How Canal Paddling Led To A Life-changing Realisation For One Woman

ALYS FOWLER on the peace and clarity that came with GETTING OUTDOORS

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In 2015 I unpacked a bright red inflatable boat and blew it up in my living room. My small dog looked warily on, I looked warily on. The boat doesn’t look much more sophisticated than a blow-up child’s dingy. I put together the folding paddle and sat in the boat imagining what it would be like on the water.

Several hours later I’d learnt very quickly what that was like. I’d launched the boat into the Birmingham canals by the Mailbox in the centre of town and spent a very terrifying hour being blown from one side to another in high winds. I’d failed to listen to the weather report and there was a gale blowing the usually calm waters of the canals into a choppy maelstrom. Inflatable boats don’t do well in high winds. If it was a little scary, it was also thrilling and once I was back on the tow path, a little drenched but safely ashore, I was already plotting when and where to get back in. Somewhere less peopled perhaps and thus less embarrassing to be seen thrashing around.

Over the following year I became very adept at canal paddling, learning how to launch myself into improbable spaces, visiting silted up side canals, exploring disused canal buildings, following herons, peering into shallow corners to watch pike whip beneath the boat and botanising the wayside waterweeds.

Birmingham’s canals became my urban playground for unlikely adventures. My friends Ming and Sarah bought a boat and often our evening paddles would take us out to the city limits where fields took the place of carparks and factories and we’d line the bottom of our boats with beer, kept perfectly cool from the water, to have impromptu picnics amongst waterlilies.

My boat packs down into an ordinary rucksack and I became so enamoured with paddling that I’d take my boat and my folding bike at any opportunity, just in case I could get a couple of hours paddling.

I pinned a faded 1960s map I bought in a charity shop to the wall of my study and coloured in the thin lines of the canals as I paddled them in green ink. Soon a spidery second map appeared, one where despite the often central city location I found kingfishers and banks of wildflowers. The Cut, as the canal is known in Birmingham, is often hewn straight into the landscape so towering banks of 100 year-old trees create a cathedral like experience. Despite its industrial past and the considerable pollution that legacy left, the canal has become a wildlife corridor that ribbons through the city. You can spend hours meeting very few people, it’s peaceful to paddle, walk or bike along these green paths away from the traffic and bustle of the city above.

Paddling the Birmingham Canal Network started off as a city adventure, an unlikely way to get to know the hidden bits of my city, but it also became something else for me. The calm of the canals also brought me space to examine my own life. During this period, I realised that I was on a different sort of journey, personally. The introspection that came with hours of paddling alone allowed me to come to terms with something that was changing inside me. I realised that I was falling in love with a woman, that I couldn’t ignore any longer that my sexuality had changed. This meant not merely admitting this to myself, but ending my marriage to my husband. And then telling the woman I was falling in love with and who I now proudly call my girlfriend.

It is sometimes hard to write about the joy that the canals brought me because for every sentence that acknowledges this, there is one for all the heartbreak and pain that happened then too. Coming out doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, for that is a fleeting thing at best, but it does bring peace. Writing my book, Hidden Nature, then became a way to explore that peace both internally and externally. I never expected to write this book, but it unfurled the way spring does. For one season to happen you have to say goodbye to another, for change to occur you have to accept a future over the loss of a past. The nature and wildlife that inhabits a canal is the sort that can cope with change; being manmade, water systems canals are far from being stable, building their own unique ecology in surprising ways. Watching nature cling to unlikely places and survive taught me that I too could do the same.

Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20.

Alys Fowler will be taking part in Ballymaloe LitFest this weekend, May 19-21. www.litfest.ie.

Don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday June 1.

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