Canal Conversations

Do you ever find yourself in a phase of synchronicity? I am there right now, with bizarre coincidences and delightful serendipity popping up here, there, and everywhere. One such coincidence took the form of Marcus, a gentleman I had the pleasure of meeting this week whilst cycling home.

Cyclists and walkers pass on the narrow path…

I’m making an effort to cycle to work more often, trying to be less of a ‘fair weather’ cyclist. I am lucky that this commute is 80% on a towpath beside a canal, which runs through my village. Since I have been more present there I have started to see how those of us cycling, walking, or rowing there form a kind of transient community. We pass by one another, or travel in convoy for little stretches, and some of us meet every day.

I have seen many beautiful moments there: parents crouched down with toddlers showing them little ducklings; people jumping off their bike to help someone who dropped their bag; fishermen in silhouette against a setting sun. But I also see a lot of anger. The path is not wide, at points even making it difficult for two cyclists to pass. The protocol is that we cyclists ring our bell to warn walkers and runners (or slower cyclists) that we are behind them and about to pass. Some people appreciate this. Others leap out of the way looking shocked or angry, having been wrenched from their peaceful daydream. I have never been really comfortable with ringing a bell.  Even when I am doing it just as a warning, people seem to feel obliged to move. So when my bell broke a month ago, I started talking to people, letting them know that I was there and coming past.

One Hell of a commute!

The response has been mixed. Some people call out “Thank you!” as I pass. But several have shouted “Use your bell!!” or indeed, “@&*%ing use a !?#>ing BELL!!”. Initially I felt hurt, and peddled on, feeling like I just couldn’t win. I started to fantasize about hosting an event where I brought the walkers and cyclists together for some conversation. I have a clear vision of how it would look. People would work in small groups, made up of cyclists and walkers, as well as runners, fishers etc. I would ask, “What do you love about the canal?” and “What makes you feel safe when you use the canal? What makes you feel a sense of belonging?” I would steer clear of words like anger, but would create space where people could explore what hurts them or scares them (the root of anger?). I would invite cyclists to draw up a list of walkers’ rights and vice versa. We would get some funding to make beautiful art works, which would be displayed by the canal. (Mine would say, ‘Let not the oppressed become the oppressor!’ with a picture of a cyclist cowering in fear of an aggressive lorry beside a picture of a walker cowering in fear of an aggressive cyclist).

I dream about the event every journey I make along the canal. It grows arms and legs. But I have no time to do this right now. I am over-committed, and would sell it short if I tried to make it happen. So I decided to start some conversations, little ones, wherever I see an opportunity. The opportunities arise when someone tells me off for not using my bell. In one week I had three great conversations, starting from a place of anger, but eventually ending in agreement that something could be done to make this work for everyone.

I really do…

Marcus was the most recent of these conversations. After I passed him (having said cheerfully “just coming past on your left!” he called out in a comic stage whisper “Use your bell!” I laughed, got off my bike, and asked if I could tell him about my experiment. With much enthusiasm he declared we were meant to meet and began to tell me about his vision of bringing cyclists and walkers together to ask them what they love about the canal and…. Yes, our vision matched exactly. We inspired each other with some of the detail that we had each come up with in our imaginings. And, it turns out Marcus has a lot of time at the moment.

We exchanged contact details, had our photograph taken (a technical hitch means I regretfully can’t show you the photo) and shook hands several times before parting. The event will happen. Watch this space.



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7 responses to “Canal Conversations

  1. Marjorie

    I have been captivated and inspired, by both “canal conversations” and “only 3%?”. They both really made me want to do something!

  2. Connie Lyle O'Brien

    Great! Be sure to let us know the progress.

  3. Synchronicity indeed! Love this story. Please keep us posted. Intentionality is so important. Put it out there and it just may happen.

  4. Sheldon

    As per usual, there is much to be explored where ever we are. This little story brought a tear (the wet kind) and a smile. How anger can turn understanding with a little intention and kindness! There is nothing like listening to your own truth. Thank you so much for the reminder.

  5. Anna Copland

    Thank you as ever Linda Keys for your beautiful words on a subject close to my heart. Having left what now seem the glorious bike paths of Scotland I now have to battle with the urban sprawl of New York where cycling is no longer my first method of transport. I have no doubt that your story will set me on my path to finding a way to get back on my bike and closer to the community it invites.

  6. Thank you everyone for your comments!

  7. Awesome post Linda – thanks for sharing a great story about how far a conversation can take you…

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