Nancy’s Blog: ‘Capital’

The first update from our new Canal Laureate, Nancy Campbell.

‘This month I’ve been exploring the past and present of London’s canals.

For the last couple of years friends have been encouraging me to visit London Canal Museum, as it has a permanent exhibit about the ice trade (I’ve just finished writing a non-fiction book on ice). Once all the capital’s ice was brought in by barge, to satisfy the Victorian lust for icecream as well as the refrigeration needs of butchers and fishmongers. The idea of all that melting ice being transported on water is very poignant. What a cold cargo! The museum with its dramatic ice wells and images of horse-drawn ice carts formed a perfect bridge between the two subjects, ice and water, for me.

I was keen to see the museum’s old films, such as The Barge Fellows, a grainy documentary from 1925, as film is going to be the medium through which I’ll realise a poem located on London’s waterways. 

After the museum I visited Greg in Narrowboat Dolly moored at Battlebridge Basin for much-needed refreshment, and we chatted about some of the books I’ve been reading about life on the canals past and present. The Grand Union Canal Carrying Company employed women in wartime, and Maidens’ Trip (1948) Emma Smith’s account of her first journey from Limehouse out of London with a cargo of steel was an early winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. ‘Hands in pockets, nose blue in the wind, eyes narrowed against the darting sunlight, she gazed ahead and rashly dreamed of Birmingham…’

Emma’s resourcefulness is echoed by Helen Babbs, whose book Adrift (2016) is an insight into contemporary life as a constant cruiser on London’s canals. She writes beautifully but not naively about life on the ‘surprising’ and ‘shape-shifting’ water and how cities need such spaces, ‘old and imperfect, littered but alive.’ Babbs describes the Regent’s Canal as ‘a hairline fracture along London’s x-axis; a thin fissure in a valley of brick, glass and stone.’ From her, I learn that it’s officially called The Cut ‘a name that expresses its slim shape, its depth, its certain tang… This industrial gash, this wet wound, was sliced into the earth by hand.’

When I lived in London a decade ago, it was the eastern boroughs I knew best: I often walked the Hertford Union canal that runs past Victoria Park, and the stretch of the Lee navigation by Springfield Park. However, for the new poem, inspired by these two books and my afternoon in the museum, I’m taking to the Regent’s Canal with the Canadian artist Pierre Tremblay. I met Tremblay in Reykjavik, where he was filming and I was studying traditional fishing songs, and we later collabor ated on a filmpoem about swimming which was first screened in an empty swimming pool at RUBIX in Toronto in 2016. 

This time we intend to stay out of the water, completing our journey by bicycle. (But many thanks to Jasper Winn, the current Canal & River Trust writer-in-residence, for reminding me of this scheme by Y/N Studio to get people swimming in Regent’s Canal.)

Tremblay and I begin our journey at noon on Friday 16 February from Paddington Basin, calling in at the Canal & River Trust offices in Little Venice, before continuing towards Limehouse. Keep an eye out for a pair on bicycles if you are on or near the canal! The Cut will be screened at Barge Fiodora (moored at Merchant Square, W2 1AZ) on 15 March as part of a festival of events celebrating life on the canals.’


A Film on the Water

There are just twenty seats on board Fiodra, a barge which is temporarily moored in the Paddington basin in London. Floating home to Bob Chase, Fiodra doubles as a cinema and a reading venue.

On 15 March, Nancy will be screening her new filmpoem ‘The Cut’ on Fiodra. The premiere of her film, created in response to Regent’s Canal by Nancy and artist Pierre Tremblay, will be followed by a discussion in which Nancy expands upon her recent writing about the waterways and reads selections from her work.

Tickets are £10, available from Fiodra’s website – we recommend speedy booking to secure a place at this unique gig.


Paddling Your Own Canoe

With three newly commissioned poems already on the go, and developing plans to canoe coast-to-coast via the country’s canal network, our new Canal Laureate Nancy Campbell is immersing herself in canal life. We’ll be sharing reports and new poems shortly, but meanwhile, here’s a piece Nancy wrote for the ClimateCultures blog, detailing of how and why she came to carve her own kayak paddle.

New Year / New Laureate

The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust are delighted to announce the appointment of Britain’s new Canal Laureate 2018: Nancy Campbell.

Photo: Björn Valdimarsson 2015

Oxford-based poet and kayaker Nancy has a keen interest in arctic, marine and water conservation, following on from her winter residency at the most northern museum in the world in Greenland in 2010 and subsequent museum residencies in both Greenland and Iceland over the last seven-years.

During 2018 she will ‘seek out and share stories’ from the people and places she will encounter during her travels along the 2,000 miles of the nation’s historic canals and waterways looked after by the Canal & River Trust.

She already has a few projects in place including creating a short work about rain to be displayed by the waterways; writing a poem about an unassuming and endangered type of herring – the Twaite Shad, and a collaboration with Nottingham’s ‘Light Night’ event.

Nancy says: ‘I’m thrilled to be appointed as the new Canal Laureate and am grateful for the inspiring wake of poems the previous Canal Laureates leave behind.  I’ve always lived near to water, from my childhood living between the Tweed and the Tyne, I now live just ten minutes’ walk from the Thames and not far from the River Cherwell and Oxford Canal. I would love to live on a narrowboat, but I don’t think I could fit all my books into one!  Instead, I paddle around Oxford’s waterways on a kayak or canoe, which is a great way to discover these green corridors.

Although my writing is inspired by the environment, I don’t see nature in isolation from human activity. What fascinates me is the intersection between people, the places they live and their local environment.  I’m keen to explore the history of Britain’s remarkable canals, to discover how they have transformed over the last 200 years from an industrial to leisure resource and have become places of recovery and healing to enhance our wellbeing.’

Nancy’s new poems and projects will debut here, and you can follow her adventures via Twitter @CanalPoetry

Canal Epistle: the end of Luke’s journey

November 2017

Lots of moored canal boats huddling together, bright grey cloudy sky

Boat Huddle

I had thought of writing my valedictory article in the form of a pop quiz, but I’ve decided that would only be funny for the first couple of questions, 1. Where did Kennard feel most awkward? etc. It’s been over eighteen months since my first outing in this residency and, having established early on that I hate learning, I thought it might do to focus on what I’ve learned. I can single-handedly operate a lock gate and have a working understanding of its wonderfully unlikely mechanics (which has given me a whole new respect for wood as a substance). I can press myself into a hedge to allow a cyclist to pass. I can nod politely at an angler and grimly at a long-distance runner. Perhaps most of all I’ve been able to use specific places and geographies in my work in a manner I hadn’t quite managed before. I want to invoke Roy Fisher’s phrase, “Birmingham’s what I think with.” It’s been a pleasure to think with canals during this residency. What I’m most grateful to the Canal and River Trust and the Poetry Society for is the freedom they’ve given me to wander and wonder, and the generosity and kindness with which they’ve received my work.

This is my last blog entry before the Canal Poet Laureate re-spawns, Who-like, in the new year. (I’m using a Doctor Who reference purely to ingratiate myself with the general reader. I was born in 1981 so was too young for the original and therefore lacked the wistful reminiscence to make very much of the reboot. For me, the ultimate Doctor will always be Paul McGann from the one-off attempted rekindling of the franchise in 1996, long before the Ecclestone/Piper era, by which time I was an insufferable postgrad student without a television. I remember seeing half an episode where a boy fell in love with a paving slab and it was weird. It feels really good to get that off my chest).

There are a couple of things I’ve failed to write up. In June I read a selection of canal poems for a charity event at the Market Bosworth Marina, a building so new my SatNav marooned me in the middle of a nearby field. The centre itself is an attractive wooden structure with a bar and performance space (huge windows, dramatic sunset) absolutely besieged by hundreds of well-kept houseboats. You really got the sense of a thriving community. I think it went okay. When you’re reading to a poetry audience they kind of take it as read that your every public appearance is going to be a manifestation of self-doubt and nervous energy. I’m never too sure how that goes over with a non-poetry audience but it’s too late to try to change who and what I am now. The night also featured performances by the Ambion Voices choir, ending on a song cycle, ‘Three Reflections on the Ashby Canal’ by Michael Dix. This was a witty, thoughtful and beautifully composed sequence of three pieces, tracing the history of the location from a working canal to an abandoned, derelict canal and finally a leisure canal. It compressed several history books into a miniaturised musical, and I’m glad to have heard it.

A few weeks later I had the opportunity to go on Saturday Live and get a postcard signed for my sister by the Rev Richard Coles. Live radio gives me the howling fantods, and I had stomach flu, but I think I managed not to say anything more incriminating than usual. I leaned into the whole poetry/towpaths parallel and read a couple of pieces. It was recorded at the Bottom Lock in Market Harborough and I took a wrong turn on the way and had to balance across an old lock gate which is the closest I’ve come to falling in during my tenure. It would have been a very attractive canal to fall into; you could describe it as being Moneted, but the effects would be the same as falling into any other body of water: discomfort and having to explain it to everyone.

I gave a final reading of most of the canal poems at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden on Thursday November 23rd. This was a joy, even if the combination of Lemsip and beer made me more than usually garrulous. It felt great to reflect on the whole experience and to read the poems as a kind of sequence. The Canal Poet Laureate is a unique role, and that’s down to the collaboration between the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust; I never had the sense that they wanted me to produce anything other than precisely my own thing, to follow my own inspiration even when it disappeared at a point where two canals meet and the path merges with the water. Oh, and hey, thanks also to you for reading these things and accompanying me along the way. Not very good at sincerity. Sorry. I mean it, though.

Canal Flora