Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 18 August 2007

Roses, castles and sacred books

I wasn't sure what to expect from the Canal Museum.

It turns out to be two floors of static panels explaining in outline how and why the canals were built and developed, with part of a narrowboat (showing the cramped living quarters squeezed in behind the freight area, all cupboards, cubbyholes, lace curtains and "castles and roses" painting) and some cases of artefacts, particularly the familiar flower-painted furniture and tools; in one corner, a small TV shows a 1920s film of the Regent's Canal, contrasting with a more recent (but now some 15-20 years old) documentary about it. There's also a bit about the building, which was set up as an ice-house by an Italian in the 19th century (and some panels about Italian immigrants to the UK). There's a shop with the kind of books, postcards, maps and tea-towels you might expect, and some traditional Measham and novelty narrowboat teapots.

But I didn't get much sense of what life was like for families living and working on the canals. I seem to remember reading somewhere that there was a high level of literacy problems among the children of canal people because they were never settled in school: not a whiff of that here. Likewise, the number of people who moved across the country as "navigators" (= navvies, a word you don't hear much any more) must have led to all sorts of social changes. I don't suppose there's much in the way of either written or spoken records from the people who worked the canal boats - and I only vaguely know of AP Herbert's "Water Gipsies" - but it would enliven things a bit to have something about, and if possible from them.

It's an interesting example of how hard voluntary organisations like this must find it to keep up with the way museums have developed over the last 20 years or so. It costs £3 and perhaps an hour of your time.

Outside, in the Battlebridge Basin, the residential boats seemed to be all locked up and deserted. I suppose by now I shouldn't be surprised at a heron coming so close to people - this one kept a wary eye on me, but didn't seem too bothered by my presence. (Yes, I did note the serendipitous name on the boat).

Afterwards, I thought I'd have a cuppa at the British Library, only to discover the exhibition devoted to the sacred books of the Abrahamic religions. There are beautiful things in this thought-provoking display, but it was getting late, so - as it's free - I'll go back to give it some serious attention.

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