Book Review: The Wilts and Berks Canal

Last month my son gave me a book containing a photographic history of our local canal network, the remains of which we have been exploring on our regular walks. Titled Wilts & Berks Canal Revisited it was clear there must be a predecessor. He kindly sourced this for me.

The Wilts & Berks Canal, by Doug Small, was published in 1999 by Tempus, an imprint that has since been incorporated into The History Press. The book includes a brief written history of the canal along with a good mix of historic and more recent photographs taken along its sixty mile length. Enthusiasts are working to restore and reopen the waterway. The author is confident that this will proceed successfully, albeit with some necessary rerouting where the original canal bed has been built over. Reading the book twenty years after publication, and having walked sections where work has been ongoing throughout the three decades I have lived in this area, progress has not, perhaps, been as speedy as anticipated.

The book opens with an introduction detailing the canal’s inception through to abandonment and then on to restoration. There follow nine chapters, each covering a key section along the route. These are prefaced by additional written information before the photographs commence, two per page and all annotated. Depicted are the canal, associated buildings and other infrastructure, along with the work being done to make it navigable once again.

I enjoyed Revisited but the photographs in this first book are even more interesting, providing as they do a more focused history of the canal from the tranche of images available. Naturally I was drawn in particular to the sections that I have explored. Having seen for myself what currently remains of the waterway it is fascinating to observe how the wharves, aqueducts and bridges looked when serving a commercial operation.

Given the time period of British canals’ heyday, and the development of photography, many of the illustrations are from the later years. There are also numerous images taken after the canal closed but before structures had been demolished or buried. The author provides details of what happened to stretches built upon – what remains and what is now in place. In rural areas much of the line still exists, although often buried by vegetation, but in towns there are now roads, offices and houses where the canal was once in place.

For those with an interest in social and economic history this is a book to be perused and returned to. I now intend to explore the restored sections further from home. The author’s vision of a working waterway as a local amenity is one I support.