Touring Britain's Waterways
Pleasures and Places
The traveler in England who would rather not keep his eyes on the road and its swarming habitués has a real alternative, as fresh and serene as it is unexpected. He can leave the road altogether and take to the water – overland. The water in this case is represented by the rivers and canals in the two-thousandmile-long system of inland waterways, a currently reviving eighteenthand nineteenth-century creation that opens up a new perspective and brings back, with ease, comfort, and great economy of means, all the quiet charms, the leisure, the pure rustic Englishness of the time before the Flood (of motorcars). The guidebooks hardly mention the inland waterways, but for him who likes to be on the water – still water that weaves itself closely into the landscape and the life – it would not be hyperbole to call this slow uncomplicated approach to England one of the most satisfying of European holidays.
Out of their ancient predilection for messing about in boats, the English have of late acquired a passion for their rivers and canals. From this has come a thoroughgoing development of facilities for pleasure travel, of both the guided and the do-ityourself varieties, on these largely pastoral waters. River steamers, canalboats, motor cruisers, camping punts, sailing yachts, canoes – the paraphernalia and organization are all there, whether for a summer evening’s water-bus view of London’s tideway panorama or a month-long cruise in a horse-drawn hostel boat through the Midlands and on into Wales.
The choices of means and itineraries are many, even to the point of bewilderment. There are, for example, fifty or more boatyards where cruise or hire facilities are available, in as many towns and villages spread all through this extensive and interconnecting water network. But for the sake of clarity the whole of it can be broken down roughly into two parts: the Thames and its valley, and the canals – the first for the traveler who lacks time or is feeling sociable and wants to linger with the natives on their favorite pleasure ground; the second for him who has at least a week to spend without haste and who wants his Constable landscapes, his waterside inns and villages in unheard-of peace and quiet, even in solitude. Given a week or more, these two contrasting atmospheres can be combined with beautiful simplicity, for the Thames at Oxford leads on into the canals, and these, branching in all directions through the Midlands and to both coasts, lead on to the north country.
The prerequisite for a slow-moving holiday is to lose no time arriving. The BOAC jet flight to Manchester (with a stopover in Scotland if you like) ensures this speed, cuts the fare cost, and adds great convenience by avoiding the sticky London complex and placing the traveler practically in the midst of the most appealingcanal counties, close to crucial cruise-base towns like Chester, Stretford, Market Drayton, Stone, Penkridge, and Nottingham. If London is to be the ultimate destination, then it can be approached, as it ought to be, in its most majestic aspect – down the Thames.
With three days or a week to spend, the novice in England finds himself looking for a key, something strong and typical that will take him quickly, coherently, and with great depth of impression inside the country. The Thames, carrying through its lovely valley and accessible hinterland so much of English character and history, is that key.
The English call it Old Father Thames and, with Spenser, “Sweet Themmes.” It is their mainstream; not a mighty river, certainly, but a noble one. Through London’s heart it is magnificent with towers, spires, domes, and river traffic. Above the city it becomes increasingly placid, a meandering country stream of swans, anglers, boatmen, of castles and manor houses, of lock-keepers’ gardens, and of many old riverside inns called Trout, Swan, Ye Olde Bell, Catherine Wheel, White Hart, and Compleat Angler. A clean, welltended river it is, dedicated to pleasure. Its long history runs from Saxon coronations at Kingston to Runnymede and Magna Charta, and to the late-June festivity at Henley regatta.
Scaled to man’s easy grasp, the Thames composes the varied life along its 216-mile course into a harmonious whole – a ripe slice of England from seascape to metropolis to market town. It is the kind of river that brings both countryside and great city insistently close, in much the same way as the waterways of Amsterdam and Venice. No roadway interposes itself between river traveler and house fronts; he glides past cows in a field, boatyards, landing stages, and steps leading to
gardens, village streets, and the amiable dining terraces of inns.
The river leads us to the English at their most relaxed – the weekend fishermen on the wide green banks at Pangbourne, their women a little way back preparing picnics under the trees; a garden party on the lawns of a great house: or all the people at play on the water, in punts and kayaks, sailboats, motor cruisers, and canoes. And at night in a secluded backwater one comes upon a convivial cluster of camping skiffs and punts, lights aglow beneath their canvas awnings, a kind of holidaymakers village on the water.
All up and down the Thames are boat liveries – at Oxford, Maidenhead, Sunbury, Runnymede, Bourne End, Bray, and Hurley–where almost any craft can be rented at a reasonable cost for an hour, a day, or a week. At Ladye Place Boathouse in Hurley, for example, on a very fine woodland reach of the river between Marlow and Henley, the more enterprising traveler can equip himself with everything from cruiser to houseboat to “caravan and chalet,” and with tents and camping gear.
Seen from the water, the otherwise predictable set pieces assume new dimensions: the royal palaces of Windsor, Hampton, Westminster, and Greenwich; the towers of Eton and Oxford; London’s bridges and the Tower; the dark mass of Cliveden woods. Between Kingston and Oxford one stops to visit a string of old river towns, rich in association with princes, prelates, poets; doubly rich in handsome bridges, houses, taverns, and inns.
There is Abingdon, still a farmers’ market town, with the remains of a great abbey, ancient almshouses still in use, and a notable coaching inn, the Crown and Thistle; Dorchester, a village that was once a Roman station, a Saxon stronghold; and the cathedral city of Wessex, made warm and welcoming by the White Hart and the George; Wallingford, with its George and its Lamb, where the main street crosses the river on a twelfth-century bridge; or the attractive inns and almshouses of Bray.
The Thames is navigable for all but eighteen miles of its course; the locks are all tended; navigation presents no problems, even for the beginner; mooring places are plentiful. Stop off at Cookham for its treeshaded waterways, bell ringers, the Bell and Dragon (very old and fashionable, one of the best eating places in England), and the short drive through wooded hills to three of the Thames’s many great houses – Taplow Court, Hedsor, Cliveden – close together on the high, green Buckinghamshire bank.
Stay overnight at Clifton Hampden. where the six-arched bridge leads to the thatched Barley Mow Inn: and walk in the morning into the Sinodun Hills, crowned with prehistoric fortifications, for commanding views of the Vale of the White Horse and the Thames Valley. The inland walks everywhere in this upper Thames countryside are as inviting as the river itself. For instance, stroll from the little market town of Wallingford to its neighboring villages, or from Benson three miles to Ewelme and on into the Chiltern Hills. One might also follow the quiet tributary streams– Loddon, Pang, Kennet (renowned for trout), and best of all, perhaps, the Windrush. which leads from a perfect Thames-side base, the Rose Revived in tiny Newbridge, to the gayest and most harmonious of towns hidden away in the Cotswolds.
There are at least a dozen other towns of great charm along the Thames, each with its inn of character and, often, of culinary reputation. The awninged dining terrace and exceptional wine list of the Hind’s Head at Bray, the White Hart with its rose garden at Sonning, the George and Dragon at Wargrave, the Old Bell at Hurley, and the Compleat Angler at Marlow are inns to look out for.
Other inn towns of note are Henley (Old White Hart), Hampton Court (Mitre), Godstow (The Trout), and Lechlade (New Inn), a lovely small market town thirty miles and three hundred years away from Oxford (at the furthest limit of navigation) in those upper reaches so lovingly described by Matthew Arnold, William Morris, and Shelley, who wrote here of “sweet solemn spells.”
Between Oxford and Lechlade the pleasure-boat man is thrown back to an earlier England, a half-forgotten gentle wilderness of water birds and willows and water meadows. Excellent fishing exists in these reaches and backwaters, and the comeliest peace in the English countryside; yet none of it is as much as two hours by rail from London.
Oxford, terminal point for the regular 91-mile run of the river steamers (a three-day trip with many stops, or stopovers, if one likes, and awesome afternoon teas in the saloon), makes the ideal excursion center on the upper Thames. It has excellent boatand car-hire facilities, is a center for the train and bus network that infiltrates all of the Thames hinterland, and provides the good accommodations so typical of the whole area. There is, for example, the superior old inn called Hopcrofts Holt at nearby Steeple Aston, and the Mitre and the King’s Arms in the city itself.
The river can also be traveled in a week-long cruise from Hampton
Court to Oxford, twelve passengers living aboard a boat, in the midst of such refinements as a bar, bath, and stewards, for $70.
The canals are even more leisurely. In a “cut” usually no more than fifteen yards wide the narrow-boat meanders along at three miles an hour, and nothing else in sight is moving any faster. Winding through secluded meadow and woodland, up and down hills, the boat slides with a placidity that leaves the tea calm in the cup, the birds unruffled on the trees, the nerves in unearthly tranquillity. One eats well, six times a day – early morning tea, breakfast, midmorning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner – often with wine on the table. There is a bar, and the other amenities one might expect of a good hotel for twelve.
The canal cruise makes for a compact floating world – one dieselpowered longboat, half Noah’s ark and half gondola, towing its twin “butty” – that provides a penetrating view of a half-forgotten England, enhanced by that peculiar congeniality of all water travel. Remote from the midsummer madness of roads, one is carried back to oldfashioned wild flowers and to a manmade scene that ranks as one of England’s architectural triumphs the eighteenthand early nineteenthcentury canal complex of lock cottages and quaint warehouses, inns and humpbacked bridges, aqueducts. ramps, bollards, and balance beams.
Leisure and a contentment gained without benefit of organized entertainment are the end-all of this travel that is totally unlike any other. All urgency about getting somewhere or seeing everything falls away. There are no packing and repacking, no reservations or schedules or tips or porters to think about. Once under way one is among the fishermen and farmers and villagers, the church steeples and market towns, the children who rush with greetings across cottage gardens.
The countryside along the canals is not crowded with tourists, and the residents are glad to see the visiting narrow-boat. The canal-cruise companies, small and usually managed by an owner who is a canal enthusiast, go out of their way to cater to people who value this rare peace and simplicity, a fact which tends consistently to bring them companionable groups of passengers.
The narrow-boat, fitted as compactly as a dollhouse, is seventy feet long but only seven feet in the beam. But this is wide-spreading country for the most part, and one lives largely in the open, riding the flat cabin top or reclining on the well deck. Then, for a change, it is only a step from deck to tow path and an unencumbered walking tour, as leisurely as the “hotel” that loyally follows the stroller.
Where a lane leads away from the canal bank to a village, a great house, or an inn, the walk can become an excursion, and the boat, at its walking pace, pausing here and there at a lock, is never far away. Furthermore, the excursion – by bicycle, country bus, or taxi – can become an all-day tour to Coventry, or Chester, or some lovely, neglected cathedral town like Lincoln; or to Georgian Stourport, the handsomest of all canal towns, which stands, with such deeply rewarding places as Worcester, Tewkesbury, and Gloucester, along the Severn Waterway. Meanwhile, the “hotel” catches up with the walker (or arrangements have been made for him to meet the boat further along, at its mooring place for the night).
Canalboat cruises, of from one to four weeks, are usually broken into periods of one week, or about a hundred miles, and the traveler who reserves well in advance can choose the ones he likes. For all theirserenity, the inland waterways are not without their high color, contrast, and excitement; and they come with a large variety of landscapes. The Llangollen Canal, for example, most beautiful of them all, climbs great stairs of locks through the Marches of Shropshire and passes over the staggering thousand-foot Pont-Y-Cysylltau aqueduct, 121 feet above the River Dee, on its way to the mountainous heart of Wales.
One of the companies, Canal Voyagers, Worcester, combines, for the two-week passenger, a trip on the Llangollen with one of two other interesting routes. Canal Voyagers’ narrow-boat Saturn, once a traditional “cheese boat” on these same waters, goes in one week from Chester, with its Roman walls, through castle-studded border country, then up to Llangollen, site of the International Eisteddfod (July 11 to 16), which Hazlitt called the “most beautiful and delightful little town in Wales or anywhere else.”To this, if one starts at Llangollen, can be added the run on sections of four other related canals that climb, finally, over five hundred feet into the hills of Derbyshire to Whaley Bridge on the Peak Forest Canal, a waterway to be compared with the Llangollen itself.
The third alternative here is the trip from Chester south to Stourport, first on the Shropshire Union Canal, through remote country with fine distant views, then on the contrasting Staffordshire and Worcestershire, which twists and turns through wooded and rocky valleys. The BOAC passenger to Manchester is very close to the Whaley Bridge turnaround point and can begin the cruise there on several dates of the mid-April to mid-October season; also he is only about thirty miles from Chester, this company’s main embarkation point. The cost is $50 to $55 a week per person, mid-May to late September; $35 to $40 in early spring and fall.
The inland waterways, it should be noted, are no mere bit of quaintness, no cruise in a teacup. Given the time to indulge in stages of fifteen to thirty miles a day, one can see most of the English counties and some of Scotland and Wales. The seven canal-cruise companies operate for the most part in unspoiled Midlands country, from Chester on the west coast to Boston on the east, and from the Peak district near Manchester all the way down to Oxford. Their names and addresses are Canal Voyagers, Diglis Basin, Worcester; Inland Navigators, and Inland Waterway Cruising Company, Braunston, Warwickshire; New-Way Holidays, Brownsover, Warwickshire; Waterborne Tours, Penkridge, Staffordshire; Waterway Projects Limited, Stretford, Lancashire; British Waterways, Lime Street, Liverpool.
But the independent traveler in his hired cabin cruiser can go much further, combining the various connecting waterways to his taste. For instance, starting from the main base of Maid Line Cruisers, Limited, at Thames Ditton (twenty-three minutes from Waterloo Station in London), he might go up the Thames to Lechlade, then back to the lovely Oxford Canal and north to Braunston, Warwickshire, a canal village of great interest, where one can still see the narrow-boats being built, then painted with the traditional “roses and castles” – the one surviving English folk art. From here he might circle back to Ditton, which is on the southern section of the Grand Union Canal and is surrounded by the colorful life of the commercial canalboat folk. On the way, he can stop at canalside inns like the Hunt at Leighton Buzzard.
The traveler may, instead, continue northward, following the many ramifications of the Midlands waterways through eight or ten counties to Leicester, Nottingham, Chester, Llangollen, and a hundred other waterways towns and villages (and inns) worth stopping for. Often the Maid Line boats can be boarded at the alternate bases at Braunston or Stone, in Staffordshire; or left there at the end of a one-way cruise. The cost of a good, fully equipped fourberth cruiser for a week varies with the season, from $50 in March and October to $125 in midsummer. Anyone who drives can handle these craft, but attendants are available at $30 a week, plus board.
Cruisers can be hired from thirty or more widely scattered firms, most of them in the Midlands. Some, like those in Nottingham and Ely, stand at the approaches to rather isolated but very beautiful waterways – in these cases, respectively, the TrentFossdyke and Witham combination, which goes to Lincoln and Boston, and the Great Ouse and Cam, which lead to the wonderful landscape and villages between Ely and Earith and to the great medieval port of King’s Lynn, which has a festival from July 22 to 29, and to Cambridge. Other hire firms are located in such delightful and strategic waterway towns as Stourport, Tewkesbury, Braunston, Chester, Llangollen, and Preston, which gives access to the unusual Lancaster Canal, with its views of sea and mountain on the way to the Lake District.
Details are to be had from the British Travel Association offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto; Inland Waterways Association, 4 Emerald Street, London, W.C. 1; Workers’ Travel Association Limited, Gillingham Street, London, S.W. 1; and the Divisional Offices of British Transport Waterways in Leeds, Watford (Hertfordshire), Liverpool, and Gloucester.