Some day, I want to take a holiday on a narrow boat in England. So, I thought to myself, why don’t I think about recreating the trip recorded in V. Cecil Cotes’s Two Girls on a Barge (1891), given my love of all things Duncan and my recent research about that text.
So I went through the text and tried to unravel the route. You think it would be easy, as it is a line, not a web, but there are a couple of items inconsistent with the actual geography of the canal. Still, the route does go from A (London) to B (Coventry), so all is not lost.
Here’s the page references from the text, and a bit about each. The Canal River Trust has a fabulous dynamic map. I have copied the pertinent parts and marked the mentioned places.
- Page 2: “She sat down with a decided air, and we composed a note to Messrs. Corbett, of the London Salt Works. For, as everyone knows, Messrs. Corbett’s boats are some of the best of those which ply between London and Birmingham.”
—John Corbett (1817-1901), was notable in the salt trade: “Corbett acquired in 1852 the premises of [two salt works] companies, which stood respectively on opposite banks of the Worcester and Birmingham canal. Within a few years the enterprise was completely transformed [including] the acquisition of fifty canal boats, the cutting of tributaries from the canal to the lofts in which the salt was stored, the building of a railway—the property of Corbett—which traversed the works […] and the establishment of a wagon factory, a foundry, fitting shops, sawmills, and a brickyard. […] For his workpeople he built model houses, gardens, schools, a club-house, lecture-room, and dispensary. In 1859 he abolished female labour on the works, a step now commemorated by a window placed by public subscription in Stoke Prior church. He sold the works in 1889 to the Salt Union” (Dictionary of National Biography).
- Page 12: “The Cadet must have waited a long time on the wharf at Paddington, when we did at last arrive prepared to start.”
—The Paddington Canal (or Paddington Arm) runs from Paddington Basin to join the Grand Union Canal in Bull’s Bridge, near the Hayes and Harlington Rail Station (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paddington_Arm).
- Page 21: “It was the Bargee’s face that shone over the bulwark with a tentative inquiry. ‘Being Willesden, there’s stabling for the ‘orse, at least if you think proper!’.”
—At Willesden, the Paddington Arm now runs beside rail tracks and through an industrial area.
- Page 42: “So we left Uxbridge far behind, with its funny little streets and utterly uncomprehending air. … And dawdling through the morning, we came after a long while to Rickmansworth.”
—Uxbridge is just north of Cowley, and just past the junction to the Slough Arm canal. I think if I were to repeat the journey, I’d have to pop up the Slough Arm, for nostalgia’s sake. Slough has always been an object of local derision: “Come friendly bombs and drop on Slough / It isn’t fit for humans now”; also a sign posted between Slough and Maidenhead when we lived in Windsor read: “Slough, twinned with Chernobyl.” It’s really not that bad, but it is not Home Counties idyllic, certainly.
- Page 45: “We found our canal lingering lovingly through Lady Keppel’s park the third morning of our wanderings.”
—“Lady Keppel’s park,” the estate owned by the Capell family since 1627, is now Cassiobury Park in Watford./https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassiobury_Park). Cotes notes that they “had come to Lady Keppel’s acres through ‘a many’ locks. First a pound and then a lock, a lock and then a pound — ‘pound’ being a canal definition of the level reaches that lie between the locks — and we had begun to feel like some sort of accomplices in a very old book of the Arabian Nights. For these locks were, many of them, quaintly picturesque, with the quaintness that arises from an undisturbed possession of themselves” (page 45–46) but as the map shows, such a description is far more apt for the stretch of canal they encountered on the next day, between Hemel Hampstead and Marsworth.
- Page 59: “But fate having brought us to King’s Langley, the city of a Liliputian street, we paid the homage due at the shrine of local precedent.”
—King’s Langley has a Roman villa excavated just to the south; not much else to say.
- Page 65: “So we found Stoke Brewin, with its low-roofed cottages among its grass-grown roads.”
—”Stoke Brewin” is actually “Stoke Breuene,” which lies just south of the Blisworth Tunnel; not sure what it’s doing at this point in the narrative.
- Page 66: “ ‘Hitch their waggons to the Polar system of an Uxbridge or a Rickmansworth!’ quoth Mr. Squif, studying the old grey tower of the little church.”
—Rickmansworth is not otherwise mentioned, but it lies just south of Watford so, like Uxbridge, they would have already travelled through it.
- Page 67: “Well, then, there was Berkhampstead. Berkhampstead reclining its lank self away inland, but staying for a little space on the side of the canal to dabble its white stones.”
—Berkhamstead boasts Maria Edgeworth, Graham Greene, and the Whomping Willow from the Harry Potter movies.
- Page 72: “ ‘Leighton Buzzard it ‘ull be to-night,’ said Mrs. Bargee next day. ‘It’s a good stoppin’ place is Leighton, and there’s fodder for the ‘orse.’ But Mrs. Bargee was flustered as she stated this as a predetermined fact. If she had not been flustered she would immediately have added, ‘leastways, in the best of our endeavours it will be Leighton Buzzard.’ Perhaps that was an added reason for our not finding ourselves at Leighton when the evening came.”
- Page 75: “Therefore we went up to Tring at once.”
- Page 83: “ ‘Blisworth,’ shuddered the voice, almost involuntarily, it seemed.”
—Blisworth Tunnel is the first tunnel they encounter. Apparently, as the horses couldn’t get through the tunnels (obviousl), two men would have to “leg it” through, lying on the deck and using their feet on the walls of the tunnel to propel the boat along. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/narrowboat-legging
- Page 88: “We went amiably together to beg roses from a dewy garden situated on a promontory of the conclusive name of Northampton Amen.”—I can find no place with this name, but a canal branches off to Nonrthampton at Gayton Bridge, just after the Bliksworth Tunnel.
“ ‘There was somebody inquiring for you down at Fenny Lock yesterday when I come through,’ said a tall brown bargee — ‘a stranger-man’ — accosting the roses principally, as we came back to the barge.”
—Fenny Stratford Lock is near Bletchley.
- Page 107: “Sunday had anchored at the Seven Locks with us in idleness.”
- Page 109: “We had turned out of the Grand Junction and crept up a smaller channel that branches out of the main stream somewhere between Watford and Crick. An unfrequented channel — a sort of a baby canal, where the water was so shallow that, leaning on the bulwark, one could see the tangled roots of the reeds, and the silly little shoots and foolish, straggling grasses which grow on the brown wrack of last year’s sedge. Then the stream had grown broader and deeper, and more still and dignified, and there stood in front of us the Seven Locks like seven cool white sisters in some old quiet park with the water all about them.”
—This description is not consistent with modern maps of the canals, but there is a story. The Leicester Line Arm of the Grand Union Canal was previously the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal, which ran from the junction of the River Soar with the Trent & Mersey Canal through to Market Harborough. It was extended down, intending to meet up with the Grand Union Canal just south of Watford (Leicestershire), but the dates of the construction of this Arm are not easy to find. The “old” Grand Union Canal and the L&N Union Canal were purchased (by a company named Grand Junction—hence the confusion about the names Grand Union and Junction Canals) in 1894, three years after the publication of Two Girls on a Barge. So it is likely that the only waterway connecting the two at the time was a small canal where the larger one would soon be. If this were true, the small canal would have led directly to the Seven Locks at Watford.
- Page 128: “It is a long way by canal from the Seven Locks to the Braunceston Tunnel, and it was noon when we reached the gorge between the quivering larches that creep by the dark portal in the hill.”
—The route from the Seven Locks to the Braunceton Tunnel would have been to backtrack through the small canal to the Grand Union Canal proper.
- Page 136-37: “So we glided on, as the afternoon was waning, to Braunceston, Mrs. Bargee’s home.”
—After Braunceston, in order to get to Coventry, the route leaves the Grand Union Canal and heads north into the Oxford Canal, which runs from Oxford to Exhall, where it junctions with the Coventry Canal. The route then runs south from that junction into Coventry.
- Page 139: “One day he stood still on the bank, and the Bargee, indicating all the meadows in a large-minded way, observed, ‘This be Rugby, sir.’”
—Rugby, as is mentioned in the book, was not only the name of the town but also of the preparatory school run by Dr. Thomas Arnold, father of poet Matthew Arnold and author William Arnold.
- Page 144: “Stealthily, silently creeping up between low banks, slowly gliding by the shingle to the denser shadows of Godiva’s town, we came to Coventry, and on the farthest outskirts of her mantle, just where its border wears a sheen of poetry and its hem curves gently to the water, we dropped anchor, lingering.”—Coventry, much described in the book, is where the journey ended. The barge and fittings were sold up, and the travellers returned to London. The Grand Union Canal continues from the junction with the Oxford Canal, through Leamington Spa, on to Birmingham.