Messing about in books

Image of the book cover for Adrift

Adrift by Helen Babbs

One of the joys of working in retail is following the passage of time. Not quite the ‘madeleine moment’ you might have imagined during your English Literature degree, but a sashay from Christmas’ snowy robins to Valentine’s red roses, or watching Easter’s chocolate-fest give way to the heavy military tomes gift-wrapped for Father’s Day.

Now of course the sudden surge in umbrella sales is a strong hint that we are entering the legendary British summer.

So what to read right now? Summer reading is a special thing. It should be something lighter than usual, so you can find your place easily after falling asleep on the sun-lounger; but it should have enough to it to justify sticking with the book to the end. You will have more quality reading time, and you need to fill those evenings somehow.

Last summer I took a canal boat from Hilperton to Bath with some friends – an enjoyable weekend rediscovering our inner Ratty and Toad. If you’ve tried this yourself, or have ever fancied it, then there are a range of books on our shelves about watery adventures which will feed that passion.

One of the best is Helen Babbs’ Adrift, an enjoyable personal story of one woman’s year-long canal boat adventures  in London. It is a charming mix of travelogue and inner journey, full of those wish-I’d-said-that, oops-I-just-did facts and anecdotes. Journalist Helen and her boat called Pike take a trip around herself and her city, retelling stories of people, history and politics, watching the seasons change from the fo’castle. Before you write in, I do know that barges don’t have fo’castles, but I am a wordsmith not a sailor so grant me some lee-way here (leeway, the sideways drift of a ship downwind of the desired course).

Image of the book cover for Narrow Boat

Narrow Boat, by L.T.C. Rolt

One of the things I love about Adrift is the beautiful cover (I know, shallow – don’t even get me started on books with pretty end papers). If you share this weakness then once you have finished Adrift reach for L T C Holt’s Narrow Boat. This 1944 classic has been reissued in a jacket illustrated by a glorious, coloured woodcut. The boat is called Cressy and it takes a 400 mile trip in the Midlands telling the story of the English countryside from a watery perspective.

Remember Michael Portillo’s fabulous railway journey television series, rediscovering the network guided by his trusty Bradshaws? Did you know Bradshaws had a whole series of travel guides and the 1904 Bradshaw’s Canals and Waterways is available in facsimile reprint. A lovely green and gold guide to navigating England’s Edwardian canal system, some of which sadly no longer exist.

Fast forward to 1943 and England at war; three 18 year old women take a job carrying steel from London to Birmingham by boat. Join them as they bail bilges, swab decks, tie knots and have life-changing adventures with very good friends. The title is Maidens’ Trip and think of it as a sort of Land Girls meets Three Men in A Boat and a very entertaining summer read.

Finally if you are scared of water, or just don’t fancy all that messing about in boats but are still interested in the view from the river, consider walking the towpath. Phoebe Clapham (great name for a London travel writer) has a new guide to the London section of the Thames Path. Walk from Hampton Court to the Thames Barrier, if you can find a dry enough day for it that is. The guide is small enough to fit in your pocket as you stride along but packed full of fascinating facts, full colour pictures taken on a sunny day (just in case your own jaunt is undertaken in less than clement conditions) and maps of the route (although even the most cartographically-challenged should be able to follow such a large watery ribbon in one direction).




  1. Martina says:

    Thank you for recommending those summer reads. I would like to add another great summer and water read: Narrow dog to Carcasonne by Terry Darlington. This title is just one of a short series. It does not take place in the UK, but it is a lovely story about exploring life on waterways. You will get to know to interesting pensioners and their cute whippet Jim. I really enjoyed reading those books.

  2. Jennifer Thornton says:

    Should not that be “Maidens’ Trip” – or am I being pedantic?

  3. Robert says:

    For children of about 8-12, a wonderful series of books was produced decades ago by the writer BB, It concerned Bill Badger and his canal boat, the “Wandering Wind”. The books are full not just of canal boat lore and evocations of the English river, but also of adventure story, pirate cats, etc. Most of the books seem out of print, but the first, “Bill Badger and the Wandering Wind”, has been reprinted by Jane Nissen Books.

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