The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde


White horse

The white horse of Alton Barnes: just outside my window

England; small enough to know, large enough to love.

Last year, my boat Tinker and I travelled down 250 miles of it, from Cheshire to Wiltshire. The view from my window is wide and humbling. There are broad, gentle slopes bright with yellow rape. The lanes, fizzy with cow parsley, run between Bronze Age hillforts and thatched villages. Overseeing it all are the White Horses of Wiltshire. It’s like a Ravilious painting full of grandeur and simplicity, rich with birds and beasts. Its poets and creative people have welcomed me – they are too numerous to mention but Hilda Sheehan, Matt Holland, Isadora VibesJosephine Corcoran and James Aldridge are amongst them. I have new friends, too, all along the linear village that is the Kennet & Avon canal, especially here at Moonraker Boats. It’s a glorious, ancient landscape and I am glad to know it.

But friends, it is not my landscape. The relationship that brought me here is over…. which is sad, but in itself is no reason to leave. It’s something quite apart from that. Recently, visiting the Midlands and North West, I have felt a great pull to head back in that direction. There have been lively get-togethers with my kith and kin, and events like Ann Atkinson’s memorial/ celebration event which brought together a deeply loving poetry clan. There have been days of poetry at the Lyric Festival and the Sheffield Poetry Festival; and days of walking and companionship in Hathersage and Macclesfield. Well, as a result, I have a mild case of what the Welsh call hiraeth – a craving for the land that you belong to, and which belongs to you. In short, I know my place at last.

So Wiltshire – with thanks for your beauty and your many kindnesses, with thanks for the opportunity to know you – I will take my leave in the next few weeks. I won’t be too far away, on my new mooring in the Midlands. I will still be working in the SW on several projects; and the remarkable people I’ve met down here will not be left behind. I’m only going to be two hours away by road – and I wouldn’t take this to mean that I am settling anywhere. I’ve had a little epiphany, not a character transplant.

By boat, of course, it’s a little more than two hours. A little while ago I sat in a pub lamenting my predicament. To go back north, I whined, would mean going back the way I came. Thirty days of boating down the Macclesfield, the Trent and Mersey, the Grand Union, the North Oxford, the Thames, the K&A. With gaps for rest and work and other things, that’s two months of moving. I can’t spare such a long period again; I have work to do, I said.

Ah, said my companion in the pub – a seafaring man.  But you could always go the other way. Ten days at most. 

The other way?

Ah. You mean this way?


Hold your nerve, Jo Bell. Hold your nerve. And the rest of you – watch this space.


14 comments on “Journeys

  1. Josephine Corcoran
    June 6, 2013

    Please stay in touch. I’ve loved meeting you and I hope that I will get the chance to hear about your adventures in person, as well as on your blog XX

    • Jo Bell
      June 6, 2013

      Damn right you will, Josephine – see my email!

      Director, Bell Jar and Small Lightnings Press UK Canal Laureate for the Poetry Society and CRT

  2. wendyfrench
    June 6, 2013

    I found reading this very moving. It’s about the way we move on whether by boat or land or emotionally. There is something about water that pulls us right back to where we belong. The land which was once ours needs us. Good luck Jo in the next few months.

    • Jo Bell
      June 6, 2013

      Thanks Wendy – and for all those asking by email if I’m okay, I’m FINE thank you. Feeling strong and happy. Except when I look at maps of the Bristol Channel. Gulp.

      Director, Bell Jar UK Canal Laureate for the Poetry Society and CRT

  3. Angi
    June 6, 2013

    The Bristol Channel? A little swell, a tad tidal. Now this is REAL water: Ha!

    Yours sounds like a fabulous journey, and a very different landscape to your trip south. I predict great adventures, new friends, waterside pubs and wayside BBQs. And lots of inspiration for writing…

  4. Jo Bell
    June 6, 2013

    Thank you Martin Malone 🙂

  5. Jo Bell
    June 6, 2013

    PS I rather hope the road doesn’t rise up to meet me. On this occasion at least, I want it perfectly flat!

  6. Oversteps Books
    June 7, 2013

    There are different forms of sailing through rough waters, Jo; and I imagine that your smile and your spirit will get you through most of them. Go well. Alwyn.

  7. Suz
    June 7, 2013

    Well decided Jo. Would you please hold my nerve too 🙂

    • Jo Bell
      June 7, 2013

      I think I might – and share the pilotage cost?

  8. Oversteps Books
    June 7, 2013

    Actually, on reflection Jo, I don’t think it’s a very good idea to head out into open seas in a canal boat. I’d like to meet you again one day!

    • Jo Bell
      June 7, 2013

      Bless you Alwyn – I have done my homework and consulted my most trusted boating allies. It can be done, and some of them have done it. I’ll have a river pilot and will likely be travelling in convoy. Watch this space…. after all, I’d like to meet you again too!

  9. Jo Bell
    June 7, 2013

    And Angi – blimey. Narrowboats on the sand! Will see how this adventure goes, and think about that for future times…

  10. thinkingcowgirl
    June 8, 2013

    I really like that Welsh word hiraeth, I think I might try and get it into a conversation soon – thanks for that! I live in Cornwall which is gorgeous but I think my hiraeth actually belongs to rural Surrey…sandy commons, lanes and bluebell woods and meandering gentle rivers to swim in. Your journey sounds epic good luck. My brother works in Burgundy navigating pleasure barges up and down the canals. One year he had to take one for a refit in Holland and had to go across the shipping lanes in Rotterdam – it sounded completely terrifying. I had no idea before this that barges were seaworthy.

    Really hoping one day to join a workshop or course of yours they sound great! Had my eye on the one in France but got stuff going on which won’t allow me to make firm plans at the moment. But I did write a poem recently so have started on the journey… 🙂

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