Writing ‘The Muck and Shovel Brigade’

No 1 Hawford Lock 1973

This is Hawford Top Lock on the Droitwich Barge Canal as it was in 1973, 34 years after it was officially abandoned by act of parliament in 1939.

Legally abandoned
given up
to dereliction
silt and debris

over years
to shrink and choke
cling on to
dismembered gates

weather-whittled walls
bridges parched
and aching
utterly forsaken

My task for The Ring project was to produce in book form a record of the derelict state the canal was in, the huge voluntary effort that went into restoring it and the important role played by Max Sinclair.

1. Hanbury Top Lock

Starting point 1 was to walk the whole canal from Hanbury Wharf, taking photos along the way. There are two canals, the Junction Canal which becomes the Barge Canal at Vines Park. This is lock 1 of the Junction Canal and it was here that I considered the ‘rat race’ and the ‘slow lane’ and the hedge which divides them. Out of sight to the left is the Hanbury Road which becomes the Saltway. I wanted people the other side of the hedge to know all the work that had gone on to restore the waterway, and after interviewing Denis Pike, who had helped to lay the hedge, I wrote a poem inspired by him, The other side of the hedge which begins:

As you speed along the Saltway
or walk along the Hanbury Road,
have a look over the hedgerow,
see the hunt for heritage gold.

That day at the locks I chatted to the Canal & River Trust volunteer you can see standing by the bottom gate. This collection is a celebration of all the volunteers, past and present, with an emphasis on those whose work spanned the 50 years it took to fulfil the dream of getting the canal up and running again. Each poem is different, responding to the eleven different people I interviewed.

2. Act of Abandonment - Ladywood Bottom Lock 1965

Starting point 2 was a series of archive photos collected, and in some cases taken, by Max Sinclair who began campaigning in 1959 and was a key figure in the process for the whole period until the canals were finally re-opened in 2011. One of the poems is all about him.

His beloved canal abandoned, water seeping away, one day
he wrote to the Birmingham Mail, and that’s how it started.

The photo above was taken 1965.

3. Max - First official work party 1971 Bham Post

I knew Max when I was a child when my family was involved in campaigning to save our local canals in the Black Country. Here he is in a photo taken by the Birmingham Post in 1971 at the first official work party. He is standing between his son Ian and two young women who apparently came with the photographer. Max’s caption refers to them as ‘cheesecake models’. Max had a cheeky sense of humour which comes over in the many articles he wrote which were a good source for my research. It was so good to chat with Ian about his father, enabling me to reconnect with my past and learn more about Max so that I could write about him. Representing his life in a short poem was quite a tricky task!

The Muck and Shovel Brigade cover

 

As well as writing the poems, I chose photographs to go alongside them. This one from 1973 was a must – the first big work party after the formation of Droitwich Canals Trust, known as the Droitwich Dig. According to Max, there were 1000 people at this event alone.

With the help of Ian, Max digitised many of the photos, but not all. Most of the photos are landscape which governed the layout of the book, which in turn meant that I often used a longer line length than I normally would, if I didn’t want the poems to look lost on the page. There was a quantity of transparencies to trawl through. The collection is housed by Councillor Margaret Rowley and I very much enjoyed exploring them with her, making discoveries and chatting about the complications of a restoration which involved several organisations. One of the challenges was to get my head round who was who and try to make sure I represented the many agencies and people involved, both past and present. In the end, I decided not to name any organisation or person in the poems, apart from a chap called Dave.

5. Porters Mill Lock my pic

Here’s Porters Mill Lock as it was when I passed though in 2017. When the canal was derelict, the owners of the cottage incorporated this lock into their garden.

Clearing 300 tons of silt from Porters Mill Lock.

Here’s the lock in 1978. Max’s caption refers to volunteers removing 300 tons of silt. One of my challenges was to reflect their challenges, dedication and vision. For the collection’s title poem, The Muck and Shovel Brigade, I used words I found in one of the Canal Trust’s guide books. Here’s an extract:

infecting others with a dream

to dredge the silt
restore the chamber
replace the gates

and watch the boats
lockwheeling through

7. Salwarpe Bridge my pic

This is Salwarpe Bridge, close up so that you can see the holes created during its original construction, illuminated by the sun which shone every time I walked the canal. When I walked from here to Porters Mill I was joined by Nick Yarwood.

8. Nick with Original silt found on towpath

Nick Yarwood joined the Droitwich Dig aged 15 and eventually became a canal manager. Nick talked to me about cranes, about bottles dragged up from the canal bed, and silt. In Nick’s hand is some earth which he picked up from the bank. “This used to be in the canal bed,” he said. The key to my writing was listening to people like Nick. And this is what he told me afterwards: “For me, when you and I were speaking, it was enjoyable to refresh memories and retell people stories rather than pure construction aspects.”

Nick Yarwood.

Here’s Nick again when the restoration was in progress. From all that Nick told me I was inspired to write the poem Navvies in Salwarpe Cutting. Nick told me about Dave:

According to Dave, there are three kinds of silt:
Slurp, which goes a long long way;
Wobble, less wet; and Crumble. What you need
is a little bit of slurp and the right amount of wobble
for the silt to roll like lava out of the skip and down the bank,
below the makeshift railway, narrow gauge tracks,
the pop pop of diesel loco.

9. Priestman Cub

I learned about drag lines. Nick helped me identify what was on the photos, as did all the people I interviewed. This is a Priestman Cub.

10. Cub

I found out about blokes like this who would risk life and limb, in the days before health and safety.

11. Navvies in Salwarpe Cutting

Here’s Salwarpe Bridge again c 1980.

Look at them now in the channel
and there where the drag lines and buckets can’t go,
under the bridge hole, standing in mud that’s five feet deep,
digging it out by hand.

12. Nick - These haven't been moved

Nick enjoyed having a reason to look more closely at the restoration. “These haven’t been moved,” he said, referring to the sandstone etched with rope marks

13. Mildenham

At Mildenham one of the sandstone blocks had been replaced. When I went to interview current volunteer David Turner he explained how much work goes into replacing sandstone blocks and gave me some photos.

14. Sandstone lockside David Turner

This lock is completely new: not just the sandstone blocks, the concrete chamber and the ladders, but the line of canal itself. One stretch of the channel had to be shifted sideways. That was a major undertaking.

15. Carving sandstone David Turner

And part of that process was a group of individuals carving sandstone. There’s more about the sandstone in this blog.

16, Spirit Duplication Ladywood Upper Middle Lock 1965

I tried to imagine what it must have felt like being confronted with a waterway where nature had had the upper hand for years. This is Ladywood Upper Middle Lock in 1965. I went to see Chris Lovell. Not only was his enthusiasm infectious, but he told me where I could find a lock chamber from the original line of the canal which was completely undisturbed from when it was abandoned in 1939. My exploration of that lock was a moving experience which I described in my blog, Finding an emotional connection. In order to write these poems, I needed to feel as well as think.

17. Disused lock

The poem I wrote is called All that remains and begins:

You’d think
a herculean hand had reached into the mortar,
spread its fingers wide and doggedly insisted
brick and sandstone should be parted.

The story behind the process of putting the book together is also described in 9 blog posts which gave me a means of sharing anecdotes and photos along the way.

Linacre Bridge

I loved this photo as soon as I saw it. It’s Linacre Bridge. John Burman told me all about it and I couldn’t wait to see it. Since it’s at the other end of the canal to where I started, I was nearing the end of the project when I got there, on the final leg of my walk. It was a freezing cold day and the towpaths were treacherous after snow and an extended period of sub-zero temperatures. One of my poems is dedicated to the story of the reed beds. With only the golden phragmites for company I rounded the last bend before the bridge. Full of anticipation, I wasn’t disappointed.

19. Linacre Bridge by Heather Wastie

 

I was welcomed by the sun. Max describes it as ‘probably the only original canal bridge left in England exactly as Brindley built it in 1770’. John had told me to look out for the grooves cut in its underside by the salt boat masts and described how the parapet had been reconstructed after vandalism in such a way that it looked completely untouched. I wrote a poem about Linacre Bridge.

Without all of the people I interviewed, and a few others, the poems wouldn’t have been written. And without this commission, some of these wonderful memories would have been lost. The people I spoke to and the words I read connected me to other people I’ve never met. And my poems are a way of forging connections with others in the future. Walking along the canal with Nick enabled a sharing of history more vibrant and thorough than any conversation we may had elsewhere.

Poetry is a succinct way of communicating an idea, a message or a story. The book I created is public art about what is in itself a work of art – the waterway. It is inclusive in that it is free of charge and is available to read on The Ring website. I have given three performances of the poems: two were free of charge to attend, and the third was for the Worcester Birmingham and Droitwich Canals Society.

500 copies were printed. These have been distributed via local interest groups, and people who have links with the Droitwich Canals, as well as the Worcestershire Archives, CRT’s archives and the Waterways Museum in Gloucester, and many others involved in The Ring more generally. All of the contributors were allocated a copy and members of the Canals Society had the opportunity to have one too. Here are some comments from two members of that Society:

Mary Green wrote: ‘It certainly had an impact on me and I think it did on the rest of the group. Using the words of people from the past to make works of art and performing them is a way of making history live, and people relate to it very positively. It’s also important to have live poetry and get rid of the idea that poetry is something posh people read in books.’

John Hemingway wrote this, referring to the fact that I also performed another programme for the Society. ‘Both the book and your performances went down very well with the society. It gave a new insight into life on the waterways… Your own interpretative performances were particularly moving as they were original which is something to be commended. These performances being in Worcester, a society meeting and our annual lunch so appealed to a wide audience within the society and friends. Hope you enjoyed as much as we did.’

Here’s a comment from a member of the Staffs & Worcs Canal Society:

‘Your book certainly provoked thoughts and memories… I showed it to friends who had been on our boat. I also suggested to friends in walking groups they might like to walk the Droitwich canal. There was a spin off. We started talking about the Droitwich Brine baths which some of us were taken to as children and then with our children. We continued to go until it closed in 2009. There has been hope they would reopen due to a campaign by SOBBs (Save our Brine Baths).’

I hope that my interpretation of the Droitwich story will inspire campaigners nationally. I gave a copy to the Chesterfield Canal Trust who are actively involved in restoring a section of their waterway. And I was very pleased to receive an email from CRT volunteer Ralph Gaskin saying that he found my work ‘… emotive and inspirational. I have been a volunteer for CRT for nearly 7 years, and while I am passionate about canals, your poetry has somehow given me a new insight into this amazing world.’

Max’s son Ian had been trying for some time to organise and fund a memorial to his father, fulfilling the wishes of many people. Soon there will be a new CRT sign at the Barge lock, Vines Park – a memorial to Max Sinclair which will include my poem, making it available to be read by anyone. I’m delighted about this. When a work of art is a limited edition book which cannot be bought, it is in danger of being lost over time. I am working on ways to address this in the future.

[Presentation given by Heather Wastie at Reflections on The Ring symposium January 30th 2019, University of Worcester]

Reflections on The Ring

You can find me and my poetry in the middle of a short video capturing artistic highlights of The Ring Project which took place last year. I’m reading from The Muck and Shovel Brigade, a collection of photographs and poetry celebrating the restoration of the Droitwich Canals.

On January 30th from 2:30pm there’s a symposium at the University of Worcester reflecting on the project’s impact. I’m one of the speakers. There are still a few tickets left. Click here for more and to see the video.

If you flick back through my blogs you will find several posts about the project of which I am immensely proud. Here are some reviews:

“Brilliantly moving, funny and informative.”
Cathy Mager, Artistic Director, The Ring Project

“An inspired piece of work!”
Sara-Jane Arbury, poet

“This is a beautiful book! … I was completely absorbed.”
Alison Brackenbury, poet

“… emotive and inspirational. I have been a volunteer for CRT [Canal & River Trust] for nearly 7 years, and while I am passionate about canals, your poetry has somehow given me a new insight into this amazing world.”
Ralph Gaskin

The Muck and Shovel Brigade coverNavvies Salwarpe Bridge low res

Roll Up! Roll Up! Roll Down! Roll Down!

Last Friday was the final show of #TheIdleWomen Summer tour — another water-borne adventure! To see some highlights, do visit the Alarum Theatre Facebook page.

“Roll Up! Roll Up! Roll Down! Roll Down!” *
During the tour Kate Saffin and I were interviewed by Sony-award winning David Bramwell for Waterfront, a monthly podcast from the Canal & River Trust, dedicated to the stories, people and heritage around England and Wales’ historic waterways. Here’s the link to listen. It lasts 16 minutes and includes one of my poems and an extract from one of my songs.

* Our potential audience were above us on a slight hill.

Living Waterways Awards
We’re absolutely delighted that the Alarum Theatre 2017 tour The Idle Women: Recreating the Journey is one of the finalists in the Living Waterways Awards. The winners are announced on 20th September. Fingers crossed!

IMG_0553

A photo I took when we were on the beautiful Chesterfield Canal

img_0809

Kate took this one at the bottom of the spectacular Bingley Five Rise on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

 

A poem for World Poetry Day

Navvies in Salwarpe Cutting

Fifty years of debris, wet mud, dead trees and silt,
a mine of old bottles, lobbed from the bridge.

Small in the world of cranes,
Priestman Cub and Priestman Wolf will be halted
for Bromsgrove Fitches, too plain,
the hope of a rare Worcester Spreckley intact.

According to Dave, there are three kinds of silt:
Slurp, which goes a long long way;
Wobble, less wet; and Crumble. What you need
is a little bit of slurp and the right amount of wobble
for the silt to roll like lava out of the skip and down the bank,
below the makeshift railway, narrow gauge tracks,
the pop pop of diesel loco.

Mommy Mommy, there are men in our dustbin!
The navvies’ cartoon, a carnival slogan.

Look at them now in the channel
and there where the drag lines and buckets can’t go,
under the bridge hole, standing in mud that’s five feet deep,
digging it out by hand.

© Heather Wastie

From The Muck and Shovel Brigade, published March 2018, available to view at selected venues and online here https://theringart.org.uk/projects/droitwich-canal-restoration/

On Wednesday 4th April at 2pm I will be performing the whole collection in a free event at The Railway Inn, Kidderminster Road, Droitwich. Click here for details.

 

 

 

The Muck and Shovel Brigade

Next Thursday, 15th March, the book of poems I have been working on for The Ring will be launched in Worcester. This has been a labour of love, taking me back to my first experiences of canals when I got to know Max Sinclair, whose photographs accompany my writing.

The Muck and Shovel Brigade cover

Max and his wife Jocelyn had six children, some of whom I remember. Sadly, since Max passed away a few years ago, I wasn’t able to interview him but his eldest son, Ian, helped with my research into Max’s life. I simply adore this photo of Ian with his three older sisters and the family owned boat, Vesta. Look closely at what they’re standing on.

IMG_2582

Amongst his father’s papers, Ian came across a poem which is not attributed to an author. It’s possible Max wrote it himself. I’ve copied it below.

THE DYING WITCH

From Droitwich down to Bevere,
the old canal sleeps silently,
for nothing but a scar remains,
as nature reclaims, hard won gains.

Foul pitch black water, cloaked in green,
lies stagnant, peaceful, and serene,
moorhens nest in the creeping reeds,
cracked bricks and mortar hang with weeds,

With here and there a fallen tree,
obstructing paths that used to be,
lock gates that crumble and decay,
iron gears and handles rust away.

So different now, for years, gone by
would echo to the bargee’s cry,
and huge black laden barges glide,
with Salwarpe weaving at their side.

Now men’s endeavours seem in vain,
to resurrect the Witch again,
For time, erosion, and decay
have stole the Witches life away.

How quickly eighty years have flown,
now phantom barges creak and groan,
and ghosts of horses labour still,
past Bill’s, and Porter’s, water mill.

Anon

Bill’s Mill refers to Mildenham Mill – see Mills and Windmills by Max Sinclair

To find out more about wych barges, you may like to read Katy Beinart’s blog. Katy is one of the other artists working on the Ring project.

I am indebted to Margaret Rowley (Previous Chair of Droitwich Canals Trust, Wychavon District Councillor and Chairman of Droitwich Waterways (Pamela May) Trust) for the time she spent going through Max’s photos with me. At our first meeting she told me that as well as the many volunteers who worked on the canal restoration, several inmates from Hewell Grand Open Prison were involved. On the whole, the scheme to involve prisoners was very successful, but there was one incident which Margaret told me about. Denis Pike told me the same story but with a slightly different ending. This poem didn’t make it into the book:

A prisoner, or so they say,
was working on the cut one day.
What was his crime? I did not ask.
He was a brickie, and his task
was helping to repair a wall.
Now be it true, or be it tall,
the story goes he took a train
and, so I’m told, flew off to Spain.

© Heather Wastie
August 2017

I will end with a couple of photos. There are so many things we take for granted. For example …

IMG_2567

Who made the diamond template for the number on this lock gate (Hawford Top Lock)? It could have been Alistair Main who still works as a Canal & River Trust volunteer.

And finally, I would like to thank Bill Lambert for providing this one, taken at Ladywood Lock in July 2009.

IMG_0762 Ladywood Lock July 2009

 

 

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.

01b6ec33220979a88cd0722c7422b4024604a89613

01b47f14306ebfc25114c936c4478d6e736d7938ed

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.

01cc8e07190a3c2f9d5c1e395e83d31f30a5744891

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

0139214e02af1a316af4701130eabda4bc4401578c

01e0fa1ec142913b0856cabc039889b37a2deda526

01cca4a9ad552601246384aed5178de66d04addff7

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 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, from Max Sinclair’s collection, 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

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.

img_2531

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