Dipping into the canal

I have some early stage ideas floating around for a project that needs me to get a sense of what sort of microbial life might be found in the canals. With fellow BOM Fellow Melissa Grant running a pop-up lab for her Bioprospecting Birmingham event it was too good an opportunity – to start turning vague ideas into something tangible – to miss.

First though I had to roll up my sleeves and collect some samples of canal water.

This was done with some trepidation having spent my first three years in Birmingham reading in the student newspaper about people ending up in the canal and the tacit knowledge that what lurks within really isn’t good for you. Still, not as bad as as the Gowanus Canal in New York, eh?

I set off armed with latex gloves and tap water for washing my hands knowing that I wanted to collect 7 samples at intervals along the length of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal between where it emerges from the Wast Hill Tunnel having flowed under Hawkesley and where it ends in Birmingham city centre. I had a rough idea of where each sample would be taken, but I hadn’t really thought through how I would actually get the water from the canal into my prepared glass jars. This became all too apparent when I reached the tunnel.

Canal Prospecting - sample #1

The banks were a bit muddy, so I went to check out the concrete platforms right up by the tunnel thinking I might at least have a solid surface to work from and, looking at the far bank, something to hold onto too. Nope! The gate to the steps down to that side was locked. I’d already ruled out the steps on the near side: although I could get to them, I decided I didn’t want to go very far down them!

Canal Prospecting - sample #1

Nothing for it but to back up a bit, get a bit grubby, reach over the edge and hope for the best.

Canal Prospecting - sample #1


No loud splashes or tales of woe from the other 6 collection sites either. These were, in order,

#2 Where the Worcester & Birmingham Canal meets the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal at King’s Norton Junction
Canal Prospecting - sample #2

#3 By the electrons and chocolate at Bournville
Canal Prospecting - sample #3

#4 Where the water hangs in the air above the Selly Oak bypass
Canal Prospecting - sample #4

#5 By the Ross Barlow hydrogen-powered canal boat (where the waste product from the fuel cell is water)
Canal Prospecting - sample #5

#6 Under a dark bridge. We think there might be trolls…
Canal Prospecting - sample #6

#7 And finally from close to the Gas Street Basin
Canal Prospecting - sample #7

After that it was a quick dash home, a good shower and then on to BOM to check out Melissa’s latest laboratory facility and a recipe for agar growth medium featuring Marmite, honey and powdered milk.

Canal Prospecting - Bioprospecting Birmingham pop-up lab

Canal Prospecting - Bioprospecting Birmingham pop-up lab

Canal Prospecting - Bioprospecting Birmingham pop-up lab

After this curious mixture had been left to set and cool down in the Petri dishes, we swabbed water from each of my collection jars onto the agar plates and …well …nothing really. Now we just have to wait and see what grows on that lovely meal we prepared.

Bioprospecting Birmingham runs through until the end of the week and Melissa’s also giving a talk on Friday. I encourage you to go and see what’s emerged from the canals and also from the other locations around the city that have been swabbed by volunteers.

The rest of my photos from my collection expedition can be viewed on Flickr, and I’ll report back in a bit with (hopefully) some documentation of life forms from the Petri dishes.

City Canal Tour

Having excused myself early from the last segment of Johnny Hillwalker’s walking tour of Kyoto, I made a (not so) quick dash over to the Shimogamo Shrine to meet artist Markuz Wernli Saitô.

The last time we’d met was on the Kamo Obashi bridge when, having randomly followed a link from this article, and discovering the momentarium website I thought it would be great to invite Markuz to be a starting point for the Peer-to-Peer Sketchbooks project.

This time, however, was to be much more involved…

Wednesdays in Markuz’s programme are city canal tour days where “surprises and wet feet are guaranteed”. Well, I certainly got both, starting with performing the opening ceremony!

A condensed version of the tour can be viewed here http://momentarium.org/service/popup/1025.html (Quicktime format), but the actual event lasted about 2 hours.

canalside futon clips

It was fascinating to peer into people’s gardens from what was effectively ground level, and there were some nice little discoveries within the limbo territory of the canal itself: sights, sounds and smells.

Mostly the people we saw did a double-take but recovered enough to give us a friendly “konnichiwa” or “kombanwa”. There were a few quality encounters though, such as the woman throwing food across the canal and two fences to a dog in a garden on the other side, and The Guy in the Red T-Shirt.

The Guy in the Red T-Shirt

I didn’t catch his name, but he just sort of appeared alongside the canal on his bike. After a brief introductory chat with Markuz, he left his bike propped up at the side and came down to join us. …but only for a few seconds before he started sprinting down the canal path!

He reappeared some time later completely out of breath and stopped to chat some more. We saw him a few more times after that as he cycled over various bridges and gave us a friendly wave. I wonder if he ever got back in touch with Markuz later by email?


I’m very much intrigued by how encounters like this can be documented. I was repeatedly amazed by the fact that, in Japan, Markuz has been able to leave his video camera set up on a tripod on the other side of busy bridges and in railway stations etc unattended and without fear that it would get stolen. How would you manage this in the UK or elsewhere? Some sort of hidden camera? An entourage of beefy cameramen?

Is there some other way of documenting the process besides video? Does the record need to be visual and time-based?

Maybe a more comforting way to regard my dozens of mosquito bites is as some form of alternative documentary record…

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