An interview with Nancy Campbell

We caught up with our Canal Laureate Nancy Campbell to find out what she finds most inspiring about our canals and rivers

Nancy Campbell in Iceland 2015 - Bjorn Valdimarsson

I grew up beside rivers in the Scottish Borders and north-east England, so I have always lived close to water - and spent many summer days swimming in burns and exploring streams. The first Canal & River Trust waterway I encountered was the Oxford Canal, when I moved south for university.

My towpath walks took me out of the city as far as Kidlington to find new perspectives on the dreaming spires, a haven of nature which was a relief to me in this unfamiliar, more densely populated landscape. These 'green corridors' gave me time and space to develop my ideas, and relax away from the pressure of studies.

I'm usually in a kayak, but I also travel the waterways by canoe and last summer I figured out how to navigate a paddleboard. But in cold weather, I'm more likely to be found walking along the canal than paddling on it.

One of the most memorable recent experiences I've had on the canal was taking a long walk with a friend I hadn't seen for a while, down Marple Locks and along the Marple Aqueduct in north-west England, catching up with each other surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Nancy Campbell kayaking on the Oxford Canal

I love the outdoors and the British countryside, and I appreciate being able to watch birds and share the waterways' secluded space with wildlife. But what inspires me most is the intersection of natural and human history.

It is sobering to think that only 200 years ago canals were once seen as industrial futures, with their construction a highly competitive business move. I am fascinated by stories of people who designed and built the locks and bridges, with such craft and care, and the skills of those who worked on the water.

I began to kayak when I turned 30, padding in mixed groups with a racing club in Oxford. I've never found gender an issue on the water.

When I'm walking along the canal I encounter friendliness from narrowboat owners and other walkers. One of the things I like about the waterways is the sense of community it inspires among users - it's an easy place to strike up a conversation.

When going out alone it is important to assess and manage risk responsibly, on the waterways as anywhere. I've recently been reading Helen Babbs' book Adrift, about life on a narrowboat in London. She writes evocatively of the 'heart in the mouth' feeling of walking through Leyton Marsh to her narrowboat in the dark, but also the satisfaction that comes of 'conquering the night'. If canal life can be a challenge, it also brings with it independence. The more women are involved in the waterways, the better for everyone.

I think telling the stories of those who do get out on the canals and rivers will encourage others to follow

Nancy Campbell

I'm a huge fan of the This Girl Can campaign, the strap-line of which is: 'a celebration of active women who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets'! It's funded by The National Lottery and developed by Sport England to banish the fear of judgement which stops many women and girls from joining in sport.

I'm often tempted to curl up with a book rather than go out for a walk - what an encouraging model these women's stories are for people like me who could be more active. I think telling the stories of those who do get out on the canals and rivers will encourage others to follow.

I'm currently reading Maidens' Trip by Emma Smith, which describes her role on a working narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal in World War II. It's a fascinating memoir which demonstrates that woman have a place in the history of the waterways, as well as their future. I also shared the writer's fascination with the women who lived and supported families on working narrowboats.

Poetry has always been a powerful means to break down assumptions and examine entrenched ideas

Nancy Campbell

In my first weeks as Canal Laureate I've come across many people who are doing great work, regardless of gender identity. These include Lizzie Carr who runs Plastic Patrol from her paddleboard, artists such as Katy Beinart, working on The Ring arts project, for waterways that flow through the urban and rural landscapes of Worcester and Droitwich, and early career researchers studying the legacy of waterways like Bethany Whalley, a PhD candidate at Kings College London. I look forward to learning from these and other inspirational women during my time as Canal Laureate.

Poetry has always been a powerful means to break down assumptions and examine entrenched ideas. And it is open to all voices. I am excited about the poems that are emerging through the Waterlines project, a collaboration between the Canal & River Trust and The Poetry Society.

The online Canal Poetry Anthology is building a future library of diverse responses to the waterways, accessible to all. As Jo Bell, the UK's first Canal Laureate wrote in her poem 'No Seafarer': 'I sing my own true story, tell my travels / small as they are.'

Last date edited: 12 May 2020