L T C Rolt, also known as Tom Rolt, was one of the best writers on industrial history and the people who made it, and not only did he write about it but he was personally involved in saving a lot of Britain’s heritage from the Industrial Revolution from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for present generations to enjoy. In 1946 he was one of the three founders of the Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to restoring and making use of the long neglected canal network that criss-crossed the UK eventually leaving in 1951, by which time he had a huge new project to work on. He was chairman of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society which he helped found in 1950 and which was planning on restoring the old Welsh slate mining railway and turning it into the major tourist destination that it is now and it was through reading as a child his excellent 1953 book ‘Railway Adventure’ about his time rescuing the Talyllyn that I first became aware of him. Rolt died in 1974 having been more responsible for the preservation of what remains of the Industrial Revolution than anyone else and on top of the two organisations I have already mentioned he was a trustee and member of the Advisory Council of the UK Science Museum, joint founder of the Association for Industrial Archaeology, vice-president of the Newcomen Society, a member of the York Railway Museum Committee and helped to form the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust amongst many other things. He wrote ‘The Clouded Mirror’ in 1955 and this edition is from The Penguin English Journeys series published in 2009.
The Clouded Mirror is actually three works in one book, the first is acually called ‘The Clouded Mirror’ and surprisingly is concerned with two poets from the 1600’s who were based in the Welsh Marches, the border country between England and Wales with Herefordshire to the east and the Black Mountains to the west. Despite having given the book its title this was extremely dull and made me wonder where the rest of the book was going.
The second part, entitled ‘Kilvert’s Country’was an improvement but still a surprise given everything I thought I knew about the author as it is largely autobiographical and deals with his young childhood from the age of four when his family moved to the outskirts of Hay on Wye. This small town is in the heart of the Welsh Marches so this link at least partly explains Rolt’s fascination with the two poets in ‘The Clouded Mirror’. I know Hay very well as it was the world’s first booktown and I have been going there for decades looking for interesting works to add to my collection. Rolt’s childhood summers from 1914 sound idyllic as he gets older and explores the surrounding countryside. He writes with his customary gentle style beautiful descriptions of the places he gets to and his father sounds like a real character, having been in Australia, South Africa and even an unsuccessful prospector during the Yukon gold rush up in north western Canada. His shooting and fishing expeditions made sure that throughout WWI the family never went short of food and Rolt says that when war finished he realised that he had barely noticed that it had been happening as Hay was so remote from anyway directly affected by the conflict.
Finally there is ‘Canal Crusade’ and this is the section that made the book all worthwhile, for me anyway. It tells some of the stories from the early days of the Inland Waterways Association with Rolt travelling up largely derelict and weed clogged canals to highlight the poor state that this important transport network had reached following decades of neglect. This is Tom Rolt at his best, campaigning and writing about industrial heritage, forcing the railway companies that largely owned the canals in the first half of the twentieth century to finally maintain what they were responsible for. It seems amazing to me now, with the excellent condition that the canals are largely in now and their considerable use by holidaymakers that the stories of silted up waterways, collapsed bridges and what seemed terminal conditions are from just seventy years ago so the Inland Waterways Association must be congratulated in its work even if a major disagreement amongst the three founders meant that only one of them was still there by 1950. Fortunately by then Rolt had the Talyllyn to occupy him.
In short the book is worth reading for the second and third pieces but I won’t bother with the first part if I pick it up to read it again.