Although the title of the book says waterways, it specifically focuses on canals. Rivers and lakes are not covered, except where it is necessary - for example, the Caledonian canal in Scotland makes use of several lochs, while some other canals link to rivers. Also, while the title says past and present, the emphasis is on the present. Colour pictures taken in the new millennium contrast with black and white pictures showing us how things used to be in the sixties and seventies.
Although the decline of the canals began with the coming of the railways, some of them still carried commercial freight for much of the twentieth century, and some of the black and white pictures illustrate this. In some parts of the world, canals are important for commercial business, but British canals have mostly if not entirely become just another part of the leisure and tourist industry. This is not a book about the decline of canals as a commercial freight carrier, but a celebration of British canals as they are now. They are clearly very successful in their new role and it seems that some canals, still derelict at the time of writing this book, are in the process of restoration, which is not a cheap or easy process.
While there is plenty of useful and interesting text, this is primarily a picture book, focusing region by region on the canals that are operational with mentions of restoration projects planned or in progress, with an occasional picture of these. The book shows a fair representation of both urban and rural scenes. Some of the urban scenes are not particularly attractive, but they remind us of the canal's original purpose or show the buildings that replaced the old warehouses and mills, only some of which are impressive. Birmingham did a particularly good job of reviving derelict areas in the central area as part of the canal restoration projects that were ongoing when I lived in the area during the nineties. Eventually, I hope to return to have a closer look at the finished redevelopment.
Of course, I generally enjoy the rural pictures best, but the one disappointment is that the most famous inhabitant of a British canal is not shown. I am of course referring to Nessie, who lives in a loch that is itself part of the Caledonian canal. I do understand his omission though, because Nessie is very elusive.
The most extraordinary picture comes right at the end - the Falkirk Wheel. It's not obvious from the still photographs how it works. One canal approaches the other on a high-tech aqueduct that comes to a sudden end where the wheel is. Somehow this wheel can raise boats from the canal below to the one above, or lower boats going the other way. All of this was only necessary because the original connection was severed by a new road in the sixties. I can't help thinking that it would have been easier to restore the original canal link and to divert the road over a bridge, but the Falkirk Wheel has become a major tourist attraction in Scotland. Perhaps I will get the chance to see it one day for myself as part of a visit to my ancestral homeland.
This is an excellent book that can be enjoyed by anybody who has even a little interest in canals.