I was tidying up at the weekend and sorting through some of the books on my shelves, when I came across this publication from the mid-1970’s. Nicholson’s Real Ale Guide to the Waterways, was a joint venture between CAMRA and Robert Nicholson Publications. It set out to publicise pubs within easy walking distance of Britain’s Inland Waterway Network; basically the country's navigable rivers and canals.
The publishers claimed that the history of pubs and waterways were interlinked, and in the heyday of our navigable waterway network, pubs were the centre of a boatman’s social life, providing places of refreshment and entertainment, but also somewhere where business could be conducted and goods exchanged.
I’m not really sure what prompted CAMRA to embark on their joint venture with Nicholson Publications; especially as the Campaign was then in its infancy, but I imagine a small group of real ale-loving canal enthusiasts were responsible. The resulting book runs to 160 pages, and as well as the diagrammatic representations of each canal, were illustrated with black and white photos, plus old bottle labels and other forms of brewery advertising.
A look back through the pages of this 40 year old guide makes fascinating reading, and reveals that whilst the number of pubs serving real ale was increasing; primarily as a result of CAMRA’s growing influence and campaigning, the choice and variety of beer sold in most of the featured pubs was often pretty dire.
Big brewery beers from the likes of Allied, Bass, Courage and Whitbread, were often the order of the day; although there were obvious exceptions. Places like the Black Country, where the wares of brewers such as Bathams, Holden and Simpkiss shone out, as did towns such as Nottingham (Hardy & Hanson, Home Ales and Shipstones) and Manchester (Boddingtons, Holts, Hydes, Robinsons).
The River Thames is also worthy of special mention, as not only were the beers of London brewers, Fullers and Young’s available close to the capital, but towns like Oxford and Abingdon offered brews from Morrells and Morlands, respectively.
the likes of Ansells, Bass Worthington, Ind Coope, Mitchells & Butler and Greenall Whitley, dominated large swathes of the country, and were often the only choice along many stretches of canal.
Nicholson’s Guides are still going strong today, although nowadays the firm is an imprint of Harper Collins. The current guides are much better illustrated than their 1970’s counterpart, with full colour maps and photographs, plus much more detail about the canals featured, and points of interest along the way. They also list suitable pubs, but they do not go into detail about the real ales available.
when the “real ale revolution” was just starting to take off.
Finally, what persuaded me to buy a copy? Well, I did partake in a canal boat holiday with a group of friends, back in the mid-1980’s. A few years earlier, the previous Mrs Bailey and I also hitched a ride for a few days, on a boat chartered by her brother and some of his friends. This took us right through Manchester, where we were living at the time and up into the foothills of the Pennines.
Providing I can remember some of the details of these two nautical jaunts, I will write short piece about them, but three decades is quite along time ago, and I will really have to rack my brains in order to come up with something.
Footnote: The “small group of real-ale loving, canal enthusiasts”, are actually revealed at the front of the book; as I discovered after I’d hit the “publish” button. “Written and researched by Alan Hill, who would like to thank the many CAMRA members who assisted, particularly Sue Prior, Eric Spraggett and Susan Hill.” So now you know!