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.
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.