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Towing the line? Or making the most of a shortcut? DIVERSIFLY BLOG #6

Photograph by Matt Timbers

It was during the second half of the eighteenth century that the great age of canal building in Britain started. This was a time when Britain was bursting with trade, industry and commerce. By the end of the eighteenth century the boom was over, and most British canals were completed by 1815. Within ten years the smart money had moved into the railways. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the railways had been formed into an integrated national network. Such stern competition forced canal tolls down, sending the companies into a decline from which they would never emerge.

After years of neglect and the damage caused by the World War II, Britain’s canal and railway systems were nationalised by the government in 1947. The 1950’s and 1960’s saw a resurgence in the use of canals mainly for leisure purposes, and the Inland Waterways Association was formed to promote their rescue.

There are now reckoned to be more boats using the canals of Britain today than ever during its commercial heyday. And many people use the towpaths as means of getting to work, to get into town for the day or a night out, or to visit friends…. The canals, and the rivers of Britain’s towns and cities are awash with birdlife.        This Blog is part of the Urban Birds project. More details here

by Gordon Yapp

I had a really good view of a spear-speeding fish-frenzied kingfisher, in the centre of Stroud as I walked into visit their wonderful Refugee charity shop, a year ago. Volunteers, a year later are still adding bridges to the same canal, and strengthening its paths…

Andrew Fusek Peters has a wonderful kingfisher photograph.. which is in his book WILDERLAND: wildlife and wonder from the Shropshire Borders – and which almost became the book’s front cover image. I think its hard to capture the spirit of a kingfisher – for me its a explosive flash – like a shooting star sensation – always in the corner of your eye, always a gasp  then a doubt that it was ever there…

It is not much bigger than a house sparrow.

From Birds Britannica I have read that kingfishers would be regularly killed and hung outside country cottages, in the belief that the dangling corpse could indicate the direction of the wind. Ironically, or perhaps I wonder – as a direct result of this activity – kingfishers are actually highly sensitive to extreme changes in weather…

Here is a rather lovely poem featuring a kingfisher –  that Steve Griffiths, the author of the poem, has kindly agreed for me to share with you. It first appeared in’Encounters with Nigel’, ed. Jon Gower, published by H’mm Foundation, 2014. Weirdly it refuses to go into the font I want it to!:


Nigel Jenkins, poet, his death

An hour before I heard of his death
I saw a kingfisher in black and white
in a fold of January half-light.
It crossed the river away from me.
Wet noise closed in and I lost it:
something rare, keen-eyed
for stillness and every stirring,
welcome in surprised lives,
holding its flash of blue
bowstrung like a good word
for the right unleashing.

               The heron on the other hand stands as still as a statue.

I was once walking along the side of the Thames in almost-central London with my father –  we were on our way to lunch… I pointed out a heron to him – at the end of a wooden jetty and then apologised when I realised it was one of those plastic versions used to keep herons off your goldfish… Then, as we walked closer, it moved, just a little, and I had to correct myself once more.

Birmingham  has 35 miles of canals, which is said to be more than Venice. There are many towns with canals, rivers too – that wend their way right through the urban centre.

Here is a podcast with Chris McCabe talking about his poem The Kingfisher which he also reads here…

Here is part of a poem about a heron by the american poet Mary Oliver – click here to read the whole poem

So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.
Here is part of a long poem I (Nadia Kingsley) wrote for Through the Woods, after I had been watching one from the beach near Ty Newydd writing centre, North Wales

as does heron
in inches of ocean

hue-bleached motionless twinkling grey

a sepia seaweed it steps

air       walks off on wings


Here are some images I have found online, though obviously there is much more you will see while walking along one of Britain’s urban towpaths:

And here are a few links with some more information about Canals and their birdlife:

RSPB on Kingfishers

BTO on canals

More on the History of Britain’s canals and where I got my facts from


Nadia x

   This Blog is part of a series of Blogs that are part of the Fair Acre Press project –  DIVERSIFLY: everyday encounters with the birds of Britain’s towns and cities. For more details on the project go here

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2 Responses to Towing the line? Or making the most of a shortcut? DIVERSIFLY BLOG #6

  1. mavisgulliver June 10, 2017 at 7:17 am #

    Lovely blog, Nadia. It led me to ponder on similar experiences to yours and on the heron poems I’ve written over the years.. Thanks for including heron poems – I love your line ‘walks off on wings’. It’s a bird of the seashore of our island garden and now we’ve moved to Shropshire one frequents the Raebrook at the bottom of our garden.Hopefully there’ll be more poems to come…

    • Nadia June 11, 2017 at 1:58 pm #

      Thanks Mavis! I am so enjoying writing these blogs, and thanks for such a lovely compliment about the line of my poem:) xx
      I am SURE you will be writing more heron poems!!

      I look forward to them!!
      Nadia x

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