Thursday 5 March 2009

The Birmingham Canal Navigations - book review

The Birmingham Canal Navigations by Ray Shill
Book Review

I purchased this book from Amazon on something of a whim, whilst looking for a copy of Moby Dick to satisfy my curiosity about my alter ego, Captain Ahab.

I already have a copy of Ray Shill's Birmingham and the Black Country Canalside Industries and had a preconception of how it would read. I had expected a plethora of minute detail. Instead I found a book which lets the pictures do the talking. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and if this is so this relatively short 128 page book contains 150,000 words!

Ray has trawled the local reference libraries for photographic records , maps and diagrams of the BCN throughout its 250 year evolution and added commentary which brings the images to life.

Rather than adopt a geographical approach to dividing up the book, he has split it into 7 elements based on themes:
  1. Maps of the BCN
  2. The BCN Network
  3. The BCN Cottage Numbering Scheme
  4. Trade on the Waterways
  5. Narrow Boat Variety
  6. Working on the Canals
  7. Modern Times and Modern Developments
Don't be put off by some of the rather obscure sections like "The BCN Cottage Numbering System". The narrative may be a bit dry as it explains the various regional reorganisations in the BCN administrative set up, but the words are accompanied by some great photos of canalside structures. Some of these landmarks exist today whilst others have been flattened into the pages of the history books.

As I was leafing through "The Birmingham Canal Navigations" and its sister publication I was reminded of a walking tour I took through ancient Rome. The guide took us to a vantage point, showed us a photo of what we were looking at and then overlaid is with a depiction of what it would have looked like in the past. It was the same process but in reverse' I was staring at the past and trying to imagine how it all looks today. I think it would be interesting to try and take some photo's from the same vantage points and publish a series of "then and now" images in the blog.

Sadly, I know that this is a futile ambition for some of the images. Consider the image below:

Its a section of the Tipton Green and Toll End Communication Canal, taken as recently as 1957. The canal has since been infilled and the houses pulled down.

Reading the book is a bitter sweet experience. On one hand its a joy to get an insight into the canals in their heyday but on the other, many of the images were taken during in the 1960's and 70's and depict waterways devoid of life or activity. Its amazing that the system has survived to the extent it has.

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