Book review: Circle Line – around London in a small boat

Circle Line by Steffan Meyric Hughes

I’ve never read a book quite like Circle Line before. I’ve read many, many boaty adventures, but this tale of voyaging through central London on the Thames and completing a loop made up of canals in North London written by Classic Boat staffer Steffan Meyric Hughes is something else again.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading – certainly it is.

No-one in this book sails in fear of being smashed by a giant wave, or of hitting rocks, and the views he has to describe are mixed to say the least. There are some lovely stretches, especially along the Thames, but elsewhere the scenery varies from carefully crafted canal-age grandeur to neglected corners of  concrete jungle run wild with weeds and old barbed wire.

Pottering along in his boat borrowed from Swallow Boats, Meyric Hughes finds himself in a series of odd spots, camping out alongside his moored boat in forgotten places amid the city’s bustle. He meets a variety of interesting, helpful and entertaining river dwellers and Environment Authority employees, spends days with old friends, invents private games to entertain himself on the lonelier stretches, and generally enjoys a trip that must have been unforgettable – finding himself in a little viaduct he’d never previously noticed crossing over a familiar road was clearly quite a moment.

Refreshingly, he describes it all without making a meal of being deliberately odball – unlike another well known small boat voyager of recent years whose book I couldn’t finish. Readers will likely know the one I mean…

Meyric Hughes also embarks on a series of writerly diversions that illuminate bits of London and boating history, as well also his own mind. One of the best is determined rant against the plague of plastic boats that is no doubt inspired by his day job of comissioning, editing and writing material about traditionally built craft. Here’s a sample:

‘GRP is not, as it’s commonly assumed, the superior successor to wood for boatbuilding. It has virtually no insulation against the cold, it sweats condensation in the cabin, and through its thin walls you can hear everything… GRP boats are easier to maintain and cheaper to buy, being made out of poison and pressed in moulds. At the end of their lives, they sit in their hundreds up every creek and river and marina in the land. The owner might have stopped using their boat years ago, and he’s still paying his yearly mooring fee. What else can he do? It’s too strong to break up and too big to take to the tip. If you really don’t like someone, leave him a yacht in your will.’

And so on and so forth. What he has to say about plastic boats is no word of a lie, but there’s an irony here of course… the author behind this words is himself a canoeist who learned to sail in a rotomoulded Topper on Bewl Water, and made his journey through London in a plywood boat held together by epoxy and waterproof glue. But, let’s be honest, lots of us who are interested in traditional craft actually sail plastic craft for very good practical and economic reasons.

We’ve had some dreadful weather lately, and I gather it’s set to continue for a bit longer. I suggest you buy a copy of Circle Line to read when stuck indoors on a wet weekend afternoon, or as a diversion for the train. You’ll be entertained and likely something new about our capital city and its strange, turtle-infested waterways – and you might think of some similarly easily accessible but interesting journey of your own.

It got me thinking of dusting off an old dream of navigating from the top to the bottom of all the rivers that run to the sea around Kent and Sussex in a little plywood rowing dory. Maybe when I finally get to retire I’ll still be fit enough to do something of the sort…

2 thoughts on “Book review: Circle Line – around London in a small boat”

Leave a Reply