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.