despite all of this, I think that there are aspects he would approve of. He’d surely be impressed by the large teams of volunteers generously giving their time to waterways causes – whether that’s helping administer canals, running trip-boats or WRGies restoring lost routes. I’m sure he’d recognise and understand such efforts, having given much of his time in the same way, and be impressed by the scale of this work. While his feelings about the Canal & River Trust may be complex, I imagine he’d at least agree with the concept of our canals and rivers being administered by a charity.

Steering Cressy in the post-war years.

We know too that Rolt was a champion of the natural environment, and I imagine that he would advocate for HVO, all-electric craft and other sustainable energy solutions available to us. Indeed, one could easily imagine a 21st-century Cressy being replete with every conceivable bit of eco-friendly kit – and perhaps with his famous bathtub being replaced with an efficient shower.

The spate of canal literature that has emerged over the last few decades, some of excellent quality, would also likely win his approval, for he once commented on the paucity of waterways-themed publications available to him. He might well view this as a legacy of the success of Narrow Boat.

I think, too, that if Rolt were exposed to the wider aspects of 21st-century Britain, he’d quickly retreat back to the canals and perhaps find it not so bad after all. For while the commercial traffic has now gone (something he observed in his lifetime), there are still echoes from his era. Think about those many small-scale boat-builders, self-employed signwriters and craftspeople, and workaday boatyards around the network – he’d surely recognise those. As he would the canalside boozers selling pints of locally brewed ale, and the brightly painted heritage boats, which, while no longer carrying cargoes, continue to be a celebrated aspect of the waterways landscape.

Perhaps most of all he would see that our canals and rivers continue to provide an escape from the modern world, and an opportunity to enjoy a slower pace of life while exploring hidden corners of the countryside and meeting a diverse range of people.

Yet, sadly, another element that Tom would recognise is the perilous state of our inland waterways today – under-funded and overlooked by the powers that be. If our canals and rivers were to fall back into the dereliction and abandonment he once campaigned so effectively against, then maybe he too would be left wondering if his efforts were in vain.

Tom Rolt in later life at his Gloucestershire home.