by John Liley
My rummage through the collection of books for sale from the BCN Society unearthed a copy of Journeys of the Swan, complete with a very 1960's flower power typeface on its cover.
The period nature of the book initially caused me to set it aside, but then I reread the name of the author - John Liley who continues to write fascinating articles from his hotel boat in France. I have always enjoyed his writings, but never had any idea of his background. So, reading a book written by him in 1971 based on his travels in a working boat in the mid 1960's was promptly added to the "must have" pile.
My foreign travels provide plenty of scope for reading, either whilst waiting for planes, on planes or simply killing time in hotels. This book as therefore became my evening reading in Malta and from a distance of 1000 miles and nearly 50 years I followed his adventured on the Swan, a working boat salvaged by a friend from Braunston and whose single cylinder Gardner semi diesel reliably thumped them the length and breath of England over several seasons.
The tale starts with the boat's recovery from Braunston and then its initial trip to take part in the reopening of the South Stratford Canal. Then it was a circumnavigation of London followed by a mega trip to Birmingham, Middlewich and Leicester. The next season included a trip to the Worcester Avon in the days before the upper Avon had been completed - all undertaken at breakneck pace in two week holiday snatches.
John has a good style, mixing history with an insightful commentary of his travels. These were the days when the continuation of the canal network was far from certain and there is an underlying sense of urgency to get round as much as they could, whilst they still could. Maybe there was something in the air in the 60's - my father travelled dawn to dusk, and then some which was pretty much like these guys.
The book makes you appreciate the changes achieved over the decades - the opening of the Kennet and Avon, Droitwich, Upper Avon and that's just in the south. But its not just the miles and furlongs added, its the state of the cut itself. These guys were really struggling to get their 3ft 6in draft through the smaller canals where 2ft 6in of water wasn't uncommon. I'm not saying that working boats dont struggle from time to time, but generally there is a bit more gap between the top and the bottom these days.