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Afloat on England's Back Waters

You never forget the first time you drive. It was the summer of 1977 and I was 14. Feeling cocky, I pushed down on the gas and roared into the distance. I didn't ease up until I hit the speed limit: a blistering five miles an hour.

It doesn't really matter what you drive when you're a restless teenager. Even though we hardly outstripped the cows grazing on the banks, I was deliriously happy maneuvering a lumbering, 45-foot, two-ton canal boat through the murky green water.

As kids, my sister and I spent several summers boating on the waterways of England and France with our parents. Cleaning the boat, working locks, running errands, somehow added up to bliss. Though no match for France's elegantly landscaped Canal du Midi, the British waterways were, well, more British—a little dowdy, a bit reserved, but very welcoming. Charmingly decrepit, often bucolic, they offer a kind of neo-Romantic industrialism worthy of Turner.

Two decades ago, I couldn't wait for life to speed up and get going. Now that things are quite fully—sometimes madly—under way, I felt an increasing urge to revisit those languid canal days. Yet in the process of escaping from the frenzy of New York's dotcom mania, I found I was navigating the detritus of another century's equally dramatic—and frenetic—transformation. England's canals, after all, are where the revolution that launched Britain as a great manufacturing power took place. Everything from coal to timber, from pig iron to grain to Wedgwood china, was carried on this new system of waterways, sparking a speculative furor. "Canal mania," which peaked in 1793, transformed England as thoroughly as the Internet boom has 21st-century America. Canal company stock issues were wildly oversubscribed, with investors sleeping on line (the real, not the virtual) for a chance to buy shares. Vast fortunes were made and lost overnight, and in the 1830's canal stocks were paying dividends of an astonishing 48 percent. The shares of Birmingham Navigation, originally priced at 140 pounds, soared to 1,150 pounds in a matter of months.

Not everybody embraced the new technology, though. It sparked riots as well as parliamentary debates, such as the one in which a member remarked that he hoped his "grandchildren [would] be born web-footed, that they might be able to live on fish, for there will not be a bit of dry land in this island to walk on."

Though most of us have yet to grow webbed feet, the canals have found a second life in Britain's tourist boating culture. After years of neglect, nearly the entire system has been resurrected through the efforts of the British Waterways Board. With my wife, Helen, her sister Julien, and Julien's boyfriend, Jeff, I set off to open Britain's "back door" onto a middle-distance view of the present and the past.

The Avon Ring is one of the oldest and most varied sections of Britain's canal system. It also runs through a series of gorgeous "lost" towns—Upton, Tewkesbury, Evesham, Bidford, Pershore. You wouldn't ever see this particular group of villages unless you were traveling on the canals; founded around these once-thriving waterways, they have lain dormant since railroad and highway planners decided to pass them by 150 years ago. What was a disaster for economic development has been a boon for architecture: the Norman abbeys of Gloucester, the Georgian elegance of Shrewsbury and Upton.


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