Illustration: Daksheeta Pattni
Canals might be the fastest way to slow down, but sometimes even slow is too fast. I’m spending a year travelling the English and Welsh waterways as part of my role as the Canal & River Trust’s writer-in-residence – or, rather, their ‘writer in motion’. I’ve cycled the lengths of canals, kayaked 160 miles across northern England from Liverpool to Goole and skippered boats on the Grand Union and Oxford canals. Above all though, I’ve been walking – embarking on multi-day towpath hikes, sleeping out, observing birds, talking to people and often simply stopping to sit and stare. The logical next step in my quest to slow down was to just stop altogether.
Walking the Macclesfield Canal last summer, I sat on a bench beside a lock on the Bosley flight in Cheshire. And there I stayed for the next 24 hours – not as an austere Buddhist sitting practise but more in the spirit of extreme gongoozling. Also, as a potential outlaw, because just sitting in one place – loitering – is frowned upon in the busy worlds beyond the canals. I wanted to hang around, without even the excuse of fishing.
It was early August. I anticipated a hot day – a cool velvety dusk, a star sparkling night, the morning’s warmth with the rising sun. Imagination and anticipation supplied otters, owls, cheery boaters and constant interest. I had food and bottles of beer for picnic meals in my bag. It would be a lark.
Then came persistent, cold rain. And the boredom and a sense of futility. Life – even canal life – was going on elsewhere. Everyone but me was on the move. I’d seen, heard and felt everything there was to see, hear and feel. The few passing boaters were now cowled like monks in coats and hoods. But I had promised myself that I would stay in this one place for 24 hours. So I sat on.
My notes – pencil scribbled in notebooks – were smudged by rain. They offer an impressionistic record of my changing sense of time and place. The weather, I read after the event, wasn’t grimly and rainy for 18 hours straight, as my memory told me, but subtly graduated between showers and downpours, with periods of blustery damp air and 20 minutes of blue skies when swallows appeared to dance higher and higher before being flushed from the heavens by more pelleting rain. Keeping its own regular timetable, a wren would pop out of the brambles to sing hard and brief from a fence post before mousing away again. The notes are immediate, random and personal, but reveal the minute details that held my attention during those long hours sitting beside the lock. Here are just a few of the notes I wrote on that day…
A peep inside Jasper’s notes
13.00: Looking into the windows of the boats as they rise in the lock is like a theatre curtain rising. Teapots, mugs, jars of familiar and old-fashioned brand names: Marmite, Tetley, PG Tips, Heinz baked beans. On cabin roofs – mops, buckets, ropes, tea mugs, Nicholson’s guide, dogs, often in life jackets, trolleys, firewood.
14.00: ‘…The canal doesn’t alter the land like a river but is an alteration of the land.’
19.00: A kingfisher goes up and down past me every few hours. Announced by the tiny fast shrieking siren of its flight call, the blues and reds of its plumage flickering like the flashing lights of a speeding police car.
22.30: Almost dark. Wet grey clouds. Hard even to tell which side of the sky the sun has slipped from. Imagination projecting long gone working boats and horses and men, women and children onto the waters and the stonework. A shape that could be a butty slipping through. Hands and bare arms pushing on the beams. Not ghosts.
01.30: This is bloody. It’s raining persistently – has been almost non-stop since 4am. This vigil is futile, pointless. Cocooned in my poncho on the hard, wet bench. Everything I have is damp. Writing these notes is difficult.
05.00: Dawn was slow, gradual and uneventful as dusk; a steady hand on the dimmer switch.
06.30: Walk around lock. Stiff from sitting. Cold wind. A tiny garden of ferns on the wet beams of the gate. Shimmer and tinkle of rain on the water. Cyclist shoots by, bike jolting over the rough ground and then clattering down the cobbles of the drop from lock to pound. Grim-faced, fast runner; she’s in black shorts and black tee-shirt but bright purple shoes.
09.30: Elinor Ginger passes down through lock. Went up hill yesterday. South African, Brendan, holidaying with his wife and daughter. Anglers have paved the way for my activity or rather inactivity. He doesn’t find it odd that I’ve been sitting here all this time? But he does find the variety of accents they’ve heard in the short length of their trip fascinating.
11.00: It’s going to rain again. I’ve almost finished the 24 hours. I could sit here longer – really – but there’s a bus to Congleton if I can get to the road bridge by 12.
Reflections and a word of encouragement
I followed this summer sitting with another 24-hour vigil in autumn, this time on the Grantham Canal, the leaves from oaks and chestnuts drifting down like sand in an hour-glass. I did another in spring – a chance to immerse myself in the dawn chorus and the day’s almost measurable explosion of growth.
The idea of embarking on your own 24-hour vigil might not sound appealing, but I heartily recommend finding a daylight hour to sit in one place and to document everything you hear, see, smell and experience. It could open up new ways of seeing a stretch of water you thought you knew well and – most of all – help you to decelerate in an altogether too speedy world.
Follow the progress of our writer-in-residence at https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/news-and-views/blogs/jasper-winn