This book review has been a long time coming: I first read the book in 1963! I was still at school then, and I was given it as a prize for essay writing (although I have no memory of the essay). I chose Green & Silver because I was already familiar with the author – Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt, more usually known as L T C Rolt or ‘Tom’ Rolt. I had found in the local library his first book – Narrow Boat – written in the late 1930s when the author and his wife were living and travelling through England and Wales on board a converted canal boat. At that time the canals of Britain were still in commercial use, although water transport as a way of life was declining. I was smitten with the romanticism of the nomadic life of the canal boatmen – and of Tom Rolt – and Narrow Boat is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, which enhance the experience of reading this classic book (which has never been out of print). Sir Compton Mackenzie wrote “it is an elegy of classic restraint unmarred by any trace of sentiment… Rolt’s pen is as sure as the brush of a Cotman… Narrow Boat will go on the shelf with White and Cobbett and Hudson.”
Woodcuts by Denys Watkins-Pitchford which illustrated the first edition of Narrow Boat by L T C Rolt, published by Eyre + Spottiswoode, 1944
When choosing my essay prize, therefore, it seemed perfectly natural to go for another of Rolt’s books. A brief foray through book catalogues (remember – there was no internet in those days!) brought to light Green & Silver, first published in 1949. I established that it was an account of a journey by the same author through the canals of Ireland. It was the cover as much as anything else that attracted me to the book – it stood out as something quite unusual; I little knew that the content would have a profound effect on me, instilling an immediate yearning to visit the land across the Irish Sea, about which I knew very little.
Left – the bookplate pasted into my first edition of Green & Silver (it’s now in print again); right – the exuberant dust cover which attracted me to the book, painted by Evelyn Hunt
It was, however, to be a dozen years before I first visited Ireland (and then it was more a search for music than the canals), but Rolt’s works as a whole (he wrote more than 50 books) cemented in me an enduring interest in engineering, industrial archaeology, and, specifically, water transport. I spent my youthful leisure time campaigning to restore canals, physically digging them out of dereliction and even building lock gates with oak beams and elm boards using traditional techniques. Within a few years of reading Rolt I had acquired and restored my own boat and followed in his wake, spending a year travelling over the British canal system and writing a new book about their engineering and architecture.
Green & Silver is illustrated with photographs taken by Angela Rolt on the journey through Ireland. They are a valuable and evocative record of life just after the ‘Emergency’ years of the Second World War. Here is the Rolts’ borrowed boat – Le Coq – at Robertstown, on the Grand Canal: pleasure boating was virtually unheard of in rural Ireland in those days and the voyagers seemed much troubled by groups of children who gathered whenever they moored up, all demanding to see – and board – the ‘yacht’
Tom and Angela Rolt faced many challenges in their journey – well documented in the book. They set out to navigate the Shannon, starting at Athlone, to the entrance of the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour; along that canal to Dublin, then up the Royal Canal to rejoin the Shannon at Tarmonbarry and exploring the river northwards as far as Lough Allen, also taking in the River Boyle. The final part of the journey to Athlone crossed Lough Ree. The ‘Emergency’ years and their aftermath saw restrictions on the availability of fuel: this affected the Rolts’ plans, although they did complete their journey. They encountered commercial traffic on the Grand Canal – some horse drawn – and a little on the Royal Canal, which became derelict shortly after their travels. Le Coq was probably the last boat to complete the circular journey in the twentieth century: after significant efforts by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (founded in 1954) the Royal Canal has been fully restored to navigation and reopened in 2010.
From Green & Silver: a map of the navigable waterways of Ireland at the time of the book’s publication in 1949
This book is full of descriptive detail and observation of the ways of life and the people that Tom Rolt encountered: every page fascinates. It’s hard to pick out any one section to exemplify the writing style, but here is an extract describing a visit to a corn mill at Cloondara in County Longford close to Richmond Harbour, the junction of the Royal Canal with the River Shannon (the mill ceased operations in the 1950s, not long after Rolt’s visit):
…Across the canal bridge there was a large corn mill which had seen better days but which I was pleased to see was still at work. Moreover it was not, as our few surviving [British] watermills are, relegated by the milling combine to grinding cattle meal. Cloondara Mill was grinding 100 per cent extraction flour for the village bakeries of the district. As we walked over the bridge a small water-turbine was churning merrily, driving the dynamo which provided electric light for the mill and the miller’s house. But the great undershot wheel which drove the mill from the waters of the Fallan River, a tributary of the Shannon, was still and silent. I knew why because, from somewhere in the dim recesses of the rambling stone building I could hear the chip chip of a mill-bill tapping away like some busy woodpecker. This Irish miller, like the English country millers who I have been fortunate enough to meet, was obviously proud of his mill and was delighted by our interest. Having assured himself that the stones being dressed were out of gear, he insisted upon opening the sluice for our benefit, setting the giant wheel revolving with a rumble and surge that wakened the mill and which, via a complex of wooden gearing, shafts and pulleys, set screens and sieves shaking and revolving to the very top of the building…
Angela Rolt’s photograph of Le Coq moored at Richmond Harbour, Cloondara – ‘derelict warehouses and empty cottages’
…There were four pairs of stones, two sets of ‘Peaks’ for meal and two sets of French Burrs for wheat. The runner of one pair of Peaks had been swung off the bedstone, and the dresser sat on a sack, legs astraddle, as he tapped away at the worn furrows with his bill. I had expected to find that the language of the miller’s craft was different in Ireland, but this was not so. Thus the stirrup and shoe which feeds the grain into the eye of the runner stone and whose cheerful clink clack contrasts with the rumble of the stones, our miller, like his fellows in England, called the ‘damsel’. In an earlier book I described how the miller of Minshull Mill in Cheshire used apple wood to renew the teeth of the wooden mill gearing. Here beech wood was used for this purpose…
More of Angela Rolt’s photographs from the book: top – Peter Farrell’s working boat on the Grand Canal; centre – the Beirne family outside their inn at Battlebridge, close to the entrance of the abandoned Lough Allen Canal. Le Coq was the first boat to visit Battlebridge in seven years! Bottom – the Lock Keeper and his family at Draper’s Bridge, Royal Canal. The Rolts were always impressed with the generosity of the lock-keepers, particularly on this little-used waterway: they were constantly plied with milk, potatoes and scallions – ‘enough to sink the boat’…
Rolt was at heart an engineer: on leaving school at 16 he took a job learning about steam traction, before starting an apprenticeship at the Kerr Stuart locomotive works in Stoke-on Trent. Railways were in his blood as much as canals were. Thus he couldn’t leave Ireland without a journey on the West Clare Railway – then one of the last surviving narrow gauge railways in Ireland – and the subject of a song written and – famously – sung by Percy French, which includes the refrain:
…Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for certain’
Still ye might now, Michael
So ye might!
The Rolts’ journey on the line from Ennis is well documented in Green & Silver:
…We consigned the bulk of our luggage direct to Limerick to await our arrival there next day, and booked a first class ticket to Kilrush. We might as well enjoy this protracted journey in the maximum of comfort and seclusion. The little train, the only one of the day, was standing in the bay, and we settled ourselves into a compartment that was a period piece in itself. The seats were covered with black American cloth well studded with buttons. Braided arm rests (were they ever used?) were looped over the door pillars, and the captions of the ancient and faded photographs over the seat backs were hand written in painstaking copper-plate. To do justice to such an interior I should, I felt, be wearing a deer-stalker and an ulster…
The West Clare Railway: left – a photograph by Angela Rolt from Green & Silver showing L T C Rolt in a first class carriage on their journey from Athlone and – right – a stamp issued by the Railway Company for the ‘conveyance of single post letters by railway’
L T C Rolt was heavily involved in a movement in Britain to ‘save’ the declining canal system and in May 1946 the Inland Waterways Association was founded with Robert Aickman as chairman, Charles Hadfield (the canal historian) as vice-chairman and Rolt as secretary. Since that time the IWA has successfully campaigned to secure the restoration of many threatened waterways, and even to build some new ones in Britain. Sadly, within 5 years, Rolt had fallen out with the IWA over ideology, and was expelled from its membership. But Rolt moved on and campaigned to prevent the closure of the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway in Wales. He was involved in its resurrection as the first ‘preserved’ railway line in the world. His name is commemorated on one of the restored locomotives operating on the line: fittingly this engine began life working for Bord na Móna, the company in Ireland created by the Turf Development Act of 1946. The company is still responsible today for the mechanised harvesting of peat and uses narrow gauge railways: formerly steam driven, the lines now use diesel traction. The Tom Rolt (formerly nicknamed Irish Pete) was one of three 3 ft (914 mm) gauge 0-4-0WT well tank locomotives built by Andrew Barclay Sons + Co, an engineering workshop founded in 1840 in Kilmarnock, Scotland.
Tom Rolt, the former Bord na Móna locomotive now reconstructed and operating on the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway in Wales, at Tywyn Wharf (photograph courtesy Optimist on the run)
Following in the footsteps of L T C Rolt I wrote my own book on canals and it was published in 1969. The publishers, Hugh Evelyn of London, asked Rolt if he would write an introduction to the book. In the event he was unable to do so, passing the job on to Charles Hadfield. I was sorry not to have a ‘hero’ of mine endorsing the volume, but in my preface I mention my indebtedness to him for introducing me to the world of navigable waterways. Tom Rolt died in 1974 and he won’t know that I am also indebted to him for introducing me to Ireland, now my home.