Canals in fiction

Are you in need of recharging?

Our canals and rivers offer spaces on your doorstep to relax and reconnect when we need them the most.

It’s no surprise that our historic canals, so full of character, have featured in many works of fiction over the years. From literary greats to children’s tales, look out for the watery references in these favourite reads.

Misty morning by Andrew Hutchinson Misty morning by Andrew Hutchinson

Spending time near water helps us to relax, unwind and see things differently. Watching the wildlife and the ripples on the water can provide a whole new perspective on any situation, and the tranquil pleasures of boating, walking and fishing help put us all in a more meditative state of mind.

In no particular order, here’s a non-exhaustive list of canal-inspired fiction. But first, some musings on what might have been…

Literary inspiration

Was William Shakespeare an angler? It’s not an angle regularly explored, but the bard makes explicit references to fishing in several well-known plays. Can you think which ones? Our national fisheries & angling manager, John Ellis, talks us through it in his blog.

Photo of Sydney Gardens Sydney Gardens

Jane Austen is not usually associated with the canals, but she moved to Bath in 1801, a year when the Kennet & Avon Canal was first navigable from Bath to Devizes. The construction of this picturesque canal can’t have gone unnoticed by Jane Austen, especially given her residence near the elegant Sydney Gardens. She attended more than one public breakfast in Sydney Gardens, so it’s not a stretch to imagine her strolling over an ornate canal bridge. Who knows what intricate plot twists were hatching in her mind at the time?

20th Century fiction

Kenneth Grahame gave us one of our favourite quotes in his 1908 children’s novel, The Wind in the Willows.

“Believe me my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Ratty, 'Wind in the Willows'

The adventures of Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger are well-loved by all ages and although Grahame lived by the Thames, we know he took several boating holidays. Toad encounters a horse-drawn barge upon his escape from prison and is eventually thrown into the canal by a cross washer-woman.

Freight carrying on the Grand Union Canal Freight carrying on the Grand Union Canal

Ernest Temple Thurston paints a picture of declining working waterways in his 1911 novel, The Flower of Gloucester, which features vivid descriptions of the industrial Black Country.

Just five years later, C.J. Aubertin recorded his watery adventures in A Caravan Afloat, an entertaining read which tells of the challenges of unpowered boats and putting food on the table when village shops are scarce.

Tom Rolt

Tom Rolt on Cressy Tom Rolt on Cressy

No account of canal-inspired fiction could be complete without a mention of L.T.C Rolt. Tom Rolt moved onto his now iconic narrowboat, ‘Cressy’, just before the outbreak of World War II. He wrote of his time afloat in Narrowboat, a book which led to the founding of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and a resurrection of interest in canals.

Robert Aickman, co-founder of the IWA, was also a writer. Aickman is known for supernatural fiction, which he described as ‘strange stories’ but he also recorded the early years of the IWA in his autobiography, The River Runs Uphill.

Contemporary literature

Photo of Islington Tunnel, Regent's Canal Islington Tunnel, Regent's Canal

Lee Rourke’s 2010 novel The Canal paints a bleak picture of modern urban life in which the stretch of canal between Hackney and Islington looms large. Although the location is far from idyllic, canal life is a balm to his main character who enjoys the wildlife and the gentle pace of life from the towpath.

Canal poetry

Jasper Winn: Writer in Residence Jasper Winn: Writer in Residence

Our canals and rivers have gained a new voice through our historic partnership with the Poetry Society. Since 2013, Canal Laureates have been gathering stories and sharing new insights to life on our canals. Read more about this partnership, including poems from Nancy Campbell.

Jasper Winn was our first ever writer in residence in 2018-19. Water Ways is a gentle record of his experience over the course of the year and you can find out more about his thoughts and findings on the Jasper Winn blog.

Last date edited: 15 June 2020