Walking the canal: envoi

Walking the canal: envoi

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

-Wallace Stevens

In March 2009, inspired by the construction of the new canal link that extended the Leeds-Liverpool canal past the Three Graces and into the Albert Dock, I decided to walk the length of the  canal to Leeds. Last Saturday, 129 miles later, I arrived at Granary Wharf in Leeds city centre.

The lines from Wallace Stevens are a reminder of the solipsistic nature of this sort of thing: another could follow the same path, but see things entirely differently or have different impressions.  I began to wonder: what made the enterprise different to merely going out on a succession of short walks?  Was it its linear nature and distant goal?  Was there something intrinsically male about a project like this?

More likely, a Buddhist might say, it’s an example of your western dualism: you’re seeing everything around you – the water, the tree, the boat, the angler – as separate from everything else, and your own ‘self’ as distinct from the rest of the world:

Westerners like to conquer mountains;
Orientals like to contemplate them.
As for me, I like to taste the mountains.

– Santoka Taneda

There’s a wonderful passage at the end of The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth.  He’s just completed an extraordinary walk – the entire length of Japan – and he remembers a conversation he’d had early in the journey:

I was sitting outside a little grocer’s shop in the sun, talking to an old man. The old man had asked me where I lived, and I told him I lived in Tokyo.
”Tokyo is not Japan,” he said. “You can’t understand Japan by living in Tokyo.”
‘No,” I agreed. “That’s why I’m taking this time off to have a good look at the rest of it.”
”You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it,” the old man said.
”No, not just by looking at it,” I said. “Not by looking at it as a tourist might out of the window of a bus, but by walking through the whole length of it.”
“You can’t understand Japan just by walking through it,” the old man said.
“Not just by walking through it,” I argued, “but by talking to all the different people I meet.”
“You can’t understand Japan just by talking to people,” the old man said.
“How do you suggest I try to understand Japan, then?” I asked him.
He seemed surprised by the question, and a little hurt, and a little angry.
“You can’t understand Japan,” he said.

To walk with a purpose, or just go where the wind blows?  In The South Country, Edward Thomas remarked that:

I have used a good many maps in my time…but I confess that I prefer to do without them and to go, if I have some days before me, guided by the hills or the sun or a stream – or, if I have one day only, in a rough circle, trusting, by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right, to take much beauty by surprise and to return at last to my starting point…I never go out to see anything….Castles, churches, old houses, of extraordinary beauty or interest, have never worn out any of my shoe leather except by accident.  I like to come upon them – usually without knowing their names and legends…And so I travel, armed only with myself, an avaricious and fickle eye and ear, not of knowledge, not of wisdom, but one of whom to pursue is never to capture.

Setting these thoughts aside, the further I walked, the greater my sense of the history of this part of Britain in the past 200 years, and particularly of that moment when the arrival of the canal acted like an electric current, sparking into life industries and communities up and down its length.

Canals were the backbone of the industrial revolution, and changed the way in which people lived and worked.  The introduction of steam-powered machines led to a massive increase in the number of factories, and gradually people moved out of the countryside and into cities to work in them.  An key factor for the success of these new factories was transport. Coal, to fire the steam engines, had to be transported from the mines to the factories. And the goods produced in the factories had to be transferred to ports like Liverpool.

Raw materials for the rapidly expanding textile trades came from Liverpool, while stone flags, limestone and coal were carried to and from wharves all along the canal. Coal mines expanded after the canal opened, since it made it possible for the coal to reach new markets. Grain was another important cargo, imported from distant places through Liverpool for local mills along the canal.

Canals were the new technology of their age  but were overtaken within 30 to 40 years by the railway,  just as now the Internet and associated technological changes supersede each other at a bewildering rate. Those living in the years between 1750 and 1850 probably experienced change in the same way we do, as both exhilarating in its speed and disturbing in its implications.

The towpath walker is struck forcefully by the great civil engineering feat that the canals represent, and  the sheer scale of the endeavour – most of it in the form of manual labour by the ‘navvies’, the men who came from distant places to construct the new navigations.

The navvies aroused local suspicion and antagonism with their capacity for hard physical labour and equally remarkable capacity for drunkenness and rioting (often provoked by being exploited by the inn-keepers and traders who jacked up their prices to navvies).  The canals brought into existence another group of workers, the canal boatmen, whose reputation soon rivalled that of the navvies.  Their work was hard, too, involving hauling, lifting, shovelling and ‘legging’ through tunnels like the one at Foulridge.

Many of the navvies on the Leeds & Liverpool had come south from Scotland for work and money.  One such was Alexander MacKenzie who, in 1793 was staying at the Chapel Inn, Little Marsden. The Cotton Town website records that on 11th March 1793 he married Mary Roberts, one of the landlord’s two daughters. Their first son was born at the Inn and baptised at the Chapel. They returned to have their subsequent children baptised as well. From their entries in the Register of Colne Parish Church, it is possible to trace progress of the canal through East Lancashire:

William 20 March 1794, born at Little Marsden
Alexander 10 February 1796, born at  Oldham
Sarah 12 December 1797, born at  Little Marsden
Daniel 23 December 1799, born at  Burnley
Margaret 5 April 1802,  born at Henfield
John 1 November 1804, born at  Henfield
David 7 March 1808, born at  Rishton
Thomas 25 December 1808, born at  Altham

The family finally settled in Blackburn.

The reputation of navvies (who still had their work cut out, building the railways) fell to a very low point with respectable society in Victorian times, which is why Ford Madox Brown’s mid-19th century painting Work (above) is such a rare depiction of the dignity of the navvies’ manual labour.  It’s in Manchester Art Gallery.

Surprisingly, the canals survived for a long time, providing just as effective a means of moving coal and other heavy goods as the railways, albeit more slowly.  It was only after the First World War that the canals went into serious decline, with many canals forced into closure, and a large section of the old system seemingly doomed to crumble away into terminal decay. The Leeds-Liverpool Canal survived competition from the railways in the 19th century but it was weakened by the development of road transport in the 1920s and 1930s. The decline of the traditional industries which it had provided transport for also reduced traffic on the canal. Two of the last Liverpool clients of the canal were Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery and the gas works. Both continued to receive coal deliveries by canal into the 1960s. However, even this trade ended due to the bad winter of 1963 (when the canal froze) and the increasingly poor quality of Wigan coal.

During the sixties and seventies there was little interest in the canal and its condition was allowed to deteriorate. Canalside industries were also declining, with many factories falling into disuse.  Canals, and the zones in which they stagnated, came to be regarded as dirty, rubbish filled backwaters – finely captured in Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town:

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town…

I Heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
I Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town…

I’m gonna make me a big sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town…

In the early 1920s Rita’s grandfather served a five year apprenticeship as a boat builder on the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal, only for the boatyard to be closed soon after, with the result that he applied  the same skills to working as a safety engineer in the local coal mines. This inspired her poem, At the Canal:

Still waters, in the hawthorn time,
In the season of wild roses, or as the days
Bring comfrey for healing, nettles for wine.
Weeds wild field-days where through the air
Ripeness sweetly decays, replacing the tang
Of tar and resin, here where once they came
To work the oak and pine, and bind
The fine-cut planks with pitch, to load
Cargoes of coal for the port. Buried in your unfathomable
Silence the din of their craft, – their chatter, a clatter
Of loves and labour, their bright particularity –
Submerged, superseded, drawn back to the springs.

The canals drew migrants to the once-wild fields and fells of Lancashire and Yorkshire – first to cut the canals, then to work in the mills and factories they sprung alive. New industries grew that crushed old ones in India and other parts of the British Empire.  Then those industries, in their dying decades, drew new migrants from the colonies where indigenous industries had been snuffed out. Then the tide of industry withdrew, leaving a new Britain, a new society, as street and towpath in Nelson, Burnley or Bradford testify.

Jeremy Seabrook has written beautifully about these changes – for example in a New Statesman article in 1998, ‘10,000 memories in Nelson, Lancashire’:

The streets of the Lancashire mill-towns are full of old people now. If there is a certain melancholy as they look out on to the car parks and rectangles of rubble where weaving sheds and houses stood, this is perhaps because their whole working life was spent in a declining industry.

The house where Ethel and Alan Timberlake live is in the shadow of one of the last mills in Nelson. It closed 18 months ago, and is now being demolished; sunlight comes into the front room for the first time, through the roofless building and its broken windows. “The house used to shake with the vibration from the looms,” says Ethel. “It was not very pleasant, but the silence is worse.” The mill had the most modern Swiss looms, making industrial uniforms for several airlines and Marks and Spencer. It was taken over by Carrington Viyella, who get the work done more cheaply abroad. The looms went to India.

“We used to make sarees for export to India,” recalls Dick Howarth, now in his mid-eighties. “Then, when there were labour shortages, they fetched workers from India and Pakistan. They worked the night-shifts, sleeping in beds turn and turn about, just as the Irish did 100 years ago. Now they are bringing in the material from India and Pakistan. It’s hard to make sense of it.”

“It’s a different world,” say the old spinners of Bolton and Oldham, the weavers of Blackburn and Burnley. And for them it is; even though that same world still exists, on the other side, the dark side, of the earth, in the slums of Dhaka and Jakarta. […]

Sometimes the Lancashire people talk of the people of Asia “stealing our jobs” as though labour had crossed the world like a thief in the night to take away their function as they slept the sleep of exhaustion; as though capital had no role in it; as though desperate migrants to Dhaka or Jakarta, in their shared slum rooms, three metres by three, were the enemies, and not the kin, of the ghosts of country people once driven from impoverished villages into the squalid towns of Lancashire. […]

The workers of Asia and of Lancashire have one other thing in common; they were never consulted about the setting up of the industry, any more than they were about its closure, but were sucked into it beyond their will, beyond their control. They used to say “I’m not going to let any child of mine go into the mill”, but into the mill they went. Then, when there were no mills left, they find themselves asking “Where are the jobs for the next generation coming from?”

There is no answer. The jobs have gone to use up the youth and energies of young people in Asia, just as they laid waste those of generations in Lancashire.

But the world turns and a new lease of life came for the decaying canals. They have the unique distinction of being virtually the only modern form of  transport that has enhanced rather than ruined the countryside through which it was built, mainly because its construction was so closely governed by the nature of the land itself but also because the canals were constructed from local naturally occurring materials – clay, earth, stone and water.  So now a canal can be a place of pleasure and leisure, a linear park that aerates and invigorates the communities through which it meanders.

Along the entire length of this walk I’ve seen how restoration has replaced canalside decay.  There’s a  canal leisure industry of narrowboat hire, marinas, pubs and parks.  The canal has become a positive force for regeneration, with  investment in attractive new or redeveloped canalside homes, and  new places of work. With cleaner water and a tidier towpath, the canal has become a place to escape to for boaters, cyclists and walkers:

There’s a place that I seek when I need somewhere to hide
It’s a place that I go when I need some peace of mind
Don’t seem to mind if I smile, don’t seem to care if I don’t
I’m a fly upon the wall, I’m in company and I am alone

There’s a message on the bridge in graffiti-written words
And it reads as an answer or it reads as nothing at all
Don’t seem to mind if I show, don’t seem to care if I don’t
I’m a bird upon the bridge, I look out and I look in

When the city’s back is turned it looks a lot like this
When a mind begins to burn it needs a place like this

– Emily Barker, ‘The Greenway’

I was the world in which I walked. Now I’m home.

Mann Island catastrophe

This was the view across Canning Dock to Mann Island and the Port of Liverpool Building, with the towers of the Liver Building rising behind as I photographed it in 2007.  Visiting the Picasso exhibition at the Tate yesterday, I took these photos of how it looks now.

Developers Neptune say: “The development proposes a subtle but striking architectural response to this extremely important connecting site. The development respects the scale height and setting of the neighbouring buildings and proposes simple elegant forms.”

How could this happen – so close to the World Heritage site?  It’s a catastrophe – and particularly unfortunate when so many other developments in Liverpool over the past few years have been tasteful, avoiding the disasters of the 1960s and 1970s.

The building, a development by Neptune Developments and Countryside Properties, will contain office space, residential accommodation and leisure facilities.  Wayne Colquhoun of Liverpool Preservation Trust said on Radio Merseyside when the proposals were unveiled: “This is the biggest risk to Liverpool’s skyline since Goering sent the Luftwaffe over in 1943. We’ve got to really wise up to the fact that this is a World Heritage site and it has to be treated accordingly.”

The Mann Island development is part of a wider regeneration of the area that includes the extension to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, the new ferry terminal and the Museum of Liverpool.  All of these are excellent examples of modern architecture that contrasts with, but sympatheitically complements the Three Graces.  The ferry terminal and the new Museum building are striking, low elevation structures, clad in complementary white stone.

The debate over whether the buildings represented an asset to the city or an eyesore was heated. The plans were drawn up by architects Broadway Malyan, and examined by bodies ranging from English Heritage, the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE) and Ludcap, the Liverpool Urban Design and Conservation Advisory Panel.  They all gave the plans their approval before they were sent to Liverpool city planners in late 2006.

Gavin Stamp, architect, historian and trustee of the 20th Century Society put the case against:

“They should not be built. Not only is this a World Heritage Site, but there needs to be a break between the great 20th century group of the Pier Head’s Three Graces and the 19th-century group of the Albert Dock.  It was fine as it was with low-level buildings between the landmark groups, acting as a buffer zone so that neither of those groups are overwhelmed.”

Alistair Sunderland, architect and a member of the Ludcap panel defended the development:

“The polished granite cladding is …[a] contrast with the brilliant white of the neighbouring Port of Liverpool Building and the new Museum of Liverpool…As a neighbour, it’s a complementary contrast to the new Museum of Liverpool. “One’s black and shiny, the other’s white and matt.  They both use building shapes which are not familiar in our vocabulary and I think they make a very positive contribution to making the waterfront seem vibrant.”

Ptolemy Dean, architect and presenter of BBC 2’s Restoration programme was critical:

“The whole group of original buildings is brilliant. Until recently, by sheer good fortune, the clarity of Liverpool’s greatness as a port and 20th- century commercial centre was preserved.  It’s the spaces between the buildings that matter and that’s being taken away, with the wonderful sense of the skyline, so we are losing a vital part of the story.  The three new granite block buildings are like sitting in an opera and hearing a mobile phone go off. The illusion is shattered by something interrupting it”.

On April 26, the Daily Post reported:

The original Mann Island planning brief – seen by the Daily Post – sets out six “key views” in the city centre, as well as two others, which were to be protected.  Two of the city views no longer exist, while another can only be seen from a specific stretch of pavement.  A city leader last night said he was “deeply disappointed” at the loss of the views.

But one of the Mann Island developers said the site, which now contains three jet-black blocks, is “already adding to the quality and diversity” of the waterfront’s architectural character.

The brief for Mann Island was drawn up by Liverpool Vision, the Northwest Development Agency and National Museums Liverpool.  In a preamble to setting out the vistas, it says: “In discussion with English Heritage and the Local Planning Authority a series of key views have been identified, which are considered essential to protect and enhance the character of the two Conservation Areas and the World Heritage Site.  “These views inform the location, scale and massing of development on the site.”

But that brief appears to have been abandoned as the development – currently being built by Countryside Neptune – gathered momentum.

The two “key views” were both looking from the south of the Three Graces. The first was of the buildings from the road between Salthouse and Canning Docks, from where, the development brief says, “the principal roofscape features of the Pier Head group of buildings will be visible.  The other is from the arch of the former Transit Shed, farther along The Strand.”

So, there was a brief concerning vistas that should be protected, and the development is right next to the World Heritage site. What happened?  How did all these regulatory bodies allow the brief to be tossed aside? The Daily Post again:

A Liverpool city council spokesman stated: “The development brief set the framework for schemes on this site. It was intended as guidance and was not prescriptive.  Planning applications are considered in the light of this guidance and when this scheme was determined it was considered that it followed the principles of the brief in that developments should provide ‘glimpse’ views of the Three Graces.  This view was endorsed by ICOMOS, who visited the site on behalf of the World Heritage Committee.”

In a recent book, Liverpool: Shaping The City, published by the Royal Institute of British Architects and Liverpool city council, the authors state that what is now left are ‘glimpses’ of Liverpool’s famed Three Graces.  They say:

“The view of the Pier Head group of buildings from the south has been changed as the Mann Island scheme takes shape, and the composition of the buildings across the site provides for glimpses of the towers and domes rather than unobstructed views.  In this respect, the scheme reflects pre-war views, with large brick warehouses on the Mann Island site that also provided glimpsed views rather than wide vistas to the Pier Head.”

Finally, reaching further back in time, this was Mann Island looking towards Pier Head in 1911 (the Liver Birds have yet to be added to the Liver Building).  The photo is from Colin Wilkinson’s excellent blog, Streets of Liverpool: A Pictorial History of Liverpool.

Update, July 14:

Yesterday, Merseytravel chiefs gathered at their new glitzy headquarters at Mann Island, along with developers Neptune and the German pension fund Commerz Real Investmentgessellschaft (CRI) that has bought the building, to celebrate the topping-out of the third building in the development. Merseytravel’s new base, off The Strand, is due to be complete in July, next year.

The scheme, recognisable for its striking black granite and glass facades, also includes two residential blocks which will be finished by the end of 2011. It has been one of the most contentious developments on Liverpool’s waterfront, due to its proximity to the Three Graces and the loss of views of the historic buildings. But developers Neptune hope the city will learn to love the striking buildings which have been designed to reflect images of nearby docks and the Port of Liverpool building.  Managing director Steve Parry says they are of “exceptional quality” and that such high specification buildings are unlikely to be repeated in future.

(Liverpool Daily Post)

Liverpool canal link opens

This from today’s Daily Post:

It was once the city’s economic lifeline as it transported a range of merchandise to and from the thriving Liverpool docks. Now, a century after it disappeared from view, the city’s historic canal link has been restored after a £22m project. But this time, rather than produce such as wool, coal and grain, it is hoped the link will deliver 200,000 extra visitors to the city.

The first flotilla of narrowboats passed in front of the world-famous Three Graces yesterday, to mark the opening of the new waterway. It allows boats to navigate the 127-mile Leeds-Liverpool Canal direct to the Pier Head, and it cuts a course through the World Heritage Site in front of the Three Graces, and allows boaters to access Salthouse Dock via two locks. It is hoped the new facility will open up the city’s waterfront to the previously untapped leisure and tourism industry on Britain’s 2,200-mile UK canal system.

It was the silver link which created the pot of gold for industrial Lancashire’s wealth. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal allowed coal and raw cotton to be carried in bulk into the county’s mill-land.

Just as vitally, it transported the finished textiles and goods back into Liverpool for shipment across the world.   But all this was a long time ago, with regular freight sailings finishing about 30 years ago.

Nothing like this has been built in canal engineering since before the war.  This will breathe unprecedented life into the waterfront through the thriving canal leisure cruising business.

By creating an experience so new and exciting, it will also give a massive to boost Liverpool’s burgeoning tourism. For the first time in 194 years, canal boats from all over the country will be able to cross the world-famous Pier Head on the new link from the North Docks system to the older South Docks’ network. Previously, narrow boats specifically designed for the shallow and sheltered inland waterways had to venture out of the dock system into the Mersey to reach Albert Dock. This was because the Pier Head and the Three Graces – Royal Liver, Cunard and the Port of Liverpool Buildings – were constructed on redundant docks, blocking transit between the North and South Docks.

A completely original cut has been engineered between Princes Dock and Canning Dock. It includes several short tunnels under the Pier Head and new Museum of Liverpool. Now, in complete safety, canal craft will be able to sail back and forth to their berths in the new southerly terminus which will be in the 1832 Brunswick Dock, now home to Liverpool Marina and a very convivial turn-around destination. There are also newly-built pontoon moorings in the historic 1753 Salthouse Dock, alongside the city centre.