MGM 2003 - Voyage In A Bowler Hat At London Canal Museum

By Simon Rose | 23 May 2003
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Shows the hero of the story, Hugh Malet.

Left: the hero of the story, Hugh Malet prepares to set sail in the summer of 1959. Image courtesy, London Canal Museum.

Simon Rose pulled on a lifejacket and headed to the big smoke to pay tribute to a travelling hero.

We British have always had an appreciation for the great eccentrics in life who make the effort to travel just that little bit differently from the rest of us.

Michael Palin followed in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg by going around the world in 80 days. More recently we've had Tony Hawks travelling around Ireland with a fridge and Dave Gorman deciding it would be a good idea to embark on a 25,000-mile journey simply in order to meet other people by the same name.

An exhibition at the London Canal Museum until June 1, 'Voyage in a Bowler Hat', pays homage to another epic journey with a difference.

Shows the rear entrance of the London Canal Museum.

Right: the beautifully set London Canal Museum. Image courtesy, London Canal Museum.

The exhibition charts the adventures of Hugh Malet who in the summer of 1959 travelled the entire width of the British Isles, from London to the west coast of Ireland, on his beloved narrowboat 'Mary Ann' - the first time this had ever been done. The show borrows its title from the book of the same name, which was written by Hugh after his journey and went on to become a canal classic.

Hugh, now in his 80's and living in Somerset, explains the genesis of his idea in his memoirs:

"My companion and I had grown thoroughly tired of the bustle and hurry and the stale flu-ridden air of London. The idea of crossing England from the Thames to the Mersey was already taking shape."

The exhibition boasts previously unseen photos, memorabilia and artefacts from Malet's journey. The images, accompanied by nostalgic recollections from Malet, are highly evocative of a far more straightforward way of life and an altogether more innocent period in British history.

Throughout his voyage Malet must have proved an eye-catching figure to passing onlookers due to his trademark bowler hat.

Shows the hero of the story, Hugh Malet.

Left: "My companion and I had grown thoroughly tired of the bustle and hurry and the stale flu-ridden air of London." And off they went. Image courtesy, London Canal Museum.

As he explains, though, his choice of headwear was not borne out of any great desire to pull off a passable Stan Laurel impression - but simply proved to be a practical solution to help him beat off the elements:

"The sun was so hot that I searched frantically for something to put on my head, but could find nothing in my flat. Eventually I managed to borrow a vintage bowler hat. It had a large hole in the back and several dents in the top, but it was still proof against the sun and most of the rain."

The atmosphere generated by the exhibition is greatly enhanced by its historic setting. The museum is housed inside a former ice warehouse beside the Regent's Canal in King's Cross. It was built by the famous Swiss Italian ice cream maker Carlo Gatti in the 1860's and remained in use until 1902.

Ice had begun to be imported from Norway in the 1820's, and it was necessary to dig large ice wells in London in order to meet the growing demand.

Shows the bow of a narrow boat.

Right: the museum offers a real taste of life on the canals of Great Britain. Image courtesy, London Canal Museum.

However, the ice import industry gradually died out with the advent of mechanical ice production, and the last import of any ice from Scandinavia was in 1921.

Visitors inspired by Malet's exploits can step inside the museum's narrowboat and experience for themselves just what it is like to live and work on a canal. The history of canals is vividly brought to life, from the different cargoes transported on them to the horses that pulled the boats. For those addicted to the delights of raspberry ripple and mint choc chip there is even a section on the origins of ice cream in the UK.

'Voyage in a Bowler Hat' rightly celebrates Hugh Malet's place in history as one of our great travellers. His wonderful memoirs read like 'Tales from the Riverbank' with more than a hint of 'Cider with Rosie.'

Essentially Malet travelled for the sheer joy of it all, not to appear in any record books. As he puts it:

"When I returned to England I was surprised to learn that no one had crossed the islands by narrow canals before but then, as one of my more astute friends in the city remarked, 'My dear friend, no one but you would be barmy enough to want to do it'."

Reviewer Simon Rose is participating in the 24 Hour Museum / Museum and Galleries Month Arts Writing Prize.

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