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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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.

Carnival 82

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.

Salwarpe culv 82 2Salwarpe culv 82 22Salwarpe culv 82 33Salwarpe culv 82 416. Culvert under canal

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

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

More shows for #TheIdleWomen

After our successful 50-show summer tour, Kate Saffin and I have put together a short run of performances of Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways in and around Oxford at the end of this month. See below for dates. Here’s a review to whet your appetite:

“Both women are exceptional storytellers, their performances brimming over with personality”   London City Nights

OXFORD CANAL & THAMES October 21st-29th 2017  Tickets £10/£8

Sat 21  7.00pm  Shipton-on-Cherwell Village Hall, Kidlington OX5 1JP
Tue 24  8.00pm  St Margaret’s Institute, 30 Polstead Road OX2 6TN
Thu 26  7.30pm  Rock of Gibraltar, Station Road, Enslow OX5 3AY
Fri 27   7.30pm   Wolvercote Village Hall, 1 Wolvercote Green OX2 8AB
Sun 29  6.00pm  Unicorn Theatre, Medieval Abbey Buildings, Checker Walk, Abingdon OX14 3JB

Advance booking via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/alarum-theatre-9882552992, email admin@alarumtheatre.co.uk, phone 01865 364095 or pay on the door. See also www.alarumtheatre.co.uk

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After my time

I regularly take my poetry and songs to dementia cafés organised by the Alzheimers Society. We chat about a whole range of subjects – gloves, cooking, vinegar, hair – you name it! And often I go away and write something inspired by what we talked about. Sometimes the poems are humorous and sometimes serious. Here is a serious poem I wrote last week based on words spoken. It started to form in my head as I walked round a park near where the sessions are held:


After my time

No more buzzing of bees
No more rainforest trees
Ah, that was after my time

We can’t see the sun
And the ice has all gone
Ah, that was after my time

No more footprints, no more sand
No more green and pleasant land
Well, that was after my time

We traded earth for speed
We didn’t see the need
Well, that was after my time

No fish or polar bears
but I ask you, who cares?
I don’t know, that was after my time

No more rivers, only flood
We would stop this if we could
But you see, that was after my time

No more us and no more them
Though we know that they’re to blame
No more time

© Heather Wastie
October 2017


3 Poems on Freedom

National Poetry Day will take place on Thursday 28 September 2017 and this year’s theme is “Freedom”. Click here for a whole page of Freedom Poems. Here are three of mine:

 

High Rise Artist

I knew a man
who filled the only bedroom
of his twentieth floor flat

with wild horses,
huge canvases
depicting freedom,

they wouldn’t fit through the door,
let alone get as far as the knackered lift.

In the sitting room,
along with his bed,
was a new piece,

not horses this time
but a woman who had jumped
from her window

trapped forever mid-air.

© Heather Wastie

 

Mistaken identity

You seek happiness
and thought you saw it
in my eyes

but it was not
happiness, it was
freedom.

Find freedom
and you will find
happiness.

Understand freedom
and you will understand
happiness.

No matter how hard you look
into my eyes
you will not find happiness,

my happiness
or yours.

© Heather Wastie

 

Breaking the surface

Now that the heavy sheen is gone,
eroded by tears,
I am no longer afraid to
let the wild wind splatter my face,
lose my grip on rocks slippery with seaweed,
feel the freedom of floating
in a salt sea.

© Heather Wastie