Now we’re precisely half way to Leeds and taking a weekend’s break from canal walking, Sarah and I have done a bit of reflecting on the eight walks we’ve done so far and a few things we think in general. So here they are.
1 Canal time is different
Now we’re far from home it’s been taking us a good while to get to the canal to start each walk where we finished the last one. But once we get there and slip onto the tow path we enter a very different place, where we’ve never walked before and yet it feels like we’ve never been away. Like setting off from the Harry Potter platform into our own magical world. A slow world too, where us and the occasional canal boat all move along at pretty much the same pace. Except we have the freedom to stop frequently, smell the flowers and gaze at, well, all the beauties and leftovers and canalscapes we’ve been showing you this year.
Losing track of the time and even of the century, because canal time is different.
2 Bikes are a problem
It pains me to say this, though I’ll say it anyway, because most of my best friends are enthusiastic bike riders. But bikes on the canal path are a nuisance. Not all of them of course, but too many of their riders to be comfortable with think us walkers are in their way. We might get an imperious ‘Get out of my way’ ring of a bell, but we pretty well never get a thank you. Two ‘thank yous’ I’d say we’ve had.
Local authorities themselves might be part of the problem here, including stretches of the canal in things like ‘The Chorley Trail’ to encourage bikes onto the tow path. But it means that particularly around towns, and because we’re walking at the weekends, we’re walking in single file to the side of the main path because of the bikes. Which are in turn, by the way, turning much of the main path into a narrow rutted groove of a path by their over use of it.
3 It’s our own El Camino
This walking has become our pilgrimage. A sacred journey to a place so near to our own doorstep and yet so far from our everyday activities. Where we return, mostly, to our own peaceful selves and contemplate our spirits and the meaning of our lives, really.
A very doable pilgrimage it is too, as we’re proving. But unlike the actual El Camino, in Southern France and Northern Spain there is virtually no wayside economy yet. Places to stay, places to eat, gathering places to mix with fellow pilgrims. Last week, for example, we passed only our second tow path café. Showing, I suppose, there’s not much of a market here yet. But there could be. We’re self catering the whole journey (well actually Sarah is!) but if the many people reading these posts started walking themselves, and we’ve heard from a good few who have, a canal-side economy could begin to grow.
And as a first step towards this, could we have more benches? For lunch, or just for a sit and a read. There are very, very few. Benches are civilised and definitely not a threat ( see ‘5’ below).
4 It’s the story of the North
We are walking through the agricultural and industrial history of the north of England. Seeing it up close and learning so much, so slowly and so deeply. Much like from a train, but much slower, we are seeing our history through its back yards and rear, if crumbling, elevations.
Learning how the canal got made, the politics of evolving its route over the decades it took to build. How accommodation bridges, for example, would be built for the use of a single farm, to cross to its other fields now the canal had arrived in the landscape. The history of spinning and weaving and of coal. Of limekilns and fertiliser and of getting to now.
The story of us all, listening to the canal side’s accent change so gradually from our scouse to your east Lancashire. The beauty of that. The beauty of the engineering too, like last week’s aqueduct over the M65. The feeling of now in our towns. The hollowing, the poverty, the arid retail parks and seeing quite clearly where the money still lives. Even here in the North.
5 It’s not actually a threatening place
Several commenters on social media and many a Neighbourhood Watch scheme through suburban stretches of the canal seem to think of the canal as a dangerous place. We haven’t found that to be so, ever, anywhere. Not once have I felt I should put my very nice camera away. Not once have we thought we should stick our heads down and get through somewhere as quick as we could. Not once.
It’s not as if the canal is all through rolling hills and verdant woodland. Of course not. One of my big fascinations in wanting to do the walk has been to see how our urban places are doing, by walking through them. And the answers are mixed. For every MOT back street garage we see getting on with things, we’ll see edge of town streets in grinding austerity-driven poverty. Decent people in them though, who are unfailingly friendly to us when we tell them we’re walking through their places to Leeds.
Even the young, yes the supposed black clad, drug taking, out of their heads main threat. Pleasantly curious or simply ignoring us. But definitely no threat.
6 But it’s definitely post-industrial
Back on the history I suppose, but even we’ve been shocked at so much vacant edgeland and so many places being virtually wiped clean of their characters by property speculation and could-be-anywhere development. Sure, the middle of Wigan, say, still looks very like the Wigan where I went to tech college in the early 1970s. But most of the rest of it could be anywhere. And the area around the football stadium there is an easy winner of ‘most arid place we’ve walked through so far.’ Safe yes, but arid.
Here in the north, once the workshop of the country, we are not making very much any more. Making me more pleased than ever that here in Liverpool, just where the canal begins, my friends at Make Liverpool are tooling up and making things again. Thinking of them and how important they are, as we walk along, they feel as much Post Apocalyptic as Post Industrial. Not merely a ‘good idea’ so much as ‘essential to our eventual survival .’
7 Narrow boats are static caravans
As the walks have progressed you may have noticed less and less pictures of canal boats. That’s because we’ve come to hate them. Not the big barges that were always the trading and industrial boats of the Leeds Liverpool, but the chintzy narrow boats, that mostly don’t seem to move and clog up the marked out ‘marinas’ on the canal bank. Behaving like they’re part of a history they were never even in. Static suburban caravans. At least they never moor up in the towns. Probably think they’re ‘threatening.’
8 More could be made of canal side living
Given how popular and elemental living by water usually seems to be, we’ve seen relatively few people making the best of living by the canal. A few back gardens just into Lydiate opening onto the water, some new houses in Bootle doing the same. But far too many a back fence which seems to turn away from the beauty it hides. New estates right on the water where the canal seems to have been deliberately ‘designed out’ of the scheme.
9 This canal is so precious
That we still have it all, given virtually no trade has been done on it in forty to fifty years is a miracle. There must have been pressures to fill bits in by lazy councillors or greedy speculators over the years. But thank you British Waterways and now the Canal and Rivers Trust, for the canal we still have.
So do come and use it. Show your children the miracle that runs through your town, the watery road that leads to everywhere. So that when their children grow up it will still be here for them to play along and walk all the way to Leeds or Liverpool if they want.
A word though about the state of some parts of it. I’d understood only the canal through Liverpool has been ‘remaindered.’ So, kept structurally sound but not otherwise maintained. Well I think that’s wrong but we also think it’s happening in East Lancashire too. The water in Blackburn and Rishton being noticeably dirtier and undredged than anywhere where there are marinas full of narrow boats, for example.
10 The walking brings us together
We are so loving doing this walking together.
Sarah and I spent many years working together and so doing pretty much everything together. But now that we’re off doing such different things walking this canal is, in fact, the main thing we’ve been doing together this year. A busy year for me of getting Coming Home going with our friend Jayne, while Sarah kayaks round the coast of Britain when she’s not running funerals!
So our walks have been important to us. Time together doing something we so love. A bit like the Friday Walks we did when Sarah was getting active again after all her cancer treatment a few years back, but different for all the reasons we’ve said here. A journey, a pilgrimage, where we arrive at each other.
Our walking resumes soon, when we’ll go and stay up in the Pennines for the next sections.