A man, a plan, a canal

Hic sunt canales. Straight paths and slight bends, bridges over water, the hiss of the M8 motorway, stone waymarkers, decay on the fringes, a yellowhammer in winter branches. Forgive the dog Latin. This is the wave of translation.

An index of the ordinary, with too many entries to keep in my head till the return home. Yet I don’t stop walking to take out my notebook and write; I don’t record any voice memos to remind myself of what I’ve just seen: “Brian, remember not to forget to mention the eerie, abandoned landing area in front of the big house.”

KEEP OFF
LANDING
UNSAFE

…or…

“Brian, remember not to forget to record that feeling of intense vertigo on the Scott Russell Aqueduct.”

The A720, the infamous Edinburgh City Bypass, grumbles below.

…or…

“Brian, remember not to forget to find out who Scott Russell actually was.”

The photographs help (I took over a hundred shots), but looking back I’m on a different outing, or I was. The actual and the remembered rendered as a synthesised whole, not quite real but not entirely imagined. It’s always this way. After I stop walking, the walk continues, in my head and on the page.


25½ 6

or

even
those who
stumble
move forward


The bridges create a kind of rhythm, a pulse along the waterway. The ducks’ periodic dives beneath the waves are jazzy drum-fills. Union Canal blueskyblues.

And there’s always the giddy anticipation of a cyclist’s bell as you round the lip of each underbridge where the path is at its most narrow. Some say hello, others say thank you as I step aside, some don’t acknowledge I exist beyond ringing the bell. On the imagined walk, I erase them all.

As always, there are curiosities along the way, small surprises.

O, the travails of the graffiti artist, what suffering they bear with such noble grace.

Where there’s water, there’s rust, unsleeping.

And the colours. Those colours.

Even the numbers have a certain poetry, their significance unimportant. A countdown or a reckoning? It probably doesn’t matter at this point.

And I only walk so far before I have to retrace my steps, back along the same path I’ve already tramped. A palindrome with creased edges. This loop is linear, a flat circle. But I do at least learn later about John Scott Russell, the nineteenth century Scottish civil engineer and shipbuilder, and and his work on the solitary wave phenomenon.

This is Bridge 11, the unassuming spot where Scott Russell discovered the soliton wave in 1834.

I’ll leave you with his own words, the significance of which seems fitting for this walk that continued after I had finished it and the exact nature of which I “lost … in the windings of the channel.”

I was observing the motion of a boat which was rapidly drawn along a narrow channel by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped—not so the mass of water in the channel which it had put in motion; it accumulated round the prow of the vessel in a state of violent agitation, then suddenly leaving it behind, rolled forward with great velocity, assuming the form of a large solitary elevation, a rounded, smooth and well-defined heap of water, which continued its course along the channel apparently without change of form or diminution of speed. I followed it on horseback, and overtook it still rolling on at a rate of some eight or nine miles an hour, preserving its original figure some thirty feet long and a foot to a foot and a half in height. Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel. Such, in the month of August 1834, was my first chance interview with that singular and beautiful phenomenon which I have called the Wave of Translation.

Russell, J. Scott (1845). “Report on Waves”. Report of the fourteenth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, York, September 1844 (PDF). London: John Murray. 311–390, Plates XLVII–LVII.

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