Nancy’s blog: Empty and Full

Nancy writes ‘There are many rain storms in Maggie Nelson’s sequence The Canal Diaries. One poem is titled ominously ‘27 Days of Rain’. This, from ‘All the Parts’:

I sit on my notebook, ready

to keep it dry. First light, then harder

the drops make an orgy of circles

on the water.

The Canal Diaries (published in Something Bright, Then Holes) is Nelson’s response to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn – my local waterway, too, before I moved back to the UK. I’m not sure how many days of rain we’ve had in England this month, but it’s certainly been a lot. So it seemed a good time to turn my attention to a commission for a poem on the subject, which will be sprayed onto different surfaces around the canal network using hydroponic paint. I wanted to write about how it’s possible to enjoy the canals even in rain – but would my research bear this out?

Where the Kennet and Avon Canal passes through the village of Seend in Wiltshire, three locks have been cleaned over the winter and given new gates – part of the ongoing Canal and River Trust Restoration & Repairs programme. Just after the work was completed I was able to descend into one of the drained locks to take a close look at the bottom of the chamber, normally hidden underwater. Lock 18 wasn’t entirely empty – the persistent rain was doing its best to refill it, slowly building up puddles on the scrubbed limestone.

The experience was part of a Canal and River Trust Winter Open Day, with activities such as the construction of bird boxes and insect hotels, demonstrations of bricklaying, and even an afternoon of poetry in the pub organised by Helen Wuscher. This welcome short, dry interval was a brilliant opportunity to hear readings by members of Poets Afloat, a group of poets writing about (and mostly living or working on) the waterways. (There’s a full report of the event on Dru Marland’s blog .) Simon Kirby, a K&A Customer Operations Supervisor, read a poem with the refrain ‘life is better by water’. Listen to Simon’s poem, here.

The Bank Holiday found me back on the K&A, where the canal meets the River Avon in the centre of Bath. Here, in contrast to the almost empty lock at Seend, the rain had raised the water level in the canal until it ran over the top of the lock gates, forming dramatic waterfalls. Deep Lock (the second deepest lock in the UK) was filling up when I peered in, wary of the injunction ‘Stand Clear of the Edge!’

Even on a cloudy day, Top Locks offers a fine view over the city’s grand honey-coloured architecture. The trade in Bath stone at the height of the Regency building boom was one reason for the K&A’s construction. The canal conveyed to the capital blocks of stone that would become part of Buckingham Palace, the Royal College of Physicians at Trafalgar Square (now Canada House) and Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (now the Wellington Museum). The stone was also used to create the canal itself, and it can be seen in more modest constructions like bridges and locks, such as that at Seend.

Spring was in the air, despite the deluge: daffodils had sprung up beside the yellow C&RT signs, and further out from the city, celandines and violets were flowering beside the towpath, and blackthorn hedges were in blossom. After drying off in The George at Bathampton – where I continued my quest for the best fish & chips on the canal network – I had a lucky encounter with a water taxi, the ‘Sir John Knill’ , and made my journey back to the city under its tarpaulin.

Unlike Maggie Nelson, I didn’t manage to keep my notebook dry, but I did write the rain poem. Look out for ‘Outlook’ on the waterways soon.

Some Statistics

Seend Locks

  • Fish and Chips (The Barge, Seend): *****
  • Heron: No
  • Dog count: 10

Bath to Bathampton

  • Fish and Chips (The George, Bathampton): ***
  • Heron: Yes
  • Dog count: 15′