Afloat on birdsong, hawthorn petals and young leaves
June 5, 2022

Caught in a Rhyme

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On the week that the cygnets of our swan pair hatched, we explore the rather contradictory nature of the canal through the eyes of poets Jo Bell, Nancy Campbell, and Ian MacMillan. We find romance amidst the unromantic and beauty in the unbeautiful.  

Journal entry:

 1st June, Wednesday

"Heron, streak of grey light, 
 Standing on the bank, 
 Coverletted in Moon's-Eye
 And the first flush of poppies of the season.

Rain falls as needles of sunlight. 
 The heron preens for a while
 And then is gone."

Episode Information:

In ‘News from the Moorings’ I refer to Mark Nicolaides’ beautiful and exceptionally informative website on the swan: Swan Life. You can read more about swans’ nesting and hatching behaviours in the section: Incubating Eggs.

Vegetation growing on lockgates
One of the things I enjoy when going through locks is encountering the little ecosystems that they sustain. Mildew, weed and plants suited to dank, wet conditions grow on the walls. Here (on the Grand Union) one of the lockgates has quite an established season's worth of vegetation on it!

There is a very good collection of canal-themed poetry on the Poetry Society’s website where, in conjunction with the Canal and River Trust (CRT), there is a section that includes works from past and present ‘Canal Laureates’: Waterlines.

In this episode I read the following poems:

Jo Bell - ‘How to Live on a Boat

Jo Bell – ‘Frozen In

Nancy Campbell (2018) – ‘Recipe for a Towpath Garden

Ian MacMillan – ‘Canal Life

For information about Pete Tuffrey’s paintings see his Etsy page.

I am not sure how current Pete’s Etsy page is as most of his more recent artwork appears to be on his Facebook page:

You can also follow Pete on Twitter: 

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Ericaon our website at

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

For pictures of Ericaand images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 



 1st June, Wednesday

"Heron, streak of grey light, 
 Standing on the bank, 
 Coverletted in Moon's-Eye
 And the first flush of poppies of the season.

Rain falls as needles of sunlight. 
 The heron preens for a while
 And then is gone."



In the damp, grey light of Monday morning news began to filter down the moorings that the cygnets were hatching. The afternoon before, Jan had stopped by to say that she thought that it would be any day now. I had also noted that there were far more feathers on the nest and the female was becoming more active. Rather than, long periods where she lay, head tucked under a wing, somehow, she seemed more attentive. Jan said how swans (and ducks) and their unhatched chicks talk to each other. Building that bond, that will hold and protect them in the new world that awaits for them. 

Mark Nicolaides' beautifully informative website, 'Swan Life', states that:

"The first vocalisations are made when the potential hatchling is still inside the egg, about forty eight hours before emergence. This is the first time the bird will directly communicate with its mother and the other cygnets. It is nature’s way of telling the pen and cob that hatching is imminent and for all the other potential hatchlings to ‘time’ their emergence so all of them hatch on the same day." 

We are all pretty protective of the swans and so are very careful to keep our distance. This year, because of where the nest was positioned, we couldn't even be sure how many eggs had been laid. We'd guessed around four or five. It turned out that there were actually five. 

By the time I went passed, the pen had arched her wings over her brood. No cygnets could be seen, but a continual movement and ruffling of her flight feathers, indicated her brood had hatched. The route is some distance from the nest and it is frequently in use, so the swans are used to seeing us. From time to time, and more recently with increasing frequency, the cob has been patrolling it in, what might be described as a robustly assertive manner! Not full busk, the aggressive, wings raised, neck arched right back and chest feathers pumped up, just the en-garde stance and a few jabs with an open beak if within range! That was probably another signal, but I didn't really pick up on it, at the time.

A little later on, I could see that both the parents had moved off the nest, both were preening. Four little dirty grey fluff balls with tennis ball heads, bobbed and preened with them. One egg had not hatched.   


In other water fowl news (and also on Monday!) I had a bit of a run-in with one of the ducks. At the moment, in the stern, we have a container of tomato plants that are coming along nicely - although not nearly so advanced as Vanessa's on the Alice Grace! Anyway, shortly after Donna had planted out the seedlings and we had judged that the likelihood of frosts were not high, we placed the container alongside the boat. In less than an afternoon, I was aware of a bit of a disturbance outside, look out, to discover a duck, having a whale of a time digging them all up, earth and tomato plants inscribing a perfect arc through the air, as she settled down to making a nest in it. We had words and, in a very disgruntled - and, to my mind, bad tempered way - she waddled off into the distance, chuntering bad naturedly to her mate. 

Since then, we have decided to keep ALL the containers inside under the pram canopy over the stern. It actually works really well as it effectively acts as a greenhouse. 

I was filling up with water on Monday. In order to do so, I have to remove the planters are sitting on the top of the stern box in which we keep the hose. Rather than placing them on the stern boards, I decided to put them outside. It looked like it might rain and, as they could have done with a bit of watering, I put them all beside the boat. After the water tank was filled and a few outside jobs were completed, I wandered up to the containers to give them a water - it hadn't rained. 

There, flung across an area of surprisingly large circumference, were strewn a number of our treasured tomato plants. There, where they had been carefully replanted from the former traumatic abuse, lay a mallard with a glint in her eye. Again, we had words. I retrieved the rather battered and limp plants and she decided that this was too much and left. When to my horror I noticed that she had already laid an egg! Fortunately, it was not on the boat, because if it was, we are legally not allowed to move the boat until all eggs are hatched! I went off and scrounged another container and some compost for the tomatoes from Jan and Karl - who kindly obliged. Actually, I needn't have bothered. After only an hour or two later, the egg had gone. Seagulls and magpies particularly are targeting the ducks’ nests. 

Unfortunately, when ducks lay (swans also do this), they will often leave their nests with their eggs in plain sight, until the last egg is laid. It is only then, that they will sit on the nest. This means some nests can have 8 or 9 eggs, completely visible and left unprotected. It always strikes me as a serious flaw in their breeding strategy.   



What is the best way to convey what it is like to be living on a boat or to live on the canal The two are almost the same, but not quite. They're two separate ecologies that are intertwined. I am not talking here about living on a boat on the sea or even a river, but on a boat on a canal. There are different centralities to each, different preoccupations. 

In here, we create our own world of living. Comfortable (hopefully), cosy (when needed), dry (please!!). The beauty of the rain rattling on the hatch is because the hatch is there and closed! I love living on a boat, for all its frustrations and hard work. But it is also our world, that gently sways with our movement or a passing boat. That creaks and groans in the night as it cools. That, if we stay for long in one place, becomes accepted by the ducks and passing swans and even - if we're still enough - moorhens. And they peck at the waterline on the hull as if we were as friendly and as an accepted part of the landscape as the tangled banks of ash root and bramble.  And then we move. Perhaps, the best way is through poetry.

There has been a strong tradition of canal poets. I know that there are a lot of poets and writers out there. One of the things that I am interested in doing is using this podcast to cast more of a light on their work and the growing literary landscape of the canals - and night-time. If you are one - or know of someone who writes, please get in touch with me. 

Jo Bell was the canal laureate from 2013 - 15. Her canal themed poems are clear evidence of someone who knows the canals, and boats, and life aboard.

Jo Bell

‘How to live on a boat’



But it is the canal waters on which we live that give so much character and inform the changing shapes of our lives. This is because it is such an often contradictory relationship. In one of the early episodes, Down the Cut, I talked about the canal as this liminal land - Janus like - twin faced; a natural unnatural space, the vein of countryside and nature pulsing into the urban worlds of towns and cities. An unnatural natural space, human made, gouged out of the bedrock with pick axe and shovel, threading the industrial landscape deep within the countryside. 

In many ways there is NOTHING romantic about the cut. One of the reasons that canals like the Oxford canal are so popular as holiday destinations is that it doesn't look like the cut. It was designed by contouring, following the contours of the rolling Oxfordshire hillsides as closely as possible to keep the cut trench level. This gives it its winding appearance river-like appearance (and lack of many locks). 

Most canals are as straight as surveyors and landowners and geology allowed it, intersected by the heavy mechanics of lock gears and their attendant cottages, wharfs and loading sites. Stretch upon stretch bordered by the dull grey corrugated metal of Armco -not that I am complaining - Armco is wonderful way to secure your mooring. But it is not, to my eye, picturesque. It is not, in that sense romantic...

Nor is life floating on it. Its waters are dull, thick, sluggish. Not the living waters rivers, which, by its very definition is moving. These are the still waters of our title - Nighttime on Still Waters. I got the phrase from Ernest Temple Thurston's Flower of Gloster. Tom Rolt also uses it a couple of time to describe the canal in his classic Narrow Boat. Still waters - although, made famous by its appearance in Psalm 23 - the Shepherd God  'He leadeth me beside the still waters'. Listen to any bushcrafter or TV survivalist, and you'll know that still waters are rarely good. Rank, contaminated, stagnant - if you want to survive head for the streams, the running water, filled with air and light. 

Actually the 'still' in Psalm 23 is from the Hebrew menuchah - to rest. It is more likely that these were the pools where the sheep (and their shepherds) could rest - rather than referring to the quality of the water itself. 'He leads me beside the waters of rest.'  

Even Rolt and Temple Thurston acknowledged that still waters could be unsavoury. Temple Thurston insisted (against Eynsham Harry's advice) to go up to Birmingham. He got passed Knowle locks and was so horrified by the foulness of the waters, filled with the bloated bodies of dead dogs and cats, that he conceded his mistake and turned to take the altogether more bucolic Stratford upon Avon canal down to Stratford and then onto the Avon.  

Fortunately, the canals have been cleaned up a lot since then. All boaters I know are extremely careful about what goes into the canal - our sinks, showers, and basins flow directly into the canal. Consequently, for the most part, only the most environmentally friendly soaps are used. without the luxury (although I use the term lightly) of closed sewers and waste systems, we can see first-hand what damage our waste can do. Even so, the water is murky, cloudy, oily skin and algae can form on the surface in hot weather. It can also sometimes have a sharp scent that scratches the nostrils. Detritus gets caught in the rushes and reeds that line the banks. 

In the winter, the towpaths are a painful quagmire of slimy, sucking mud. 

It is not romantic at all...     

... and yet, of course it is.     

I remember a number of years ago that a friend of mine went on a personal retreat to, I think, Dartmoor - it was one of the high moors in the west country. He took with him a single-person tent, some food and some books. His aim was to find a secluded spot and just stay there for a couple of days. A modern-day hermit in Goretex. However, as soon as he pitched his tent, the heavens opened and there was a deluge of rain that lasted the entire time. 

When he got home, we emailing each other and he said, "You know, Richard, there is nothing remotely romantic about being stuck in a small tent on wild moorland in sweeping rain and gales."

And you know, reading that, I could think of nothing more romantic!! There is nothing better than curling up in bed -or in an armchair - with a storm lashing against the window panes and reading about someone battling against the elements!  

Jo Bell, again, 

‘Frozen In’



For me, the best canal poems capture this slightly conflicted aspect of the canals. Embracing its peculiar beauties and charms - and it has so many - whilst acknowledging its less attractive side. 

This contrapuntal relationship is hinted at in Nancy Campbell's  'Recipe for a Towpath Garden'. While its focus is on the wild flowers, the setting is deliberately less natural. 

Nancy Campbell’s ‘Recipe for a Towpath Garden’



For me, one of the best poems that captures this contradictory nature is:

Canal Life

by Ian McMillan