Walking Backwards No 7. Up Woodway Lane to the Boat Inn

Today we have the seventh episode of Peter Walter’s series of lockdown walks “being a compendium of idle facts, hidden places and meaningless historiana gathered on walks within easy striding distance of the writer’s abode – and beyond”.

A ferret has gone missing in the hedge line where the M6 motorway rubs shoulders with the Oxford Canal, and on every upright post is plastered the owner’s laminated mobile phone number, pleading for it back.

As this was traditionally mining country, it’s tempting to ruminate on that old stereotype, a collier’s love for his ferret. But the mines that once scoured this landscape, Wyken Main, Craven and Alexandra, disappeared two generations ago. Now this corner of north Coventry edgeland has reverted to an older name, Sowe Common, and is part of an eight-mile swathe of riverside walk and nature reserve that loops down the eastern side of the city to Whitley.

In horse-drawn days, Woodway Lane plodded on to meet Shilton Lane and Lenton’s Lane at a junction with a string of houses but no name. These days, it’s intersected by the M6, thunderous even in lockdown but oddly absorbing from thirty feet above.

Bridge 9 on the North Oxford Canal

From the green pedestrian bridge over the motorway it’s only yards to Sowe Bridge No 9, one of several old bridges crossing the Oxford Canal in quick succession. The canal itself inches along, the colour of chicken soup, undisturbed by boat or paddle. But it’s companionable on the towpath, among strangers, and social distanced conversations leap from tai chi and Leofric, Earl of Marcia and his missus, to the location of Wyken Main colliery. Where was the old pit, which had been going for more than a hundred years and employed 400 men when it closed in 1910?

Somewhere in the fields behind the Boat Inn, apparently. The pub, once a line of mid-Victorian cottages, is today a good distance away from any water, despite the name, and the modern industrial estates of Alderman’s Green separate it from Wyken Pool, formed by mining subsidence from the old colliery in the middle of the nineteenth century and now the biggest expanse of open water in Coventry.

Wyken Slough Nature Reserve

Even in this landscape, with its canalside hedges of hawthorn and its memories of old industries, the modern world intrudes. An official notice tacked to a lamp post informs us all that BT wants to put up a ‘telecommunications pole’ in the vicinity, presumably to improve the wi-fi round here. But maybe not everybody approves.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security”, proclaims another, marginally less official-looking notice which has, during our walk, mysteriously materialised on another canalside post.

The words of America’s founding father Benjamin Franklin leave a powerful impression, but there’s no further explanation. Are they aimed at BT or at the government for its lockdown? Or has it got something to do with that ferret?

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