Exploring the real world… the canal

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

November, 2018

In 1794 the first sod of the Kennet and Avon Canal was cut in Bradford on Avon. What interests me about that moment is the phrase, ‘first sod’. Every description of that inaugural digging uses those words. Not ‘first clod of earth’, not ‘first dollop of mud’, but always ‘first sod’. It’s not how I’d like to be remembered but then again I’m not a lump of turf. The thing is, whoever wrote it that way nailed the moment and now no other words will do. And that got me thinking about canal words and about the canal in general.

The original idea was to join two stretches of river and create a navigable waterway 87 miles long from Bristol to Reading. This proved to be a good idea until the Great Western Railway came along and spoiled everything with its so-called speedy transportation. This is something I cannot understand at all. In my experience, travelling from Bradford on Avon to Bristol at 4mph in a narrowboat is a lot faster than waiting for a GWR train to show up on time.

Anyway, the canal fell into decline for a hundred years until some lovely people, mostly volunteers, restored it. And here’s where I discovered another fabulous canal word: re-puddling. Isn’t that wonderful? Not just puddling, but re-puddling. The section at Limpley Stoke had dried out and as we all know, canals work best when they’re wet. So it was made watertight again by re-puddling it with puddling clay. I only wish I had more opportunities to use that word.

You might be thinking at this point what’s going on with this article? It’s full of facts. James doesn’t do facts. Well, the canal has become important to me and I thought some backstory might be useful. You see, every day Sally and I walk along the river, up to the swing bridge and back along the towpath. We’ve been doing this for over a year through snow, mud, dust, midges and bell-tinging cyclists. And my favourite part of our walk is always the canal. There is something very inclusive, very human about the canal.

Perhaps it’s because like people, its energy and pulse are constrained within artificial, societal boundaries. Or perhaps it’s because the canal is a symbol of connecting human endeavours. Or perhaps it is simply that like us all, it needs a helping hand every now and then. I often think the rhythm of the canal ripples into the wider town – not literally of course, or we’d be soaked – but in a mindful, thoughtful, 4mph kind of way.

Originally designed to sew together two stretches of river, I see the canal now as a common thread that is stitched into our community. It makes time for everyone, sharing itself amongst the walkers and cyclists who use its towpaths; the liveaboard boating community who make it their home; the bream, tench and gudgeon (yay) that swim in its waters; the heron and kingfishers that sit on its banks; and people like me who are happy to know that just because something has been puddled, it doesn’t mean it can’t be re-puddled.

On our walks I’ve noticed that ‘respect’, ‘politeness’ and ‘tolerance’ are also appropriate canal words – along with a generous dollop of the phrase ‘community spirit’. And talking of dollops, I wonder whatever happened to that first sod? Perhaps our excellent local museum has it in a jar somewhere. If so, I hope it’s been labelled correctly. No other words will do.

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About James Ellis

James is a writer. He is the author of three novels and has had a number of short stories published as well as a travelogue of his journey through Central America. He writes a regular column for The Gudgeon, designs and delivers workshops for new and developing writers, and provides a business writing service for private and public sector organisations.
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