How to kill a man. And other stories.

The best thing about walking a canal is that you cannot get lost. It’s there, it’s big and if you stay on the dry side it’s nigh on impossible to go wrong. It’s hard to lose a canal.

But I managed it this time.

But before we set off, meet my wingmutt.

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H before he waived his anonymity. He’s a mutt from mid Wales, product of an accidental encounter between a blonde of excellent pedigree and a dark brooding type down from the mountains. It’s a story as old as the hills. 

Huw belongs to our newly wed daughter and son in law. When they said that they were thinking of getting a dog, my reaction was predictable.

DONOTGETADOG, DONOTGETADOG, DONOTGETADOG. 

They got a dog.

DON’T EXPECT ME TO LOOK AFTER HIM WHEN YOU’RE AT WORK

He comes to me once a week. Tuesday’s Huw’s day.

We had a couple of dogs in the family when I was growing up but I’m clueless when it comes to canines. First surprise was that young dogs must not be overexercised. No more than five minutes per month of age is the rule. We’ve been building up but haven’t walked very far until now. That is not to say he has not raced hell for leather miles in happy pursuit of his ball in the park so I reckoned that at 9 months he could probably manage a few miles of canal walking.

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OL14. Thank you, Ordnance Survey

So we jumped in the car and headed up to Gloucestershire to the Arlingham peninsula. It’s an extraordinary quirk of topography – a meander in the Severn – which has created this almost-island no longer on the way to anywhere. Upper Framilode, now a backwater to a backwater, was once the starting point of a very early pair of canals linking the Severn with the Thames (and thereby the Atlantic with London). The first part – the Stroudwater – was built in the 1770s to join the wool town of Stroud with the Severn, so as to bring coal across the river from the Forest of Dean and beyond to power the looms.

 

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An 1988 guide to what are now known as the Cotswold Canals. Handford covers the Stroudwater, and Viner the Thames and Severn and their writings are joined together in the middle. Much like the canals themselves

The Stroudwater is only seven or so miles long but traffic had ceased upon it by the 1930s and it was officially declared moribund in the 1950s. Nails were rammed into its coffin when it was truncated by the construction of the M5 motorway and the improvements to the main A38. (I am indebted to Michael Handford for his in depth, no stone unturned, account of the Stroudwater). My Dad, a civil engineer who spent many years devising plans for schemes to meet the demand for water from the burgeoning south east, recalls a colleague’s pet project to lay a pipe the length of the canals to channel Severn water into the Thames and thus into the drinking water of Londoners. It didn’t come to anything but it does illustrate the extent to which the canal was perceived as redundant.

But times change and, given the revived interest in boating, there is now a move afoot to restore the canals and reopen the route.

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A contemporary plan of the meeting of the Stroudwater Canal with the River Severn. Thank you, Michael Handford. My red scribble shows the bit that has since been infilled and turned into a very des res.

What strikes me as a major problem is that the first lock and its ancillary land and buildings –  that’s the bit at the entrance to the canal from the Severn which I’ve ham-fistedly marked on the plan –  has long been sold off, filled in and turned into a private home and rather a nice garden. There is no watery way through and I don’t think they are going to take kindly to the arrival of the diggers. But the energetic people bent upon canal restoration have a plan and it’s a nifty one.

 

Anyway, let’s get on with the walk. Turning away from Lock House, there it is. Rather green and weedy but undeniably recognisably a canal.IMG_4994 (2) There’s a row of charming canal side cottages and a couple of old pub buildings, one still very much in business. Not much further and the canal is completely choked up. IMG_5167 (2)

Then it’s over a stile, follow the footpath, and – hang about – where’s it gone? Now we’re by a waterway but it’s definitely not a canal.

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Where did the canal go?

Another dog walker tells me it’s the River Frome. Hmm. We plough on. Not much further and we’re in the grounds of a school boathouse and then straight out onto the wide expanses of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal. Yes, it’s an intersection, a canal crossroads and all a bit exciting as there’s a lot going on here.

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Looking over as the Stroudwater crosses the Gloucester & Sharpness

Along a bit to one side is the remnants of the lock which evened up levels of the G&S and the Stroudwater (How come I didn’t come out there? Where’s the canal been in the interim?), across the bridge is the old Junction house and over on the diagonal is a fascinating looking boat builders’ yard,

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The boatbuilders’ yard. What’s that lifeboat doing there?

behind which is a new marina, excavated since my 1999 map was published. IMG_5046 (2).JPGSuddenly it’s all busyness and here is the answer to the canal restorers’ dilemma of how to link the Thames to the Severn. Forget the stretch I’ve just walked, leave it to slumber, but instead direct boaters southish down the G&S to meet the Severn at Sharpness.

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Thank you again, Michael Handford

Nifty indeed, eh? (see https://wordpress.com/post/womanwalkingblog.wordpress.com/1505 for a bit about that neck of the woods).

 

Carrying on along the Stroudwater was plain sailing for a bit before the broad, straight way gave out and the map told me to take a detour along a road for a short way. This is the Thames and Severn Way and it’s an officially recognised long distance path. Not on the ground hereabouts it’s not. I saw one sign, just one. In a completely unhelpful place. Hmm, again.

From here on it was a bit of a game of hide and seek. Seek the canal, seek a sign of the path that is marked on the map but not on the ground. Light relief came in the form of another dog walker on a way through the long grass that I was not 100% sure was actually a path. She was bent double but straightened up when she saw me and explained that she’d been doing her back exercises (I can think of easier places to do them, but go ahead) and that her handbag sized pug had a thing about pups which is why he was letting rip at Huw (How could he tell? He’s enormous). We were in the midst of an interesting conversation about I forget what when her eye caught something in the hedge.

Oh my God, that’s henbane

What’s henbane?

It’s what they used to kill Socrates.

Really? Isn’t that cow parsley?

That’s the thing, it looks like wild carrot but it’s got the blood red streaks along the stem. It’s lethal, don’t go near it.

How much would you have to take to kill you, I asked. She didn’t know. So we stood in a field and Googled it for a bit. Then thought that perhaps that was the sort of question you posed on someone else’s phone, not your own.

Actually, I don’t think that henbane is the right name. But I can’t remember what it is.

That rather ended the conversation so we moved the dogs away from the poison tree and parted.

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It’s hemlock, not henbane. Five or six leaves should do it.

We came to a bridge over the river. We’d lost the canal again. The map indicated that it was over yonder at the far side of the field but that if we continued to follow the river we’d end up where the two waterways met.  I didn’t fancy either plan. There was a third option – take the way that Ms Henbane had presumably come along. That would lead us back towards Frampton on Severn and the map promised that we could divert back to the G&S canal in a big loop. Good. Farewell Stroudwater, you’ve had your chance.

This turned out to be a great bit of walking, through fields high with crops, edged with poppies and cornflowers and yes, cow parsley (or wild carrot/Nottingham lace/Anthriscus sylvestris. I checked for blood red streaks and found none).IMG_5114 (2).JPG Birds were singing and on the breeze drifted the church bells sounding the quarters. IMG_5083 (2).JPGThere was the dog and there was me and there was no one else about. It was all completely and utterly lovely.

At the end of the field we had a choice: follow the signposted path straight on or take the (not signposted but mapped) track to the right. Forward would get us to Frampton on Severn but would mean a longer walk back to the car for Huw, right would cut out a large corner.  Now I am the Ordnance Survey’s greatest fan but even I have to admit that they do have a weakness when it comes to how they mark their tracks. Footpaths, bridleways and other rights of way are marked in red or green depending on the scale of the map. Thoroughfares are marked according to their road designation and can be assumed to be public access. But tracks, those little roads marked in narrow black lines, how does the map tell you whether they’re private lanes or not? It doesn’t. It leaves you to work it out for yourself.

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That’s definitely a track, isn’t it?

I could see the track, I could see how it lead to the roadway across the field, I could see it wouldn’t take us into anyone’s back garden, and I could see that it looked about as well walked as the definitely public access path we’d just come.

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This was signposted as a public footpath

So I took a chance and we turned right.

After a mile or so, even Huw’s confidence in my decision was faltering. But before we got chapter and verse on this we had to contend with the gate. On the other side was the road, behind us a long walk back. In the way was a chained and padlocked gate surmounted with barbed wire.

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Happily I couldn’t see this sign until I was over the fence. Sorry for trespassing, Oatfield Farm. It was an oversight.

No room to wriggle through the hedge so it was over the top for me and through the middle for him.

Back on the side of the law, we were soon at the swing bridge over the wide Gloucester & Sharpness canal and then over to the far bank and headed for the café. As Ms Henbane had hinted it was not great (she’d heartily recommended the one in Frampton on Severn instead but it wasn’t on our route). Never mind. Huw was beginning to flag and we still had a couple of miles to go. I had a bottle of water for him and his bowl so I poured him a couple of dishfuls which he slurped down. I know nothing about dogs but I wanted to get him something to eat so I went into the café to see what I could find. I do know now that chocolate kills dogs (tell that to the dogs we had when I was child)  but I reckoned everything else on offer would be ok. The rock cake looked the least unappetising so he and I shared one as I drank a cup of tea. It was more a 80:20 split than a 50:50 one as it was ghastly, but he loved it. Next day I learned that dried fruit kills dogs too. What with the hemlock, the barbed wire, and the lethal currants this outing was turning into one death defying moment after another.

But these things happen in threes so we staggered on after our break.

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Approaching the junction again. Gloucester 8 miles. 

After the mild perils came the stories. A man packing up his fishing stuff on the canal bank began to chat.  This man, a plumbing and heating engineer (didn’t like school, no good at exams but give me a length of pipe and it all makes sense…)  had paid to have his family tree researched. All that had been found appeared to have come as a surprise to him. My grandfather, now he was a plumber too. Never knew that. Must be in the blood. And my grandmother on my mother’s side, turns out she was illegitimate. She was brought up by her grandparents who lived on a farm around here and I was doing some work for the doctor who lives just on the corner over in (he named somewhere I’d never heard of)  and I saw that the address was similar so I asked him. And he said that the farm was next door to him. I never knew that. He knew the woman. Said to call round. 90 years old and always first in the pub, the lady is, he said.

Did you go?

No.

Do you know why they left the farm?

No idea. But you’re from Bristol then? Some of my ancestors went there but then they came back again. But guess what? I had my DNA analysed too and guess what it found from my blood?

(I think I know what you’re going to say)

I’m 2% Nigerian. I’m Nigerian from the knees down.

It took a while to take our leave of the plumber, a genial man who was simultaneously excited about his family history without being at all curious about what was beyond the genealogist’s report. Plots of several novels were spilt out onto the bankside right there – the love child grandmother, the farm that was left behind, the African forebears – but he wasn’t about to pick them up.

The final stretch of the walk took us off the Gloucester & Sharpness canal and back along the Stroudwater spur again. Outside the pub there was an elderly man sitting on the edge of the canal, legs in the water. Another conversation. Another story. This time a comedy.

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The expanse of canal directly in front of the pub.

The man’s accent was so broad that I couldn’t understand a word he said. Eventually, after some pantomiming of Huw wanting a swim and me not letting him, I got my ear in. He was pulling reedlike vegetation out of the canal and once he’d finished the ones he could reach he said he was going to go out in his boat and pick up a load more.

That Mrs Rees – Owen, she always says she can’t understand why the water’s clear down here but it’s never that way up her end. She never sees me doing this. And I never tell her.

And, because these things happen in threes, on to the churchyard for the final story: a tragedy. And a mystery.

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Such a tragic loss to one family. But why the different names? And why was the twin sister never named?

 

 

 

 

‘Let us now praise famous men’*. And a woman who is not a bit well known.

(* an earworm ever since I was drilled to sing the anthem in my girls’ school assembly.)

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Hebden Bridge

Mid June and it should have been a heat wave. When I booked the weekend in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, I had visions of striding out, slathered in sun cream, Panama at a jaunty angle. Along the Rochdale Canal I would go from our towpath cottage in Hebden Bridge, west to Todmorden one day, east to Sowerby Bridge the next, and then return to spend the balmy evenings outside enjoying a bottle of wine as the world floated by. Well, that didn’t happen. Too rainy the first day so instead it was off to the Todmorden Agricultural Show for T and me, picking our way across the soggy fields. And the long hot evenings? We battened down the hatches and switched on the heating. All very enjoyable, of course, but not what we had anticipated.

Next day there appeared to be a window in the downpour forecast so, encouraged by Yorkshire born and bred T, I decided to stop being a Southern sissy and step out.

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Black Pit aqueduct, where the Rochdale Canal crosses the River Calder. On Boxing Day 2015, the town was flooded when torrential rains caused the river waters to sweep down through the streets. The water level in the Calder at this point shown here was so high that it engulfed the canal.

I got 200m and it began to rain.

But enough of the moaning. Hebden Bridge is a really, really interesting place. There’s definitely a dissertation to be written there. It was known as Trouser Town back in the day being a centre for the production of corduroy, Nowadays it is better known as the lesbian capital of the UK if this rather dusty piece in the Guardian is to be believed (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/jul/29/theobserver.uknews2) (and look, someone’s already done the dissertation). Whatever. It’s post industrial, but prosperous, packed with creative types, independent shops and artsy crafty endeavours. Strung out along the River Calder and the canal, it sits at the meeting of two steep river valleys and is an attractive town in all senses.

We’d had a look at Todmorden the previous day when we’d changed buses on our way to the Show so Sowerby Bridge, on the outskirts of Halifax, was in my sights today. T had a bit of work to do so he decided to hop on a train and meet me at the other end. Yorkshire (North, South and West Yorkshire – all of them) is a bit of a foreign field to me so I was keen to see what it was like. The hills, the drystone walls, the building stone all looked different, the accents and the place names sounded different. I mean, I have no idea how to pronounce some of them – Mytholmroyd I didn’t attempt, Sowerby I was shaky on after my inept inflections over Todmorden. These sites were named by speakers of another tongue, not the Brythonic Celtic types that hold sway along the coastlines of Wales and the far South West. 

I’d read that settlements along the Upper Calder Valley sprang up with the mechanisation of the textile industry in the early 1800s and the completion in 1804 of the Rochdale Canal (the major commercial link between Manchester and Leeds until the railway in 1841), so I was expecting urban and signs of manufacturing. But as the UK textile industry today is a shadow of its former self, I anticipated that, with production having left the valley (the country even), then I would find only remnants of the industrial heartland of the past. Unsurprisingly, many of the old mill buildings in Hebden Bridge have been converted into housing, studios and workshops but would I find this repurposing all the way along the canal?

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A mix of new, old, and converted residential units

Or would I find dereliction of the Turn Off The Lights, Close The Door, And Let The Roof Fall In variety? Well, no, not so much.

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This building has been firmly mothballed but with an attempt to make the place look still occupied. There’s clearly been a dispute over whether imitation mock Georgian glazing bars would look better than a more modern style

Some old sites have been purposefully razed, while elsewhere new industrial units are sidling up to the water’s edge. Others are reincarnated as bases for newer commercial enterprises, some more unexpected than others. If you’re wondering where the 89a to Blackheath has got to…

What can I tell you about this stretch of canal? It was a very pleasant walk.IMG_4714 (2) There were a couple of locks, a tunnel, a few villages along the way, and some tiptop waterside gardens. And more commemorations of local worthies than I had expected. There was Ted Hughes at Mytholdroyd, his birthplace; there was Bramwell Bronte at Sowerby Bridge station, where he’d worked for five months; and there was Edward Kilner with his eponymous lock,

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Kilner’s Lock – not named for the man behind the jars but for a lawyer associated with the canal.

The fragrant Lady This or Mrs John That may have graciously tapped a commemorative trowel on a foundation stone a century ago, but Miss Ainsworth made me stop in my tracks.IMG_4742 (2) It’s not often a woman in her own right is commemorated on a plaque. 

Approaching Sowerby Bridge and just as I was trying to get a look at this place, IMG_4752 (2)squinting at what I thought was one of those Why Not Take On The Lease Of This Pub? banners that hang hopefully from the peeling woodwork of some forlorn inn, and wondering who on earth would ever go there for a drink there was a voice behind me. They’re doing a good job there, aren’t they? It’s looking really nice, isn’t it? Er no. A brisk woman fully kitted out for a long hike, lipstick exactly matching her fuchsia fleece (kudos for the attention to detail), had caught me up. Turns out the place is being renovated by a charity working to give homeless people in the town the construction skills to find work and move off the streets. So yes, they are doing a good job there actually. But I still don’t know who on earth would ever go there for a drink.

Sowerby Bridge is no Hebden Bridge. Sunday morning may not have been the time to see it at its best, but it remains more as it was than as it could be.

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Cobbled streets in Sowerby Bridge

But when we got down through the town and up the other side to the station (I’d met up with T by now) it all began to get a bit Richard Curtis, a bit stereotypical soft focus, rosy glow, old time Yorkshire.  First, there was the former station café, now an independent enterprise, offering a long list of refreshments to early morning commutersIMG_4772 (2) and later in the day a vast range of ales, whiskeys and gins – and coffee too – amidst a huge collection of railway memorabilia which cleverly hit the entertaining note rather than the specialist enthusiast one (www.jubileerefreshmentrooms.co.uk).

If I were a regular on the Leeds to Manchester line I think I’d be planning to hop off for quick one on the way home.

Then after a leisurely coffee (yes, it came with a Nice biscuit – when did I last have one of them?) and a quick train ride we were back in Hebden Bridge, in a main line station which appears not to have noticed the passing of the last 50 years. IMG_4774 (2)

And then, as we left the platform the sound of a brass band drifted towards us. Now we knew that there was to be a band competition that afternoon (it was billed as the Hebden Bridge Band March and Hymn Tune Contest) but hadn’t expected to come across bands limbering up in the town park. IMG_4777 (2)But there they were and there were more of them gathering in the centre of town ready to march down the street,

arrange themselves around a sculpture in a giant knitted condom and then to play their hymn and reprise their march tune.

12 bands were competing in all, 11 local and one from Canada (no idea) so it was quite a crowd. As the by now hot and sunny afternoon wore on and thirsts were addressed, the atmosphere shifted from pre performance nervous anticipation to post march relief. Ties were loosened, jackets were removed and instruments were scattered about.

A grand day out. Yorkshire? What’s not to like?