Although somewhat short on 'how to' signposting The Canal Guide: Britain's 55 best canals enchanted Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer, Julia Jones
I’d love to see the author of The Canal Guide: Britain’s 55 best canals, Stuart Fisher, on Mastermind:
His apparently effortless outpouring of information on matters far removed from his specialist subject of Britain’s canals would surely make him unbeatable in the general knowledge rounds.
As previously in his excellent guides to Coastal Britain (two volumes – England and Scotland) the reader is treated to a scintillating riff of facts – about plants, pubs, history, literature, film sets, architecture, place names as well as the detail of canal history and engineering.
There’s not a dull page in the book.
Although it’s not obvious what criteria have been used to select the 55 ‘best’ canals, while one is on the reading journey this doesn’t seem important.
The canals are being looked at within their wider environment, therefore it feels as relevant (and enjoyable) to be reading about the hearse barges of Kensal Green, the brine baths of Droitwich, the stately home where James I was sufficiently overcome by lavish hospitality to knight his loin of beef ‘Arise Sir Loin’, the witch discovered sailing a plank on the Kennet and Avon as the complex engineering phenomenon of the ‘Bunbury Shuffle’ on the Shropshire Union Canal.
Photos are superb throughout.
A stay-at-home reader could almost see this book as an alternative way to explore British (mainly English) history and landscape starting from Birmingham.
Fisher offers the fascinating justification that Birmingham is the only major British city that is not located on a major river and therefore possesses ‘more canals than Venice’ – a fact one may have heard before but previously found hard to believe.
There’s an iconic moment when the reader is invited to look up from the Tame Valley canal to the Gravelly Hill interchange – otherwise known as ‘spaghetti junction’.
Fisher’s brilliant evocation of the canal components: tow path, pipe bridge, lattice canal footbridge, arched cable bridge, box tunnel becomes almost surreal as ‘slip roads flail through the air, the M6 crosses, the Birmingham to Lichfield railway passes through and ever more slip roads arc over’.
This Turk’s head of transport systems symbolises the part played by canals in energising the industrial life of the country.
Many readers will feel energised to set out and explore, carrying The Canal Guide with them.
More signposting please
This is where I feel more could have been done to help the new enthusiasts: a whole country map, a better index, basic newbie information such as the need to get a licence if setting out with an SUP in the boot of the car, a tick list for each canal indicating availability of hire craft, perhaps?
The Canal Guide is an inspiring book which needs just a little more signposting, as Fisher himself recommends.
For readers who’d like to know more about the specifics of Canal Architecture we recommend Britain’s Canals: Exploring their Architectural and Engineering Wonders (2020) by Anthony Burton and Derek Pratt.
Stuart Fisher has also published Canals of Britain: a comprehensive guide (2017).
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