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Walking the walk

Along with the warm and sunny joys of spring, May bring us National Walking Month; the perfect excuse to put on your boots, enjoy some exercise, soothe your soul, and explore our canal and river towpaths. For inspiration, look no further than Nigel Heath and Peter Gibbs. These friends and fellow journalists from Bristol began walking together over forty years ago. Since then, they’ve covered almost all our canals as they’ve criss-crossed the nation four times.

Throughout their adventures, Nigel has documented their journeys in newspaper features, while Peter penned Betjeman-style poems to illuminate the story. Now the pair have brought their musings together in one book called Paths and Poetry, a celebration of over four thousand miles of walking. Come with us from the Trent & Mersey Canal down to Coventry and Oxford, as we share just a few extracts.

The Trent & Mersey Canal

Two people sitting on lock gate arms by the canal

We walk the year round in all winds and weathers and so it was at the end of a bitterly cold January day that we checked in to an hotel having just completed the first section of this 93.5 miles canal trek. To our dismay it was the chef's Sunday night off and the dining room was closed, but seeing how crestfallen we looked, the manager suggested we ordered a takeaway. He set out a table next to a radiator in the bar and we tucked into a full Indian feast with all the silver foil dishes lined up on our convenient make-do hot plate.

We ended our winter walk in Huddersfield and returned on a gloriously sunny week in May to complete the walk all the way to Shardlow. As all boaters know, there is no more wonderful an experience than being on a canal at this time of the year with the towpath hedgerows awash with snow white hawthorn blossom, a myriad of reflections on the water, Iris popping up next the shallows and the fields ablaze with yellow buttercups. Peter's accompanying poem begins…

Iris

New life takes to water Before the parents' gaze Cygnets and downy goslings Glide through the summer haze.

The Coventry Canal

A rural canal scene, the canal receding into the distance with trees either side

As we set off, the rising sun shining directly in our faces set the canalside trees ablaze, casting a golden glow over the autumn trees carpeting the path ahead, and on the still waters below. This encounter inspired Peter to write another poem:

Canal Kaleidoscope

…Canal a placid ribbon ‘Tween avenue of trees Its surface a kaleidoscope Of multi-coloured leaves Cleaving through the silence A narrowboat moves by Smoke from out its silver stack Ascending to the sky.

Sitting on the stern of his narrowboat, we came a across a retired Somerset tree surgeon making soup and a risotto from a locally grown pumpkin left over from Halloween and who would soon be off to a nearby farm for a large jug of milk.

The next day, we stopped for a coffee break and soon came upon a seat made from a fallen tree trunk. We noticed a collection of personal mementos pinned to a tree nearby and wondered what it was all about. Presently, we met an elderly lady walking towards us and asked if she knew the answer.

‘Yes, I do,” she replied. “When my late husband was in poor health we'd walk as far as that seat, so after he sadly died, my family decided to commemorate our much-loved spot.”

The Oxford Canal

Person playing the piano in a public convenience

It was late afternoon on our first day on the 78 miles long Oxford Canal when we stopped for the night at an inn just outside Rugby and to our amazement, found a stand-up piano in the gents.

We wondered if this was time for a tinkle on the ivories, but it turns out it had been moved in there during a pub refurbishment but had been found too heavy to move out again, without damaging the floor.

On the last day of our walk, we were welcomed with open arms, muddy boots and all, at the village church where a pop-up café was in progress. And we left full of coffee and cake with the parting advice from the local team vicar because according to him St Augustine once said: Praise the Lord and keep on walking!”

If you've enjoyed these small snippets of Nigel and Peter's walks, you can find their book Paths and Poetry to buy online. Then you can follow in their footsteps along our canals across the country this National Walking Month.

Last Edited: 12 May 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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