Canal & River Trust asked me yesterday why we chose a poem as one of our 100 treasures of Britain's canals -
Britain's canals in their slippers, tiaras and trumpets are loved by us all as a national treasure. There are engineering marvels to blow our socks off, wildlife to melt our hearts and boats that hold the secret stories of our heritage. Choosing only 100 treasures for our book 'Britain's canals, a national treasure in 100 must-see objects' was always going to be a tricky selection process. There are just too many amazing treasures to mention! So why on earth did we pick a poem one of the 100 treasures of Britain's canals?
Canals have always been more than just canals. Anything manmade deemed great, has been constructed by the energy of emotion. Over 200 years ago famous engineers and unknown navvies worked under the dreams of entrepreneurs and industrialists to build Britain's first ever national transport route. Blood, sweat and tears built the first canals and the same cocktail of emotion drove the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) to help restore them.
Around 60 years ago, Robert Aickman, co-founder of the IWA, named his '7 Wonders of the Waterways'. It was a time when Britain's canals were crumbling at the seams, since the trade of the Industrial Revolution had left and the built environment wasn't needed any more. Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together saw tourism on the horizon for leisure boating, and their passionate campaign to keep waterways navigable put the built environment in the spotlight.
Today, all '7 Wonders' still star as the ultimate must-see engineering marvels of the built environment (and of course are included in our 100 Treasures) – but canals have reinvented themselves as the unique leisure destination of our time. By boat, on foot, by bike, canoe or wheelchair, people go to the canals to find their own peace. What would Aickman have made of a poem as one of the 100 treasures of Britain's canals? Well, he was an artist, a writer ... his vision of today's canals would probably be creative.
The canals stay the same, unspoilt by progress, yet people's relationships with the canals change. Canals mean something different to everybody, and touch emotions we hold dear. We dream and think inside our heads with silent words, and we own words in our most intimate understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. If we let it, poetry can dig deep into our psyche with words that reach meaningful places.
Canals now have their first ever Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, and to mark the launch of the Canal & River Trust this year, Ian McMillan's poem 'Canal Life' was commissioned by the Poetry Society. His poem has 46 lines, but for me the first 4 unwrap every treasure of the canals:
The canal tells you stories
The canal sings you songs
They hang in that space
Between memory and water