A Beer with Alys Fowler
Gordon | 26 Mar 2018
Alys Fowler is an author, columnist and gardener with a love of wild things. Back in the summer of 2016, she suggested that we meet up in Birmingham, cycle alongside some of the urban canal network and take her inflatable canoe for a spin. Gordon jumped at the chance. She promised to bring some old beers that she didn’t like the look of with her too. Err, great.
On a sunny Wednesday lunchtime, I managed to squeeze my bicycle off the crowded train at Birmingham University station and, having made my way past the unfortunate chap being frisked by officers from the West Midland’s finest, I was greeted by Alys and her Jack Russell, Isobel.
Cycling along the canal towpath (with Isobel riding up front on Alys’s folding bicycle) we chatted about a few things including Alys’s nerdy interest in the Birmingham City canals and her new found hobby of paddling her pack raft along the network.
We stopped in a sunny spot by a ‘guillotine lock’. They’re pretty rare apparently and this was deemed to be “perfect” by Alys. I wasn’t sure that some of the local youth would agree.
I started by asking Alys why we were here.
"A year ago I decided I would paddle the Birmingham canals. The network actually goes all the way up to Wolverhampton but there’s a lot within the city. I thought I would just explore it to find out about the nature that was in it as well as it just being a funny adventure. We’re here near a noisy bit but there are stretches that you go where you can paddle for a couple of hours and see nobody. It’s very quiet, very peaceful and I kind of craved that in my life I suppose.
So I wrote a book about it. And I love paddling. I mean when I started it I had almost no paddling experience. You need almost no paddling experience to navigate the canals because of the flat water. Honestly, I have never found a better kind of freedom in the city".
Turns out Alys has become something of a paddling geek.
For her adventure she’s been using an inflatable, pack raft, complete with a silk-like pillow to inflate it (it looks preposterous but is remarkably effective/quick). It also has a ridiculously lightweight folding paddle. In fact, the entire set up was designed for paddling whitewater in hard to reach stretches of river in places like Alaska by burly extreme sports types.
If this makes Alys’s exploration of some of the flattest bits of water you can find sound a bit eccentric then it probably is. But it also sounded like terrific fun.
"Within 20 minutes of my house I can go and be in really wonderful, very isolated (in a funny way) bit of nature. To me it doesn’t matter how ridiculous you look, you can get away with this boat and it’s really enjoyable. So I wrote a kind of autobiographical book about doing this sort of semi adventure".
Alys spent 12 months paddling 121.2 miles of canal, documenting not just the journey but also the urban geography and wildlife she has come across. People will have you know that parts of the canal are so wild that there are even otters who have taken up residence.
Paddling is a good workout for the arms too. I wouldn't recommend arm wrestling Alys. You will lose that bet.
We were originally going to meet in a pub but this was Alys’s “better plan” and, in order to have a beery theme to our afternoon, involved bringing some of the BeerBods beers that she didn’t like the look of. All of which were from quite some time ago and now past their best before date. But in the spirit of adventure we decided to try them anyway. Of note was the Black Geld by the Wharfe Bank Brewery, a black IPA that we featured in May 2015 and was by now six months out of date. It tasted like an alcoholic dandelion and burdock. So not that bad at all.
Also amongst the selection was the Curious Porter by Chapel Down. Another from early in 2015. Turns out Alys thought that she had gone off porters but this one changed her mind.
How does she choose her beers?
"The design of the bottle pretty much determines what I want to drink first. If it has a slightly old-school duller label then it’s going to be lower down on the list. Saying that there are some lovely old school labelled beers."
Boring Brown Beer in dimpled pint mugs isn’t for Alys. Beers by Shropshire-based Salopian Brewery are her current favourite.
Back to the book. Because Alys has such a reputation for being a gardener and gardening writer I wondered where this fitted in.
"There’s a very strong nature writing element to the book above and beyond the journeys because that’s what was my second influence other than wanting to have a bit of an adventure. But I think that one of the interesting things for me is that I love nature and gardening as a bit of nature that I love. But in terms of my career people think of me as a gardener and it was a kind of active choice to say actually I want to not have any control over this nature. I don’t want to be in a place where I am cultivating or tending or trying to do anything other than be around it."
Alys is passionate about how bits of wildlife have reclaimed bits of the canal and have changed the ecology of these sections. Almost like someone has gone and gardened them. Albeit in a slightly out of control Alys Fowler school of gardening way.
After just a short paddle I could see how this vaguely ridiculous mode of transport could afford you to discover new wild places. Even if those places were somewhat urban. The pace (quite slow), the relative silence (despite my poor paddling) and the seated (almost reclined) position made for a unique view. I was sold and I want one.
It was time to say our goodbyes as Alys packed her Brompton and dog into the raft to paddle towards her home in the Birmingham suburbs and for me to ride back to Worcester. But not before I made Alys promise that next time I could choose the beers.
Update: Alys's book, Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery, chronicles her journey paddling around Birmingham's waterways. It is also the story of her emotional journey and her coming out as a gay woman. Beautifully and frankly written you can find this in hardback and paperback from all reputable, tax and fair wage paying booksellers.
Alys on Beer and Slugs
Slugs like beer. Fact. But don’t choose cheap cooking lager because they’re actually quite picky. Go for a traditional malty beer, something with lots of smell going on (even add some more yeast if you have any).
Big fat brown and yellow slugs (not the black ones - they only eat rotting material - don’t be mean to them) can drink a lot and it’s not unknown for them to drink your slug trap dry before climbing out and going on a drunken raid of your plants. So you’ll need a deep trap and plenty of good beer.