Jo Bell writes: In my poem The Archaeologist of Rivers, I draw on my own history as well as that of England. I was for 18 years an archaeologist, specialising latterly in industrial archaeology - coal mines, lead mines, textile mills, glassworks, railways, roads and of course, canals. I spent my days tramping across fields to turn up ruined lime kilns, walking long sections of the A5 to trace the fabric of Telford's Holyhead Road, and looking for bellpits in the Derbyshire hills. I worked hard to learn the basics of the technologies involved - oh, the things I know about Tudor pit props and the manufacture of plate glass! And as the century turned from twentieth to twenty-first, I came to the Midlands to look after a fleet of working boats.
At first the boats, and the canals from which they came, seemed like another set of enormous artefacts; but gradually I came to understand that I had bitten off far more than I could ever hope to chew. I began to know some of the backwaters and peculiar names, the language and above all the people of the canals. In short, I fell in love.
Since then, I have travelled from the T&M to the K&A, boated on the Nene and the Severn, bumped into banks from Bugsworth Basin to Honeystreet Wharf. After twelve years, I am a raw beginner still. I fall somewhere between (on the one hand) the 'gongoozler' who watches boaters manoeuvring from the safety of a bridge with pint in hand, and (on the other) the born-and-bred boatmen, steerers of the working boats, who make the tiller look like an extension of their own arm. I may not be the most skilled of skippers, but I am serving my time in the narrow apprenticeship of the English canal system.
Nowadays, I work in poetry - writing it, helping others to write it, and above all bringing it to the attention of people who don't normally choose to read new poetry. So the Locklines project, which puts contemporary poetry on canal lock gates, was a humbling opportunity for me. The artist Peter Coates has taken from two of my poems, the lines
straightened, straitened, boxed and sluiced and
the slow machine that England was
to go on lock gates at Milnsbridge, near Huddersfield, and I am more moved than I can say to see this picture of them being hoisted into place by CRT banksmen - thanks to Simon Henry and his team for this image.
'Straitened' of course, means 'narrowed' or in this case, canalised. My poem, which I will soon be recording for you to hear on the Soundcloud website, is an attempt to pay my respects to the timeless, elegant engineering that used water - that most effortless of mediums, that hardest of materials to manage - to create a great working path through the British landscape. I love these waterways, and I hope that my poem, together with those of Roy Fisher and Ian McMillan, will help others who aren't familiar with them, to see them as spaces of wonder and beauty, as well as of a long working tradition.
Dear Locklines, A poet friend recently sent me a link to your site and your request for submissions of poems etc. touching on canals and our connections to them. For a number of years, I regularly jogged along the tow paths of the local canal and still walk along them from time to time (more to appreciate at the slightly slower pace!). I'm attaching a poem, specially written with this in mind, for your consideration... Phil Poyser
Canals may no longer be the life blood,
the arteries of industrial heart- and hinterland.
Some may be clogged with rushes, silt and mud.
Some bear famous names: Grand Union or simply Grand,
“where Doges wed the sea with rings” (in quotes).
Dear Browning, give me our narrow boats!
From first sod cut, 5 years in the completion,
a marathon in length from end to end,
it may not stand comparisons Venetian,
but Macclesfield’s canal, content to wend
from Marple south through a dozen Bosley locks,
by ancient mills, passed fields of grazing flocks,
unassuming, slinks far beneath Mow Cop
to join the Trent and Mersey at Hall Green.
It’s residence to squabbling ducks which flop
and home to boats with names like “Faerie Queen”,
some nomadic, some on permanent moorings,
all victims of some poet’s daft outpourings.
The patient fishermen seem cast in stone
Till early morning joggers plod too near.
Dog walker ambles by with mobile phone.
His mutt, stick clenched in mouth, not clutched to ear,
disturbs a gawky heron at his task.
Peace, beauty, freely shared: what more is there to ask?
© Phil Poyser, Macclesfield, 8th./9th. September, 2012