We have just moored in Banbury, home to a well-known nursery rhyme and the start point of Tom Rolt’s epic, indulgent, nostalgic, restoration-inspiring, much-loved-in-canal-circles and, most of all, extremely opinionated account of his travels on board Cressy, Narrow Boat.
Now I’ve read the book and had mixed feelings about it. But I cannot deny that the man had a glorious turn of phrase and a wonderful way of expressing disgust at the pursuit of scientific and technical progress at the expense of the good life, at all the things more beautiful, more old and apparently soon to be lost. This is a man who – in 1939 – said of “modern”, fast roads the following: ‘Most motorists choose the tarmac highway which scorns the villages and cuts straight across the bare uplands … This is the route indicated by those motoring maps which depict the face of England covered by a network of thick red lines as ugly as the roads themselves. They are a useful diagram of the roads to be avoided, but that is all.’ (L.T.C. Rolt, Narrow Boat)
So why oh why (and oh why oh why again) has Banbury chosen to commemorate Rolt with a concrete road bridge? Next to a shopping centre (with what has to be the ugliest logo I have ever seen plastered all over its hideous multi storey car park)?! And to cap it all off, they hide the plaque honouring him away in a graffiti-covered, beer-can-littered corner. I can only hope that someone in the council has a particularly nuanced, ironic sense of humour. If so: chapeau.
But don’t despairs, lovers of beauty and sensitive design. I leave you with these thoughts from, of course, the great man himself: ‘The true appreciation of travel lies in the contrasts which it constantly provides, for just as those who have never known great sorrow cannot rejoice, so ugliness must forever be the measure of beauty.’ I think that now, having known this part of Banbury, I will be able to fully appreciate beauty when I come across it.