Tom Rolt book

Tom Rolt booksTom Rolt and the Cressy Years

Ian Mackersey
M & M Baldwin, London, 1985
(ISBN: 0 94771201 1)

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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 England’s inland waterways. During his life Rolt left his mark on three forms of vintage transport – motor cars, railways and canals.

Tom Rolt biography
Tom Rolt at the helm of Cressy during his famous 1939 honeymoon cruise through the English Midlands.
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.

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 association’s 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. Rolt’s 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 recreational users.

The Inland Waterways Association’s 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 association’s 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 boat traffic.

Tom Rolt biography
Cressy in 1946 at Tardebigge on the Woucester & Birmingham Canal.
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 association’s existence.

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. Aickman’s 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; Aickman’s 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 navigable waterway.

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 Rolt’s two wives, Angela and Sonia, who had shared the pioneer’s 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.

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