Green & Silver
L. T. C. Rolt
Green & Silver
This book review has been a long time coming: I first read the book in 1963! I was still at school then, and I was given it as a prize for essay writing (although I have no memory of the essay). I chose Green & Silver because I was already familiar with the author – Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt, more usually known as L T C Rolt or ‘Tom’ Rolt. I had found in the local library his first book – Narrow Boat – written when the author and his wife were living and travelling through England and Wales on board a converted canal boat in 1939. At that time the canals of Britain were still in commercial use, although water transport as a way of life was declining. I was smitten with the romanticism of the nomadic life of the canal boatmen – and of Tom Rolt – and Narrow Boat is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, which enhance the experience of reading this classic book (which has never been out of print). Sir Compton Mackenzie wrote “it is an elegy of classic restraint unmarred by any trace of sentiment… Rolt’s pen is as sure as the brush of a Cotman… Narrow Boat will go on the shelf with White and Cobbett and Hudson.”
When choosing my essay prize, therefore, it seemed perfectly natural to go for another of Rolt’s books. A brief foray through book catalogues (remember – there was no internet in those days!) brought to light Green & Silver, first published in 1949. I established that it was an account of a journey by the same author through the canals of Ireland. It was the cover as much as anything else that attracted me to the book – it stood out as something quite unusual; I little knew that the content would have a profound effect on me, instilling an immediate yearning to visit the land across the Irish Sea, about which I knew very little.
It was, however, to be a dozen years before I first visited Ireland (and then it was more a search for music than the canals), but Rolt’s works as a whole (he wrote more than 50 books) cemented in me an enduring interest in engineering, industrial archaeology, and, specifically, water transport. I spent my youthful leisure time campaigning to restore canals, physically digging them out of dereliction and even building lock gates with oak beams and elm boards using traditional techniques. Within a few years of reading Rolt I had acquired and restored my own boat and followed in his wake, spending a year travelling over the British canal system and writing a new book about their engineering and architecture.
Tom and Angela Rolt faced many challenges in their journey – well documented in the book. They set out to navigate the Shannon, starting at Athlone, to the entrance of the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour; along that canal to Dublin, then up the Royal Canal to rejoin the Shannon at Tarmonbarry and exploring the river northwards as far as Lough Allen, also taking in the River Boyle. The final part of the journey to Athlone crossed Lough Ree. The ‘Emergency’ years and their aftermath saw restrictions on the availability of fuel: this affected the Rolts’ plans, although they did complete their journey. They encountered commercial traffic on the Grand Canal – some horse drawn – and a little on the Royal Canal, which became derelict shortly after their travels. Le Coq was probably the last boat to complete the circular journey in the twentieth century: after significant efforts by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (founded in 1954) the Royal Canal has been fully restored to navigation and reopened in 2010.
This book is full of descriptive detail and observation of the ways of life and the people that Tom Rolt encountered: every page fascinates. It’s hard to pick out any one section to exemplify the writing style, but here is an extract describing a visit to a corn mill at Cloondara in County Longford close to Richmond Harbour, the junction of the Royal Canal with the River Shannon (the mill ceased operations in the 1950s, not long after Rolt’s visit):
…Across the canal bridge there was a large corn mill which had seen better days but which I was pleased to see was still at work. Moreover it was not, as our few surviving [British] watermills are, relegated by the milling combine to grinding cattle meal. Cloondara Mill was grinding 100 per cent extraction flour for the village bakeries of the district. As we walked over the bridge a small water-turbine was churning merrily, driving the dynamo which provided electric light for the mill and the miller’s house. But the great undershot wheel which drove the mill from the waters of the Fallan River, a tributary of the Shannon, was still and silent. I knew why because, from somewhere in the dim recesses of the rambling stone building I could hear the chip chip of a mill-bill tapping away like some busy woodpecker. This Irish miller, like the English country millers who I have been fortunate enough to meet, was obviously proud of his mill and was delighted by our interest. Having assured himself that the stones being dressed were out of gear, he insisted upon opening the sluice for our benefit, setting the giant wheel revolving with a rumble and surge that wakened the mill and which, via a complex of wooden gearing, shafts and pulleys, set screens and sieves shaking and revolving to the very top of the building…
…There were four pairs of stones, two sets of ‘Peaks’ for meal and two sets of French Burrs for wheat. The runner of one pair of Peaks had been swung off the bedstone, and the dresser sat on a sack, legs astraddle, as he tapped away at the worn furrows with his bill. I had expected to find that the language of the miller’s craft was different in Ireland, but this was not so. Thus the stirrup and shoe which feeds the grain into the eye of the runner stone and whose cheerful clink clack contrasts with the rumble of the stones, our miller, like his fellows in England, called the ‘damsel’. In an earlier book I described how the miller of Minshull Mill in Cheshire used apple wood to renew the teeth of the wooden mill gearing. Here beech wood was used for this purpose…
Rolt was at heart an engineer: on leaving school at 16 he took a job learning about steam traction, before starting an apprenticeship at the Kerr Stuart locomotive works in Stoke-on Trent. Railways were in his blood as much as canals were. Thus he couldn’t leave Ireland without a journey on the West Clare Railway – then one of the last surviving narrow gauge railways in Ireland – and the subject of a song written and – famously – sung by Percy French, which includes the refrain:
…Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for certain’
Still ye might now, Michael
So ye might!
The Rolts’ journey on the line from Ennis is well documented in Green & Silver:
…We consigned the bulk of our luggage direct to Limerick to await our arrival there next day, and booked a first class ticket to Kilrush. We might as well enjoy this protracted journey in the maximum of comfort and seclusion. The little train, the only one of the day, was standing in the bay, and we settled ourselves into a compartment that was a period piece in itself. The seats were covered with black American cloth well studded with buttons. Braided arm rests (were they ever used?) were looped over the door pillars, and the captions of the ancient and faded photographs over the seat backs were hand written in painstaking copper-plate. To do justice to such an interior I should, I felt, be wearing a deer-stalker and an ulster…
L T C Rolt was heavily involved in a movement in Britain to ‘save’ the declining canal system and in May 1946 the Inland Waterways Association was founded with Robert Aickman as chairman, Charles Hadfield (the canal historian) as vice-chairman and Rolt as secretary. Since that time the IWA has successfully campaigned to secure the restoration of many threatened waterways, and even to build some new ones in Britain. Sadly, within 5 years, Rolt had fallen out with the IWA over ideology, and was expelled from its membership. But Rolt moved on and campaigned to prevent the closure of the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway in Wales. He was involved in its resurrection as the first ‘preserved’ railway line in the world. His name is commemorated on one of the restored locomotives operating on the line: fittingly this engine began life working for Bord na Móna, the company in Ireland created by the Turf Development Act of 1946. The company is still responsible today for the mechanised harvesting of peat and uses narrow gauge railways: formerly steam driven, the lines now use diesel traction. The Tom Rolt (formerly nicknamed Irish Pete) was one of three 3 ft (914 mm) gauge 0-4-0WT well tank locomotives built by Andrew Barclay Sons + Co, an engineering workshop founded in 1840 in Kilmarnock, Scotland.
Following in the footsteps of L T C Rolt I wrote my own book on canals and it was published in 1969. The publishers, Hugh Evelyn of London, asked Rolt if he would write an introduction to the book. In the event he was unable to do so, passing the job on to Charles Hadfield. I was sorry not to have a ‘hero’ of mine endorsing the volume, but in my preface I mention my indebtedness to him for introducing me to the world of navigable waterways. Tom Rolt died in 1974 and he won’t know that I am also indebted to him for introducing me to Ireland, now my home.
The book was reprinted as a second impression and published in 1968 by George Allen & Unwin. Rolt was still living then and provided a foreword – in all other respects the edition was exactly as the original, with the same cover, dust jacket and photographs. Angela – who took the photographs – and Tom separated in 1951; Angela joined Billy Smart’s Circus while Tom became immersed in the Tallylyn Railway project, described in his book Railway Adventure, published by Constable in 1953. In the foreword to the 1968 edition of Green & Silver, Rolt acknowledges that the book has become a social document and, perhaps, a ‘time capsule’ of the Irish waterways that he traversed. There had been changes in the twenty years between the two editions: commercial traffic had ceased for good, and the Royal Canal was – it seemed – permanently closed.
…As an historical document, in some respects the book gains in interest. For example, the Royal Canal is now little more than a memory. I had no idea when I wrote my account of our voyage through the Royal from Dublin to the Shannon that I was writing its epitaph. So no one any more may follow in our wake through Maynooth and Mullingar to Cloondara on the Shannon, and I feel a kind of mournful satisfaction in having recorded for posterity, at the eleventh hour, what it was really like to voyage through this lost waterway… (Rolt’s 1968 foreword)
L T C Rolt (born in 1910) lived through the time of Ireland’s transformation: from the 1916 Rising, through the War of Independence, through the Civil War and into the Troubles. He was an interested and interesting observer: his prejudices probably lay more on the Irish side of the Celtic Sea than the English. In the book he keeps his few comments on contemporary politics to the last page:
…We are near relations, our two islands are mutually interdependent, and the present state of our relationship [this was in 1949] is as ridiculous and futile as a family feud prolonged by custom. It will change for the better so soon as we can bring ourselves to be more tolerant, to put ourselves in the Irishman’s place, and so to understand his desire for independence… We each have much to give the other…