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Guest Blog: From time-trials to a seven-day trail

This week's blog post comes from Canal Laureate 2018 for the Canal & River Trust, Nancy Campbell, who took to the waters to write about her journey along the Leeds Liverpool canal.

Nancy Campbell In Wigan

Credit: Canal & River Trust

For years, along with other members of Oxford’s Falcon Rowing and Canoe Club, I’ve kayaked on the Thames in all-too-brief evening training sessions. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be on the water all day, exchanging time trials for a long trail – and this year I was given the perfect opportunity.

I was appointed as the UK’s Canal Laureate, my job being to write poems about the 2000 miles of waterways looked after by Canal and River Trust. For this I needed to explore the waterways to discover the stories of people who live, work and play on them. And of course, I would travel by kayak.

01 Blue Skies Blue Fields Blue Canal

I realised that paddling the canals would call for a new approach. What precautions I should take for personal safety, since I’d spend a lot of time alone? British Canoeing helpfully pointed me in the direction of forums like Song of the Paddle and a couple of Facebook groups for women paddlers. I soon felt more confident and looked forward to my first trip: the Desmond Family Canoe Trail, a new coast-to-coast trail linking Liverpool to Goole. I planned to paddle the 127-mile section that follows the Leeds & Liverpool canal.

I took warm clothes, in case it got cold. Two of everything, in case something fell in the water. A strap for my spectacles. My extra kit, based on the rough and tumble of training sessions, was unnecessary: a touring kayak is much more stable than a racing Tor. The essentials were a map, complete with information on locks and pubs, and the technology to document my journey. I mustn’t forget I was at work. Kayaking is usually a means to get away from my desk, but this time I’d be taking the desk with me.

But what a great view I had from my desk... the Leeds and Liverpool canal winds through rolling farmland and inner-city areas, taking in historical warehouses in Saltaire and the graffitied underpasses of Leeds. The route offered challenges, like the portages around the Five-Rise and Three-Rise staircase locks at Bingley. The industrial engineering of the canals provided drama too: the mile-long Foulridge Tunnel, only recently opened to paddlers, through which I paddled in the company of Canal and River Trust Writer in Residence Jasper Winn; crossing the M65 on an aqueduct; and the Burnley ‘Straight Mile’ – a good opportunity for a sprint.

I didn’t lack company. A kayak on the canals provokes interest, just because it’s not a narrowboat. Some guys hard at work in a boatyard spotted me and called over: ‘You need your bottom blacked?’ Many boaters greeted me cheerily as I passed. The highlight of the journey was meeting groups of young people who were taking to the water in canoes for litterpicks organised by the Desmond Family Canoe Trail. These enthusiastic volunteers, some out on their local waterway for the first time, were great company as I paddled through Wigan and Blackburn. The trail is giving young people access to paddlesports and they in turn are doing the canal proud.

I approached Leeds seven days after setting out. In the city centre, the canal widens as it draws towards Lock No 1, where it becomes the Aire and Calder canal. I was sorry to see the end in sight, but look forward to more canal paddles (with less kit!) in future. Meanwhile, I’m back to my usual training routine...

The Canal Laureate is appointed by The Poetry Society and Canal and River Trust as part of Arts on the Waterways. Find out more about the project and read the poems at waterlines.org.uk

Photos credit: Nancy Campbell and Canal & River Trust.