Roses and Castles

Roses and Castles is the name given to the artwork which adorns the barges of the canals.  Traditionally it is made up of bright flowers and pictorial scenes, including but not limited to castles.  Similarly, images are not limited to roses and daisies, marigolds, pansies, primroses and many other species can be found.  Diamonds, compass patterns, crescent moons, scrollwork and painted borders are all used along with bold, vibrant colours.  Cottages, churches, rivers, lakes and even lighthouses are all depicted to build up images of romantic landscapes.

Whilst the origin of the roses and castle art work is unknown, it became popular at a time when canals were starting to be less lucrative.  One theory is that, as families had to move in the barges full time, the women were trying to make them feel cleaner and more homely and turned the dirty boats into something they could be proud of.  Polished brasswork and woodwork shone and dazzled and every available surface became painted in flowers and romantic scenes.  It was a decorative form of art and appeared on everything, from the boat itself to the harness of the horse.

It took root when many other traditional crafts were dying out, no longer valued in the age of industrial revolution and perhaps it is this novelty that means it survives today.  There was a pride amongst the boat owners and the artwork, with it’s rich colours and cheerful designs, possibly provided an antidote to the drab age of industry.

There are similarities in the style of art to that of the folk art from Scandinavia and Germany and echoes the elaborate caravans of the gypsy culture.  But regardless of why or where it started, the roses and castles style has become eponymous with canal life and it’s hard to image a barge without the iconic paintwork.

Roses and Castles

Down by the towpath

Rests Halcyon Days

Nose to nose with Blue Moon

Whilst Drifter floats away.


Roses and castles

Daisies and chapels

Abound on the waters

Of Leeds Liverpool canal.


Layers of green and layers of red,

Interlaced with paint as close

to gold as you get,

clothe narrowboats with daydreams.


Scenes of happier times?

Of richer days?

Or art to bring romance

To the industrial ways?



Canals are sometimes forgotten when we think of water habitats but they provide wildlife with opportunities that are just as valuable as lakes and rivers.

A lot of Britain’s canals were built in the 1800s with ‘Canal mania’ erupting after the Duke of Bridgewater built his canal in 1761 to move coal into the heart of Manchester.  When he opened it, the price of coal in the town was halved overnight.

More and more were built around the country to support the transportation of goods around the country.  They were a crucial network that provided people with food, fuel and livelihoods.  Once upon a time, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, barges transported vast amounts of ice into the capital for refrigeration, and, very importantly, for ice cream.

“Canals generate a degree of prejudice.  While rivers are seen as the life-giving arteries of our landscape, canals can been viewed as septic sumps accumulating the detritus of the industries that created them.”
– Hugh Warwick, BBC Wildlife

Weil’s disease cast a bad light over our canals along with the other pollutants that Warwick refers to.  But we have to see them through a contextual lens. Their existence is down to those industries which polluted them, down to the industrial revolution and once, these gentle currents were the motorways of our lands.  Unfortunately, as quickly as they arrived, they were abandoned.  Train travel took over and left the canals to decay, inevitably becoming derelict.  And this has coloured our view of them.

Canals are often slower paced than rivers and this can lead to a build up of litter but they also create wonderful wildlife corridors.  They connect habitats, provide a route for animals, and people, to leave or join a city.  In a world where habitat fragmentation comes up again and again, we should see the canals as opportunities.  They also provide a space for people living in urban areas to connect to nature living on their doorstep, sometimes literally as canal side buildings are converted into housing.

Canals are home to kingfishers, herons and toads and many other species including the water vole who has suffered badly in recent years and the otter which has a place in many of our hearts.

These spaces have also become home to poets.  The Canal Laureate programme, run by the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust, has been running for since 2013.  In that time, it has birthed a plethora of poems, artworks, films and events.  Previous Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, said of her experience:

“Waterways are such a big part of my daily life but I had mostly avoided writing about them, perhaps in case I didn’t do them justice.  The laureateship compelled me to write about my private environment… There’s a big body of work about the sea, or rivers – but not so much about canals.  What exists is often ‘folk’ poetry, or poetry about an imagined urban experience which is no longer quite true… Writing about water is often heavy with sentimentality and anthropomorphism, because writers seen it as mystical or symbolic.  In the inland network, water is vital and unglamorous.  I try to write it as it is, not as I wish it to be.”

You could write a poem based on canal boat’s names alone; ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, Blue Moon, Morning Mist, Dreamcatcher, Drifter, Halycon, Little Gem, Stargazer and perhaps my favourite so far – Unsinkable II.

And if names don’t grab your interest, perhaps you could write about the history, or take a trip along one and write a travel-esque piece about the geography of your trip and the nature you encounter.  Canals are excellent places to slow down and notice what normally passes you by.  And if you’re steering or navigating the locks, then you have the added bonus of being more deeply connected to the water itself.

Or instead, just head over to waterlines and see what other poets have written about these once vital water ways of Britain.

One Wednesday Night, the Poem

I was talking to a friend about poetry and she’d generously let me read one of her pieces of writing.  When I did, I was reminded of advice that my old English teacher gave me.  He was the first person, offline, that I showed my writing to.  He taught me for four years and, unlike many teachers, he would talk to me like an equal.  It felt like he valued my opinions and we would debate the Shakespeare biased curriculum time and time again.  My stance being that he wasn’t the only playwright and we should get variety.  Anyway, come sixth form, when he was no longer my teacher, we shared poems we’d written and he’d ask for my thoughts on his and offered his thoughts, gently, on mine.  He played an important role in my life and in shaping who I became.

But back to the point.  One piece of advice he would give me time and time again was to use what I’d written but say it in less words.  Strip it back.  See what it becomes.  And in doing so, you learn a lot about what you’re saying, the point you’re making and the language you’re using.

Having offered this advice to my friend, I went through some of my old poetry and tried to find one to exercise brevity on.  But nothing caught my attention, none of the poems I returned to hooked me today.  And then I picked up a copy of One Wednesday Night which I’d printed to critique and that did hook me.  A poem about nosebleeds and tummies would be hard to pull off but I liked the starry sky part of it.  And so I picked out a few words and phrases and started to play with them:

A dusty sky; the stage is set.
Leading role – the crescent moon.
Venus; shining golden in the spotlight.

Before my tired eyes
Dots begin to glow

– the constellations of closed eyes?

The supporting cast step out
From hiding in the wings.
The starry queen holds court;
a dancing bear and timid cub perform.

Street lamps conceal stage hands
and then, like the curtain closing,
the cast, the stars and stage

All fall away.

The play is lost to sleep.

NB, the stars you see when your eyes are closed are called phosphenes.

The Mekong


Whilst many people would have turned to the Amazon as an example of a river giant, I’m headed east to another great river, the Mekong.  A river I have seen, crossed over, floated on.  From a boat on the Mekong, I spotted Irrawaddy river dolphins.  From an island in the river, I talked agriculture with a tuk tuk driver.  I slept in rooms looking out at the Mekong.  I have a connection to it which I do not have with any of the other massive rivers.

The Mekong, like the Amazon, is an incredibly important river in terms of wildlife, economy and livelihoods.  It flows from Tibet to China to Myanmar to Laos to Thailand to Cambodia to Vietnam where it ends in the 9 dragons before entering the South China Sea.  From source to sea it is an estimated 2,703 miles.

Flowing through so many countries, the Mekong binds together a range of cultures and is the life blood of Asia.  It provides food, transport links, irrigation, the river edge provides homes to a vast array of wildlife.

“Mekong River gives everything. Mekong River is mother”
– a local living by the river

I visited the Mekong when I was in Cambodia and so will be focusing on that stretch of this epic waterway.  Life in this country is focused around the river and the regular floods are important to the economy.  When it floods, the Mekong brings water and nutrients to the rice fields which line the riverbanks.  Rice is the main crop in Cambodia and without the river bursting over to the floodplains, irrigation would be needed and I suspect it would become uneconomical to grow.  Looking at the Mekong delta more widely, we see how crucial the floods are.  A vast amount of rice grown here gets exported and earns the area the nickname the rice bowl of asia.

When I was in Cambodia, we drove over a rickety, slightly terrifying, wooden bridge to reach an island in the Mekong.  This bridge gets rebuilt every year because when the floods come, it gets washed away.  But these same floods are what provides the fertile land for agriculture and grazing.

DSC_0235 e

DSC_0242 e

The Mekong is important to food security in another way; the fish. Fish and crustaceans make up over 80% of the protein that Cambodians eat and fishing provides jobs and livelihoods.  And the impact of the river goes beyond her banks.  At Phnom Penh, the Mekong is joined by another river and lake system – the Tonle Sap – and affects the direction of this water system.  When the Mekong is low, the Tonle Sap is a tributary and when the Mekong floods, the flow reverses and the floodwaters head up the Tonle Sap.  This means that a larger area benefits from the gifts of the floods and more people would be affected by changes.

Which brings me to the topic of dams.  Any transboundary river brings with it potential for political difficulties.  In the case of the Mekong, this is played out by the creation of dams in Thailand and China.  The dams themselves are built, for example, to provide hydroelectricity to their people but actions have consequences and in this case, the consequences play out down river.  Out of sight, out of mind, especially if it’s not affecting your country.

As we’ve seen, millions of people depend on the Mekong and her floods and without the fast flowing waters, food security will be threatened, economies will be affected and so will cultures and the environment.

The Mekong is already heavily dammed, with many more dams planned and under construction, and we can’t always predict the impact they will have.  What we do know is that damming the river increases the risk of earthquakes, creates food shortages, and, as is so often the case, those most in need will be hardest hit.

“The very people that regional governments and international organisations are spending a lot of time trying to alleviate from poverty are the ones who are going to be impacted.”
– Ian Baird

As well as the human cost of changing the river, there is the environmental one.  The Mekong basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, second only to the Amazon.  As well as the many known species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, new species are being regularly described.  In 2009. There were 145 newly described species which included 29 fish, 2 birds, 10 reptiles and five mammals.

The river is also home to some very large fish including the giant freshwater stingray which can reach 5m in length and the Mekong giant catfish which can grow to 3m and weigh 300kg.  These large fish populations have, however, declined drastically, in part due to the building of dams.

Another species that is particularly susceptible to the impact caused by dams is the Irrawaddy dolphin.  Some Laotians and Cambodians believe that the Irrawaddy dolphins are reincarnations of their ancestors and there are tales of them rescuing people from drowning and even from attacks by crocodiles.  Despite this reverence for them, there are exceptionally few of them left in the Mekong.  They are shy and elusive, barely breaching the surface to breathe so I didn’t even attempt a photograph of them.  It was an honour and a privilege to see them.


In the 1970s there were over a thousand of them but they suffered terribly under Pol Pot’s regime and were virtually wiped out.  Today, threats come from fishing, pollution and population segmentation as well as the impact of damns.  But in conservation areas such as Kratie where I saw the dolphins, ecotourism is being encouraged as an alternative way of making a living to fishing.  Hopefully they will not follow the Yangtzee River Dolphin which went extinct in 2007.

The delta plays home to many other interesting flora and fauna including the, now rare, yellow headed temple turtle.  Smooth coated otters, fishing cats and Siamese crocodiles all live in this rich environment.

Perhaps the most moving animal tale is that of the flying bird, a type of crane standing 6 foot tall with a wingspan just as large, lives in the delta.  They disappeared during the Vietnam war as the delta saw some of the harshest fighting but as peace returned, so did the cranes.  What creatures are we driving away with our war against nature?  Our desperation to control the river?  Who is going to pay the price?

100 ways to write a book: The Helen method

Mslexia has a regular feature called 100 ways to write a book.  They interview a particular female writer and in addition to that, we get an insight into how the author writes.  For example, in the Dec/Jan/Feb 17/18 issue, Sarah Perry who wrote The Essex Serpent is interviewed and The Perry Method includes advice such as “If an idea occurs to you that makes your scalp tighten, it’s a sign that it will make a good story”.

In a similar vein, the creative nature writing guide I’ve mentioned also has a section about method.  It discusses use of journals, seasonal diaries, jotting down ideas on scraps of paper, dictating notes to a voice recorder, starting at the end, working on multiple projects and so on.

DSC_0610 levels

There are so many different ways to write and the important thing is that you find the one that works for you.  If you look online or in a bookshop, you’ll see pages and pages dedicated to teaching you how to write.  These generally aren’t about technique or style, more often than not they are about getting you to actually put words on paper.  And this is what the 100 ways to write a book column tends to be about.

I could not even entertain the idea of telling anyone how to write.  I am a retired, disabled, 31 year old woman with no children and no housework.  I am in an unusual situation.  I have all the time in the world to write but I also have limits imposed by pain and fatigue and brain fog.  But over the last year or so I have honed my way of writing.

I know I ebb and flow through the day and I know mornings tend to be the most reliably productive time so I try to make use of this.  Your own rhythms will be different to mine but I wanted to share my approach in case any of it is of help.  It has also been a helpful exercise in self reflection and I think a good reminder for when writers block strikes!

So, here is The Helen Method:

  • Write in a personal way, you chat to your reader, you befriend them and in doing so you build a relationship.
  • Even though you desperately want to write a beautiful novel, you can’t right now. The time may come but today you are a poet and a creative non fiction writer.
  • Always have word open on your laptop. You have significant hand pain and so you need to type, despite longing to be able to sit with an elegant fountain pen and inspiring notebook.
  • Write little and often. This helps with pain management but also creativity begets creativity.  Writing little and often makes it habit and means you don’t try and hold ideas in your head…
  • Which is important because your memory is not what it used to be. Keep a notebook at hand and a pen in sight and scribble down words and phrases before they are lost to brain fog.  But do not write any more than that by hand, see previous point.
  • Read lots.  Read often.  Read variety.  Non fiction and fiction.  Kindle and audiobooks.  Poetry and prose.  Magazines and articles.
  • And once you have devoured the contents of other people’s writings, ruminate. Go quiet.  Switch off Netflix and let the information swish around inside you. Feel into it and find the angle, find the hook.
  • Don’t try and tell the reader everything you know about a subject. Unused facts and details are not wasted.  They will be used elsewhere.  They helped you to understand.  The reader doesn’t need to know everything you know.
  • Similarly, stay focused. In your excitement about a topic, you are likely to head off on too many tangents and lose the narrative and the reader.
  • Go back to all those words and phrases and half started poems that you always mean to finish.
  • Most importantly, write because you enjoy writing. Write for no other reason than it brings you pleasure.

What tips would you include in your writing method?

The Rivers Running Through Me

“We are all caught by a river.  This, I think, is what catchment means.  Every fragment of landscape slides to one river or another and our feet are sucked into the mud wherever we stand… A river is mire than the ribbon of flow at the foot of a valley.  It is the distillation of that valley.  A river is the expression of us and we are rooted in it.  The meandering relationship between the shaper and the shaped is revealed time and again: the rivers of childhood surge through memory and water the formation of the self.  Rivers are in the blood.  Rivers get under the skin.  Rivers stay with you when everything else moves on.”
– Charles Rangeley-Wilson

There was a brook near the house I grew up in.  For a small child, trying to explore and play, the banks were high and the trickle low.  There was a noticeable difference between summer and winter and you could stand on a rickety wooden bridge and peer down.  Later, once I’d grown a little more, I could clamber down to the water.  Splash about in wellies.  You wouldn’t want to go barefoot.  It wasn’t that sort of stream.  Getting back out was harder, wet boots slipping against the muddy slopes, hands grasping at clumps of grass and pulling your body weight up with the faith that the roots would stay loyal.

I looked it up recently.  It flows into the Mersey.  Not surprisingly.  But I’d never thought to think about it before.  This was my brook, this little stretch, and I spent very little time thinking about where it came from and where it went after.  My world was contained, and with that, so was the flow of the water.

Had I been a more courageous or adventurous child, perhaps I would have followed that stream bed in my little blue wellies.  Perhaps I would have twisted and turned with it, the water level rising and rising until it flooded my boots, drenched my socks.  Eventually sweeping me off my feet and pushing me along until the brook-now-river spat me out into the Mersey.

The Mersey was a feature of my life.  Echoed by the Dee on the other side of the peninsula.  We went on the ferry across the Mersey on a school trip.  I remember my finger had been trapped in a toilet door that morning before we left.  We traipsed round the slavery museum and walked around the docks.  But like most people, when I traversed the river, it was normally going under not over it.  The Kingsway and Queensway tunnels.  You needed to have change to get through.  These days I suspect they take credit cards.  An anxious child, I always held in my mind that question, what if?  What if the weight of the water became too much and the tunnel could no longer bear to stand up?  What if it started to crack?  What if?  What if? These worries echoed through the tunnel until we emerged into daylight.  Stunned by our survival.

The River Dee on the other hand, was exclusively crossed by bridge.  No ferry here.  No tunnel.  From the Wirral, you can see across the Dee to Wales.  You can walk out into the Dee at low tide to reach the uninhabited Hilbre Islands.  Again, what if? What if? Rung loud in my ears as we crossed at low tides.  Warnings of sinking sand and a vivid imagination.  What if?  What if we got the tides wrong and were stranded on the island?  What if?  Always, what if?

A safer way to experience the Dee is to stand on the front at Parkgate with an ice cream in hand.  The water itself is too far away to touch and the land between is marshy and is now an SSSI – A Site of Special Scientific Interest – I believe.  The river used to reach the walls.  It used to crash up and over them.  It fed into an open air swimming pool, my Granma told me about it.  Perhaps, a hundred years earlier, here too I’d have heard those endless what ifs?

You would think, from this, that perhaps I don’t like water.  But I do.  I love water.  I love the sea, rivers and lakes.  I love their beauty but I have a respect for their darker side too.

Leaving the brook behind, I headed east to the River Ouse and the Foss.  York.  A town built on rivers.  A town which once had a healthy respect for water.  Floodplains allowed the river to rise and fall, allowed her to live on her own terms with her own rhythms.  These floodplains have been built on in places, showing no respect for a river who bursts her banks many times in a year.  An attempt to control the uncontrollable.


Sited where the Foss joins the Ouse, York was a very strategic settlement.  The two rivers providing natural defences as well as communication and supply routes in and out.  Romans built jetties and wharves and warehouses here.  Vikings arrived with their shipbuilding and navigation skills.  York, through the Ouse, was connected to the entire world.  Liverpool would come to echo this, the Mersey replacing the Ouse when it comes to commerce today.

By the late sixteenth century, larger sea going ships couldn’t reach York, the rivers were filling with sediment. Shortly after, in 1715, Liverpool’s first dock was built.  I moved in the opposite direction to trade.  York’s rivers, no longer used for commerce, today host pleasure boats, historical cruises and an ice cream boat.

The riverbanks gained importance as the river itself lost some of hers.  This fertile land was used for agriculture and today there are four SSSIs along the banks in York; Clifton Ings and Rawcliffe Meadows, Fulford Ings,  Naburn Marsh and Acaster South Ings.

For me though, it is not the trees or shrubs or flowers or rare beetles which make the river Ouse a magical place although they do add their charm.  For me, meeting the Ouse as an adult in a new city, it is the memories that pull me, that draw me into the currents. I met the Ouse in a more academic, detached kind of way. The way that adults meet rivers.  There were no wellies splashing or scampering up and down banks.  Instead, the Ouse is a patchwork blanket with strands of emotion tying together moments and woven with facts.

The Ouse will always be the river I walked along with my love.  It will always be the night I went for a walk with my close friend and it rained and we were tipsy and took off our shoes and ran home.  The conversation I had with another close friend about the death of her mother.  The days when depression had wrapped itself around my heart like bindweed and threatened to squeeze my lungs and I stood staring and staring on a platform over the river.  There was the night I returned from a protest and it was pitch dark and my friend walked me home despite going far out of his way and we encountered a creepy shadow and both held our breath.  Sitting on the steps, watching geese scare overly brave tourists.  Ducklings floating by, defying the strength of the currents.  This river undoubtedly runs through my veins.

For the second and third years of my life in York, I would walk along the river path to town.  Doing so makes you acutely aware of the seasons and cycles, the life of the river.  Some days that walk would be impossible, underwater.  Other days it was borderline and the waves would lap dangerously close to the path.  The river wove itself into my life in those years, I became attuned and aware of her character.  She has her twists and turns, her placid days and her violent deadly moments.  She is both life giver and life taker.  We have our own rhythms, but both are the same.

Apart from my first and fourth year in York, I have never been more than a stones throw from the Ouse.  One of those years my bedroom looked out onto a tributary of the other river, the Foss, but that was a year of intense depression and detachment and I never knew that beck like I do the Ouse.

The Foss, thought to be from the latin fossa, meaning ditch, is a stranger to me.  The waters run and mingle and become the Ouse and it is only when coupled with my river, that I know the Foss.  It is like the partner of a friend.  You see them through the eyes of your friend, you know them as part of your friend but you do not know them truly, not in their own right.

“The many waters I’ve known as part of my own personal world – rivers, streams and lakes – have taught me, shaped me, and given me a sense of values.”
– Thomas Moore

The Mersey, The Dee and The Ouse.  These are the rivers which run through me.  These are the rivers which shape me.

One Wednesday night…

Picture the scene: It’s Wednesday evening.  I am sitting in bed, watching something unnoteworthy on my laptop.  A glass of wine and a bag of crisps are on the trolley next to my bed.  My nose starts to bleed.  And bleed.  And bleed.  Eventually it stops.  So far there is nothing of note, except perhaps that I only started getting nose bleeds a couple of weeks ago.  Up until then my nose was cooperative.

I look down.

My stomach is covered in bright red fluid.  And more is gushing out of my skin.  The hole in my tummy is leaking quite profusely.  My peg site is bleeding.

The thing to do in this situation is to call the helpline number you are given when you first get your feeding tube.  So I do. They take my details and assure me a nurse will call back within twenty minutes.  I wait and I wait.  So many possibilities are flooding through my mind as I sit nervously looking at the phone.  Eventually it rings and I am told to go to a&e.  Reluctantly I oblige, it is 8.30pm now, I know I’m in for a long wait and a late night.

As I get into my carer’s car, I see a slither of pale gold moon.  It’s been a long time since I saw the moon.  I am hooked up to my feeding tube at 7pm and until 8.30am I am restrained by a 4 foot leash.  The moon does not fit into such man made constraints.  Despite the circumstances, I smile involuntarily.  It’s been a long time since I saw the moon.

After what feels like several days and several nights sitting under the bright lights of the waiting room, we are called in to see a doctor.  My stomach is pressed and I giggle, my tummy is ticklish.  A light is shone up my nose and she peers at the back of my mouth.

A nosebleed from my tummy.  That is her diagnosis.  We laugh.  We exclaim.  And I hurriedly text my closest friends hoping they will share my amusement.

All the way home I am tickled by this.  But I know that I will sleep with a towel, just in case it flares up again.  Blood stained sheets and pyjamas are less funny.

We pull up outside my flat and as I get out, I look up.  The night is scattered with stars.  They weren’t there when we left; the dusky sky had been stage only to the moon and to Venus.  Now, the myriad of dots join to form a bear, or a saucepan, Ursa Major.  My heavy eyes scan the sky looking for other familiar patterns.

It’s been a long time since I saw the moon.  It’s been even longer since I saw the stars.  But I haven’t forgotten.  The Great Bear, the Little Bear and that starry queen, Cassiopeia, are etched on my soul.  The three constellations that I always remember.

For the briefest moment, the blink of an eye, I am transported back to my parent’s driveway.  Staring up at the starry sky, standing next to my dad, trying to figure out what he’s pointing to, attempting to look through his eyes.  It’s a cold, winter’s night and I’ve just got home from Guides.  There were more stars then.

Other creatures hide in the clouds, disappear behind houses and fall away as tired eyes close.  The door opens and I fall into my flat.