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]

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.

1965 droit (3)
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!”

Update on The Ring project

Years ago I went on an organised walk along the then disused Droitwich Canal. Following the course of abandoned waterways can be quite tricky as they are often hidden under roads and buildings. Walking the canal again recently, so that I could write about its restoration, as I walked down the locks from Hanbury I had no idea that the canal had been moved over, the original route being hidden under people’s gardens. Alongside the locks, there’s a hedge between the towpath and a very busy road. That hedge separates two worlds – the ‘rat race’ and the ‘slow lane’. I chatted to a volunteer lock keeper who told me that working on the canal is his “safety valve”. You can see him on this photo standing by the top gate.

IMG_1615

In order to fulfill my writing commission with The Ring Project, I am doing a series of interviews with people who became involved with the mammoth task of restoring this canal. I have memories of my own of what’s involved in canal restoration, and I’m learning a great deal about the Droitwich Canal from doing these interviews and reading various documents, in print and online, including fascinating canal guides produced by Droitwich Canals Trust at intervals during the restoration process.

Having read in this article by Max Sinclair https://worcestervista.com/index.php/boats/droitwitch-barge-canal/ about a barge kettle which was found during the dredging process, I wondered if anything of value was found in the undergrowth or canal bed. So far, the answer is no. Here’s an extract from an article, again by Max, in the 2001 Guide: ‘After we cleared the mud out of lock 4, we started on the paddle holes …. Secretary, Nick Grazebrook saw what he thought was a silver cup under the water and put his hand in to retrieve it. Suddenly he let out an enormous yell when a four-foot eel leapt out of the water and the whole pit was writhing with smaller eels. As it was getting dark we left it to next morning only to find they had all migrated across the towpath into the Salwarpe.’

Volunteers did however find buried treasure by way of a historic hinged gate that Brindley had fitted in the bed of the canal, which would rise in case of a breach. The pressure of the water remaining in the canal would keep the gate tightly sealed and stop the water escaping. This old swing bridge (see below), no longer required, was not discarded, but placed on the towpath. When in use, it revolved on bearings made from cannon balls, said to be the first recorded use of ball bearings.

IMG_2233

I was amused to find accounts of visiting journalists who were reporting on the project. In 1978 John Noakes was invited with his dog Shep to help volunteers clear mud from Mildenham Mill Lock for his BBC programme Go with Noakes. (See above link.) He arrived in new overalls, wellington boots and a hat. Having persuaded him to enter the lock, the producer was not happy with his pristine appearance and ‘after a whispered word with the navvies it was arranged for someone to slip and fall on him so he emerged the right colour’. This photo was taken by Max that day.

In the 2001 Guide, Max describes how the BBCs Tony Francis, then a young reporter, ‘stood on the bed of the newly cleared canal, in a three-quarter length suede coat, conducting an interview as he slowly sank to his middle in mud.’

Behind all these stories there are a huge number of dedicated and hard working people. For example, the first big dig held after the formation of Droitwich Canals Trust in October 1973, known as The Droitwich Dig, attracted a thousand people! Through exploring various aspects of the canal – bridges, hedges, locks etc – I would like to bring to life the activity that went on to turn the dream into reality. Here’s a page from one of Max’s photo albums:

IMG_1786

Finally, here’s an extract from a conversation I found in an online forum:

Many years ago I went to the Droitwich Dig. I had great fun felling larger trees than I had had to tackle before, but what struck me most was the large number of navvies wielding shovels and digging away for two days in the bed of the canal. I remember thinking that if they had all contributed a small sum to hire one machine much more would have been achieved.”
T

Yes, sometimes this is the case, but people go navvying for FUN – group activity, socialising, and lots of fresh air and beer.  Compare this with 22 or so people pursuing an inflated pig’s bladder up and down an almost equally muddy field, when a result could as easily be obtained by tossing a coin. Or driving boats down a muddy channel, when they could get there more cheaply and quickly by bus.”
P

Very well put!

Heather Wastie