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.

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

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.

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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.

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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:

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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

The Ring Project

As I explained in my previous blog post, I am working practically full-time on #TheIdleWomen project at the moment. Here’s a link to the blog I’ve been writing: Alarum Theatre blog

However I am also at the beginning of another exciting canal-based project, The Ring – a new arts programme which celebrates a 21-mile circle of waterways in Worcestershire. The project website will be launched on 20th June. In the meantime, you can follow on Twitter and Facebook. As one of their lead artists, I have been commissioned to concentrate on the Droitwich Canals and have just begun researching and doing a bit of writing to document what stands out for me.

When I was a teenager, my family was heavily involved in campaigning to save the canals, many of which were in a dire state. Dad had bought a 70-foot ex-working boat, Laurel, and we became part of a network of people who were passionate about bringing the waterways back to life. One of the people I remember well, and fondly, is Max Sinclair. As president of the Droitwich Canals Trust, it was Max who from the Sixties provided the driving force for the renovation of the Droitwich Barge Canal and Droitwich Junction Canal. In 2012 he won an Angel award from English Heritage for his dedication. I would have loved to speak to Max again, but sadly he passed away in 2016, so I began by reading this article about him, and made a note of things which resonated with me: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/angel-awards/10018202/The-angels-who-mucked-out-the-Droitwich-Canal.html

My Dad (Alan T Smith MBE) did a lot of ‘encouraging and cajoling, as did Max. Having read lots of Max’s words online, one thing I love is his honesty, and Dad too would have enjoyed the truth and humour of this paragraph: We were at Stourbridge doing some work – that was in 1961 – and this chap in a suit came along,” remembers Max. “He said that if we so much as disturbed the water on the canal we would be prosecuted. Someone gave the excavator driver a wink and he swung the bucket around and covered the chap in mud.”

Here are a few lines of ‘found poetry’, using lines from the article, not a finished piece but a starting point. Following that is a poem I wrote about a visit to the top of the 21 locks in Wolverhampton a few years ago.

The angels who mucked out
the Droitwich Canal
knew the value of patience

With grit and determination,
caked in mud, shovelling dirt,
pulling rusty bicycles from bushes,

they fought with tons of mud and soil,
M5 spoil
dumped between the banks

and a tangle
of hostility and inertia.

Heather Wastie

Histrionic water

In Wolverhampton,
fish take me by surprise.

Looking down from Broad Street Bridge,
then from the towpath edge

I need an explanation
for such unexpected clarity,

a long exposure of minnows,
lush reeds and sulky sediment.

It’s ironic, says the cut water,
I have been cleansed

by a vandal-induced stoppage.
Tearfully the water speaks:

It was you who saved me
from oil slick, effluent, blackened

polystyrene icebergs, mattress tangled
shopping trolleys, half inched bikes,

malicious metal spikes,
contents of living rooms tipped.

I was soap sud soup with beer bottle croutons,
peppered with cans and the odd chunk of meat.

You saved me from scum,
from smothering polythene,

wire running red, the callous garrottes
of those who would see me dead.

I fear the onset of duck weed.
You saved me to be stirred.

© Heather Wastie

County’s Poet Laureate ‘waffles’ on the podium

It’s true, I did waffle. Perhaps using that word in a press interview wasn’t a great idea, but it made me laugh afterwards. And yes, I’ve milked it for all it’s worth and refer to it in the last line of my poem below which I hope you enjoy. The article doesn’t mention Worcestershire LitFest so here’s a link to their website http://worcslitfest.co.uk/. Here’s to the next twelve months!

Poet laureate’s promise

For a whole year
Worcestershire
is poetically mine!

I could strut sonnets in Stourport
Hand out haikus in Hartlebury
Tinker with triolets in Tenbury Wells
Swan through Kidderminster kicking kennings
Conjure couplets in Cookley
Polish pantoums in Pershore
Dig up doggerel in Droitwich
Blurt out blank verse in Bewdley
and bawl ballads in Bromsgrove
Exclaim elegies in Evesham
Forage for free verse in Fairfield
Offer odes in Ombersley
Recite rondeaux in Redditch
Initiate idylls in Inkberrow
Lurk with limericks in Lickey …

My stanzas could spring up anywhere;
there’ll be a poetic kerfuffle.
And one thing I promise the Worcestershire folk:
my poems will never be waffle.

© Heather Wastie
June 2015