Tom Rolt was an English mechanical engineer who, as the author, L.T.C.
Rolt, poured out in his lifetime (1910-1974) more than forty books. His
prolific flow ranged from biographies of great engineers and inventors
like the Stephensons, Brunel, James Watt and the canal builder Thomas
Telford, to ghost stories and books about railways, aeronautics, motoring
and Englands inland waterways. During his life Rolt left his mark
on three forms of vintage transport motor cars, railways
Tom Rolt and the Cressy Years is the story of his involvement
with canals. It describes his profound influence on the successful preservation
in Britain today of more than 3,000 miles of navigable inland waterways.
|Tom Rolt at the helm of Cressy during his famous 1939 honeymoon cruise through the English Midlands.
Much of this network of interconnected canals and rivers,
now supporting an ever expanding inland leisure boating industry, would
have fallen into disuse, lost forever, had it not been for the efforts
of a small band of canal lovers who banded together in May 1946 to form
the now flourishing and influential Inland Waterways Association.
Rolt was one of the associations founders. The organisation was
directly inspired by a lyrical book he had written about a voyage in the
early months of the Second World War that he and his first wife, Angela,
made through the canals of the English Midlands in a 70-ft wooden narrow
boat, Cressy. Rolt fitted this formerly steam-driven craft with
a Ford Model T engine and created a comfortably appointed bedroom, bathroom,
and carpeted living room furnished with armchairs.
His book, Narrow Boat, became a best seller. When, after being
rejected by numerous London publishers, it first appeared in 1944 the
commercial freight carrying role of the canals, for which they had been
built across the country in the 18th and 19th Centuries, had virtually
come to an end. Vital locks had become dysfunctional, stretches of canal
had dried up and weeds had begun to choke the life out of the once great
spiderweb of linked waterways. Rolts book so fired public imagination
it spurred a group of enthusiasts into forming an action group determined
to arrest the decay and fight to preserve the system from extinction
to keep the thousands of miles of canals intact for a new generation of
The Inland Waterways Associations idealistic vision was not quickly
or easily achieved. In post-war Britain restoring commercially redundant
disintegrating canals and their collapsing locks was not a high priority
of government. The associations pleas were met with monumental apathy
and obstructionism. With dismay the lobby group saw new road formations
being pushed across precious waterways, railway companies constructing
permanent bridges over canals in places where the structures now blocked
Rolt and his fellow IWA co-founder, a young literary agent, Robert Aickman, responded with a bridge busting campaign which they
mounted amid much publicity, forcing railway engineers to the inconvenience
of lifting the impeding structures, by legal right, on demand. But in
the ranks of the crusading canal lovers all did not remain happy for long.
Major philosophical differences began to emerge. Members were hopelessly
divided on the very reason for the associations existence.
|Cressy in 1946 at Tardebigge on the Woucester & Birmingham Canal.
Rolt wanted the canals left as the preserve of the fast disappearing working
boat families who for generations had lived their water gypsy lives afloat.
He clung to the romantic notion that their dying way of life could be
resuscitated before it was too late. Aickmans group was in favour
of a mixed future for the canals. They saw commercial carriers sharing
the system for the first time with tens of thousands of leisure boats.
A third faction believed that the only future for the waterways lay in
massive enlargement, as in Europe, into major freight-carrying arteries.
Bitter, unpleasant warfare broke out within the newborn association whose
ranks had been joined by the poet, John Betjeman, the naturalist and writer
Peter Scott and the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Rolt and Aickman fell
out; Aickmans faction had Rolt expelled.
Temperamentally unsuited to the ugliness of canal politics Rolt went off
to begin a new life, hurling his energies into the preservation and running
of a small steam railway at Talyllyn in Wales and the writing of dozens
more books at his home at Stanley Pontlarge on the northern slopes of
the Cotswalds where he died in 1974.
Rolt and Aickman were to meet only once briefly ever again. Poignantly
a plaque beside the Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Tardebigge commemorates
their historic first meeting there aboard Cressy in the spring
of 1946. That meeting of kindred spirits, despite the bitterness that
followed, led eventually to the arrest of the canals decline and
the retention of the precious heritage of the system. Its navigation channels,
structures, towpaths, bridges, tunnels and acquaducts were saved in the
nick of time by the movement that its idealistic warring founders spawned.
Today the Inland Waterways Association is a much bigger, more robust organisation.
As it continues its relentless purpose, fighting every attempt to close
a single mile of canal, its crusade has seen the restoration year by year,
by volunteers, of more and more stretches of once abandoned and forgotten
Tom Rolt and the Cressy Years is a moving record of the passion
and tumult over the fate of an entire transport system that Rolt ignited
with his captivating book Narrow Boat. Ian Mackersey himself
fell in love with the canals in the 1970s when he bought a 34-ft narrow
beam wooden cruiser. From its London mooring at Alperton on the Paddington
Arm of the Grand Union, seven miles from Oxford Circus, he and his family
cruised hundreds of miles of inland waterways, travelling as far north
as the Trent, sometimes into north Wales. While afloat he first read Narrow
Boat. Fascinated by the book he spent two years tracking down and interviewing
people, including Rolts two wives, Angela and Sonia, who had shared
the pioneers dream to save the magic rural world he had brought
to life in the pages of a book written by lamplight at his desk aboard Cressy.
Tom Rolt and the Cressy Years is available from the Inland
Waterways Association On-line Bookshop.
E-mail: email@example.com and from:
29 Tenby Avenue
Harrow HA3 8RU