Words on the Waterway Winners

We've been blown away by all the fantastic entries we received for our Words on the Waterway writing competition. Over 350 of you shared your wonderful canal memories with us.

Poet Ian McMillan standing at a canal lock Poet Ian McMillan at a canal lock

We've received hilarious family stories, witty observations, touching memories and everything in between. What really shines through them all is the incredible love our community has for the waterways, and it has been a privilege to read them all.

Our winning entries

Our winners were chosen by acclaimed writer, poet and presenter of BBC Radio Three's The Verb, Ian McMillan. 

Britain’s canals and rivers have provided the inspiration for some wonderful writing. The winners have all successfully blended the personal with the observational.

Ian McMillan

1st Place: 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.

 

I like the mix of the personal and the observational in this piece. The prose is beautifully rhythmic and musical.

Ian McMillan

2nd Place: 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 it’s green and black striped coat. This young boy is 45 years older, but the memories are fresh and a tight line still.

Another great blending of personal and observational. The writer’s voice is really strong throughout and I can hear them speaking to me with precision and intimacy.

Ian McMillan

3rd place: 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.

 

Wordsworth talked about poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this poem is a beautiful example of that, in the setting of the canal being a great aid to mental health.

Ian McMillan

Runners up

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.

I liked the love in this piece, a happy memory captured vividly, making me think I was there on the aqueduct at that special moment.

Ian McMillan
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Vale of Llangollen Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Vale of Llangollen

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.

Here is a lovely example of the universal in the local; all our memories of this time are powerful and if we can write them down then they will be comfort and a resource for people in years to come.

Ian McMillan
Trent & Mersey Canal by Nick Heath Trent & Mersey Canal by Nick Heath

Thank you everyone who entered our writing competition. It's been a pleasure to read so many wonderful stories and memories.

If you liked reading our finalists' stories, there are more entries for you to enjoy in our full shortlist.

Last date edited: 29 September 2020