At the back end of last year, I got an e-mail from Kate at Est.1761.
“We’re looking to engage people with stories of the Bridgewater Canal in Salford. I think Door-to-Door Poetry would work really well.” For those of you not familiar, Door-to-Door Poetry is a project I’ve been doing in the North East of England for 3 years. I knock on a stranger’s door and ask if they’ve got a minute. If they say yes, I do a poem that asks them what’s important to them. We have a chat about it, then I go away and write a poem about this, free of charge, before bringing it back 2 weeks later and performing it on their doorstep. It’s sort of like the Avon Lady… but with metaphors.
I’ve had all kinds of adventures so far, visiting places like a council estate in Stockton, a mosque in Newcastle and Darras Hall in Ponteland, which has the most expensive properties in the region. But the project has its sceptics as well. After a gig last August, an audience member told me there was no way this would work anywhere else in the country.
“It would only work in the North East,” they said. “People are unusually nice there.”
Clearly this was someone that hadn’t took a walk through Newcastle city centre after a home match. But I couldn’t help thinking about it when Kate got in touch. I mean, it’s fine hopping on a bus for 20 minutes and knocking on some doors down the road. Or doing it at a festival, where people are more open to that kind of thing. It’s a bit different travelling 4 hours to the other side of the country, to an area you’ve never even been to before. So it was with a mixture of excitement and fear that I replied to Kate’s message, and started talking to her about how this might work.
The idea was to visit two locations along the Bridgewater and find 3 people in each. I’d ask them what is important to them about the canal, then I’d write a poem about it. Kate explained the difference from one end to the other: The canal stretches from open rural countryside around Worsley, to a post-industrial landscape in Barton. She suggested it might be interesting to visit both sides, to explore how this difference effects the responses people give, which sounded good to me.
In fact, the more I learned about the canal, the more interested I became. The first one ever built in the UK, it’s design was a major spark of the industrial revolution. It made it possible to move huge amounts of coal from underground mines in Worsley to cities like Manchester and Liverpool. (Also, a lot of my favourite bands come from Salford, so I thought working there might make me look cool.)
In short, I agreed to do it. But as I waited for my train at Newcastle Central, I wondered how this would all pan out. I told a different audience member I was going knocking around Salford just a few weeks ago.
“Good luck,” they said, in an ominous tone. And a quick Google search for pictures of the area brought up a lot of news stories that didn’t exactly put me at ease. As well as this, I hadn’t actually done any Door-to-Door Poetry for over a year. What if I’d forgotten how to do it? What if no one had anything interesting to say about the canal? And would this even work in a much bigger place like Salford anyway? Or were the mysterious audience members right? Was I about to push my luck a bit further than I could get away with?
Captain’s Log 15/05/18 15:32
I’m in Kate’s car, heading towards the canal. She’s offered to give me a little tour of the area, so I can get my bearings. On the way we talk about how we both did English at Uni and how she was allowed to write about the Tellytubbies in her dissertation. We stop at a little car park and get out. It’s a really hot and sunny day. We walk through a small wooded area and then I see the water. The canal is famously orange because of iron oxide that comes from the underground mines where it starts. It looks a lot more orange in real life though. A photo or a video doesn’t quite do it justice- it ends up just looking brown. But no, it’s definitely a solid, dark orange. It kind of messes with your head a bit actually. I have a deep-ingrained notion of what colour a canal should be. And it’s not orange. However, optical illusion aside, this is a pretty relaxing place: We’re surrounded by trees, away from the busy road. Nothing but the sounds of birds and splooshing against the canal side.
We start the 30 minute walk to Barton. The canal as a whole is an unusual clash of images. On the way, we pass a picturesque little building in the shape of a lighthouse; a spotless blue barge floats by called the ‘Prince Henry’. Then we pass an industrial estate, filled with corrugated iron warehouses. In a more leafy section, some geese swim past with black necks, which Kate tells me are called Canada Geese, and which look very pretty. Then we head under a steel bridge that’s covered in graffiti; there’s a dead hedgehog in the water, which has inflated and bobs up and down like a beach ball.
We reach Patricroft. This is the post-industrial side of the canal, the end closest to Salford centre. We pass a 1960’s council estate, then a converted red brick factory, selling cars and mobility scooters. It has a mobility scooter stuck to the top of the wall outside, like something from the Hard Rock Café. Fisherman lounge in the sun. We pass a lot of nice boats, including one called the ‘R G Bargee’.
After a few minutes, we reach Barton Aqueduct, a massive green, steel structure and the only one like it in the world. The canal actually runs along this, over the top of another canal which runs underneath. They really like canals here. Boats can sail over the top and it can also rotate 180 degrees to let bigger ships sail underneath it as well. It’s an impressive monument to the industrial past and I still can’t really figure out how it can spin around and also have water flowing over the top....
On the way back, I look out for places I could start knocking. Barton Road runs along the canal and also has a lot of houses on it. I decide I’ll start here.
Captain’s Log 16/05/18 10:53
I set off from my B&B in Monton. It all feels a bit surreal. I can’t really believe this is actually happening. But, at the same time, I am unexpectedly at peace with the situation. I mean, yeah, there’s a bit of fear that something horrible might happen as well. But I give myself a little pep talk: It’ll be broad daylight, I’ll have the element of surprise. I just need to keep my eyes and ears open and see where this leads me.
From where I’m staying, it’s a 10 minute walk to the car park. From there it’s just a case of re-tracing my steps from yesterday. I find the canal and start to head along it. As I get to Barton, I see two Canada Geese on a very narrow stretch of path in front of me. I expect them to move when I get close, but they don’t. Instead, one of them stretches its wings out and hisses. I’m ashamed to admit it but, at this point, I am genuinely scared. I think it’s because the path is so narrow, there’s nowhere to run if it goes for me, except the water. And I don’t know if I’ve ever actually heard a goose hiss before. I mean, I know they can do it. I just don’t think I’ve heard it. It’s more like a snake than I’d ever really considered. The geese definitely don’t seem so nice anymore.
I step off the canal on to Barton Road. On my left is the water, followed by a thick row of trees, on my right is a lot of traffic, followed by a row of houses. I walk to the point where the road forks away from the canal and I spot Ermen Road, a line of 1940’s red brick terraces, which shoots off Barton Road and is still close to the canal. I decide to start here. This now feels a lot more real.
I walk towards the first door, it’s number one. I can feel my heart going now as I open the wooden gate. I step into the drive. I’m suddenly aware of every little movement I make. I forgot how weird this makes you feel. It feels like everyone is staring at you. I try to do my most casual walk and look really happy, so no one thinks I’m selling anything.
I tap on the knocker and wait. I remember that I usually count to 45 my in my head, so I do that. There’s no answer. I close the gate and walk to the next house along. No answer. The nerves calm down. I try the next door along. I hear someone coming. I’m suddenly back to a million per cent nervous. A middle aged lady answers.
“Hi, my name is Rowan and I’m doing an art project. I don’t want any money or anything, I was just wondering if you had a minute and 10 seconds to spare?”
“I’m sorry, I’m just about to feed the baby.” She shuts the door. It’s not a strong start.
I carry on along the street. A few people answer, a woman with a baby in her arms who can’t speak English; a massive man with tattoos and big muscles who says no; a girl in her in jogging pants.
“This isn’t my house,” she says.
“That doesn’t really matter to be honest.”
“I don’t have time, I’ve got to go to work.”
It’s 11 degrees today. It’s grey and my hands are cold. I really regret not bringing a jumper. And I’m starting to get a bit worried too. I’m clearly a stranger here. Is this even going to work? OK, try to relax. It’s a numbers game. I try to think about how many people I’ve turned down when they’ve knocked on the door. I start to work my way up the other side of the street.
A few houses later, a girl in her mid-twenties answers in a grey t-shirt with brown hair tied back. She says she’s got a minute! Oh my god this is it! I do my introductory poem.* I spot a little smile on the edges of her lips. She tells me her name is Steph.
“So I’m here working with Est. 1761,” I say nervously. “I’m asking what’s important about the canal and then writing poems about it.”
“It’s great now, it so much cleaner,” she says, in a smooth Manc accent. “The only thing I would say is, one time, when I was cycling, I was trying to get past this woman with all her little dogs and stuff, and I had to try and squeeze past and one of them bit me on the ankle. Or sometimes when you’re going along it, it’s really bumpy as well, because the tree roots have got under the tarmac.”
“I’m picturing a sort of obstacle course,” I say. Steph laughs.
“Where do you usually cycle?”
“To my Auntie’s in Monton.”
“So you’re trying to get to your Auntie’s in Monton. And there’s dogs biting your ankles. And bumps making you fly up and down. What else?”
“Geese, sometimes they’ve got goslings and you’ve got to try and weave around them. Or there’s tree branches hitting you in the face.” I suggest a poem about the obstacle course of trying to navigate the canal and Steph seems pleased.
“I actually write a bit of poetry myself,” she says. “I was on the radio a few years ago.” We talk about what poetry can do. “A lot of my friends aren’t really into it. They think it’s all hard to understand. But it doesn’t have to be. And words can sum up what so many people feel.” I tell Steph it’s been very special to meet her. Not only is she the first person who’s stopped to talk to me, the furthest I’ve ever done this from home, but she’s also a poet, which has made it feel even more special. We agree on a time for me to drop off the poem and I say goodbye.
Yes!! And, as if by magic, the sun suddenly comes out and the sky is completely blue. I know this could be psychological, but I’m pretty sure it’s not. I’m pretty sure this happened just at this exact moment. And I’m warm, and it’s working, and everything feels right in the world.
I decide I’ll try a different street. I go back to Barton Road. There’s some Victorian terraces that are right next to the water. I knock on a front door which appears to be a thin pair of French Windows. I’m wondering if this can even work as a front door when an older lady with blonde hair and brown eyes answers and says she has a minute.
She listens to the poem attentively and punctuates it with little sounds of acknowledgement.
“Right.” “Ah ha.” “OK.” This makes me smile. A situation like this is pretty weird, and people have different ways of dealing with it. I never announce that I’m about to do a poem, I just launch into it. And it’s not like this is happening on a stage, it’s a one-to-one interaction on a doorstep. Some people treat it like a performance. But some people do the opposite and treat it like a conversation instead, even though it rhymes. I love this. It makes me feel like The Cat in the Hat.
Her name is Andrea and, once I’m done, her husband comes to the door and shakes my hand. He’s called Alan and he looks and sounds exactly how I imagine Shaun Ryder’s dad would. I explain what I’m doing.
“Before they chopped the trees down to put the path in, there used to be a mink,” he says.
“Yeah you used to see it running around, just across the road there.”
“Did you have a name for it?”
“Well, no. We weren’t on first name terms with it,” he says.
“Or there was a rabbit that swam across the canal once,” says Andrea.
“I had no idea rabbits could swim.”
“Yeah, the birds were attacking it. So it swam across. And you know, it was pretty good at it! A man in that boat on the other side had to fish it out with a net.”
They also talk about the geese. I mention my run in on the way here.
“Ah there’s nothing to worry about with the geese,” says Alan. “You just walk towards them with your arms out.”
“It’s the swans you want to watch out for,” adds Andrea. Despite this, they tell me they’ve seen geese stop traffic here before. I look around. This road is really busy. No matter what they say about the swans, it seems to me like the geese definitely boss this canal. I take some details so I can deliver their poem.
“You’re not MI6 are you?” says Alan. I tell him it would be a very elaborate cover. I wave goodbye to him and Andrea and head on my way.
What a result! I realise I’ve found 2 of the 3 people I need, and I’ve barely covered any stretch of the canal at all. I decide I’ll walk back to Hall Bank, where the 60’s council houses are that I passed on the way here. It seems right to try some different kinds of buildings. I pass the geese again. One of them hisses, again. I get scared and stick my arms out, but it just seems to make it more angry. I get to the houses I had in mind but, as I walk closer to them, I see they’re all flats with intercoms outside. In fact, as I walk around the area, I see all the houses here have intercoms, which is just no good for getting hold of people. I’ve tried it before. It’s much harder to explain the concept of a Door-to-Door Poet to someone over an intercom; they’re more inclined to think it’s an elaborate practical joke. I carry on along the water.
I try a row of semi-detached houses on Aldred Street. Their backs are facing the canal, so I have to walk around. It must be the end of the day at the local high school. The street is now teeming with students, the stench of lynx permeates the hot air. One man comes out in a cerci cap, holding a load of tiny plastic bottles.
“I can’t talk now. My fish are dying.”
I cross a bridge back onto Barton Road and try a few houses on the canal front. Then I turn into a row of red brick terraces, Arthur Street. In the first house, a black cat leaps out of the shrubbery at me. A few doors down, a woman answers with a dog barking in the background. She seems interested by the poem but interrupts in the middle.
“There’s nothing I really think about the canal,” she says. “We just use it for fishing.”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for.”
“Well it’s not me who does the fishing really, it’s my husband.”
“What do you use it for?”
“You’ve never been down there at all?”
“No.” I say thanks anyway. I’m worried I might have got a bit cocky here. I cross the road.
A few doors down, a man answers who’s about 6 foot 2; muscular, tattoos, with shorts and a grey vest. Without wanting to, my brain has already decided this guy is not going to be in to poetry. I ask him if he has a minute anyway.
“Yeah no worries,” he says. I do the poem and his eyes light up. His son, who’s probably about 4, comes to the door holding a bottle of chocolate milkshake. They both listen and watch. It’s obvious my worries about this guy not enjoying poetry were very wrong. The man is called Chris, and his son is also called Chris. I explain what I’m doing.
“Do you want to come in?” says big Chris. “I’m just making the tea.”
I walk through the living room, past little Chris and his older brother, and head into the kitchen.
“Do you want a burger?” says big Chris. I say no thanks, but agree to a cup of tea. Chris seems lovely and the fact he invited me in means a lot. He carries on making food for his family, while making me a cuppa, while talking to his oldest son about his homework and helping me with my poetry project. Thus proving, once and for all, that men can actually multi-task.
I ask Chris what’s important to him about the canal.
“The only thing I can think is, about 10 years ago, on New Year’s Eve, my mate Lee ice skated along it from here to the pub.”
This is exactly the kind of story I was hoping to find… Exactly.
“What pub was it?”
“The Rock Hotel. It was about 9 o’clock and we were walking along the other side of the street. All of a sudden, he ran across the road, through all the grass and stuff, cos it was all overgrown then. I wasn’t expecting it, he just jumped on. I suppose the New Year mood must have took hold. At first, he went on his belly. And then he skated across it like an ice skater.”
“It must have been a bit scary.”
“Oh yeah, I mean if he fell in he would have died.”
“And I suppose the canal wouldn’t have been the same as it is now?”
“No, it wasn’t nice then, it was scruffy.”
Chris decides to ring Lee. He puts on the speakerphone.
“Lee, do you remember when you went ice skating along the canal?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve done that loads of times.”
“Well I’ve got this poet here, he’s going to write about it.” Lee clearly thinks this is a wind up. But it’s hilarious to see how excited they both get when he realises it isn’t.
“And I bet you’ve invited him in for a cup of tea haven’t you!?”
“That’s exactly what I’ve just done mate.”
“What a guy!” We all laugh.
Me and Chris get a picture and I leave him to his meal. It’s the perfect place to end. From initially feeling like he wouldn’t even want to get involved, to being welcomed into his house the way I have, it’s been an important reminder not to judge a book by its cover. I’ve been given three interesting topics for a poem and I suppose I’ve also learned that this can definitely work along the Bridgewater Canal. And if it can work here, what’s to say it can’t work anywhere? I stand by the water in the blazing sunshine. This has been a properly lovely day, it’s reminded me why I love doing this.
*I’m a Door-to-Door Poet
and I know that sounds quite crazy,
but this could be worse though:
I could be the Avon Lady.
I’m not here selling potions
to give you magic skin,
I just want to ask a question
that I hope you’ll find exciting.
In school they taught me poetry’s bust,
wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust
on country manors, deathly shrouds,
serious lords and fluffy clouds.
I found it quite hard to relate,
I grew up on a rough estate;
walls thin as paper used to trace;
the clouds an endless tone of grey.
I want to make poetry exciting,
like bungee jumping but less frightening.
And what I’m here to ask about
is this canal next to your house.
Tell me about Bridgewater.
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll stick it in a poem,
or at least have a decent go at it.
Maybe you go sailing there,
watch dragonflies at play.
Maybe you know facts
on how the aqueduct was made.
Maybe you fell in once,
turned an Oompa-Loompa colour.
I don’t know, if I decide for you
then it’s much duller.
So cheers for listening to these verses
I hope I got across my purpose.
Don’t slam the door, don’t be nervous,
the Door-to-Door Poet is at your service.