Broadside Balladress Jen Reid on Hugging the Canal

25th November 2016

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I sing 19th century broadside ballads and Lancashire dialect work song. I’d read a lot about people going out on “tramp” to find work when there was none during hard times in the 19th and 20th centuries and watched Jim Allen’s In the Heel of the Hunt, but never thought to do it myself. Until April, when I met with Simon Woolham and we planned to walk from Leeds to Liverpool along the towpath for the 200th anniversary of the canal and Super Slow Way supported us throughout our 127 mile journey. The plan was to walk 15 miles a day, for 14 days with two days for rest along Super Slow Way’s stretch of the canal (between Burnley and Blackburn). Each day, Simon and I would walk some, eat from wherever was coming up, sing old canal songs, make badges from rubbings along the towpath, speak to people and boaters and just generally become one with the towpath. Each evening I would try to sing in a pub, sometimes they were all for it, other times we were out on our ear. When the sun was turning in we’d find a place to pitch our tents and bed down for the night. You know, we never encountered any problems.

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The first night we set up in an abandoned garden centre just outside of Saltaire. We could see a little lane from the towpath so we wandered up it, finding our home for the night. We pitched up, I wrote a poem, Simon drew and we fell asleep. When the sun rose around 5.30am, we were up instinctively. We packed up, laughed a bit at how canny we were and set off again. We were walking to Skipton now and we saw a few boats but nothing to write home about. Turns out the Leeds and Liverpool is quite unfashionable with boaters. As we were walking through the grassy landscape, I realised that this looked nothing like the inner city towpath I was used to. Cows and horses were right next to us. It gave you a whole new perspective and I soon forgot about the pace of the city. We kept passing this one boat all day and for the first few times I think they thought we were a bit mad. By the third time we saw them they gave us a beer each and the fourth time offered us a ride. We rode into Skipton, beer in hand; the way you should arrive in Skipton. We happened on a pub that people had told us was up for live music and as we got there two older lads were packing up. We gave them a few songs each and a lad from the other room came in and called me a “genius.” I didn’t mind that.

I realised that this looked nothing like the inner city towpath I was used to. Cows and horses were right next to us. It gave you a whole new perspective and I soon forgot about the pace of the city.

So we went back to the towpath and had to walk a while before we saw any parts of the cut that were useful to us. In the end Simon pitched up on a wide section of the towpath and I slept on the cut with my hat over my face. “Like one of the lads on tramp in the 19th century,” I thought. I had a broken sleep, but it was very peaceful. Just as I was getting off I heard some shuffling behind me. It was around thirty swans, who I thought were blood thirsty, but turns out they were just checking me out before they got off to sleep. I drifted off and woke up again a short while later to find them all curled up, floating down the canal.

We woke early again and headed off to Nelson. It was Tuesday now. I was excited this day, because I was headed to a familiar zone. I knew people would be there to greet us and as part of another project I was co-leading singing sessions on a Tuesday. So we had a bit of food in Morrisons and then started to the Shop, which is run by In-Situ. We had a blast, my singing quota was filled and we even got a bed for the night! In Jack’s boat. Sticking to the canal theme, naturally.

20160803_213009Our time on the Super Slow Way stretch was much needed. Familiar and new faces, hot(!) food and singing in odd places, like Burnley Wharf and Plumb Street Miner’s Club. We stayed on boats, in houses and on floors. I would be sad to see this end, I thought. But we picked up our packs and started on towards Parbold. We were in a café and I says to Simon, “Do you know anyone in Parbold?” I was chasing the luxury we’d just experienced. His friend’s mum lived there and she invited us to stay with her. When we got there, our jaws hit the floor. A huge Victorian house with dog (no less!) and such a welcome. Having a shower in a house is a lot different to having a shower by the canal. That night we went to Mark Dowding’s singaround in a pub off the cut and had a few goes at entertaining the regulars. I recorded this night and still listen to it now. We got a lift off a lovely lady who had emailed me prior to the journey who lived nearby. She dropped us off at the Victorian mansion and we got some kip. When I woke up that morning I didn’t want to leave!

We kept bumping into this fella on our travels, he was cycling from one place on the cut to the other, training to cycle the whole way in a few days. By our third meeting he was convinced he would walk it like us. I loved his spirit. I hope he did it! While we were speaking to him at one point another man on a bike stopped and asked us if we were walking the whole way. We said yes, of course. He told us that he’d walked the length of the country, but as he was a vicar he stayed in vicarages and church halls along the way. What a great idea.

We kept bumping into this fella on our travels, he was cycling from one place on the cut to the other, training to cycle the whole way in a few days. By our third meeting he was convinced he would walk it like us. I loved his spirit. I hope he did it!

Now we were headed to Halsall. Halsall should mean a lot to people who use the canal, as this was the first place they started to construct the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Halsall cutting it’s called. We walked on through Halsall and found an amazing spot above the towpath looking down onto the canal. I thought we were rumbled when a walker muttered something as he walked past us but it turned out fine. The view when we woke in the morning is something I’ll never forget.

Ambling through to Liverpool was an interesting experience. Now rather fatigued but also energised – an odd mix – we saw the canal change, possibly for the worst. As swing bridges became a thing of the past, we saw the towpath change from grass, to gravel, to tarmac and the cut slowly became overgrown and lacking in wildlife. Only a few birds now used this forgotten part of the canal and litter seemed to take over once we got into Downholland and Bootle. We stayed that night with SAFE Productions. A most hospitable lot. We even got to look after a chick because we were inside the building. All three of us sheltered together until the morning.

We left SAFE, pulled on our packs and walked all the way to the end of the canal in the Eldonian Village. We asked a fella there to take a photo of us on Simon’s phone but he wasn’t used to it and we just had to leave it. We walked up to the “upstairs world” of fast cars and numerous sounds to leave the tranquil waters behind. Getting on the train I thought I was going to have a panic attack. How will I handle fast-paced life again? I thought. I’ll tell you this, I recommend the experience to anyone.

 

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