Saturday, 4 June 2011

Canal and Community: The Towpath Wars

Two hundred and fifty years of canal building has given Britain a wonderful legacy of waterways, spanning much of the country. Britain's canals bring leisure amenity into the very heart of cities, towns and villages forming a venue for so many interests: boating, canoeing, running, walking, angling and form a perfect backdrop often for those who just want to sit and reflect.
In the 1950s and 1960s, small groups of pioneering activists took on the mantle of protectors of the waterways. They spent years, working tirelessly to reconstruct - often from virtually nothing - and reopen abandoned and unloved stretches of dank, greasy waterway.
In the countryside, the amenity value is clear at its very highest, and the landscape value is also at a maximum. But the waterways are in crisis that extends far beyond the short-term funding and maintenance crisis.

Netherton Cottages 
On the one hand, there are those who take full advantage of the amenity and put nothing back. The classic example is the modern apartment or excecutive housing developments with their stern "No Mooring" signs and their unsympathetic landscaping. Both developers and house-owner benefits enormously from proximity to the water but shoo away those other users who actyually contribute more. I, and you, pay more financially in one year's BWB licence than these developers or house owners do in a lifetime sitting alongside the canal. Yet they earn, in premium land values, a considerable, and ever-increasing, sum.
On the other hand of the social scale, the potential amenity value is huge for inner city areas yet the canal remains largely blighted. Attempts to open up the canal to local residents seems, tragically, doomed to failure. For every successful intervention of landscaping and access provision, there are maybe thousands of failures: blackened, broken seats; broken railings; derelict, weed-strewn gardens; graffiti- littered bridges and walls; grass littered with old mattresses, smashed glass and blowing paper.
Much of Birmingham and the Black Country turns its back on the canals, erecting barriers at the end of their property to hide the canal from sight. For the canal is evil.
As the canal is hidden from sight, it becomes suitable ground for the scum of society, those who live only to destroy, distort and hurt. Those for whom damage and distress seems cool. The more the canal is isolated, the more it hides and nurtures the predators.
Our cruise through Wolverhampton last Sunday started with teenage boys through rocks and stones at us and ourt boat. Why? Because they could? Who knows?
It continued with a distressing physical attack by a lad on a girl, leaving her on the towpath crying.
Further along we saw many feral ponies, some in a poor state of health. Men hanging around furtively under bridges, gangs of youths idle, scowling. The canalside had become threatening and dark. All along, we saw extensive graffitti on every firm surface.
Two hundred and fifty years of history, heritage and industry turned vandal's playground; our leisure intrusion was clearly unwelcome. Our boat was a middle-class spectacle: something strange and something alien. We were asked by one of the stone-throwers "Are you foreigners?". A positive answer would have been the pretense for a barrage of rocks. As it was, a few were hurled towards us as we sailed away.
Yet among the darkness, there were many glimpses of light. Many people asked what the boat was like inside. Two years ago at Titford, a small group of initially unfriendly teenagers were won over by being invited on board to see the engine and the cabin inside. They knew nothing about the canal that ran close to their homes but were fascinated as we told them about the collieries, the maltings, the forges, the history.
"Probably my grand-dad," one said, as we talked about the men and women who worked in the grime, soot and unceasing noise. I told them there was a good book about it all, Dickens 'Hard Times'. They asked about the Pumphouse and - as there was an event on - I offered to show them inside. They were fascinated. Later that evening, in the dark and rain, they reappeared dragging a young policewoman.
"Show her the boat! Show here inside!" and so we duly did. Again, there was genuine interest in every aspect of it all, from the boat, to the canal, to the history. Yet no-one had ever bothered to reach out and explain.
Our societies all largely cater for a certain type of person. For the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society, it's boaters. For the angling societies, it's the anglers. The BCNS, in its instructions for the BCN Marathon Challenge, suggested that the Challenge was not just for boaters but also for anglers or walkers or cyclists "however you can". It was a fascinating suggestion, but one that was ultimately shallow, facetious even. How much attempt had been made to engage with these significant others, those who share our love of the canals.
It was certanly an opportunity to engage but one that was doomed to failure. Assuming these anglers, boaters, birdwatchers or cyclists knew enough about the Challenge to have obtained a set of the rules, how were they supposed to take part? Just make it up?
It confirms how little many of us know about others who use the same waterways. We recently discussed whether to go to the right of the canal as we passed a line of anglers, or the left or stay in the middle. Speed up or slow down? In the end, we confessed that we all had absolutely no idea. None of us had ever asked any one of the thousands of anglers we had passed.

If our urban canals are to survive another 60 years - and I fear many arms, branches and lengths in the Black Country will not - then we need, collectively as anglers, birdwatchers, boaters, businesses, cyclists, residents, skateboarders, walkers to work together. The canals are heritage for all. If we share our experiences, our interests and our demands, we will both defend and promote the canals better. The sooner we learn that we as boaters are just one part of the wider canal and waterways community and start looking to engage with others, then we will be a very big step along the path of furthering our cause of preserving it all. When our urban canals are safe, pleasant and contributing to the value of local residents, then our task will be that much easier.

1 comment:

  1. Wow - powerful and moving words - glad I've found your blog.

    Joan Arnfield