The best way through England is wet - Wall Street Journal
With all due respect to the world's many hard-working newspaper travel pages, they don't often do the waterways justice.
There's too often the element of 'widith' about them - they are journalists in other disciplines who simply take a holiday with the family and then write it up later as a way of paying for it. Alternatively they accept a free holiday as advance payment for writing up their trip.
Jonathan Raban is in a different element. He's an acclaimed travel, cultural and political writer whose words flow, rather than tumble out. His article in today's Wall Street Journal suggest that a book from him about England's canals would be the equal of any yet written.
That unruly hedge, where the hawthorn is white with blossom alongside the hazel, ash, alder, oak and holly, was likely planted by Saxons in the 9th century—you can tell by the number of species in it. Those long parallel bars of shadow, cast by the early evening sun on a close-nibbled sheep pasture, are relics of "ridge and furrow" medieval farming.
A balding recreation ground slides past (kids kicking a ball about, someone walking his dog); the back gardens of a line of 1950s semi-detached council houses; then, beyond the screen of beech trees and horse chestnuts, a 16th-century church tower and the roofs, some slate, some thatched, of the village.
The pub landlord has already switched on the lights above his sign, freshly repainted with the arms of some long-ago local peer. You hammer two metal stakes into the towpath, tie up your boat and make for the companionable bar.
So it's perhaps surprising that to my knowledge Jonathan Raban has rarely written about the
waterways English waterways, and never published a book on the subject. (His 1980s Coasting was about a coastal trip.)
He ends his article like no widith I've ever seen, in a way which perfectly sums up the appeal of a canal holiday:
I've done this often, out of season, avoiding the summer crowds, and each trip has been a revelation. I've glided noiselessly through great post-industrial cities like Birmingham, enchanted and astonished by what's left of 1800 in them, seen from the magical time-warp of the canal.
I've learned to read the past of the country, its palimpsest of field-patterns, hedgerows, woods, roads, market towns, hamlets, isolated farmsteads, from the Roman occupation to today, with the help of W.G. Hoskins's groundbreaking 1955 book, "The Making of the English Landscape," an essential item of cargo that every narrowboat should carry.
It's ironic that his latest Wall Street Journal article has persuaded me to buy another author's book altogether, in an edition that appears to be long out of print.