I leave Nantwich to the sound of canned steel drumming, popular English songs being played Jamaican style by two larger than life Jamaica men looking most incongruous in the church square as they hawk their CDs.
I can follow the Shropshire Union canal all the way to Market Drayton, my first Shropshire town, but I don’t, I bypass the first 4 or five miles, choosing a back road instead to avoid the site of an old military secret nuclear bunker. There are signposts for it even on my quiet back road, and several tiny housing estates of no more than a dozen houses, incongruous, council terrace style, stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, which must have once housed the workers.
As soon as this new tourist attraction (!) is passed I pick up the canal tow path and follow it to Audlem. It is a nice walk although there is a point at which the farmer has left his field open to the canal so his cattle can drink from it and when they see me the most eager gets into the water but fortunately doesn’t quite seem to know how to manoeuvre in it and the others decide not to follow. As I near the village some barges are moored on the same bank as I and a dog doesn’t want me to walk past his boat. He is on the path and I have to stop whilst his young owner tries to tempt him back on board with doggy treats. As I wait the party of surveyors I have seen earlier with one of those wheels on a stick they use come back along the path. I tell them about the dog and get talking to one of them.
As we negotiate the dog he tells me the tale of the Winter of 70-71 when he and a pal ice skated all the way to Nantwich and got there before the transport that had gone there to pick them up did. He says it was a great thing to do, the ice was so thick, and it being such a lovely stretch.
He is very proud of the work his village have done to the canal and indeed the path here in Shropshire is paved and is apparently open for cyclists all the way to Newport, two days walk away. He points out the new information boards that have been placed periodically along the walk and I stop to read them.
I learn many things; like that there are 5 locks, one after another, at Audlem to raise the water the mile and a half needed to raise the level of the canal from Cheshire Plain level to the higher Shropshire plain.
I read about Thomas Telford’s last project; the Shropshire Union canal, and that the Audlem lock was the last lock he worked on before his death. The large conglomerate of settlements that I will reach two days hence was named for him in 1968, in recognition of all his engineering feats. I discover that the Shropshire Union was the first canal to be built so straight; previously they had followed the contours of the land. It took 3 years and 1600 workers to build it, with many hold ups for slippage.
I stop at the Bridge Inn by the canal side at Audlem and have a lovely, cheap meal and check my e mails on their free wifi connection. Audlem really caters for its visitors and even has a canal side shop in an old mil selling eco products and organic produce. Boaters nowadays have a very different lifestyle to the boat people of not so very long ago.
One of the canal side information boards describes the life of these largely forgotten people. To start with the men would go out their boats to work on the canals but the coming of the railway meant wages got lower and lower till the men could no longer afford to keep a house for their wives and children and so they brought them with them on the boats where they all helped with the work, often from 5am to 10pm without meal breaks, come rain or shine.
The children brought up on the boats, sometimes as many as 10 in a family, could often neither read nor write, and some spent their entire lives on the boats, rarely stepping foot on land. The boats were the people’s pride and joy; the brass work always kept polished and the woodwork freshly painted. It is a bizarre thing now to watch the boaters go by leisurely, only the pride in their boats’ appearance in common with their forbearers on the canals.
I discover from the internet that it is St Swithin’s day today. Legend has it that when the Winchester monk died he asked to be buried outside where the people would tread over him and the rain would fall on him but 9 years later on the 15th July the other monks dug him to inter him in style inside the church and it rained a mighty storm.
The old wives tale says it will rain for 40 days after the 15th, or be sunny depending on what it does on that day. A comment on the webpage I randomly browse suggests it’s surely a recognition of a settling weather pattern and I am inclined to agree. The monks may well have picked the day deliberately to bury him indoors as they were sure it was going to rain extensively and that would wash his grave to the surface. Some people then must still have known how to read the weather patterns the way indigenous peoples can; ways we have now lost in our disconnection with the natural world. We are not out in it long enough and in the same place over generations as people once were to become sensitised to the signs.
The monks could well have had this knowledge. It makes sense that the people would have had a tradition of thinking ahead and studying the weather around this time, before Lammas at the beginning of August, as this signalled harvest time and it mattered whether it rained or was hot in the following month in terms of whether to get the crops in early or later in the year.
My father, who will be 83 later this month, and spent all his life up to retirement in the same place brought up by two elderly maiden aunts who had lived in the place all of their lives and knew a great deal about the use of local plants, has often said that when he was young they expected it to rain a lot in July, and that it was June and September that were the fair months, at least in Lancashire where they knew.
I wonder if the tale of the 15th July is simply local knowledge for that area being passed on through the tale of the old wives (or wise women). Local or national, I am still delighted when it doesn’t rain all day, held off by the wind that keeps the clouds high and blowing on through.
For walking I obviously would prefer fair weather though I often think of Edward Acland at Sprint Mill in Cumbria and his feeling for the parched earth, and hope that there is just enough rain and not a drop too much!
I arrive in Market Drayton, I haven’t enjoyed walking much today though there was no reason why I shouldn’t have done; it didn’t rain till I arrived in the town, just a quick 5 minute shower let through by a temporary halt in the wind, minutes before I found the B&B, and it was flat easy tow path walking all the way.
But I am feeling the lack of transition company, no new projects to gather for days, no transition towns to be found, I am not a fervid long distance walker, walking all day for its own sake holds no magic for me, especially when there are the daily perils of farmers who might put their cows before humans, and dogs off leashes to contend with; without an inspiriting transition story to feed me the grey northern skies are depressing and I just long to be back home in the southern counties.
Market Drayton should be gorgeous, thriving, and vibrant. It has everything going for it and the tourist leaflets are full of it. It is set in rolling Shropshire countryside which is more interesting than the flat Cheshire plains, it has been a market town for centuries, and in spite of a fire just a few years before the great fire of London, it still has a few of its old Tudor black and white buildings, and it retains an old style feel in its layout. It is not vibrant however, it is poor, really poor; boarded up shops and houses abound. Even the pubs and hotels are sad; their paintwork peeling, their interiors shabby, the customers stare at me as though they have never seen anyone new in town before, and the prices on the menus are so cheap (I see chilli advertised at £2 a bowl outside one dilapidated old pub) it’s hard to believe they are real, and the choices in many so bad it’s like going in to an eighties transport caf. The walkers’ B&B on the edge of the town near the canal where I am staying have recommended one that is slightly better; the fishcakes and chips are cooked from frozen, but edible, and the barmaid is pleasant and efficient and even serves me a camomile and mint tea in a teapot. The decor and furnishings are still poor though, telling the sad tale of no money, and no prospect of any for a while to come.
I have seen more pubs boarded up and gone out of business on this walk through our northern lands than I have ever seen; it was particularly striking in Cheshire.
Boy racers tear around the streets and gangs of loud mouthed girls in tiny skirts and lipstick roam the centre in the rain. In the pub where I dine a couple tell their friend about the joys of raising teenage children. They are clearly afraid of their 15 year old girl and say they’d rather have raised 10 boys, and yet at the same they are somehow proud; she is not afraid to watch the blood thirsty Spartacus film her father is. Their young boy goes to bed and smokes, they can smell it but dare not say anything. Another few of their friends come in, a woman says she needs some of the hard stuff and they laugh and sympathise. I am reminded of the gin drinking mothers that the Stones sang about in “Mothers Little Helper” and the reason for drinking chocolate first being invented at the Quaker village of Bourneville; to try and get the women off the gin.
In the street below my bedroom window a man shouts angrily, desperately, for his lover, rather like a new born will scream for his mother; no notion in his need that she is a separate entity. Far from collecting inspiring tales of positive change here I am seeing and hearing the consequences of the regime of our dying age, the deprivation many of our people are experiencing in these days of the end of cheap oil; the cleanest, neatest, brightest, most hopeful of all the businesses is the Netto supermarket…
In a wide belt stretching from Northern Yorkshire to the Southern Lancashire mill towns and all the way down here in Shropshire, there do not seem to be so many transition towns, what there are amongst the small pockets of enterprise, beauty, and inspiring projects, are a great many disempowered people; like so much flotsam on the dying sea of capitalist opportunity. I feel a little as if I am in someone’s nightmare, or on a film set for a film about the Great Depression, for, in many ways, artificial holding of oil prices to keep the economy alive cannot mask the harsh reality of the end of the industrial era for many of the people who worked in it. They are still here, no jobs to go to, no hopes to pass on to their children, drinking themselves in to oblivion, and all the while doing that British stiff upper lip thing and acting as if it is all normal and carrying on.
What will it take for them to wake up? After all, it took me 14 years of living in the sun stroked land of Brazil and a further 5 in balmy soft and gentle Devon and a great deal of soul searching to rid me of my feelings of hopelessness at having been born in a northern town. There are people here who do not know they hold the answers to their own happiness, people who still believe the doctor knows best, and that to be employed is safer than striking out alone; following your dream, and making something of your life. There are people here who will soldier on in to a drunken grave, terrified of the monster offspring they have reared, with no sense of responsibility for themselves or for the society they find themselves in. This too is a picture of 2010; there isn’t even a veneer of positive change here, just a very steep slope down into decay and mindless escapism.