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Roy McFarlane – canal laureate

Together with the Poetry Society, we're delighted to announce the appointment of Britain’s new canal laureate for 2022: Roy McFarlane.

Roy McFarlane, canal laureate

During his laureateship, Roy is interested in exploring how people feel about their local canals currently and how our national and global history can be read in the story of the canal network's development.

He adds: “I'll be exploring stories of women, labour and migration in the building of these canals, and how that contributed to the Industrial Revolution with its hidden histories of colonialism and imperialism.”

Collaborative works

Roy will be both writing his own poems and working with various groups of canal users, including boaters, to create new collaborative works. His first project will involve a canal walk on the shortest day of the year, to be followed by return visits on the equinoxes and the longest day.


Listen to an extract of Roy's poem to celebrate National Poetry Day. You can view the full poem below the video.

Canals - Roy McFarlane

People used to believe there were canals on Mars.
Aliens drawing water from icecaps to preserve a world
drying out. At least they tried to save their world.

Here in Birmingham, there are loops
found in the canal networks that take you back
in time, the shells of yesterday's industry,
the ghost of steel on concrete floors,
the cast iron bridges as you enter
into wastelands.
The regal heron stands tall
and beckons all who may enter.

The City of the Golden Gates
where the Emperor's Palace and gardens
were found on the top of the hill
and a never-ending stream flowed
into a circular canal which fed four canals
and many waterways across the city of Atlantis.
And in this place of wealth and high society
was a place called ‘The Strangers Home'
where refugees stayed and were treated
as guests of the city. I desire every city
to be filled with canals and a ‘Strangers Home.'

City of thousand trades, were navvies,
built canals by hand, armed with wheelbarrows,
they picked and shovelled the puddled clay,
walking and stomping along the way.

I pray that aliens from another abode will peer down upon this place, imagine loops and lines of waterways in and around a metropolis are more than commercial gain and profit. That a canal lined with a 50-mile orchid of apple and pear trees threading through the heart of a city is another Garden of Eden, where no fruits are forbidden and all are welcomed.

Come walk this way

As summertime ends we welcome the warm colours of the autumn season.

Come walk this way - Roy McFarlane

Returning to the paths
well known, trodden and overrun, they welcome me
and say, come walk this way.

I'm ‘dancin in September'
with Earth Wind and Fire
and the equinox beckons me,
to come walk this way.

And the trees that will begin their transitions,
sing in colours of gold, rain auburn and red
ay a path that says,
come walk this way.

The buddleia plant from Caribbean seas
have found a root in towpaths and wastelands
they line these routes, purpled frilled
and wave come walk this way.

A heron who knows the Time of Equal Nights
prepares for the turn to winter and darker nights
perches divinely on the highest branch
and says, come walk this way.

Who knows of the navvies
building by hand who lined the canal
with puddled clay, walking, stomping
and singing come walk this way.

And nearby, the Lost City
where waters depths cover a thousand sins
and a thousand and one tales,
saying come walk this way.

And bridges will bear the stories
take the tags and take us
into the future, as still waters
serenade come walk this way

To the Heron who stood with me in the ruins of another black man's life

After Gwendolyn Brooks

To the Heron long and lean standing still on the corners
where the waters bend; to the Heron gracefully grey
poised at the water's edge; to the Heron painted
in the tapestry of reeds, waiting, waiting – I want
to learn the art of waiting in these dread full times
thick engulfing, choking times; to the Heron
long-limbed, taking one, two steps, stretching
those wings leaping like Jordon – to rise in brilliance; to all Herons from the lineage
of Bennu He who came into being by himself.

To all the Herons left school, real cool;
to the Heron lurking late in summertime;
to the Heron with the slow wing beats
of a double-bass on a Jazz June evening;
to the Heron motionless, still standing still;
to Gil Scott-Heron whilst I'm here standing in the ruins of another black man's life… I am Death cried the Vulture for the people of the light, yet, here
we stand on the muddy banks alive longing for change;
to all those gliding towards the sunset, beautiful is your name.

These are our waters

As part of our 10th anniversary celebration, you can hear Roy's poem 'These are our waters'.

These are our waters - Roy McFarlane, canal laureate

These are our waters.
The boater, navigating
veins that have pumped
through this network
for a quarter of a millennium,
veins that fed an industrial revolution
the beating heart of a colonial empire.

These are our waters.
The railway man saw them as a threat
and wedded together steel and waters,
only later to leave them tired and disused
while they told their grand stories of a new age
and left the waters in the shadows.

These are our waters.
Easter boat gatherings -
idle woman, no never idle
from WWII with their IW badges
working hard along these inland waterways.

These are our waters.
Making life better by waters - from Tony Hales & Allan Leighton
to giving praise to Leeds' unsung heroes,
all visionaries and dreamers
transforming places
enriching lives.

These are our waters.
Young blood pumping
nowhere to go, these waters know
young and wild, nurtures and care for adolescents
as they swagger and shout these are our endz.

These are our waters.
Empire's children return to the
neighbourhoods bordered by
mills, factories and steelworks.
Here in our backyards
in a basin of diversity
running parallel to alleyways
we play, we dare and make love
under tunnels and by the lands
that kiss and rub next to towpaths
and in the evening, we colour them Diwali
mix-tape folk dance with hip-hop.

These are our waters
that will carry our sorrows.
The bush and hanging trees
catching our waiting dreams
and waters will take our misery
and herons will show you the joy
of standing still, until the sun goes down.

These are our waters,
let it be said by women
who have to navigate
dark corners, the roving eye
just to walk these waters
to run in freedom to the horizon
that others take for granted.

These are 2000 miles of water
breathing life into countryside
urban spaces, villages and hamlets
corridors to another world,
creating and conjuring
green and blue spaces.
Black Country Voyages to a Brummie Canal Serenade of riverside festivals
and Shakespeare on the waters.
Lock keepers and Heron watchers
volunteers and community gardeners
paddler and wild water swimmers
knit and natter to make it better
this is the Super Slow Way these are our waters.

Last Edited: 19 March 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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