Downstream: Across England in a Punt by Tom Fort

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Downstream: Across England in a Punt by Tom Fort

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Category: Travel
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A suitably meandering, thoughtful account of a trip along one of England’s less feted rivers: the Trent. Some might feel that it tries to do too much, but it nevertheless provides much food for thought about the place of rivers in our history and national psyche.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Century
ISBN: 978-1846051692

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In summer 2005, journalist and angler Tom Fort set off to follow the river Trent from its source near Stoke to its confluence with the Humber. Downstream is the aptly meandering story of his 170-mile trip. Travelling light, first on foot, then in a purpose-built 15-foot plywood punt, and finishing off on a bike, Fort traces the course of the river, surveying the towns and landscapes it shaped, and exploring the history which surrounds it.

The result is a discursive, informative read, but one which cannot escape the essential nature of the Trent itself. It is, as Fort soon realises, an unloved and sadly disregarded waterway. For many decades it was treated as little more than an open sewer, killed by the heedless capitalists for whom it was only a conduit for factory waste.

And now, in the twenty-first century, clean and full of life, its banks are testament to industrial decline. Lined with demolished factories, abandoned wharves and decommissioned power stations, criss-crossed by ugly motorway bridges, the Trent is largely forgotten once again.

Fort's writing reflects this neglect. One senses his struggle to make something meaningful of the river and his journey - and his wish for other, prettier, more romantic rivers. That struggle means that the book defies categorisation. Neither thoroughgoing history nor state-of-the-nation, it is too light on detail to be an engaging travelogue, too impersonal to be autobiography and too random to be a reference work.

Little emerges of Fort's personality beyond his love of angling and his fondness for a pint or four. We gather that he must be reasonably genial because nearly everyone he meets is welcoming or friendly. Despite his despair at modern Britain in general, its people - from bikini-clad teenage girls to hospitable barmen - emerge as almost exclusively convivial.

And if Fort lacks the irreverence of a Bryson or the curmudgeonly wit of a Theroux, he makes up for it in impressively broad, lightly-worn knowledge. Prompted by riverside churches and stately homes, he supplies numerous potted histories of the poets, kings, industrialists and aristocrats whose lives and battles impinged upon the river. He expounds upon the physics of thunderclouds, and displays easy familiarity with Eliots, both TS and George.

Some of these stories are pretty tenuously linked with the Trent and are, in a few accounts of long-distant battles, hard to follow. But they generally provide welcome additional ballast to the book. The detail provided in these digressions suggests that Fort would be happier in the past, away from the global trash trade epitomised by the cheap rubbish sold in Newark's marketplace.

Indeed, the book does tail off towards the end, as the author appears to lose interest in the project. As the river oozes through miles of featureless flatland, Fort's prose is littered with phrases like I couldn't be bothered or I couldn't care less. By the time the Trent merges muddily with the Humber, you share his relief that his quest is over.

Overall, the book does lack focus. But perhaps this is deliberate, a way of telling us something about the haphazard, misguided nature of our relationships with rivers. Often the arteries of our nation, vital to agriculture and industry, commerce and leisure, they are too easily taken for granted. If Tom Fort has done something to argue the real significance of even an unlovely river like the Trent, then this book was worth the writing.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a look at a very different river - this time the Congo - we can recommend Blood River by Tim Butcher.

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