‘…the individual can suppress his inner world in such a way that he becomes over-compliant with external reality. If the individual regards the external world merely as something to which he has to adapt, rather than as something in which his subjectivity can find fulfilment, his individuality disappears and his life becomes meaningless or futile.Anthony Storr
I never found the companion that was so companiable as solitude.Henry David Thoreau
In the United Kingdom, we tend to think of ourselves as being one of the more densely populated nations of the world. That’s true, to an extent, although the UK’s population density, at 663 people per square mile according to an official estimate in 2010, rather pales in comparison to that of Macau, which tops the list with an official estimate (in 2012) of 50,790 people per square mile. At that level of population, the Falkland Islands, where each individual has, on average, something approaching 2 square miles to rattle around in, might begin to look positively alluring to the sensitive Macanese citizen who doesn’t object to sharing his surroundings with a large number of sheep.
Living in an urban area limits the options considerably when an Englishman wishes to embark upon a quest to explore his inbuilt capacity for contemplation and self-realisation without having to revert to the least satisfying option of simply remaining in his castle. With luck and the right surroundings, however, he may occasionally be able to venture forth, largely unencumbered by the company of his fellow human beings, in order to make acquaintance with profundity, immerse himself in sublimity and even consider what the hell this whole damn mess is all about and how we fit in to it. The fact that Douglas Adams’ postulation of 42 is about as near as we have come thus far to answering the Ultimate Question is surely a damning indictment of the general populace’s limited exposure to (or, possibly, inclination towards) quality reflection time.
All of which is a rather wordy way of saying that I like nothing better than to go for long, meditative walks in inspiring places where encounters with my fellow human beings are few and far between. Places where I can meet the world on my own terms rather than have the experience diluted or contorted by the presence of others or (horror of horrors) the need to say ‘hello’ to someone I don’t know from Adam when passing them on a country path.
The towpath of the Erewash Canal on a drizzly Monday in November afforded just such an opportunity.
The Erewash Canal runs for a little under 12 miles from the River Trent at Trent Lock (from where there are magnificent views of the cooling towers at the nearby Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station) to the Great Northern Basin at Langley Mill, where it once met the Nottingham and Cromford Canals (neither currently navigable from the latter location).
A walk along the stretch of canal between Trent Lock and Ilkeston in September had induced a state of melancholy. Perhaps it was the main urban section that had an adverse effect on me: grim surroundings, an annoying preponderance of dog walkers, an obstacle course of discarded premium lager cans and resurgent, rose-tinted memories of a youthful romance that flowered and died in these parts. Or maybe it was the dozens of fish that were floating belly-up in the water, victims of the run-off from firefighting that was taking place nearby due to a blaze on the former site of Stanton Ironworks. Whatever. I’d been only too happy to reach the end of my walk on that day.
My wander along the second part of the canal, from Ilkeston to Langley Mill, was another matter entirely. An imminent threat of gainful employment (subsequently unrealised, as it turned out) had inspired me to cast off my incipient autumnal torpor in favour of this oft-postponed expedition. A combination of procrastination and the gravitational pull of comfy sofa and warm, dry front room had put paid to far too many outings in the past and I was determined to take the necessary effort to achieve escape velocity this time around. In much the same way as it is said that, on our death beds, we are unlikely to comment upon our regret at not having spent more time at the office, I suspect that it is equally unlikely that, at the appointed hour, I will find myself expressing my dissatisfaction at not having spent more time sitting down.
Part of the fascination of walking, for me, is its psychology. Our surroundings have the capacity to subtly alter our mood, and, conversely, our mood can influence the way in which we perceive our surroundings. On this occasion, even the rain and overcast skies couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. As the late, great Alfred Wainwright had it, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’, and I was suitably equipped on the all-weather front. The prospect of unfamiliar territory had put a spring in my step. I hadn’t studied the map in any great detail, so this was an adventure. Who knew what lay ahead? I wasn’t exactly a pith helmet-clad 19th Century explorer heading off in search of the source of the Nile, but in terms of my average daily meanderings, this was heady stuff.
Why so many people are uninterested in venturing beyond the Holy Quadrality of home, workplace, shops and [insert indoor leisure venue of choice here] is a mystery to me. Why so many of the people who actually do enjoy exploring beyond these places are so easily put off by inclement weather is equally baffling. Why so many of those people are incapable of entertaining the thought of occasionally venturing out on their own, the better to truly appreciate and connect with their surroundings, is disappointing. To all intents and purposes, until some scientist manages to figure out a way of putting up a live feed of our thoughts and emotions, we are all essentially alone anyway, so I don’t see the harm in suspending the social contract and keeping ourselves company every so often.
As I stepped off the bus, left the main road and set out along the towpath, it quickly became evident that my wish for solitude had, for the most part, been granted. Rainy midweek afternoons are prime time for the misanthropic, misocynist walker and, as I moved slowly through the landscape, thoughts of the everyday world retreated into the background. Just being beside water is enough to calm the mind, but as I watched the rain making circular patterns on the surface of the canal, I began to enter an even deeper state of relaxation, unsullied by any requirement to acknowledge fellow human beings or stave off over-enthusiastic canines.
In a way, it was sad that my state of relative solitude was largely due to the fact that society has been engineered in such a way that most people of working age are obliged to spend the greater part of the average weekday indoors behind a desk, staring at a computer screen and drowning in ennui. Which, in turn, seems to contribute to their spending most of their weekday evenings indoors on a sofa, staring at a TV screen and drowning in… well, you get the picture.
Incidentally, a surefire way of cheering yourself up, should you be amongst those fortunate enough to be unencumbered by the 9 to 5 for whatever reason (although anyone in such a situation should rarely find themselves to be in need of cheering up), is to take a leisurely stroll through your local business park. Many’s the time that the sight of an anonymous office worker gazing longingly out at the big wide world (assuming that some bastard hasn’t pulled the blinds shut and blocked out his last source of visual succour) has raised my spirits and highlighted the comparatively blissful nature of my existence.
Like railways, canals provide a privileged, detached, behind-the-scenes glimpse of the world, beneath the gaze of most of its inhabitants – nourishment to the soul of anyone whose spirit has been drained by too much time spent in the concrete jungle. They are a useful conduit for contemplation as well as water. Because a canal towpath has few of the obstacles that usually interrupt the walker’s progress – pedestrian crossings and the like – it is possible to enter into a Zen-like rhythm and flow that further enhances the walking experience.
As I strolled along, a most uncharacteristic state of detached contentment manifested itself. The occasional rattle of a passing passenger or freight train on the nearby railway tracks added to the sense of otherworldliness that I was experiencing. I observed the autumnal colours around me and paused to watch (somewhat cruelly, perhaps) whenever a duck or swan floated over towards me in the hope of a snack. It occurred to me that this latter behaviour was in stark contrast to that of the waterfowl at one of my regular haunts, Wollaton Park, who, by lunchtime, have already eaten enough Hovis to seriously compromise their buoyancy and merely gaze disinterestedly at anyone chucking bread products into the water (the crows always seem to be grateful though).
As well as the Nottingham Canal and the Cromford Canal, the Erewash Canal was once also connected to Derby Canal and the Nutbrook Canal. The Erewash is the soul survivor of this quintet (although fragments of the others still exist), but has a ‘lost canal’ feel all of its own. That it survived the twentieth century at all, while other canals fell into disuse and were abandoned, was due to the ongoing need for a supply of water to Stanton Ironworks (where production finally ceased in 2007) and, from 1968 onwards, the efforts of the Erewash Canal Preservation and Development Association. We owe a debt of gratitude to all such societies for saving so many inland waterways from closure and preserving them for future generations.
As the canal skirted Cotmanhay, I embarked upon a diversion that I’d been particularly looking forward to. A steep, muddy bank led up from the towpath to a short stretch of embankment and thence on to the Bennerley Viaduct, a splendid 60 foot high, quarter-mile long, Grade II listed wrought iron relic that presides over the Erewash Valley, isolated from its eastern and western approaches by the removal of the embankments that used to connect it to the Great Northern Railway’s Derbyshire and Staffordshire Extension (known locally as the Derby Friargate line and no longer in existence).
The Bennerley Viaduct was built between July1876 and November 1877 and operational until 1968, before being formally closed to all traffic in 1973. The wrought iron construction was due to most of the ground beneath being subject to coal mining subsidence and therefore unable to support a brick structure. For lovers of industrial architecture everywhere, this turned out to be rather fortuitous, as the cost of demolition (wrought iron structures have to be dismantled rivet by rivet) was prohibitive.
I’d been up on the viaduct once before, when walking in another part of the valley, and couldn’t resist another look this time around. Access was, as before, just a matter of walking out onto it – somewhat surprising given that, as I later discovered (and as was hinted at by the presence of several bunches of flowers), someone had fallen to their death from here quite recently. The wind was stronger at this height and I felt a little nervous as I walked over the exposed iron struts that would lead me to the other side of the structure. It was at this juncture that my brain also saw fit to remind me of my fear of heights.
The nerves were worth it. Looking out over the railings halfway across the viaduct, I surveyed the scene around me: the remaining traces of the Bennerley Coal Screening Plant to one side and the River Erewash snaking its way through a surprisingly pastoral scene to the other. This was by no stretch of the imagination one of the great beauty spots of the world, but the scene felt to me quite as sublime as that set out before Friedrich’s eponymous Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. It was truly a sight to inspire. I experienced the sensations that the Romantics knew to be the gateway to a transcendental realm of thought and experience that can never be elicited by the hollow mundanities of the everyday world. A sense of unease was never far away though, and, after walking to the far side of the viaduct and back, it was with a combination of relief and reluctance that I slid back down the bank to rejoin the canal towpath.
North of Cotmanhay, the canal is largely rural. I was now effectively walking through the countryside, albeit a countryside with added visual and historical interest. Near Shipley Lock, I passed the truncated remains of the pillars of a former railway viaduct that had evidently once crossed the water here. Were it not for the now heavily overgrown embankments leading away from both sides of the canal, I would have had difficulty in identifying these stone remains. They looked for all the world like something that you might expect to encounter while visiting Pompeii.
I was struck once again by parallels with Romanticism. Artefacts such as the viaduct remnants that I had encountered trigger a sense of the past that can lead to profound ruminations upon the passage of time, accompanied by acknowledgement of the seemingly inherent futility of existence and the transience of all objects and endeavours. With luck, this may induce a giddy feeling of oneness with the universe and all times past and present, before thoughts of what to have for tea begin to intrude. Perspective has been gained and the rocky road to mental equilibrium been embarked upon. A state such as this can only be reached in certain rarefied circumstances and can only last for so long before being shattered into tiny pieces by the minutiae of everyday existence and the presence of others.
Regrettably, all good things must come to an end (whoever popularised that particular maxim must have been a barrel of laughs), and after a further distance I sensed that I was on the final approach to the canal’s terminus at Langley Mill. Still luxuriating in my contented, trance-like state, I rounded a corner to be confronted by the grinning visage of Colonel Sanders. Ah, civilisation and its discontents.