What to read while traveling a canal

Clicking on the picture should take you to Alcuin Book, unless this copy has already been sold

One of the things I love to do when traveling the canals is to read a book about canals. Of course it’s inconvenient to bring actual physical books on a trip, so I often resort to loading up the iPad or Kindle with things to read. While cycling the Worcester & Birmingham Canal for instance, I read Nick Corble’s book James Brindley: The First Canal Builder. Admittedly Brindley wasn’t the engineer for the Worcs & B’ham, but he was the first engineer of what became the Birmingham Old Main Line and he did survey and engineer (well, under his distant supervision) the Droitwich Barge Canal.

I’m also looking forward to re-reading The Wench Is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery, whenever I travel the Oxford Canal. I could also read Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens if I ever pass through Shepperton Lock on the Thames, but that’s a whole lot of book to read just for the association between Rogue Riderhood and the fictional Plashwater Weir Mill Lock. I could also re-read Tom Rolt’s seminal Narrow Boat, but then I might be compelled to admit I find it a difficult book to read.

An association I never made between literature and canals, however, was Sherlock Holmes and the Kennet & Avon Canal. That is until my friend Larry Feldman, an eminent Sherlockian and fellow member of Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, leant me a copy of The Quintessential Sherlock Holmes by Richard Boyer. It’s a collection of pastiches, one of which is the Wilton Water Horror.

I don’t want to give away the story, but it starts with the Great Detective once again being overcome from the strain of solving murders and Watson suggesting they travel on the K&A as a waterway holiday. They paid to travel on a working boat instead of on a fly boat that operated day and night specifically for passengers. Quite a bit of the story is just about the experience of boating and reminded me of my first impressions of the canal. We traveled it in 2011, starting at Sydney Gardens in Bath and going as far as Devizes before turning back. (And no, we skipped the Caen Hill flight, preferring to walk it instead.)

Holmes and Watson, of course, experienced a still working canal and some of the attendant dangers. For it me it was hard to reconcile the beautiful, bucolic canal I enjoyed with the tales of ruffians in this story. But being a Holmes story, the tale quickly gets darker after they learn of the grisly death of a towpath horse being dragged into the canal and eaten. I don’t want to ruin the story by giving too much away, but I will mention that Wilton Water is a real place.

Considering what lurks in Wilton Water, it’s interesting to note that this body of water is artificial, having been created as a reservoir to supply the summit of the Kennet & Avon. The nearby Crofton Pumping Station pumped the water from the reservoir to the canal.* Unfortunately we didn’t travel far east enough on the K&A to see Wilton Water or the famous Crofton Beam Engines, two working steam engines that still (on certain days) supply water to the canal. Wilton Water, as seen from this map, certainly sits right beside the canal, but it looks a little small to shelter the Wilton Horror. In fact, it’s so overgrown with algae anything large would be hard pressed to survive. Nevertheless, watching the video below I was a little worried for the safety of the Canal & River Trust workers.

Unfortunately I’m not likely to read the Wilton Water Horror when I’m next on the K&A. To my knowledge, the story is only (legally) available as part of the collection, which is only available as a very handsome, rather large hard-bound edition. Even if I wanted to take the book on a trip, I couldn’t afford to buy my own copy (search on Abe book or similar out-of-print service). Thankfully another Boyer Holmes pastiche, The Giant Rat of Sumatra, is more widely available in both paperback and hardcover at affordable prices. Sadly there’s no ebook, however.

So I’ll just have to content myself with re-reading Larry’s copy. I doubt he’d let me take on a narrowboat trip, however.

* Claverton Pumping Station a short distance from Bath also supplies water to the canal from the Avon River.

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