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Right to Thrive

Kate Faulkes: "I connect to the water through the heart now – rather than through the head"

Canal resident and History and Archaeology PhD student Kate Faulkes tells us about living in a boat and how it has changed her relationship to water.

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In collaboration with River Dôn Project logo

Right to Thrive explores local people's connections to the River Don through a collection of generative interviews. In this series we encourage people to question extractive, human-centred views of nature in favour of recognising and celebrating its right to thrive.

Kate Faulkes is a History and Archaeology PhD student who lives on a boat on the Sheffield Tinsley Canal. In this generative interview Kate tells us about her new connection to water and seeing it as a living entity, and how she thinks we can form better relationships with our waterways.

First of all, thank you for talking to us. Could you tell me a bit about the work you do and your interest in the River Don?

My work is not particularly related to the River Don, but my main connection to the River Don is that I live on a boat on the Sheffield Tinsley Canal, which obviously is heavily attached to the Don because it was created to link up the town of Sheffield, which was very still very isolated, to the bit where the River Don’s navigable just below Tinsley. My PhD comes under History and Archaeology, and I am studying early 19th-century industrial populations. So although my interest is not primarily about the water, it's very hard to make sense of early 19th century industrial Sheffield without understanding the water.

The canal was one of the few things that enabled the town to take manufacturing to the next level really, because before, it couldn't ever get enough raw materials in and it couldn't get enough finished products out. So although it's not actually my PhD topic, it's hard not to run across it quite regularly.

But also, living on the water gives you a very different perspective on what you think about the river, what's happening to it and what's happened to it in the past. It feels much more like a living thing to me than I think that some of the people who've come and cycled past it or walk their dogs or whatever. I love to see the canal towpath used – don't get me wrong – but I think they will just see it as, 'Oh, isn't that pretty?' Whereas I see it as a living entity, I think.

How did you end up living on a houseboat?

Fell in love with a man who lived on a boat! He's also an archaeologist and our eyes met across a crowded trench about six years ago. I just fell in love with the lifestyle. And you know what? It was the best decision I've made. I can’t imagine living in a house now.

It’s completely different, though much harder work.

If someone had said to you ten years ago that you'd be living on a houseboat, would that have felt like, 'Yeah, that makes sense,' or would it have felt nonsensical?

I've always wanted to live on a boat. My previous partner hated boats and was frightened of water. So whilst I thought I was going to be staying with him, I just sort of consigned it to, 'Well, that's a shame, never mind.' I knew I would never buy a boat on my own because if you don't know what you're doing, it can be scary expensive. Not a lot of fun.

But I lucked out. Not only did I meet a man who lived on a boat, he's also a boat engineer as well as being an archaeologist. So that gave even risk-averse me the push I needed to dare to do it.

So I don't think I'd have been very surprised. I think I'd have been very pleased.

You mentioned that your relationship to the water has changed since living on a boat. Can you talk a bit more about that?

I don't think you think about the river or the canal as being a living entity when you just walk past it with your dog, which is what I used to do. I never lived very near a canal either. Although I've always loved water, I never really thought about canals until I met my husband.

I think what you see when you move onto a boat, particularly in the warmer weather, you’ve got the doors and windows open all the time, you are literally next to the water. And you just see nature and how it's changing every day, in a way that you would never ever see in a house, not even really with your own garden.

So at the moment I've got young fox cubs coming on and off the mooring, I can see baby otters, the kingfishers nesting. I wouldn't have ever seen any of that in my little garden in Barnsley, you know?

So I think it makes you feel like it's living.

I suppose I connect to it through the heart now. Rather than through the head. You feel part of the of the water. I think it's a heart connection now. I think that's the difference. And that's why I can't ever imagine going back to live in a house. I think I fell in love with the water.

What do you wish people knew about the river? That might be facts or it might be a bigger, more philosophical answer to the question.

I think I wish more people thought about it as a living entity. Because of the amount of crap people throw in it. Supermarket trolleys, bikes, traffic cones, litter, just so much litter. I didn't like litter when I lived in a house, but somehow it seems the biggest sin to do that to the water. The lock keeper, who lives in the house just up from where my boat is, works for the Canal and River Trust. He spends a lot of time and trouble making sure that there's enough oxygen in all the ponds to keep the fish alive.

I must confess until I lived on the water, I had no idea that that was even a thing. But now I wish more people knew because I think they might, if they thought about it as something that they can look after, something that they can be a custodian of, or they thought of it as something that they could kill if they didn't look after it properly, I like to think people might think a bit more differently about it.

Maybe they wouldn't. But I think that's probably the primary thing.

And part of me says, 'Wouldn't it be lovely if more people know how beautiful it is,' because it's tucked away, a lot of people don't even know it's there. But part of me doesn't want that because I want to keep it to myself!

When you go to places like Sprotbrough, which is where we were in the first lockdown for three months, it was like Paddington Station, because of course, at that time everybody was allowed to do one piece of exercise a day. And everybody just came and parked the car outside the boat. It was really, really busy. And I wouldn't like to see that.

So part of me wishes more people knew it was there. And part of me wants to keep it to myself.

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Related to that, we’ve been thinking about the relationship that individuals and communities have with the River Don. What would citizens and communities need to do to change our relationship with it?

Well, I think particularly the bit where I live, it needs some people to live there. Because at the moment, you know, Attercliffe is really no longer a residential area. And of course, that's all about to change with some of the new residential stuff. To be honest, as long as it's nicely done, that’s welcome, because it is a beautiful place to live and I'd like more people to have that opportunity.

Not everybody wants to live on a boat. So you should have the opportunity to live in a nice house that looks over some water, or an apartment or something.

I think it's very hard to engage a lot of people. And having been a community worker for the best part of 40 years, one of the things that I've come to understand about communities is that a lot of people have been engaged with something that's hyperlocal. Some people engage with their street and that's it. And as long as you can provide something that they can get involved with that's that local, they'll gladly engage with you.

The minute you take it wider and want people to be involved in something more generally, there's a smaller number of people who want to do that. You've got a lot of people who want to do something, so they look up their local community centre or something in their street, or their kids' school, that kind of thing. It's because people's lives are busy, and often, most of the communities I've worked in have been very poor.

When you're poor, you have to live more locally, because you haven't got the money to go anywhere else really. So people's worlds become sort of compulsorily very small, I think.

So I think that in order to get communities to engage with the river and the canal, it needs to be the people who live near it. Because they'll be its natural custodians, I think, because you don't want somebody dumping supermarket trolleys in your river.

I think it's quite hard to engage people in something that's hypothetical. The Canal and River Trust are constantly trying to get volunteers to join in, and it's very difficult because most people just think of the canal as something which looks after itself. The volunteers who are there do fantastic work, but it's a lot of work. I think part of the problem, certainly with the Canal and River Trust, is that because the canal is a dead end, it's hardly used by boats at all. My husband's got his own boat – honestly, it's the secret to a happy marriage! – and his is down in the Midlands. It's much busier waterways, as lots of hire boats come out and that sort of thing. People like to spend more time down by the water because they like to come look at the boats, and they like looking at the boats on the move.

There's so little movement on this canal. You can come and look at the boats stood still, like mine. Because once you go to Sheffield, that's it, there's nowhere else to go. And if you want to go anywhere in the other direction, you've got to go down ten locks, which I can tell you takes about four hours. But people love to see them on the move. So I think people would come more if there was more boat movement or just if they live near.

You mentioned about people kind of having a sense that the water looks after itself. I wonder also if people just assume it's somebody else's responsibility?


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How do we open people's minds to it being as much a part of our community as the street and the fields and the trees?

This is where I'm going to get a bit political. I sympathise with the Canal and River Trust. They've got less and less and less government funding with each year that goes on. They've got 2,000 miles of canal to maintain. I really get why what they do is very limited. But their attitude to volunteers – and I can say this as somebody who's worked very extensively with volunteers – their attitude to volunteers stinks. Because they treat them as a useful commodity, rather than people who they should be enormously grateful for and who they should value and who they could, or should, encourage and who they should celebrate.

I pay, at the moment, £3,000 a year for my mooring, I pay another £1,000 for my boat licence, which enables me to be on the water at all. So I'm paying over £4,000 a year. And they still write to me twice a month asking me to be a CRT volunteer. And every time I will email them back saying, “Look, I'm really happy to be a volunteer, but not for you. Because I already give you lots of money."

I think we could do things like engage the schools, because there are some schools that are nearby. It would be culturally quite challenging because Tinsley is a big Pakistani area, and often the canal’s history is not their history, it's somebody else's history.

I do a lot of work with kids and teenagers on getting them interested in history and archaeology. And there's so many brilliant stories to tell.

I think little kids would be interested in that the idea that the roads were so bad and the potholes in the roads were so big, you could lose a whole horse. And that's why they built the canal, because the roads were just bonkers. They had these turnpike roads, that they built by subscription, essentially, and people had to pay like a toll road. But they were rubbish as well, so they didn't generate enough income. So there's a story there.

I think that what we've got to do is tell the story of the canal and the water and why it's there, and I think kids would love that. CRT were looking for volunteers, tour guides for Sheffield Quays, heritage tour guides, so I applied. I've got a first degree in history. I've got a master's in archaeology, I'm in my second year of a PhD in historical archaeology and I live on a boat. And I sent them something saying, “I’d really like to be one of your heritage tour guides,” and they never replied. I'm offering to do that for no money and they advertised that they wanted somebody. I don't want to be too critical, because I do sympathise with them as well. But it does seem that the people who run the show, hardly any of them live on boats or even have a boat. And so their understanding of the life and the reasons why the canal is the way it is [...] They just view it as a piece of infrastructure.

But once you plant that seed in a kid, that the past is an interesting place where real people lived and did things that in some ways, were very different in some way weren't that different – once you've got that in somebody's head, the rest they'll do themselves.

I think there's all sorts of answers. But that's an obvious one to start with.

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Thank you. Do you think the River Don has the right to thrive? And if so, what would that look like?

I think we know if we don't look after our rivers, we're a bit screwed. So it's almost not a choice. It's a choice, in that we may still make the wrong one, but it really isn't a choice.

For me, 'thriving' looks like the water’s clean, no sewage going into it. I'm not aware that there's any round here, but I wouldn't necessarily know. I certainly wouldn't swim in the canal. But that's not necessarily why, it’s because it's filthy. No supermarket trolleys, traffic cones. And if there are, they need to be getting them out regularly. You do get a lot of magnet fishermen who come with the really strong magnets and haul everything out and they do take some of the stuff away to flog, but they just leave the rest behind and it's never taken away. So it just rusts in a big pile in a corner.

I think, for me, the River Don is thriving if it's clean, it's not got sewage, and it's not full of supermarket trolleys. It's got healthy fish in it. It needs to be dredged so that boats can move around and for the wildlife, because if it's not dredged properly, as I understand it, the biosphere doesn't do well.

But I think a thriving waterway is one that's used. You do get paddle boarders and obviously a few boats moving around. But it would be lovely to see more people on the water. There's plenty of people using the towpath. There's plenty of dog walkers and cyclists and whatnot.

I am concerned that the way at the way the Canal and River Trust are marketing the canal on the towpath to non-boaters, so particularly to cyclists, so they've recently hardcored a lot of the paths, which is great, because otherwise you don't come back with the contents of the Somme stuck to your wellies when you walk the dogs. But that's encouraged more cyclists, and the way that they're marketing to cyclists is these are now cycle paths. The regulations say that as a cyclist, you give way to other users of the towpath. And they don't, honking their horns and shouting at you to get out of the way as they come past at 30 miles an hour. That, to me, is not good for anything. Because it's not good for wildlife. It's not good for other users. So for me, that's a worry, but I may notice that more because I live there. There's also a lot of off-road bikers.

So it's that thing about respecting the river and the bits around it, I think. And that's not just for people. That's actually to keep the river well, because if the river is not well, none of us benefit.

What do we need to make that happen?

Lots of things, I think. More investment in the infrastructure. One of the reasons it takes four hours to get down the flight is because it's not used very much and, because of that, they barely maintain it. I think we need to educate people more about water. The local PCSO talks to the kids who live nearby about water safety. And I think that's brilliant. But I'd like to see more people talking about why rivers are important. What would happen without them? What do we use them for? What happens if we don't look after them properly?

Because there's an opportunity. Kids are very aware of the climate crisis in a way that I certainly wasn't when I was a child, and they don't want the worst thing to happen. And one of the nice things about teaching people about rivers is the stuff they can do. Even as a kid, you can come and help keep it nice, you can learn about how to respect it, you can learn how to feed the fish and make sure the herons are all right, and make sure that they don't get fishing hooks stuck in the beaks.

There's all kinds of really small things that children could do. I don't see that happening. And I certainly don't think that any of the schools nearby ever do projects on the river. They may do and I just don't know. But I'm not aware that they do anything like that.

I think the thing that would make the biggest difference is some proper investment. That isn't going to happen at the moment because the government have announced that they're actually massively cutting the budget, and it's already fairly pitiful. So they put all our fees up to try and compensate, but there's not enough of us. The estimated number of people who have a boat is 34,000, and that's including people who don't live on them, so it's probably half that. So we're not a big enough pressure group, unfortunately. We can do all sorts of things that will help. But ultimately, the thing that will help is proper investment, and without wanting to be negative, I see no signs.

If the river could speak, what would it say to us? And what would it say about us?

That’s a really good question. I think it would probably say, 'Help. Listen to me, listen to what I need. I'm not always doing very well.'

I think what it would say about us is that we don't care. I think that we don't care about our waterways, we just take them for granted. And I understand everybody just grew up around them. But even local people don’t know it’s here. So some people, it's indifference based on lack of knowledge. And some people it's indifference because they just think, 'Well, it's just a river, innit?' Or they don't think at all. So it's about, how do we make it relevant?

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