8.30 am, sandwiches, milky bars, fruit and water packed, stepping out in shoes that I am asking to be nice to me. And my feet. Left on the canal instead of the right I will turn ‘down north’ to Ellesmere in a few weeks time. Heading south along The Stratford upon Avon, a key canal, whose waterways cleared the way for the regeneration movement of the Inland Waterways. Stand off’s were had along this canal as broken bridges were replaced with immovable bridges built too low to fit a boat under. Blocked up and filled up with more than water, stand off’s were held, as proof was found that these waterways were still in use and the National Trust, volunteers, Winston Green prisoners, and the army (yes the army) moved to unblock this cut and make her new, The Queen Mother cutting her ribbon on the canals new lease of life in 1964. The re-generation of this canal leading to the clearing of many others. A victory.
The first part of the route is familiar to me, well tramped by me from dog walking or walking alone, it doesn’t feel like an adventure yet. The canal stretching out, me knowing what is around certain corners, new builds next door, a bridge I didn’t realise was an aqueduct, just a place for kids to sit. Or bikes to skid past in deep ruts on the mud. Builders radio’s blasting out.
2 miles or so along to The Drawbridge Pub in Shirley. A flaming grill now, the kind of pub you can have a burger stuck
between two glazed doughnuts. A pub I walked to in a post Christmas daze, bumped into friends and had three pints too many, taxi home, not back along the waterway. Called because of the drawbridge operated in sight of The Pub. Well known around the area, kids queuing to watch it raise in the summer. Canoeists skipping out the water to walk along side it if they haven’t the key to operate it. Trying out taking an old image on to the current view, via an iPad. Reflections of too many apple products bounce off the screen. A man in a beamer pulls over quickly to snap the bridge on his phone.
And off again into more uncharted, never really passed the point of the pub before. Quiet in the morning, by 9.30 am I’ve come across 3 cyclists, one jogger, still slumbering ducks, 6 or more canal boats, 3 moving the other way (Morning) and one man and his dog. My feet slow to take in surroundings as I started out in London pace (a inbuilt compulsion I can’t seem to shake, despite having left that city 3 years ago). To get, somewhere, as quick as possible. Get to the destination. Then I remember, I’m here for the walk, the places between, not the destination. Well partly the destination. To turn around and walk back, canal on the left rather than on the right.
And there is much writing on walking as an art form, a therapy, a thinking space, oiling the cognition on the left and right brain. Flanuering, wondering lines across cities. Tramping.
To tramp (verb): ‘To walk with heavy footsteps’
Wikipedia tells me
‘The modern concept of the tramp emerges with the expansion of industrial towns in the early nineteenth century, with the consequent increase in migrant labor and pressure on housing’
Walking migrants, Navies and builders, walking to where there work was with no names on records or books written in their honour. A job to build and carve and tunnel from the plans of the engineers and the pockets of lords. There’s little to find on walking for necessity as it tends to be those that walk for the sake of walking that find time to write of the benefits. Of which I whole heartedly agree. I’ve made up my necessity as an act of following footsteps, action to cause story and exchange. I’m not walking because I have no other choice of transport.
Our first mode of transport, the feet, that we have become so accustomed to substituting for the wheel in different forms. It helps that I can’t drive. That I’d rather walk to understand my surroundings and place myself where I am rather than by exits and stop offs. It has become ‘only five miles’ that I can shrug off easily. I suprise myself how far I can get on my own two feet. No reliance. From the suburbs of south Birmingham, out into the stretches of Solihull and beyond where the houses and the surrounding lands increase in size and value.
I slow down, that canal way of life, as it talked and written about from Rolt to Pru and Tim. Perhaps it’s starting early morning to have walked so many steps, and that it feels so far away from starting off but also so close behind me. And as when I start swimming, with the rhythm of arms, with the rhythm of legs, I start to hear myself say, perhaps I can go further, maybe I’ll make it all the way to Stratford.
And you can’t get lost on a canal, keep following the cut, which sometimes feels so deep or ingrained in green that anything could be on the other side, up the banks. And then all of a sudden it’s modern builds, and landscaped lawns, balconies that are dreamt of by renters. Dickens Heath, a new village built on an old site stretches out in beige stucco and swept pavement. I find places like this a little eery, built to be to perfect. Matching couples in blue and white boden stripes. It’s got none of the appeal of the work and the noise of an old dock or marina.
On and on, clouds of dust under water from the underlay of boats, mafia ducks swim in formation, One dead water rat bloated floating on the surface.Onto a marina that sits on the arm that feeds the water from lakes into the canal. A black country accent in welcome good morning. And I walk away from the canal on road to the lakes that feed the water.
Earlswood Lakes, man made in 1820’s to for the purpose of the canal. They are still sailed upon, fished upon, walked around. But no swimming it would seem. What with blue algae, snapping turtles and otters. Still a man made beauty spot as it remained before.
Back to the canal and carry on. To Hockley Heath where building of the canal was halted for some years as the money ran out. A familiar story up and down the lengths of waterways in this country. The engineer Josiah Clowes, dieing before its completion. I’m beginning to dread the idea of walking back the same way I have come, it’s not the distance, my legs continue onwards, one foot in front of another, it’s the familiarity in tracing steps. The things I’ve seen before. Although that is what I’m doing for the big walk, tracing my soon to be steps, virtually with old pictures and stories, so I know what I’ll be looking for. I’ve purposely left this one a bit open. A way to have an adventure when all I am doing is walking along a well trodden path. Horse hauling boats of coal. Dog walkers, joggers. I’m navigating by bridges, numbers and strange names, no locks on this north stretch until further down near Lapworth in a whole series of steps.
I hear the M42 under sound of birdsong, a reminders of the world beyond the safety of the cut. Perhaps safety isn’t the right word, aloneness on the wind. The quiet of the cut. So under curved brick bridges I have gone to turn a corner and see a modern bridge in concrete grey carrying that motorway. Trucks, lorries, cars flying past , reality of pace in goods and people carrying on making journeys through the centre, or just off centre of the country.
Stage set. I think, late at night for some other mystery or another. Or a very real performance from across the water, under the sound of the M42. And what would Josiah Clowes make of the this construct over his canal, roads such as this now so inherent to us, then not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. The transport after the transport that lead to the canals demise.
A solitary shoe floating past, lost from a boat or slipped off from the path. Plastic bags like jelly fish reminding me I am walking towards the sea. Well not really towards the sea, but any where is towards the sea when walking in the midlands. Island country.
I’m thinking more and more I’ll walk a little further then get a bus back through to Solihull and beyond. Right down to Lapworth, Kingswood locks where The Grand Union meets The Stratford Upon Avon. I get to Hockley Heath. Sandwiches in the rain. There’s a Pub, cafe, bus stop, chippy. And carry on to Kingswood, not far I think, not far. Past the series of locks that used to take takes, queues to come up or down. Rain drawing in, I shout across the canal to two ben in a boat yard ‘How far is Stratford?’ It’s another 15 miles. Not for today, I think.
Battery dieing on phone, hips aching, patience drawing thin. I attempt to get a train from Lapworth. I watch it leave the platform I am standing on. Not another for an hour, so back 3 miles or so the way I’ve come to Hockley Heath, a wait in the pub, and series of bus’s home through out of town business estates where not a soul can be seen. Home, legs aching, feet unblistered.