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