Everyone needs a spiritual shed – a place where they can retreat, think, take time out, reflect and recharge their batteries. Mine is running along the canal and river banks. As a working mother of five daughters, who is taxi service, referee, cook, homework police, and carer; I find the act of putting on my trainers, leaving the house and running by water, calms me. There are no demands along the canal; just the monotonous sound of my feet pounding the path, which becomes a rhythm, a beat of a new song where I am drawn into the wonderful world of nature. I never listen to music while I run because it drowns out the natural chorus around me.
I join a generation of modern-day canal enthusiasts who enjoy being on, or by the side of this wonderful facility. Not so long ago, it was a very different scene – a working place. Today it is for leisure and pleasure I use it. Yet, reading the stories of the people who lived and worked here at the National Waterways Museum in Gloucester, I have fresh respect for those industrious historic figures.
At least five times a week I can be seen running along the Stroudwater Navigation and Thames and Severn canals. The water on one side; the remains of mills on the other. I identify with author Hilary Mantel when she says history is “what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.”
I run in the present, the now, but all around me is evidence of another time, another place. Stroud’s ‘string of pearls,’ the collective name for the 170 or more mills, which once roared with the thundering sound of fulling stocks, power looms and water wheels, now have a different sound. Some are restaurants, council offices, fitness suites, private homes and industrial units. Only two of those original pearls remain – Lodgemore and Cam Mills – which still make woollen cloth of international importance, tennis balls for Wimbledon and billiard cloth for World championships.
Lodgemore and neighbouring Fromehall Mill are on my running route. This stretch connects me to my own personal history. My dad was based at Fromehall Mill as a draftsman for an engineering company when I attended the nearby Grammar School; my great aunts worked in Stanley Mill, when it was a woollen mill; I had a BBC radio studio in Ebley Mill and I regularly use the gym at nearby Griffin Mill.
Running along the water’s edge provides a front seat view of wildlife: an electric blue flash of a kingfisher, the sunlight catching a damselfly’s intricate wings; and the awesome power of a swan’s wingspan as it comes into land on the water’s surface. As I run, I run through time yet am very much in the present.
On the one hand, I whizz past historic monuments of mill chimneys, merchant’s houses, weaver’s cottages, stone carvings, while enjoying present treasures provided by nature or a familiar face I meet along the way. I too am part of this wonderful mix of history and I can’t help but be grateful for those who built and worked on this canal and waterway. As an illustrator and writer, I have solved many a creative problem running along the canal and towpaths. I have prayed many a prayer and clocked up thousands of miles.
This towpath running spiritual shed has not only helps me be the best mum, wife and creative I can be, it has kept me sane, focussed and fit. And for that I am so thankful.
Tracy Spiers, illustrator/writer/mother of five