There’s something paradoxical about speeding up to slow down. Like shouting for silence. Or putting ‘be spontaneous’ on a do-to list. But that’s the modern world for you – just straightforwardly paradoxical.
So, I’m happy that the ‘slow’ of canals crept up on me – well – slowly. Caught up with me even as I was speeding along to chase down experiences on the water roads and along the towpaths.
As the Canal & River Trust’s new – and first – writer in residence I felt rushed. There was an urgent need to research canal history, read tens of books, study maps, learn boating lore and meet people. Above all I needed to get out onto the several thousand miles of canals across England and Wales as fast as possible. I planned to walk, run, cycle, canoe, kayak and, of course, boat as many different canals as I could across four seasons of travel. I wanted to experience and understand the many different ways that people enjoyed and used ‘their’ canals.
Bird watching? Bat locating? Trotting half marathons? Stand-up-paddle boarding? Volunteering? Repairing locks? Dog-walking? Angling? I was in a hurry to find out more, meet more people, do more.
I was going to be a ‘writer in motion’ as much as a writer in residence, I reckoned. And a pretty speedy one, too.
Within a couple of weeks I’d cycled and walked and run several hundred miles of canal towpath. Along the Bridgewater and Taunton’s Somerset Space Walk. A length of the Grand Union. Nearly all of the Kennet and Avon. The Regent’s Canal. All without getting north of Foxton Locks.
The appreciation of ‘slow’ came slowly. But relentlessly. Slow is powerful like that.
It’s the landscape-grinding, heavy oozing of glaciers. The rock splitting growth of an oak tree. The steady plod of a horse pulling many times its own weight along a canal’s still waters. In modern times it’s the rumbling thud of a vintage diesel pushing a long box of rooms, a whole house squeezed into a narrow boat, down a pound.
Well, the miles under my wheels and feet have begun to slow. I’m finding more and more time to talk to people. There are boats to board. Cafes to sit in. An hour, then two hours, spent on a bench watching brown waters, rewarded by a pike’s pounce into a swirl of fleeing perch, or the oxy acetylene blue of a kingfisher flame-cutting through a copper sheet of shadow-water.
The pace of the canals, forever set by history and hydraulics, by the dimensions of locks and cuts, by the walking speed of a draught horse allow for conversation and consideration.
It’s not that I was discovering something new. Not to me; my website is The Slow Adventure, and my travels and writings have all been based on slow travel. Cycling across the Sahara, kayaking around Ireland, riding horses for weeks, months sometimes, across countries in four different continents, walking pilgrimage routes or through the winter from Munich to Paris – they were all happily slow. I just hadn’t realised that the same joys of slow adventuring were to be found so much closer to home.
Oh, and I certainly wasn’t discovering something unknown to others. The Canal & River Trust’s last Poet Laureate, Jo Bell, called her BBC R4 docu-poem on the canals, The Slow Machine, whilst Super Slow Way showcases arts, history and communities along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to celebrate its bicentennial.
In fact I was finding that nearly everyone on the canals seems to have embraced the positives of slow travel, slow living, slow interludes, slow escapes. Not as self-consciously as ‘mindfulness,’ or yoga, or meditation, but as a self-prescribed antidote to the frustrations of speed and its drawbacks. As a gentle riposte to the rush for faster download speeds, to the stresses of travel by cars and trains and planes, to ever busier leisure activities, to deadlines, to having no time to talk and stroll and contemplate.
That’s why I’ve spent the last day strolling very slowly along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal from Slaithwaite to Standedge tunnel. A few miles of showers and sun, of noting how the stonework of banks, bridges, locks and walls flows as sinuously as the waters. And many hours writing this in the café at Standedge, in sight of the tunnel mouth. Now I must shoulder my pack and walk up and over the moor, following the horse track to the other end of the tunnel. Though, slowly, of course.
Author, photographer and broadcaster Jasper Winn has been appointed as our first ever ‘Writer in residence’. He will be blogging about the stories of the people living, visiting, working and volunteering on our waterways.See more blogs from Jasper Winn