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Because I love narrowboats. I love everything about them and their history, their lore, the short-lived and much-romaticised ‘traditional’ life of the bargee families. When I was designing my alternate but plausible steampunk past, I could not see how a Britain dependent upon steam power but lacking large railways (one of my premises) would work without some reference to the canal network at least. In out timeline, water-borne freight on the Thames has always remained competitive with the railways, and to some extent, the roads. Boats still lug building materials, hardcore, sewage and waste up and down the old river daily.
One of my regularly re-read books is LTC Rolt’s Narrow Boat. Essentially, he was the first canal tourist and also responsible for a lot of our modern romanticised view of the canals, but he was also a writer with a real interest in the genuine traditions of the canal people. I bought this some time back in 2010, I think, on a canal holiday with a good friend and his family.
When I lived in Marlow, between 2008 and 20012, I got to know the reach between Maidenhead and Henley very well. I had only been afloat on it a handful of times, but I was fascinated by the boathouses and bridges and could see how a highwayman adventuring back and forth across this great boundary would have to interact with its people and way of life. I had walked the towpath between Marlow and Henley in sun, rain and the dead of night.
Writing a continuation and development of the river into Book 2, Highways and Holloways, I’ve had to make some decisions. I’m currently trying to smooth out the reader’s journey to include fewer repetitions and more story. There should still be the opportunity to trade, investing relatively large amounts of capital to make good returns, all in the name of that retirement bank account at Coulters! After all, trading (and defeating pirates) by sea in Fabled Lands was always the best way to get your hands on a pile of cash.
But I know the reach between Henley and Oxford less well. So I’ll be depending on the good old OS171, Chris Cove-Smith’s The River Thames Book and lots of googlemaps. Nothing can replace the insight you gain from the locations themselves however and since a very large part of my pleasure in writing the Steam Highwayman series is to share my love of the parts of these parts of the world, I think I’ve got a good excuse to take an extended walk along the Thames pretty soon.
I still live by the Thames, but much further east and I see the Thames Barrier out of window and enjoy the tides defining the rhythm of the day. Regular shipments of estuary and Dogger-dredged aggregates are unloaded opposite our tower at Angerstein wharf – the largest gravel and sand unloading wharf of its kind Europe. The walks along the river here are quite different – and a good subject for another time, or another book.
Two other fluvial reads I’ll recommend here are the hilarious JK Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which furnished me with the minimum of an amusing encounter in Smog and RL Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage. Three Men has still got plenty to give, so I’ll be mining it in the next fortnight, whereas the Stevenson is much more down-to-earth. I might borrow some of his cold and damp.