Words on the Waterway finalists

A collection of inspiring stories submitted to our Words on the Waterway writing competition.

Golden Bridge by Bread and Shutter

We received so many wonderful entries to our Words on the Waterway writing competition that it seems a shame to keep them all to ourselves. So we've added our shortlist for you to read and enjoy.

Thank you all for your time, effort and for sharing your love of our special canals.

Learning on the Canal

Debbie Rolls

Life is slow on the canal. Water that rushes in rivers, lingers here. We rarely travel more than three miles an hour. The destination is not important. Wherever it is, we will have to come back again. It is being here that matters. Here, ducking below overhanging branches, or admiring sweeping fieldscapes. We are accompanied by the dring of bicycles bells, thud of running shoes and towpath tittle-tattle. At times we hear roads running parallel. The chugging of the narrowboat engine a comforting counterpoint to the revving of cars and motorcycles.

Spending a few days on the Calder and Hebble with a group of adolescents was an eye opening experience. They started to observe, rather than see. They asked the names of trees. They noticed birds. The chatter of magpies, song of thrushes and call of blackbirds, not acknowledged in the school grounds. The ducks became characters, recognised as individuals. One group of mallards accompanied us for nearly an hour. A heron standing stock still on the bank brought a hush to the group, until we edged too near, and it spread its impressive wings.

I noticed my charges physically relaxing. Spreading out in the sun on top of the boat, sauntering along the towpath. Normal social expectations relaxed. Richard chatted to Rihanna. He rarely spoke to anyone at school. Usually noisy Sean concentrated on helping to steer. Generally irritable Martin made everyone tea.

I noticed they can live without mobile phones. Initially it was the danger of losing them overboard that persuaded my companions to stow electronics below deck. After a day the trips below were less frequent. The call of locks and nature equal to the need to check social feeds. Having seen a heron, we hoped to spot a kingfisher. We never did, but still enjoyed looking.

Coming into Sowerby, Calder & Hebble Navigaton Coming into Sowerby, Calder & Hebble Navigation

I Sat Myself Down

Vincent Malone

I sat myself down on the bank of the canal
confused, head a-whirling, stomach churning.
From beside me I picked up a stone.
I dropped it between my legs into the water.
Ripples flowed and ebbed disturbing all in its wake.
Aha! I thought. Now the water matches my thoughts
unclear, disturbed, unable to be made sense of.
For a while as I sat there the water and I were one.
The water understood me, felt me, knew me.
It was as confuddled as my mind
not knowing if it was coming or going.
Slowly, gradually the ripples lessened,
images began to form.
Light, dark, sky, land,
I was beginning to make things out.
The outline of the trees on the opposite bank
still shimmering, casually getting clearer
in its own time and its own way.
Then there it was, as perfect as an oil painting.
The picture perfect image of the glorious landscape,
just upside down, perfectly clear yet still confused.
My mind, yes you are clearer now,
a bit, little by little.
Clearer yet still confused.
Things not quite the right way round.
Thoughts formed but upside down.
The water is my medicine, the canal is my therapist.
Calmer, gentler, I can face the world again.
Until the next ripples appear.

Reflections by Kay Sugg

Taking Him

Tim Pullan

I found my spot on the canal and blended in.  It was a little more south than last time, I had more chance here.  I got ready and settled myself for a long wait.  I didn’t want to seem too keen so struck a nonchalant pose as I scanned left then right, pretending not to notice anything while intently seeing all.  Most folks would say that it probably wouldn’t make a difference to him but in this battle of wits, I wasn’t taking his appearance for granted.  It showed hidden purpose in my mind. 

The waiting consisted of emptying the contents of my flask and eating all the food, including those things brought along “just in case”.  I dusted my lens and even dozed a little, it was so blissfully peaceful.  I watched the boats lazily creating neat wedges of wash which gently cushioned the ducklings as they rose and fell.  I also observed the unspoken ballet of negotiation as cyclists and walkers met.  Then there was the dark haired lady with her camera seeking out the many vibrant dragonflies that hovered at the water’s edge.  She nodded in my direction, which disappointed me a little as I had imagined myself to be almost invisible.

I never saw him. Not a sign.

When I got home I scanned through my social media groups and noticed that she had seen him, a bit beyond my position.  A beautiful shot, with his vivid blue doublet and contrasting orange weskit, looking straight out with his catch.  

The Regal Angler.  

Teasing me.

I looked back at him like I didn’t care, I’d had a grand day anyway, while secretly deciding that I’d try a new spot next time, just a little farther south. 

That would be the day.

Kingfisher perched on branch Kingfisher

First Walk, Lockdown 2020

Fiona Ritchie Walker

What is it about this water that draws us, calls us to walk its journey? There are no waves, no distant horizon where ocean meets sky. Just this dark shimmer flowing between bricks and mortar, cutting through concrete city and green, open land. This artery that changes everything from dull dry to mesmerising.

All the things it has seen, all the memories it keeps – and releases. Why do we find it so much easier to whisper our secrets when we are walking by water. Now, each time I come to this towpath, a boy, free from sirens and air raid shelters, will join me. My empty mouth will remember the sweetness of chocolate melting, so slowly, on your tongue.

Our feet pick up a rhythm, backs warm from the sun, eyes follow the glint of the canal’s firefly dance. The pub’s doors are shut, all the parasols folded down. But we dusted down the old flask and mugs before we set off. Doesn’t tea taste different when it's drunk outside.

And of course there’s cake. That massive slab we shared at the Black Country Museum. The day we stood by the canal, made famous on our television screens, and shared our deep desires. To be Peaky Blinders.

Trent & Mersey Canal by Nick Heath Trent & Mersey Canal by Nick Heath

Rod & Line

David Stephenson

Like a starting pistol, the school bell releases me into the warm summer's afternoon. My shouted “Goodbyes" fade with every footstep I take. Home, door opened, closed, a rapid ascent. Bag dropped, clothes changed, shouted messages exchanged. “Don’t be late for..."

“Okay. “

I walk quickly and yet my world slows, my senses heightened. The hedgerow a cacophony of green and my presence announced by a scalding blackbird. My eyes scan the water, its surface like a lid hiding treasure beneath. Ducks approach expectantly, but soon get bored as I slowly set my rod up.

I swing out my line and the brightly tipped quill float pops into the slow moving water. My eyes follow the drifting float, it stops, my fingers tighten in readiness, a bob, another, it drifts some more, then slowly and silently slides away under the glistening surface.

I strike and feel the line tighten. The fight is short and soon I am holding a small roach, whose silver scales glint in the sunlight. I gently slip my catch back into the water and it darts away. “Caught anything?” interrupts the peaceful noise of my summer evening and I answer in a polite tone, “One or two. “

The warmth of the day remains as the shadows lengthen, “One more cast,” I tell myself. Four casts later a greedy perch, its dorsal fin raised defiantly, slips into my net. Always a favourite capture, clothed in its green and black striped coat. This young boy is 45 years older, but the memories are fresh and a tight line still.

robin, bird, wildlife, fishing Robin on a fishing platform

White Granny and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Polly Morrow

'You CAN'T take White Granny over that aqueduct: she'll be terrified!', said my sister, a canal boat owner herself. But we – her daughter, son-in-law, and adult grandson – asked her if, aged 82, she'd like to spend Easter with us on a narrowboat. Photos of the aqueduct; descriptions of its height and the slow passage over it were shared, and she – never one to admit to any fear – was keen to come. So, we set off from Whitchurch; were welcomed into Wales (Croeso I Cymru) as we travelled over the dramatic Chirk Aqueduct and then through the dark, narrow Chirk Tunnel with the special atmosphere only canal tunnels have.

What lay ahead was the truly breath-taking feat of engineering that is Thomas Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. I began to make my plans – I'd been here before and I knew I'd be terrified. I would lie on my bed, under the covers and not move until we were over the 120' high, 1,000' long, stunningly impressive aqueduct. Coming back, I walked along the towpath, clinging to the handrail – as far as possible from the heart-stoppingly shallow iron trough that carries the narrowboats across – and whimpering.

But what of White Granny? She sat outside, in the bow, on the side of the sheer drop. She wore two thick fleece jackets – it was beautifully sunny, but cold – had a thick rug over her knees, and her light-adjusting spectacle lenses turned black in the sunshine. She simply relished every single minute. She called out to a group of Japanese tourists using the narrow towpath to tell them what a good time she was having. They photographed her in amazement.

She died in 2018 and this is, for me, an enduring and very special memory of her.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Vale of Llangollen Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Vale of Llangollen

Come for a Weekend

Linda Cork

“Come for the weekend,’ they said. “We have a new narrowboat - it will be lovely! ‘

A whole weekend? On a boat? And this is lovely? Well, I’ll try anything once. Besides, I already know from minimal family tree research that my ancestors worked the Montgomery Canal in the 1800s. Perhaps canals are hidden somewhere in the blood? Well hidden!

And so it was in Leicestershire that I met the love of my life. Called Rosalie, she took my breath away.

‘But it’s huge, surely it’s never going to fit into that lock thingy!’

‘Not only will it fit but you are going to steer’, I was jovially told.

And this is a treat?

Before long we were underway – or under motor or whatever real sailors say. It was so quiet, and the boat was such a delight inside and out. As smart as paint and gloriously smooth and calm

I hadn’t expected to be so close to nature. Almost within touching distance of huge swans, cygnets, little waterfowl, hedgerow wildlife, fish, herons and lovely meadow flowers. And it all smelt so fresh and green. How could a smell be green? But it was. I was there.

Everyone we passed seemed so friendly, or perhaps grateful I didn’t collide with them?

I loved gliding timelessly past sounds of modern speed and urgency with old world patience. I adored the sounds of the water, the gentle rise and fall of the boat, the play of light as we sailed under trees or through tunnels.

And the evenings, moored up on a remote stretch with not a soul in sight. Time was the real gift, to talk, watch, draw and paint, reflect. This is the life! Can’t wait to get back on the water again!

Ashby Canal Ashby Canal, Leicestershire

Yelvertoft to Welford

Felicity Radcliffe

Let’s bid farewell to tranquil Yelvertoft
And brave the gales that scour the countryside
Where ivy holds a blasted tree aloft
And charcoal crows ride thermals, eagle-eyed

Past bushes crammed with autumn-fat berries
And honeyed hay bales in buzz-cut pastures
Through broccoli-tight knots of verdant trees
Gliding gently on greasy-grey waters

At Welford Junction, where sleek otters play
Our boat turns eastward, towards a shallow lock
Beyond it, tall trees shade us on our way
To excavated lime kilns, by the dock

As sun surrenders to a twlight grey
We make haste for The Wharf, to toast our day.

Boats in Welford wharf Boats in Welford wharf

A New Journey

Will Richards

Home was no longer where the heart was, and I was alone that Spring. I was mourning the death of a long relationship, and being deprived of my children.  Yet Spring, I told myself, signifies renewal…a new cycle of life beginning.  I was in earnest, but not convinced.

Like my life, my path to work had also changed. A new journey from a cold, anonymous, empty place, and along a new path…a towpath.

I cycled that same two miles of the Worcester Birmingham canal each morning, sweeping silently along under sweet birdsong, light breezes, and occasionally, light slanting rain.  The mirror flat surface perfectly was filled with cloud and patches of blue, broken only by a new family of ducks, tiny, cotton soft ducklings in tow, red-legged Moorhens and, a little further along, a pair of elegant, linen white swans, keeping watch over a pair of downy brown cygnets.  The ripples reached out as I passed.

As the days and weeks passed, I found myself rising with a curiosity, spurred on by the emergent bright yellow flowers of the Lesser Celandine that had begun to light my way, nestled among the sullen green grasses, and of course, the growing families with whom I was fast becoming familiar.

It then occurred to me, one fine sunny morning, as Spring’s new scents filled my nostrils, that those ripples had touched me. I had become as much a part of that tranquil place, as the ducks, swans, and Moorhens that graced it, and wondered if they had noticed any change in the lone cyclist who greeted them each time he passed. Natural remedies take many forms, and thanks to the labours of the Navvies, they spread through the lifeblood of our land.

Duck and ducklings Duck and ducklings

The Ultimate Lock

Heather Marriott

Barging around on the Stratford Canal was a good idea. While we loaded the Cherwell Valley, we hit our first snag. My partner’s a large chap, so the only way he could walk through the narrow corridor past the bathroom without bruising his shoulders or head, was to sidle like a crab - nice.

I was stunned by the wildlife we met. Lots of bats, a few cats, and more dogs than you could shake a stick at (throw a stick for?)! I didn’t expect that snake, though …

The welcoming committee of swans weren’t that welcoming at all. They arrived in formation with a cygnet sitting on mum’s back – sweeter than you can imagine.

We had a two-legged stowaway - a duck hopped onto our boat and was quite happy riding along. When we went into a lock, he didn’t like being ‘below ground’ so flew up onto the edge of the lock, and then as we rose up he’d join us again. He stayed with us for a few hours, which we took as proof that we were doing something right.

The weather did its best to put us off – at one stage I had sun cream, sunglasses and my anorak on. Needs must.

A male dog-walker thought that a lock wouldn’t shift because I’m a girl and therefore not strong enough. I was happy to stand back and let him try, knowing it wouldn’t shift, secure in the knowledge that basic physics and a little bit of patience would be the only things to win in the end. Locks will not be rushed – it is their beautiful way.

We left our little boat to wend(le) our weary way back home, and we have photos (and a few bruises) to remind us of the fabulous time we had.

Boat leaving lock with man walking dog on towpath Kingswood Arm, North Stratford Canal

We'd love to tell you more

Our newsletter is packed full of exciting updates and stories of how our work has helped local people and communities. Sign up today, and join us for the journey

Last date edited: 18 September 2020