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!”

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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

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

Heritage Open Day performances on Saturday

The annual Heritage Open Days are free events in September designed to celebrate heritage, community and history. This coming Saturday, September 9th, I will be part of Kidderminster’s contribution to this nationwide festival, giving performances of songs I have written about the newly restored Weavers’ Cottages and others which tell the stories of people who worked in the carpet industry. Click here for a recording of one of those songs, Tying the Knot.

Here’s the schedule:

10.30 outside Town Hall 15 minutes
11.00 inside Town Hall (Corn Exchange) 30 Minutes
12.45 outside Town Hall 15 minutes
2.00 inside Town Hall (Corn Exchange) 30-40 minutes

All performances inside if it’s wet outside!

There will be lots to see inside the Town Hall too.

Songs and poems for historic cottages

Having written a song cycle for the historic Weavers’ Cottages in Kidderminster, I’m keen for these unique houses to be owned by people who care about the heritage as much as I do. 

The three separate properties will be sold by auction on 12th September – click here for details. The one on the right, No 22, is a rare example of a cottage specifically built to house a weaver. The top floor is light and spacious, designed as a work space which contained the loom. We know that the middle property was once a sweet shop because of the sign which is faintly visible above the ground floor window. 

Not many people can say that a song cycle has been written about their home! Here’s a link to recordings of the songs, together with poems and stories written by 4 other writers after a workshop I ran as part of a series of activities organised by Worcestershire Building Preservation Trust. 

There’s a poem version of one of my songs which you can hear in this interactive film by James McDonald. You can move around inside the cottages using your computer mouse. The film is one of several made by James which I find quite addictive. 

The songs will be available soon as a resource for young people, linking them to their own local history. There will be an online publication with the song lyrics, poems and stories, and the songs will be on a CD. This was a hugely rewarding project to be involved in, with a truly lasting legacy. 

Final push for The Idle Women

If you would like to see the show I have been touring with Kate Saffin since the end of April, there are just 3 more opportunities – two at The Rising Sun, Berkhamsted (Monday & Tuesday) and one at The Pirate Castle, Camden (Saturday) – the last time we will perform the show in London. This will also be the last chance to see historic narrow boat Tench which has been with us all the way. After the tour, owner Alex will whisk her away and get back to her own solo adventures!

We have had very appreciative audiences, rave reviews and have been featured in national press so we’re delighted, if a trifle tired as we have done quite a few lock miles over the past 15 weeks too! Do come and support us at one of our final shows if you can.

Here’s one of my ‘found’ poems from the show which is also in the book we have produced to accompany the tour:

A horse on the path

Early in the morning
a horse on the path

the ring of shoes on cobblestones
the swish of a bow, a shout

the whip of a line, the soft flap
as it drops on the cabin top

another whip, another shout
lock gate thud, rattle of paddle

through cabin doors nudged ajar
we stir to grey outlines
on a slack-black star-stippled sky

© Heather Wastie

using words found in The Amateur Boatwomen Canal Boating 1941-1945 by Eily Gayford

Saturday’s performance will be our 50th since we launched the tour in April and the journey has been incredible. See www.alarumtheatre.co.uk and our Facebook page for more.

Once the tour is over I will be taking a well earned break!