Liz McIvor – A Message From Our Patron

Liz McIvor – A Message From Our Patron

I was really pleased to be asked to write something for the new (bi-lingual) version of the website by the board members of the Swansea Canal Society.

I was approached back in 2015 to ask if I would consider being their patron. I was invited down to meet the volunteers and trustees at Trebanos locks to see how work to restore a section of the Swansea Canal had progressed; and try out some family canoeing from the activity centre. Promises to get a bit more involved were put on hold to a certain extent by a new job and the impacts of the pandemic, but now I’m looking forward to seeing the continuation of the work to unearth the buried lock in Clydach and improve the visitor centre so more local people and visitors can access and understand the impact of this piece of industrial heritage locally.

I ‘got into’ canals by default – growing up in Manchester, surrounded by waterways which had for the most part fallen into a state of dereliction in the post-industrial age. The extent of the different navigations and the growth of communities around them had meant that although it would be a long time until they became ‘trendy’ places…they were unavoidable, and I was never far from one. I explored on foot, by bike, and very occasionally by boat and although the topic was covered in school history lessons, most of the depth of what I came to know about the canal network was found in out-of-print books and archives.

I had always been interested in history – not that of Kings and Queens, but of the ways in which developments in science and economy changed the way ‘real’ people lived. What interested me was how people responded to new ways of making a living, new urban environments and cultures. The ‘ordinary’ people were missing from history books, but one way to get close to them was to be in the places where they had lived, the streets named after their work and the places they had protested for their rights. The more I explored the physical landscape, the more I wanted to know about the people who had built the place I called home.

Getting a job in the heritage sector meant being willing to travel. An opportunity came up in Southwest Wales, so I found myself a flat in Swansea and got stuck into looking after industrial, agricultural and archaeological collections for a county service. My first experiences with media came as a result of working on a project to explore the role Romany Gypsies had played in the agricultural economy of South Wales.

A couple of career moves later, and I was managing a larger industrial collection when I was approached by a TV producer trying to find out more about the British canal network for a possible documentary series. The BBC had just filmed ‘Slow boat’ – a journey on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Somerset from the point of view of the boat itself, without narration. This unusual film had been enormously popular, and they thought that perhaps they could expand on the audience. There were other canal programmes on TV, but they were mostly travelogues. What the BBC wanted was to have it explained in layman’s terms by someone with a background and a regional accent to give it more authenticity.

Because the show was only set in the English regions – we never got to Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales and so couldn’t give the full picture. So, it was great to have ties to Wales again. Here, the character of the landscape and the nature of the communities is tied to the early attempts to exploit natural resources of the Tawe valley, move them as quickly and cheaply as possible and draw people to both invest in this venture and live in new industrial communities based on a wage economy and the promise of opportunity.

Despite the long period of commercial success of the Swansea Canal experienced even after the takeover by the Great Western Railway, the infilling of sections and locks is something that the volunteer base has been determined to undo and they have been able to achieve an incredible amount in recent years. Their volunteer story starts like many other restoration efforts with the growth of the IWA membership of ordinary, local people, determined to do something using their own skills and talents. The start of the canal ‘revolution’ is down to people like this from Mr Wright’s pioneering trip down the Swansea canal in his canoe, to the volunteers who give up their time today to uncover what is there – It is a revolution in the truest sense. The way people use waterways is very different from that which was intended, but arguably, this is the true ‘golden age’.

There are so many ways that access and understanding can benefit the people of Swansea, from gaining a better sense of how their town and region developed, the impact of Welsh coal and Welsh people in the wider world, the importance of green space, biodiversity and affordable, sustainable leisure. Times have changed, people value their once abandoned industrial waterways and we have volunteers like the Swansea Canal Society’s members to thank for this. People really can make an enormous difference.

Liz McIvor

Co-operative Heritage Trust Manager

Rochdale Pioneers Museum & The National Co-operative Archive

May 2023

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