It all starts with LTC Rolt’s book Narrow Boat written during the outbreak of World War II and published in 1944. Tom Rolt’s account of his and his wife’s four-month voyage on the Oxford, Grand Union and Trent & Mersey canals was the seed that eventually grew into the canal renaissance we now enjoy. The book was a last look at the canals that had fallen into disrepair and is a lament on the world that was lost, but its nostalgia helped create the Inland Waterways Association.
Your single most invaluable resource for many canals is a Pearson’s Canal Companion. These small booklets are a travelogue for your journey with a clear opinion of what others would consider progress (“Tesco have breezed into town, but personally we will still beat a path to Vermeulen’s delicatessen …”). The maps indicate towpath quality, laundries, moorings (private, prohibited, public), bridges, fish and chip shops, post offices, winding holes, locks, waterpoints, showers, pump outs and much more. You’ll have descriptions of towns and restaurants that are a little arch, like “Bray: Smug gastronomic cornucopia famous for its 17th Century vicar and his weathercock attitude to politics and religion.”
Despite the attitude (or perhaps because of it), you’ll enjoy the companion, although the maps can take a bit of getting used to. The maps don’t necessarily progress in the direction you’re traveling and each map is usually positioned to the landscape orientation of the book, meaning north is rarely up. The Pearson’s guides are available on Amazon.
Another resource is the Collins/Nicholson Waterways Guides and Waterways Map of Great Britain. These are closer to actual maps and you can find them on Amazon. They make a good companion to the Pearson’s Canal Companion.
I’m currently reading Derek Pratt’s Great Waterways Journeys: 20 Glorious Routes Circling England, By Canal and River. It’s a great guide when planning your next ring route. There are many great pictures and I especially like the maps on the inside covers and the fold-over flaps.
Within a couple of weeks, I should also be receiving Canals: The Making of a Nation by Liz McIvor, which is the companion book to the BBC series of the same name and which I believe will be a look at the history of the canals. I had to order it from Amazon UK because the American edition won’t be ready until summer 2016. I really hope the DVD will either be available on YouTube or to purchase.
(Just an update on this; the episodes of Canals: The Making of a Nation are available on YouTube but are nearly unwatchable, being only a quarter size with a murky overlay and muffled audio. Worse, you can’t even buy the series from the BBC store.)
Barging Round Britain, on the other hand, is an ITV series with journalist and TV presenter John Sergeant. The companion book is written by David Bartley. Sergeant is a fun character and the episodes are very short and with some luck, you might find them on YouTube. The books seems to be much more in-depth.
is a free waterway-related newspaper that you can find at marinas, tourist bureaus or canal trust visitor centers, or you can subscribe to have it delivered or you can read it free online.