Sunday, 22 November 2015


“A two-kingfisher day, with sparrowhawks thrown in
and we were bickering at Kingswood Junction.
Water won’t be told, she said, you never learn.
We settled to the first of nineteen locks.”

These are the opening lines of Jo Bell’s vivid poem to begin her collection Navigation, and one of the reasons The Canal Trust and The Poetry Society invited Jo to become Canal Laureate of the UK, a post she so merits, and uses to great effect to celebrate the romance and not-infrequent stubbornness of the motorways of their day, the tremendous canal network of our country.

Canals came into being in the mid-18th. century because the Industrial Revolution (which began in Britain during the mid-18th century) demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. In 2015 we tend to regard the purpose of canals as being for leisure, and I have fished on the Lancaster Canal close to Garstang as well as been boating on a canal holiday. As Jo Bell’s companion comments in the poem, “water won’t be told” is the first lesson learned, but the manufacturers of industrial revolution goods were bright enough quickly enough to recognise that water would float barges full of their produce not fast in today’s terms, but certainly far faster than the horse-and-cart snail’s pace on muddy and frequently impassable “roads” which were little more than farm tracks.

From records surviving from the time, there took place 29 river navigation improvements during the 16th and 17th centuries, beginning inevitably with the Thames locks and the River Wey Navigation.

The biggest growth was in the so-called "narrow" canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London. We rarely hear the word “navvy” today, but our canal system, just as our 20th. century motorway system, owes so much to the armies of Irish navvies who sent home their earnings to the families they had left behind. The Birmingham where I worked in computing in the late 1960s owes its criss-cross of fast urban motorways to the navvies I used to serve pint after pint to at the Crown and Cushion near Aston Villa’s ground. It was their watering hole after another day’s slog creating the roads, and the wages I was able to earn helped pay for my first car.

Given the variety of wildlife which has made our canal network their home, it is little wonder so many enthusiasts are drawn to the water, and fishing in a canal or slow-sailing along one is as much to do with observing Nature in what was a man-made environment. For us today, canals are a great stress relievers. Do try them.

(c) C J Heyworth (Christo James)
November 2015