Birmingham to Bank Holiday Boat Rally (Part 1)

Kings Heath to New Street: Explaining what I do

My first day along the canals starts with a taxi (motor car) at 5.45am from my flat in South Birmingham to New Street.  Having watched ‘Barging Around with John Sargent’ the night before, which happened to focus on Birmingham, I know my adopted city to be a centre of waterways in the country, somewhere early on there’s the old ‘more canals than Venice’, a common and proud line heard often in the city. ‘Liquid Lanes’ is a phrase that catches my ears as John tells us how Birmingham Industry was built from the manmade waterways. And tries to buy a gun.

My taxi driver at 5.45 am, does not, however, agree that the canals are being put to the best use. Upon interrogation about what I do, my mumbled reply of ‘a writer and a performer that works a lot with archives’ does not satisfy this brummie cabbie’s intrigue:

Taxi Driver: ‘Right so. You go to a place?’

Me: ‘Yes’

TD: ‘Right, and you find out about the stories?’

M: ‘Yes’

TD: ‘The romances, the mysteries, maybe…the things that are a bit..untoward. And you go, and you talk to people, maybe families that were around, right, you explore

M: ‘Yes’

‘TD: You find out things, right? So, you’re Indiana Jones?’

I enjoy this comparison immensely, but I am confused by the choice. There is no running away from rolling balls, pits of snakes, piles of gold…

TD: ‘You’re an archeologist. You’re excavating things’

Yep, no he’s right, and there’s different ways to view rolling balls, pits of snakes and piles of gold. Metaphorically, like. He continues.

TD: ‘So, right, I get that, you’re a collector, a researcher, a historian…’

M: ‘I’m not a historian by training…I’m a..’

‘TD: Yeah but you deal in history. So, I get that you research and you read. And you write the scripts? But I still don’t get what the actual product is? What like a conference? Or do you act?

M: ‘Err a sort of combination, I tell stories. Sometimes as myself, sometimes slipping in and out of character, ask the audience to imagine themselves, somewhere, sometime. Use facts as starting points, read between the lines.  I tell stories.’

TD: ‘Right, a storyteller, an actor..writer, editor, researcher, historian..right, I get all that, but how do you finish the shows?’

M: ‘Finish them?’

TD: ‘Because if you are talking about the Egyptians or the Byzantine time, right, you know that civilisation is finished. There is an end. But every time you do a show, there’s more questions, to be answered, right? Because the canals in Birmingham keep going.  They haven’t finished. They are still here, you know. Who uses them? No one uses them? You, know, you don’t say I’m going down the canal?’

I do. And know other people that do. Cyclists. Runners. Walkers. Dogs. Dog walkers. Boaters. Boaters.

TD: ‘So they were used for industry, right, the canals, but now what?…

We could use them, you know, so the barges, they call them barges, are slow. But if someone got one that went a little bit faster. A commuter barge, an hour from Stratford, that serves breakfast and you can do your wifi work on, and avoid all the traffic. The motor traffic of birmingham. An hour on the barge in the morning with breakfast. And hour in the evening with dinner. Maybe a drink. Someone should do that, a boat that goes faster. That’s my idea, that’s how we should use the canals’

I suspect there’s a speed limit on the canal. I suspect I’ll be able to find that out this weekend. I’m interested that he has to find a point, a function in the canals.  I tell him to take the idea to Dragon’s Den and he wishes me well on my way.

* * *

Follow The Canal By Track

I pull out of New Street on a train towards Liverpool, change for Ellesmere. The train tracks run adjacent to the canal, the water, bridges, curves and signs (Mr Sargent having pointed out that Birmingham canals are well appointed in their signage).  Canals under bridges by a banks of delivery vans awaiting Amazon marketplace purchases to take to easter customers. Warehouses disused and reused, following the canal. Faster, heading towards the the black country, signed by industrial piles and metal silhouettes of horses. Mosques, terrace houses, moorings and churches, rail over canal. Empty skips in old carparks, wooden pallets piled up.

And I’m pressed up to the window, eyes constantly trying to follow the canal. The complex co-dependency of waterway and rail.  I lose her, the canal, as the banks by the railways rise high into collapsing sheds and steep back gardens.

Coming up to Wolverhampton.

Stories from the archive. 1905 or thereabouts, Wolverhampton workers in the promise of a new factory move from the Black Country to Ellesmere Port.  Walking the tow path on the Shropshire Union , Wolves to Wirral, belongings on the barges. New beginnings for The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company. 300 families or more from Dudley, Bilston and Wolverhampton. And now still,  in this year, a small but dedicated 3rd, 4th generation band of Wolverhampton Wolves football fans in the pocket of mersey Reds.

(At some point as part of this project I’d like to, no I’m going to walk that path over several days, re-trace those footsteps)

There she is again, the canal, wider now, curving. Still reeds. Trucks. Old warehouses with small windows. Lose her. New warehouse in corrugation with no windows. Shipping containers. New builds. Signs to buy. Scaffolding holding up old builds. And here she is,  narrow locks into the train travels over. She carries away to the left.

Slag heaps, wasteland. New flats poking through playing fields. Green fields, small horses, dogs home, no canals to be seen. Flash a glimpse as we rattle over, trickle of a stream, not man made.

I know little of the names of Waterways,types of locks, or names of those who built them (there is of course Telford, Brunel..others that are harder to find) and I’m on my way to the opening of a room, a place, of documents and dedication as part of the Bank Holiday Boat Rally at Ellesmere Port. And a sea shanty singing festival.

* * *


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