Saturday 24 November 2012

Small Boat to Alsace - book review

Small Boat to Alsace (1961)
by Roger Pilkington
November 2012

It seems a bit odd to be captivated by a series of inland waterway journeys undertaken so far in the past. In this case it was 1961, the year of my birth, and marks a change of direction for the Commodore.

Till now the Pilkington family has travelled north and explored the Scandanavian waterways but now her bows are turned south, propelled on her way by a new engine. Well, to tell the truth, its a second new engine as the first one seized after a few miles - but that's another story.

The change in direction also marks a sea change in the storytelling, and one for the better. In his last couple of books Pilkington has become a bit history heavy, possibly because these was not so much to say about the boating and the waterways. Here the journey is exclusively inland and follows the course of the Rhine upstream through Holland Belgium, France and finally through the Alcase region into Germany at Kehl.

That's the thing about these books, there is never any particular ending, just chapters of an unfolding journey with each book representing a year of holiday trips.

The Rhine is a fast flowing river, with a gradient of 1% which is precipitous for a navigable river and rolls along at between 7 and 10 knots - far faster than the lowly powered Commodore could manage. So their journey into the continent was via the extensive network of canals and lesser rivers which were still thriving arteries of commerce flanking the mighty river. There was a lot to see and write about, the navigations, the boats (including the tractor propelled barges), the geography and of course the history.

This is an area defined by war, with opposing forces repeatedly crossing and destroying it. The Romans started the trend which continues right up to the two German invasions in the early 20th century. This sequence of occupation and suppression has left its mark on the landscape and its peoples, and its all faithfully recorded in the context of its watery thread. Alsace sound beautiful, with its ancient town and friendly people and a rich history.

Whist the people appear welcoming, the picture painted of French officialdom is less than flattering, with rigid observance to illogical rules and stolid resistance to Commodores progression. In the end they were registered as an unladen coal barge, which seemed to do the trick.

There are plenty of twists and turns in this tale which will have you returning to the map page again and again. Its a fascinating slice through the geography and culture of the Rhine and feels rather like U2 when they emerged triumphant from their slightly barren patch of Pop and Zooropa. A comparison between U2 and Commodore - how odd!

Anyway - a really good book in a cracking series. I am making a concerted effort to buy ahead in this series of 18 (I think) Small Boat books and for simplicity's sake, my reading progression is noted in my first post "Thames Waters". I hope that this whets your appetite but does not trigger a bidding war on e-bay!

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