Captain’s Log 13/06/18 12:33
I’m stood under some sycamore trees in Worsley village centre, looking at two massive houses: A Victorian mansion, with a slate roof and arched windows that sits right on the canal; a four storey Tudor-looking house, with slanted black beams and white paint. This is the last place I’m going knocking along the Bridgewater and I’ve decided I’m going to try something a bit different.
I’m on the opposite end of the canal to Barton and, in a way, this is the opposite kind of place as well. There’s no more red brick terraces and council flats. I’ve been told this is where the millionaires live. And there’s now a whole other kind of fear kicking in. Despite my best efforts, I can’t help but feel like the people here aren’t going to be interested in this. And there’s something about approaching such a big property uninvited, I can only liken it to being a kid and preparing to knock on a door with the intention of running away; the feeling that you’re disturbing authority, that you’re doing something very wrong.
But I try to remind myself that this is prejudice. I don’t have any evidence to prove what people here are like or what they’re interested in. And I think back to how terrified I was doing this in Patricroft and how, by the time I came back to drop off the poems, I felt comfortable. Not just comfortable at the doors of the people I’d met either, the experience changed the way I felt about the whole area. So, with that in mind, I decide I’m going to start with this big Tudor-looking house on the water. To hell with the consequences. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
I pass Worsley Delph, the spot of the underground mine which led to the whole construction of the canal. I’ve been told that Worsley was an industrial area till it was inherited by Francis Egerton, Third Earl of Ellesmere in 1837. He believed it was "a God-forsaken place, full of drunken, rude people with deplorable morals" and he went about trying to make it more civilised. His solution was to commission these anachronistic buildings which, even at the time, looked old-fashioned, referencing a grand Shakespearian England that never quite existed. It gives the whole place a really weird vibe, like visiting a Disneyland that’s 200 years old. Still, when the local pub looks like a palace and does 2 for 1 on cocktails, you’ve got to admire the man’s dedication to making drunkenness look a bit more classy.
I head up some stone steps on to the Worsley Bridge and stand in front of a busy road. Kate gave me a little tour of the area yesterday, so I roughly know my way around. But from this point forward, finding the door to the Tudor house is all guess work. I decide the part that’s facing the water is probably the back of the building. So, to get the front, I head left, away from the water. I still feel like I’m doing something really wrong. It strikes me that, to a degree, that’s exactly what these buildings were designed to do- to intimidate people. You can almost hear them say, ‘You are drunken and rude and I am in charge, now get yourself to church and keep your bloody head down.’ I tell you what, right now it’s working.
I walk down the road, expecting to find a right turn any minute, something leading me to the front door. Instead, I pass a big metal gate. There’s just one problem: It has an intercom. Readers may remember I’ve been in this situation before. Intercoms are much more difficult, it’s very hard to describe what a Door-to-Door Poet is at the best of times. But there’s a lot less doors to choose from here than in Barton. I decide that, if I’m really going to try this, I’m going to have to get used to ringing intercoms.
I walk up to the gate and press the button. Nothing happens. No ringing sound, no nothing. I wait a few seconds, then decide that, either nobody is home, or whoever is home doesn’t want to answer. Just as I think this, the gate opens automatically. I step cautiously into a drive covered in gravel. There’s a sports car on the far side and, past that, I can see the canal. I’m definitely in the right place. But what do I do now? There’s a door to my left, a small white conservatory door. I see someone start to open it, a middle aged man with short grey hair and a white t-shirt.
“Sorry, the intercom’s broken,” he says, in a broad North West accent.
I explain what I’m doing and ask if he has a minute. I do my intro poem.* Once I’m done, we shake hands and he tells me his name is Mark.
“So basically Mark, I’m asking what’s important to people about the canal and writing a poem about it.” Mark seems happy to help, but a little daunted by my request.
“What do you want to know?” he says, in a way that sounds a little overwhelmed. I tell him anything, as long as it’s about the canal. “Well you know about the orange water? It used to be a lot more orange. When I first moved here 20 years ago it looked like tomato soup.”
“How did you feel about that?”
“Mixed feelings really. On the one hand, it was nice to live somewhere so near to the water. On the other, it was difficult explaining to visitors why it was such a strange colour.”
At this point, a car pulls into the drive. A young girl gets out, who I assume is Mark’s daughter, followed by an older lady, who I think is his mam.
“Hello,” I say. “I’m writing some poems about the canal.”
“OK,” says the lady, as if this is the most everyday thing in the world. “Good luck with it.”
“I can’t think of anything to tell you really,” says Mark, once they’ve went inside. “I had hoped to get some mooring rights to put a barge at the end of our garden. But they’re going to remove a metre or so of silt, so you wouldn’t be able to get a boat down there. When I mentioned it to the family they said ‘What the hell do you want a boat for?’”
“I think it’s a great idea,” I say.
“Yeah!” says Mark, suddenly more animated. “I used to work in London 30 years ago and I’d drive through Little Venice and see all the house boats there. It was expensive even then to buy a flat and I remember thinking ‘I could live on a barge’. It seemed quite romantic. But it wasn’t to be. And the family showed no enthusiasm whatsoever,” he adds wistfully.
I suggest a poem about being the only one in the family who wants a boat. About how everyone else thinks you’re having some kind of crisis. But it’s a secret passion you’ve harboured your whole life. Mark seems to like this.
“What would you do on your ideal day on a boat?” I ask.
“I’d probably just sail it down to the pub,” he says. “I think that would be sufficient.” And I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Mark here. In a place like this, you’d be forgiven for thinking this man has everything in the world. Yet here I am, confronted with the tragedy of someone who just wants to sail his barge down to the local.
As I’m leaving, another lady, who I assume is Mark’s wife, comes to the door.
“Rowan’s going to write me a poem about how I want a barge but no one else in the family thinks I should have one,” Mark says, excitedly. The lady laughs, but nods at me in a way that seems to suggest I’ve chosen my side on the matter: I’ve joined the underdog; it seems Mark’s no longer outnumbered quite so badly; I’m providing ammunition in a battle that she assumed was won long ago. I feel a strange sense of responsibility. And I kind of like it.
I head back the way I came. I’m making good progress here, I’ve met 2 of the 3 people I need and it’s only been an hour. The question is, where to go next? It feels like I’ve definitely ticked the ‘big Victorian house’ box. I need a change of location. And I think of the new-build houses I passed on the way here, a little further down the canal. This seems to make sense. So far, all the places I’ve been to have been quite old, many of the residents have lived there for a long time. This could be interesting. I make my way there, walking over a cobbled bridge, across a big patch of grass known as Worsley Green, then I take a right down Boatyard Lane on to Water's Way.
The first thing I notice is that all the houses here are completely identical; the exact same red brick, the exact same white paint, the exact same black door, the exact same white doorbell. A plastic plant and an Audi in every drive. I try a few houses and get nothing. It’s disorientating because it feels like you’re just going to the same house over and over again. Then, about 3 doors in, a man answers who looks quite jolly- like a stereotypical cartoon of a friendly German, but minus the lederhosen. I start doing my intro poem* and, as I do, his neighbour comes outside on his way to the car. I occasionally look over to him as he stares back, utterly confused.
But the man who answered seems to be really enjoying it. So much so that something amazing happens: He decides he wants a poem before I even finish. This has never happened to me before. He closes the front door and leads me over to a couple of garden chairs on the front lawn. I carry on with the poem the entire time, partly due to a commitment to finishing it, but partly because I don’t really know how to handle this situation. By the time we’ve both sat down, I’m getting to the end.
His name is Robert. I explain why I’m here.
“OK,” he says. There’s an awkward pause. “Do you want to ask me some questions?” Robert’s lived here since the houses were built 4 years ago. He moved from New York, where he worked in banking.
“It must be a lot quieter here,” I suggest.
“The canal is nearly as busy on a weekend. You don’t get that much traffic on the Hudson these days.” I ask him if the canal had anything to do with the move. “Well, my son lives in Manchester, so I moved to be near him. And Worsley is a bit of an oasis.”
I ask him why.
“It’s like a little village. You’ve got historical buildings, the village green, woodland areas. It gives you a feeling of being out in the country but you’re very close to the city. And there’s good places to walk your dog. You see all sorts. Herons. Swans. The odd cow in the canal,” he adds, casually.
“No way?” I say.
“It was on the news.”
“What happened next?”
“Eventually they got some ropes around it and managed to get it out. And there was another one that just got stuck on the street down here for a bit. There were a lot of people stood around trying to find out which farmer it belonged to.”
After chatting a bit longer, Robert tells me he needs to go. So I make my goodbyes, feeling like I can’t really believe my luck here. Not a single person has turned me down today and I’ve finished the whole round of knocking in an hour and 55 minutes- a personal best. I find it interesting that I felt so intimidated at the start of the day and yet people have been so keen to get involved. It reminds me how often our pre-convictions can be wrong; that you can’t really tell what people are going to be like until you’ve given them a chance. This feels like a good place to end.
* 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 squares 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.