We were all hoping for treasure I think. Things lost in the thick black muck; its smell still permeates my room from the pile of clothes in the corner. A bad day to run out of laundry detergent. Worth it, though, canals are a national treasure. The year I lived in Bow I could always escape down to the Regent’s Canal. It felt like, no it was, a bit of the wild running through the city. I still cross the river from South London to walk there sometimes.
Not as wild as the Thames, I love the river for being the only London place you can feel the world open out the way the desert does. Space. Power. Nature being bigger than we are, which I miss so much in a city where you can’t see the stars. Of course this requires standing on a bridge. I do love bridges, but cold. You can escape down to the bits of beach you can find, but my heart hurts at the kinds of development running along the banks these days.
We built canals, these beautiful threads of water that open up the city but also tie it together in ways so different from streets, that provide homes for so many creatures other than ourselves, that represent such enormous collective effort and advances in engineering. I love all of that. Especially this bit of the Regents Canal not yet ruined by developers. The Canal River and Trust had funds to drain a section of it, fix up the walls. Not to clean it though. Unemployment as it is, people should have been paid well to do this hard work that improves the canals for all of us who love them as well as their wildlife.
With our society’s priorities all wrong, the massive effort to clean the canal while it sat drained depended on volunteers under the direction of the brilliant Lower Regents Coalition (with a shout out to Katie and Alfie from Moo Canoes who were there til the end, and run days when you can canoe for free if you do some litter picking). They provided the kit. The Canal & River Trust are filling in the canal today, so it was the last chance to get the rubbish out, we fanned out:
We pulled out materials dumped by builders, numerous prams and assorted metal ‘things’ and horrible sections of shag carpet and cans upon cans and bottles and plastic bags. We wrestled them all from the mud that clung to them fiercely, and with tired muscles piled them high on the canal banks.
I wanted to have been the one who found the old second world war ordinance or the rotting rifle or the goblets or the animal skull. But I didn’t mind so terribly that I wasn’t. I got to enjoy other people’s discoveries:
The end of the day was loading up what seemed like endless truck runs from bank to barge:
Because it was the last day, the push was intense to get as much as we could, and I was a bit ashamed of myself that I had to leave before we were quite done because it’s those last few loads that really counted. The last cold fighting with rubbish in the darkness, all that collecting of boots and gloves and washing them down and the things that keep you from the mulled wine and hot mince pies that were our reward.
I was exhausted even without deserving the honour of that last push, but I recognised the justice of the friendly laughing from the canal workers repairing the banks as a few of us left off before they stopped working. They had started before us, did this every day.
Still, it left me with a bit of a high as I made my way back to Brixton. I thought buying a special little something for supper from Marks & Spencers with a dirty face (all over filthy really) and smelling like the canal might be another highlight of the day, but honestly, the hot shower was one of the best I have ever enjoyed.
Days like this, spent with people like this, make me feel so good.
Postscript: Walking on my way to do some work it’s clear they’re still working on the canal. Also, walking? Oof. I won’t say it’s age but shit, I think it might be age.