Alice Griffin caught up with writer Nancy Campbell:
DESPITE growing up in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland – a part of the UK sparse on canals – writer Nancy Campbell has developed a deep love for our inland waters.
Moving south to university she encountered her first human-made waterway, the South Oxford Canal, and it soon became her peaceful place. “My towpath walks took me out of the city to find new perspectives on the dreaming spires; a haven of nature which was a relief in this unfamiliar, densely populated landscape. The peaceful environment offered time and space to develop my ideas and relax away from the pressure of studies.”
Since that time Nancy has been appointed Canal Laureate by the Poetry Society and Canal & River Trust and, during her two-year tenure (2018-19), kayaked a significant amount of the 2000 miles of waterways, meeting those who lived and worked on them while gathering material for poems.
For the past two years she has lived alongside moorings just outside Oxford in her caravan, sited on a strip of neglected woodland between water and rail track. “I appreciate the comradeship I have found on the canal, especially after emerging from a difficult and lonely lockdown. My encounters with boaters have been warm and I am grateful for their willingness to share knowledge.”
It is this experience, of living alongside the canal, that she so beautifully details in her latest book, Thunderstone. This intimate and honest memoir feels somewhat like the journals of Henry Thoreau during his experiment in deliberate living at Walden and Nancy cites writers such as Thoreau as inspirations.
“I have always admired and been inspired by writers who have a working engagement with the environment and the cycle of the seasons.” However, a book was not at the forefront of her mind when she first moved into her caravan: “Of course I keep a diary, but my move into the woods by the canal was purely a practical arrangement and had not been intended as ‘research’ for a literary project.” She soon realised, though, that the diary she was keeping about life in the caravan might have the makings of a book.
For more than a decade Nancy has dedicated her time to witnessing and writing on environmental change so while Thunderstone is an exploration of living alternatively, it is also very much about humans’ relationship to the land. As she shares: “I appreciate being immersed in nature with wrens and robins as my neighbours and even the occasional heron but I am also very aware that the green space I live in is a human construct. Of course that could apply to much of the ‘natural’ landscape of the UK, but the canals are somewhere one is especially aware of it.”
We discuss how only 200 years ago canals were once seen as industrial futures but now, as the country is increasingly crossed by roads and railways and contrails, “these vestiges of a former transport network ironically offer green corridors for nature, leisure and relaxation.”
Throughout her book we are treated to poetic details on the impact of human activity on our nature spaces and how it is possible to live alongside peacefully. “As I’m falling asleep, I listen to the trains pass, making a banshee scream or a sound like a bullet that pierces the van. Sometimes in the hush that follows I catch another sound, a faint electronic sigh, as the points change. The trains make the wildness. Without the occasional scream and the shaking, I would not appreciate the silence and stillness.”
Living a transient lifestyle has provided opportunity for immersion in the various locations featured in Nancy’s writing but while this has been in part spurred on by the desire to observe environmental change, it has also been due to financial insecurity and housing precarity growing up. “I hadn’t known stability and so I didn’t put any value on it.” Now however, she acknowledges her work with the waterways as the beginning of trying to live a more local, low-carbon lifestyle, positively supporting rather than merely witnessing biodiversity.
“I suppose one of the changes that takes place in the course of the action of Thunderstone is understanding the need to exchange my nomadic, wandering existence for something that has a deeper, more permanent engagement with locality.” It seems her home on the fringes is the perfect place to gently put down these roots and slowly learn to live with a little more commitment among like-minded folk. “Like writers, many people on the waterways are outsiders by nature, a bit unconventional – we get along well as a result.”