Where do the canals go?

Jo Bell, Canal Laureate writes:

I’m often asked this question. Where do these backwaters take you to on your funny narrowboats and barges? What happens here?

They go everywhere: everywhere they were needed, when Britain first cleared its throat and began to clank out its great mechanised song. These sweetwater links went from Birmingham to London, from Liverpool to Bristol, from coal mine to mill, mill to market town, manufacturer to port – inland Britain to the world. They go from the eighteenth century to the twenty first, and on.

This is where I live, on my narrowboat – a great linear village where no-one goes faster than 4mph, populated by boaters and anglers and herons. They aren’t working waters now. They belong to the dog-walkers and anglers and to people like me, moving on boats no wider than a floating corridor.

Formerly looked after by the quango British Waterways, the canals are now in the care of the Canal and River Trust. Like the National Trust, the CRT’s job is to conserve and promote the places it looks after; in this case, a 2000-mile ribbon of waterways, bridges, tunnels and locks. They are engineers tending a huge organic machine, keeping the slipperiest element safely within its channels and sluices.

And now, they have appointed a poet – together with the Poetry Society. I’m the Canal Laureate, charged with writing poems about the canals. My words are already on a lock beam in Yorkshire as part of the Locklines project, and I’m writing a long piece for performance across the UK.

A canal poet? Madness. Unnecessary.

Not madness, but change. Not unnecessary, but a different way of thinking. Poetry, like the canal, is a narrow space for thinking in. We want more people to know about the canals, to use and love them. You don’t create a change of culture by doing what has always been done. The canals are amongst our greatest national treasures, but we don’t always own them and love them like the local gems that they are. They are so vernacular, so man-made, so common frankly.

All the more reason to love them. For me, poetry is a magnifying glass made of words, and the unshowy canals are worth a close look. Where they went in the 1700s, money went; change went; social upheaval, building, activity. From the 1940s, with trade dwindled away and many canals closed, there rose up a great movement of activists, local historians, industrial archaeologists, boat-spotters. They cleared channels, rescued an industrial network for a post-industrial community in need of leisure.

Now, the canals are changing again. They bring peace to a world with a short attention span, and a kingfisher flash of nature in the middle of Wolverhampton or Wiltshire. At 7am they bring the joggers, the towpath walkers to rural spots and grubby town centres. On Sunday afternoons they bring the anglers. Our appetite for continuity, for calm, is very great.

No, we will not bedeck the bridges with poems at every turn – but we will certainly encourage new work to celebrate and honour the canals. Watch this space for a ribbon of new words and canal connections – and if you know of existing poems or books about the canals, please help us to find them by telling us about them here!


Frozen In

You wake, and know.
The boat is still as bones
and you, its red heart beating.

The canal was taken in its sleep
and paved with cold; the chilled air
gathers round your feet.

The ice, disgruntled, shifts itself
and chews a little on the hull,
sets itself to set again.

Beneath the glaze fish flicker
like grey flames,
silent, watchful.

Inside, you go on with the business
of making tea,
waiting for crocuses.