Friday, 22 April 2016
City Road Basin (c) Kate Ellis

Have you heard the new word on the street that there are now new words on the… er…. towpath? Yes, in London, where the streets are paved with gold, some canal towpaths are now paved in poetry. ‘Waterlines’ is a new initiative from The Canal and River Trust as part of their partnership with The Poetry Society. When the Trust was first launched Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan wrote a new poem called ‘Canal Life’ and the ongoing project Locklines, managed by Chrysalis Arts, sees Ian’s words carved into new lock gates, along with those by Poets Roy Fisher and Jo Bell.

The Canal Laureateship was established by The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust in 2013, to encourage new writing about the canal network. The first ever Canal Laureate was boating poet Jo Bell who was asked to bring a new perspective to the UK waterways and encourage more people to see their local canal in a new light.

A new canal laureate, Luke Kennard took over the role in December 2015 and now publishes his poems and other canal-related writing on the Waterlines blog. One of his poems promotes the Trust’s Share the Space Campaign, with the following excerpt having been sprayed directly onto the London towpath at City Road Lock:

New traveller of the shining towpath,

Please be mindful as you roam.

It’s not that you can’t speak, eat, laugh,

But this is everybody's home.

Let others too enjoy its use,

Be like the duck and not the goose.

(The full poem can be read on the Waterlines blog, and also appears at 10 other UK locations.)

Elsewhere, in areas where the towpath can be busy with a variety of users, reminders to be polite have been painted onto the ground , ‘Smile and say hi as you go by’ and you are entering ‘a hat tipping zone’. Walkers, cyclists, boaters, anglers and runners all share the often narrow waterside paths, which were originally built during the Industrial Revolution to be used by boaters and their working horses.

As part of the Share the Space campaign the Trust are introducing special zones in busy places for canal users to embrace good old-fashioned manners. The intention is to remind visitors to be courteous to others and that the canals are a place to relax and unwind, and so if you’re in a rush you might want to consider using an alternative route.

This week canal boater’s took to social media to comment on the new towpath texts. Common comments were that cyclists travel too fast to read it and the money would have been better spent elsewhere. Some suggestions of alternative uses for spare funds were more cleaning and maintenance of the towpaths, resurfacing muddy towpaths and canal dredging. In 2015 the Canal and River Trust secured more than £10m of funding to improve our towpaths, and they’re planning a further £10m investment in the next 12 months.

Less critical comments pointed out that commissioning artists has to be a good thing, and recognised that the London Transport project Poetry on the Underground was preferable to reading advertising during a train journey.

However, art in public spaces can be viewed as extravagant when practicalities are forgotten. Opposing views described it as tacky, legalised graffiti, vandalism, degrading the canal and a waste of boat licence payers’ money.

Similar style urban pavement inscriptions have been noticed in Liverpool and Birmingham, although not necessarily on the canals. One commenter wrote,

“We have lots in Liverpool. Splish, splash, sploosh! next to a fountain being one.”

This prompted the question, “When is graffiti not graffiti then?”

Some say they would have preferred an engraved bench, with the view that spray-painted words will attracted more “unofficial” graffiti. Bridges and walls in urban areas already attract unwanted spray paint.

My personal favourite among the critical comments was,

“It’s no Banksy!”

So, does it help to invigorate the space and engage with the public, or is it an unwelcome waste of money? We’d love to hear your comments on Facebook.

Image Credit: City Road Lock

Thanks to Kate Ellis on Flickr for making this image available under a Creative Commons Licence.

Peggy Melmoth

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