Nancy’s blog: Empty and Full

There are many rain storms in Maggie Nelson’s sequence The Canal Diaries. One poem is titled ominously ‘27 Days of Rain’. This, from ‘All the Parts’:

I sit on my notebook, ready
to keep it dry. First light, then harder
the drops make an orgy of circles
on the water.

The Canal Diaries (published in Something Bright, Then Holes) is Nelson’s response to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn – my local waterway, too, before I moved back to the UK. I’m not sure how many days of rain we’ve had in England this month, but it’s certainly been a lot. So it seemed a good time to turn my attention to a commission for a poem on the subject, which will be sprayed onto different surfaces around the canal network using hydrophobic paint. I wanted to write about how it’s possible to enjoy the canals even in rain – but would my research bear this out?

Daffodils and rain

Where the Kennet and Avon Canal passes through the village of Seend in Wiltshire, three locks have been cleaned over the winter and given new gates – part of the ongoing Canal and River Trust Restoration & Repairs programme. Just after the work was completed I was able to descend into one of the drained locks to take a close look at the bottom of the chamber, normally hidden underwater. Lock 18 wasn’t entirely empty – the persistent rain was doing its best to refill it, slowly building up puddles on the scrubbed limestone.


The bottom of the lock

The experience was part of a Canal and River Trust Winter Open Day, with activities such as the construction of bird boxes and insect hotels, demonstrations of bricklaying, and even an afternoon of poetry in the pub organised by Helen Wuscher. This welcome short, dry interval was a brilliant opportunity to hear readings by members of Poets Afloat, a group of poets writing about (and mostly living or working on) the waterways. (There’s a full report of the event on Dru Marland’s blog.) Simon Kirby, a K&A Customer Operations Supervisor, read a poem with the refrain ‘life is better by water’. Listen to Simon’s poem, here:


C&RT signs at the lock in the rain

The Bank Holiday found me back on the K&A, where the canal meets the River Avon in the centre of Bath. Here, in contrast to the almost empty lock at Seend, the rain had raised the water level in the canal until it ran over the top of the lock gates, forming dramatic waterfalls. Deep Lock (the second deepest lock in the UK) was filling up when I peered in, wary of the injunction ‘Stand Clear of the Edge!’

Deep Lock

Even on a cloudy day, Top Locks offers a fine view over the city’s grand honey-coloured architecture. The trade in Bath stone at the height of the Regency building boom was one reason for the K&A’s construction. The canal conveyed to the capital blocks of stone that would become part of Buckingham Palace, the Royal College of Physicians at Trafalgar Square (now Canada House) and Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (now the Wellington Museum). The stone was also used to create the canal itself, and it can be seen in more modest constructions like bridges and locks, such as that at Seend.

Spring was in the air, despite the deluge: daffodils had sprung up beside the yellow C&RT signs, and further out from the city, celandines and violets were flowering beside the towpath, and blackthorn hedges were in blossom. After drying off in The George at Bathampton – where I continued my quest for the best fish & chips on the canal network – I had a lucky encounter with a water taxi, the ‘Sir John Knill’, and made my journey back to the city under its tarpaulin.

Unlike Maggie Nelson, I didn’t manage to keep my notebook dry, but I did write the rain poem. Look out for ‘Outlook’ on the waterways soon.

Sir John Knill – the water taxi

Some Statistics

Seend Locks

  • Fish and Chips (The Barge, Seend): *****
  • Heron: No
  • Dog count: 10

Bath to Bathampton

  • Fish and Chips (The George, Bathampton): ***
  • Heron: Yes
  • Dog count: 15



Nancy’s blog: Darkness and Light

Nancy writes ‘Last year I was writing mostly about the darkness of the Arctic winter, so the invitation to consider brighter matters and participate in the programme of light effects for Nottingham Light Night made a welcome change. The Canal & River Trust commissioned a poem about the Nottingham and Beeston Canal for Enchanted Water, an event to showcase the canal during Night Light, held along Castle Wharf at the heart of the city.

Abord Megan and Tinks

The poetry and storytelling venues were beautiful 70’ narrowboats Megan and Tinkers Leen from Nottingham Narrowboat Project. As I settled in to Megan’s hold the crew introduced me to this brilliant project, and I was able to incorporate some of their anecdotes about onboard activities with the community into my poem ‘Elements’. (As I write this it’s just been announced that the project has received Big Lottery Funding to continue their work – congratulations to the team on this well-deserved award.)

As night fell, crowds congregated at Castle Wharf. Luminous ostriches and glowing owls could be seen dancing along the towpath, aided by puppeteers, and iridescent dragonflies and shimmering carp made from recycled materials by artist Anna Roebuck were installed in the pools before the Magistrates Court. From Megan’s warm galley I watched an archive film by Mitchell and Keyon recording the first Nottingham Tram Ride in 1902, projected on the walls of a former warehouse in a continuous loop.

Soon it was time to depart on my own circuit. One by one, the audience boarded Megan, and we moved off and chugged softly eastwards under Carrington Street Bridge, the bow cutting through the reflections of the lights on the water. The tiny galley created an intimate setting for poetry and discussion. After quarter of an hour there was a knock on the door, and the skipper’s head appeared. ‘We’re about to turn,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a bit noisy.’ The engine knocked loudly and water gurgled beneath the fenders, but a pair of swans swimming close by us seemed unperturbed, and soon calm was restored for the return trip. This was the first of several journeys: my thanks to all the intrepid individuals who joined me aboard Megan during the evening – it was wonderful to have your company and canal insights.

While I was performing on Megan, Nottingham-based poet Leanne Moden, a former Fenland Poet Laureate, was travelling the same route on Tinkers Leen. Our boats passed in the night, but before the evening ended, I was lucky to be able to join one of Leanne’s sessions, and enjoy the sensation of time and water slipping past as she told a captivating tale about a mermaid and a lock-keeper. (You can sample Leanne’s stunning performances here. Over the weekend we were joined by the poet Aly Stoneman, whose explorations of water run deep: her pamphlet Lost Lands was described by Mark Goodwin as ‘a tight river of poems with a dangerous, irresistible current.’

For the commissioned poem, I’d been researching the heritage of the Nottingham and Beeston Canal, and I’d read in a contemporary newspaper report that the passing of the Act which authorised work on the canal in May 1792 was greeted locally ‘by ringing of bells, and other demonstrations of joy’. I wanted my poem to reflect this spirit of celebration, this delight in new beginnings, which sat well with the positivity of the Enchanted Water event. The poem ‘Elements’ was also themed around another festival: Chinese New Year. We had just welcomed in the Year of the Dog, and so Light Night seemed a good time to think about all five elements of the Chinese Zodiac – not just water but also earth, fire, metal and wood – and how they play a part in the story of the canal. (Attentive readers will also find a few of the Chinese Zodiac animals within the narrative.) Read the poem here.

Many thanks to C&RT East Midlands Waterways staff for inviting me to participate in this memorable event and to everyone who made the evening so magical, including the hardy volunteers, the enthusiastic audiences, and the crew of Megan and Tinks who guided us safely and smoothly along the enchanted water.’

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.