CANAL WORKS 1: a poet’s journey along the Sheffield Tinsley Canal

The Canal & River Trust and The Poetry Society have commissioned Sheffield poet Warda Yassin to create a new crowd-sourced poem to be installed along the Sheffield Tinsley Canal. In her first of two blogs, Warda writes about her changing relationship with the canal.

I’ve always had a bit of a distant relationship with the natural world, living my whole life in cityscape spaces, very much an urban dweller at home with bricks and concrete. So when The Poetry Society approached me to lead a project around the Sheffield to Tinsley Canal, and then to write a poem about it, I initially felt tentative.

Like many in these difficult times though, I’ve discovered just how important the natural world really is to our health and wellbeing, and even to our identity and the character of a city. The pandemic meant I began immersing myself in daily walks and discovered a host of beautiful green spaces in Sheffield I had previously enjoyed only fleeting time in. I spent weeks after my recovery from Covid in Sheffield’s beautiful parks like Endcliffe and Weston, sitting healing by their streams.

Through just sitting or walking in nature more, I found an inner peace surrounded by birdsong, lush plants, ancient trees and in particular, by the wonderful energy of moving water. I discovered it to be immensely soothing, the way it freely travels without restriction and finds a way to keep going.

With this newfound awakening flowing through me, it felt right to take on the canal project. I took several long walks along the Sheffield to Tinsley canal towpath collecting inspiration, words and phrases. I researched its history and came to realise how integral canals have been to South Yorkshire’s industrial history and the movement of freight.

Canals are human-made waterways allowing boats and ships to pass from one body of water to another. And due to their economy, they’ve offered us an ancient mode of transport dating back to 2400 BC. Not only were they extensively used up until the early 1930s to transport items across cities and towns, they also ferried us around before long haul road transport and the invention of the railway.

I was vaguely familiar with Sheffield waterways but never really thought why they seem largely unused. Now I can picture them at the turn of the century filled with coal and steel wares, men in flat caps calling to the banks to dock. My canal walks enabled me to see the city through the filter of light on water against a backdrop of its industrial past, a derelict, sleeping beauty etched with many hours of hot, sweaty graft and coal-dark secrets.

Sheffield Tinsley Canal lock gates – photo cr Wikimedia Commons

Victoria Quays, based just out of the city centre near the Ponds Forge roundabout, is an often overlooked treasure in Sheffield. These days it’s a gentrified area where people live, but it still holds wonderful echoes of Sheffield’s not-so-distant past including a final docking bay, (the end of the line or its start) under red brick factory buildings. There’s a whole water community here and I found myself drawn to the names of boats and the stories they might carry, marvelling at how these long, bobbing vessels are people’s homes with TVs and toilets in them! I love how each boat has its own theme, design or characteristics which sometimes clashed with its name or seems like a perfect fit.

My walks and chats with people got me thinking about the special part canals and waterways have played in connecting cities, people and cultures. My family migrated to Sheffield in the early 1990s after the outbreak of Civil War in Somalia, and Sheffield has always been a place of sanctuary and safety to us. I also know South Yorkshire industry attracted immigrant workers, particularly of South Asian heritage.

My mentor, the poet Vicky Morris, and I started planning a series of poetry writing workshops with young writers and members of the public. We named the project Canal Works after we took a jaunt up off the towpath near Victoria Quays and found a building embossed with its original name ‘Canal Works’: many of Sheffield’s old industrial factories and mesters have ‘works’ in their name. But here, instead of old man in flat caps, we found r’n’b pumping from an old radio and Pakistani boys working on souping up their motors. This felt very Sheffield and very tender to me, a world I recognise.

Ultimately this project has helped me to better connect with local and migratory history and nature and given me the freedom to immerse myself in it. I now also feel more confident writing about nature – my poetry is often rooted in city life and community. I’ve realised it’s just as fulfilling to write about stillness, and to use nature as a landscape to explore our human journey, as it is to write about cityscapes. As for that journey, we are fleeting and always moving like water, always looking to moor ourselves to something that gives us purpose.

I love how almost anything is made beautiful near water: be it rocks, plastic cans or even household debris. I’m drawn to the many ways light falls across a body of water reflecting different times of day or the season like a glittery dress. The idea of the canal making everything beautiful is explored wonderfully in a poem written by Lauren Hollingsworth Smith during one of the canal workshops: I can’t help finding beauty in her. / She makes an empty beer can look like a waterlily. / It’s in the small things, her freckles of sunlight, the orange flick of a salmon’s tail, / the petrol skin on her surface, / refracting into small rainbows.

Sheffield Canal photo cr Wikimedia Commons

Warda Yassin is an award-winning British born Somali poet and secondary school teacher based in Sheffield. She was a winner of the 2018 New Poets Prize for her debut pamphlet Tea with Cardamom (Poetry Business, published 2019). Her poetry has been published in places including The North, Magma and Oxford Poetry, and anthologised in Verse Matters (Valley Press), Anthology X (Smith|Doorstop), Halfway Smile and Surfing the Twilight (Hive). In October 2020 she took on the role of Sheffield Poet Laureate.

Read Part 2 of Warda’s blog here.