Finding an emotional connection

My Dad, Alan T Smith MBE, was a waterways enthusiast and a dedicated, hard-working campaigner for the restoration of derelict canals. It all began when my brother and I were young and the doctor advised my mother that we could do with more fresh air and exercise. So Dad bought a boat and our lives changed. Our small cruiser was soon replaced by a 70 foot ex-working narrow boat and Dad spent a great deal of his spare time digging in the bottom of dried up canals, hauling rubbish out of lock chambers etc or trying to move our boat along channels which contained more debris than water. He loved it.

Last December I did something which reminded me of him. While researching for The Ring project, I heard from one of the interviewees that one of the lock chambers from the original line of the Droitwich Canal still exists and has remained undisturbed for many years. As soon as I found out about it I became very excited, like a child contemplating a slightly scary adventure. I knew it could be dangerous going to the lock on my own and remembered the day my Dad went off to look at a stretch of canal which had recently breached. He drove there on his own and somehow managed to sprain his ankle. This was before the days of mobile phones, so he hobbled back to the car and drove home, where Mom was not too pleased!

With that day in mind, I took great care not to let history repeat itself. I wanted to experience for myself what people involved in the Droitwich Canal restoration had been up against, and this was the perfect opportunity. As I approached the lock, the first thing I saw was the footbridge.

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I could see that the chamber was inhabited by trees, and though the gates had rotted away, some of the metal was still intact and in place, the wood having perished around it.

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The trees had taken over, prising bricks apart, straddling edges and blocking the top of the steps.

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I was a fearless adventurer. Once I had made it to the far side of the lock, I tested the bridge and decided that, after all this time, it was safe enough to walk across. I made it back to the car without mishap, having made an emotional connection with my Dad, with the lock, with engineering and nature, with history, and when I got home I wrote a poem called All that remains.

The poem is one of nine which will be published by The Ring project in March, along with archive photographs, in a collection called The Muck and Shovel Brigade. All that remains will be opposite this intriguing photo taken in 1965. I wonder what this explorer felt as he stood in the water and peered behind the remains of a gate, and I wonder what he saw.

No 3 Unidentified lock,1965

Previous posts on The Ring Project (most recent first): Negotiation & shopping trolleys, Sandstone, slogans & poems to be found, Salwarpe to Porters Mill, Update on The Ring project, The Ring Project

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Negotiation & shopping trolleys

A few weeks ago I sent off the final copy for the book of poems about the restoration of the Droitwich Canals which I have been working on for The Ring. More on that later!

There are several anecdotes which didn’t make it into the book so I have been sharing some of them in my blog. For this post, I am grateful to John Burman, Roger Squires and someone who wishes to remain anonymous …

Negotiation

“One of the landowners refused permission for us to go on the towpath, said it was his land. I went back to the original Act of Parliament which said that the width of the canal shall be 50 yards. I showed him this and he agreed it was right. I said banks erode, yes, but the keystone on the apex of a bridge isn’t going to shift. So we measured 25 yards from the keystone and it went well into his garden. We agreed that’s where the boundary should be. In the end we came to a compromise by erecting a heaver* fence so that he could get a lorry into his field and we could get down the towpath.”

John Burman

*A gate without hinges that can be heaved off its posts and laid aside to let vehicles etc go through.

Shopping Trolleys

“The amount of shopping trolleys we used to get out of the canal was ridiculous. We’d go trolley hunting and get twenty out of the canal on a Saturday morning. People would take their shopping home then dump them and kids would use them as go-carts round the town. What we’d do with all these muddy rusty trolleys is fish them out, put them in the van, take them to the supermarket which owned them and leave them outside their front door for them to recycle. It was time wasted as far as we were concerned. In the end, we came up with a plan. One of our members would wander round the town and visit all the street corners and car parks where these trolleys had been left. Before the next morning, all these shopping trolleys only had three wheels on them. Kids aren’t interested in a trolley with only three wheels on, so the town slowly started filling up with three-wheeled trolleys. 108 trolleys had a wheel removed and never went in the canal. Eventually the town council brought pressure to bear on the supermarket and before long they changed the system so you needed a pound coin to release them. So it worked!”

Finally, here’s the seal which was on the cover of the first guide book produced to encourage people to walk along the route of the Droitwich Canal. The book was produced by Roger Squires using a Roneo duplicator, operated by turning a handle. I’m sorry to say that I’m old enough to remember using one of those! I like the Latin motto which translates as FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE MANY.

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Here’s a link to my previous post about The Ring.

For apostrophe lovers

Apostrophes are abused, regularly, with no regard for how they might feel about it. Here’s a good example, and a snappy four-liner about plurals:

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Lots of things are plural.
To show there’s only one,
You only need to add an ‘s’.
Apostrophe, be gone!

There should indeed be an apostrophe in DONT’S, but it belongs between N and T to show there’s an O missing. I feel sorry for it.

For a poem on this subject, which is very dear to my heart, please listen to On Behalf Of Apostrophes.

Thank you.

Sandstone, slogans & poems to be found

During my research for The Ring Project, people have been very generous with their time and memories and by sharing photos and archive recordings. As well as these, I have received one rather unusual gift. Can you identify this mystery object, given to me by John Burman? The answer appears at the end of this post.

One of the outcomes of my research will be a small book of poems with photos from Max Sinclair’s collection. My aim is to bring to life the activity that went on to restore the Droitwich Canals and show what the area was like before the work was done. You may wonder how I will do this through poetry. One method is to use words I find.

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This photo from Nick Yarwood (via Tony Brannon) is a perfect example. It features Nick Wright with Droitwich Canals Trust’s ‘work horse’ pulling the Smalley 15 digger belonging to the Waterway Recovery Group. Nick told me it was a most unusual sight in the 1982 Droitwich Carnival procession.

RESTORING THE PAST FOR THE FUTURE is a great slogan. Both the photo itself and the cartoon on the lorry raised a smile:

MOMMY MOMMY THERE’S A MAN
DIGGING IN OUR DUSTBIN

David Turner talked to me about working as a volunteer, shaping sandstone blocks. He sent me some photos and I’ve pieced together a ‘found’ poem using words he said in his interview. The slideshow also includes 2 pics given to me by Bill Lambert.

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Wherever there’s a ladder
wherever there’s a gate
there’s a sandstone block,
cut with a saw,
chipped with a chisel
smoothed with a file,
shaped to a pattern,
outside in the freezing cold.

There’s also poetry to be found in the newspaper … I extracted a few lines from an article ‘Barren canal could be source of ‘liquid gold” in the Worcester Evening News, 14th June 1966. Apologies for the quality of the photo which I took having grappled with a microfilm reader in The Hive, Worcester.

Worcester Evening News 14 June 1966 - 1

A few inches of smelly water,
a hideous mixture
of paint, oil and household garbage
nothing more than a filthy damp ditch
and disconnected duck ponds.

There’s a hidden wealth of beauty
along the Salwarpe valley …

(the words of Bob Clarke)

Included in my previous blog is a photo I took of the culvert under the canal at Salwarpe. Nick described to me in detail the work undertaken by volunteers, and after he and I did our walk along the canal I acquired Nick’s photos. I’ve added my own again at the end of these to show the finished job as it is today.

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As promised, I will leave you with the answer to my question, in the words of Nick Yarwood: “At the heal of each lock gate there’s a cast iron pin about which the gate pivots. It engages in a cast iron socket set into the cill.”

This is probably the only one that’s left and it’s looking for a new home ….

Previous blogs
15th November Salwarpe to Porters Mill
20th October Update on The Ring Project
23rd May  The Ring Project

Salwarpe to Porters Mill

To inspire my writing for The Ring Project, I took a stroll along the Droitwich Canal with Nick Yarwood who was involved with its restoration as a teenager, and later as a Canal Manager. As we looked down from Salwarpe Bridge, I imagined the “wet mud, silt, dead trees … years of debris”, Nick described, my imagination helped along by one of Max Sinclair’s photos, taken in 1965. When the painstaking restoration work began, this is what the army of volunteers were confronted with.

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I had already been told by another interviewee that many of the locals weren’t keen on the canal being restored because they thought all sorts of riff raff would be marauding around, up to no good!

Under the bridge, holes made when it was constructed are clearly visible today, and the original wood is still there.


At the first event, the Droitwich Dig in 1973, a thousand people turned up. Nick was one of those people, aged fifteen. He tried to work out the location of Max’s photo and stood there for this shot:

As we moved from location to location, Nick described the work undertaken by the volunteers. In order for volunteers to repair this culvert under the canal, the stream was diverted through pipes. Anyone walking or cruising along would be unaware of all the work that went into this hidden brickwork. The site of Hill End swing bridge may go unnoticed, but the towpath edge was replaced by volunteers though the bridge itself is lying redundant on the towpath.

Restoration includes preserving features like this sandstone, reminding those who look more closely that horses once pulled boats along this waterway.

33. Porters Mill Bridge parapet
Here’s the sandstone parapet of Porters Mill Bridge, complete with rope marks and carvings.

John Burman, who was Chair of Droitwich Canals Trust for about 10 years, said this about the parapet of another bridge:

When we did Linacre Bridge, a nice bit of work, the coping stones were donated by Cadbury’s. When they were put up, we went to a local farmer and asked for buckets and buckets of slurry – which he was very happy to let us have – and we poured the slurry all over these coping stones for two reasons: One, so that moss would grow and two, more importantly, the vandals won’t try and write their names in it because they don’t want to get their hands dirty. So you don’t get people scratching their names into clean sandstone thereby damaging it.

The canal was officially abandoned in 1939 at the start of the war. The old bridges were too steep and lightweight to accommodate tanks, so this provided an excuse for an act of parliament giving the government official permission to let it fall into disrepair. Gradually over time, sections were built over and some parts were incorporated into people’s gardens. Nick described  vividly how the workforce collaborated to clear the canal of “years of debris” and I will be writing more about that soon. I’ll end with a story he told me.  In one section, a local man had erected a fence along the middle of the canal bed and planted a line of willow trees. When work began to remove the willows he protested. “They make cricket bats out of those you know!”

Remembering wartime canal women

On Remembrance Sunday, I am very pleased to have been able to highlight the role the Women’s Training Scheme played in the war effort on the British canals. The work I have been doing with Alarum Theatre, telling the stories of these mainly middle class women, will feature on BBC Countryfile this evening at 6.20pm on BBC1. Also included will be Kathryn Dodington whose aunt Daphne March (Daffy) carried cargo throughout World War 2 on her family owned boat, Heather Bell. As Kathryn told me, Daffy’s motivation for doing this work was ‘service’. It is also important to remember the women of the working families who didn’t have the choice; this is what they were born to, and they just got on with it. Our show Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways gives an insight into the lives of all these women.

In remembrance of the working women today, I am sharing a few lines from my piece Hillmorton Locks. This section was written after speaking to Ron who told me the story of his birth:

Emma Humphreys, expecting twins,
a boat-load of coal, her labour begins,
the war is on, the shrapnel flies,
the cabin’s tiny, her youngest cries.

Two men to thank, Albert and Ron
make sure they’re safe till danger’s gone;
under a bridge, twin boys are born,
named after the men who saved their skin.

© Heather Wastie
from Hillmorton Locks

BBC Countryfile – The Idle Women

At the end of October I spent the day filming for BBC Countryfile with Kate Saffin for a feature on The Idle Women whose stories we re-tell as touring company, Alarum Theatre. The programme is being aired on BBC1 this coming Sunday at 6.20pm. Here’s how the day went.

We assembled in the Museum cafe at Stoke Bruerne at 8.45am on a cold but dry day, and it was decided that the first job was to film me performing two of my poems – Idle Women and Judies and Heather Bell. The second of these was chosen because it’s all about Daphne March whose niece Kathryn Dodington was also being filmed for the programme. She didn’t have far to walk because she lives in one of the canalside cottages. Mind you, she had already got the fire going on Sculptor, ready for our trip down (and up, and down, and up) the locks once the poems had been filmed.

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Idle Women and Judies
Here you can see Ian with the fluffy microphone, Steve behind the camera and Simon, the producer, looking down at the shot as it is being filmed.

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Filming Heather Bell


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We waited in vain for an intermittent and rather loud noise coming from the other side of the towpath and eventually had to abandon filming in this location. The poem was recorded later in the day on board Sculptor with Kathryn nicely positioned in the background as she steered. Sadly, neither of the poems made the final cut because there simply wasn’t enough time to pack everything in.

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Having shown presenter Ellie Harrison how to work a lock (she was completely new to this) we chatted to her on board Sculptor as Kathryn steered through the other locks with a crew of Canal & River Trust volunteers. Kathryn was a stalwart, winding the boat (ie turning it round) then steering it up the locks again. While one of the volunteers took Sculptor off and winded it again we stopped for lunch (and to warm up) in the Museum cafe. After lunch we set off down the locks again, leaving the boat once we had finished recording so that we could get to Enslow for our evening show and the crew could focus on interviewing Kathryn who had some wonderful stories to tell. In case you’re wondering, the blue barrel in the hold is ballast. This is where the heavy cargo would have been.

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All in all we had a really good time. Thanks to lovely researcher Debs for sending us the photos! And thanks to Canal & River Trust, Kathryn Dodington and the hardworking volunteers for making the day possible. 

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