Great Canal Journeys & Poetry


Stuart Heritage comments in the Guardian, ‘I get why people might not want to watch Great Canal Journeys. Ostensibly, it sounds awful – a couple of plummy old thespians pootling down a waterway – but once you’re in, it’s almost unbearably poignant.’ . This is my experience – I watched a couple of episodes to see how other stretches of canal compared to the stretch of the Leeds & Liverpool I’ve been looking at – and found myself compelled to watch more; not just journeys along a canal but recollections of life and love by Prunella Scales and Timothy West. The poignancy of Scales’s fading memory (she has Alzheimers) apparent while the two talk, as if there are no camera present is at times painfully moving.

The whole series is available on More4 . I’m using this post to note anything of interest to my own study of canals and will update as things catch my attention.

  • Leeds & Liverpool canal (series 3, episode5) – noted that this was an extraordinarily quiet stretch of canal (the journey passed through the route I too am following). The contrast is apparent from the other canal journeys included in the series. Simon Armitage (Yorkshire poet) joined the journey and read a poem about water – from his Stanza Stones series


Be glad of these freshwater tears,
Each pearled droplet some salty old sea-bullet
Air-lifted out of the waves, then laundered and sieved, recast as a soft bead and returned.
And no matter how much it strafes or sheets, it is no mean feat to catch one raindrop clean in the mouth,
To take one drop on the tongue, tasting cloud pollen, grain of the heavens, raw sky.
Let it teem, up here where the front of the mind distils the brunt of the world.

Simon Armitage
  • Also mentioned in the Leeds and Liverpool episode was a traditional boat painter – on the L&L stretch the style is called ‘brights’ (I suppose reflected the textile heritage. Ginny Barlow.
  • The Rochdale Canal (series 1, episode2) referred to the poems of Ted Hughes who was born on the canal and wrote about it when it was disused and abandoned. The poem read was ‘stubbing wharfe’, about liaison in a downbeat pub with Silvia Plath. Hughes once collaborated with photographer Fay Godwin, for the book Elmett. An article by Michael Nott contrasts Godwin’s perspective on landscape as nature, with Hughes’s on landscape as culture. I’ll explore this further, as I research cultural geography.

… The world was all before us. And around us 
This gloomy memorial or a valley, 
The fallen-in grave or its history. 
A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels. 
The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution 
That had flown. The windows glittered black. 
If this was the glamour of an English pub. it was horrible. Like a bubble In the sunk Titanic ..

Extract from Stubbing Wharfe by Ted Hughes