Still on Saturday…
10am I arrive with suitcase and bag (s), to the opening of the brand new archive room at the National Waterways Museum. The former education room has been cleaned up, put together, filed and opened by the dedicated volunteers at the museum. Named The Tony Burnip Room, after the man who was instrumental in ensuring that these archives were stored and kept and catalogued, somewhere, sometimes anywhere. His wife talks about storing these precious papers in lofts and people’s houses, ensuring that this history of the waterways has a legacy. And now it is all here, for the public. Cake is cut, applauses are made, and I see a community, a dedication, a passion and enthusiasm in preservation and use. This is what the core of this project is about for me. This dedication and community is the history of how the museum came to be originally, as well as the history and the continuing future of the canals.
Originally opened as North West Museum of Inland Navigation (later The Boat Museum) was started by volunteers in the 1970’s following the fire at Telford’s Warehouse. A site left alone with no plans was built into a museum by mud, hard work and enthusiasm for preserving a way of life that was disappearing. A story that mirrors the regeneration of the canal system itself from the1940’s onwards by the hoards of volunteers that still continue to clear the waterways.
I’m on the outskirts of this, an interloper coming in, an uncertainty, an observer, naive to knowledge about boats, canals, histories learnt over years and years of experience.
I spend the rest of day dazely walking around, 80 or so narrow boats lined up, shanty singers in nooks and cranny’s, in front of museum exhibitions, on wide barge boats. People talking, laughing, drinking ale, sitting outside of boats, children, dogs…I am at a loss in a crowd of people where everyone knows everyone. Or so it seems.
After finding my way into the slightly strange accomadation I am staying in, ( key under the mat, notes with full instructions on how to wipe the UNDERSIDE of the toilet seat after EVERY use but no actual toilet paper) I return to the museum in the evening to view silent films cine films and super 8’s of boating trips from the archives (It was one particular man whose name I can’t recall-I will come back and add) digitised and played to a room full of people who view them with anecdote, asides, and narrow boat bingo. These are films from the 1960’s, and earlier, and people call out names of the boats or who used to own them. One man sure he see’s his Dad on a boat he used to board. The atmosphere is warm, piano music on a CD player to accompany the puttering images of days gone by. People have apps on their internet phones to make the present look as filtered as this. Shorts, well cut dresses (‘she’s not dressed for boating’ ‘But she’s got the right shoes’) not jeans, white shirts tucked into belted old suit trousers. Boots and rubber soles. Looks and smiles to camera, women in bathing costumes and matching cap, dipping in river and canal. The journey’s jog around the country prefaced with home made titles on econ peg letter boards finished with flowers. South and up, then back to the middle, mummers of knowledge, and places changed (‘doesn’t look like that now’). Every now and then the DVD judders to a pause as the music on the CD carries on. Sibelius, I think.
I have been introduced to some people who are the entertainment committee for the following evening, a boaters cabaret of songs, and sketches. I’m introduced as a performance artist, I in a faltering way what I am actually doing. They ask me if I’m going to do a turn tomorrow evening. I don’t think I have anything boating up my sleeve (apart from The Ballad of Ted May-the story of the first man to die swimming the channel-but there’s been enough death at seas in the Shanty Festival). I ask if I can join their table, I sort of slip my way in, bidding them to take me under their wing. They tell me stories of barging three abreast and breaking through ice in the winter. Lucy, was born into boats, lives abroad now, but comes back for Boats Meets like this, her Mum, Mavis (she has stories to tell of excavating canals, living and working on boats) is there and her partner John, 81 (Age: 81, number of years on the boats: 81). Ray, started skippering pleasure boats in the 70’s, was a civil servant by day, Pete, with direct questions softened by vowels and affectionate endings. ‘What do actually want with us then, my lovely?’ I tell them I’m completely green to boating, I know nothing.
Ray, says ‘Well then you should come with me on the boat. Monday morning, drop you off in Chester’
He eyes me over a pint:
‘8. In the morning’
I imagine myself nimbly jumping off and on barges, expertly cranking around locks.
I’m starting to learn of the difference in terms of working boats (boats that have worked), leisure boats (new builds built for purpose), holiday boaters and hire ones.
I say that I’ll see them tomorrow 11am for The Boaters Games and I get back to my strange accomadation, two pints of ale down and a purpose found.
NB: At the moment I am with out internet phone or new fangled camera, so while I’d love to show you pictures of boats and the like. I can’t. Which is a shame as it will be a long time before that many boats will be all together again.
Sunday * * *
Up to watch the boaters games, throwing ropes in straight line down hill in between the locks, lassoing posts, tyre hooping, agreed cheating. One year they tied the rope for throwing to terrier, threw a ball, and that terrier chased it with straight and far rope. A way to win. Tales of the games they used to play before health and safety set in, tug of war over the canals, wheel barrow derby in the cut. Course someone had to get the wheelbarrows out after. I’m still an intruder as I hang around, a boater hanger on. But I welcomed as if I had a boat of my own. Mavis tells me stories about community and help, how that’s changed with hire boats, and weekend boaters, people not knowing as much what they are doing. Stories of Lucy at 18 months covered in mud as 1000 people coming together to clear the Ashton Canal. Proper people power. There’s a meeting at 2pm for Lucy to collect stories, contacts about people involved in those movements to clear the canals from the 40’s, 50’s , 60’s, 70’s (when she was, as a child was running around covered in mud and in her words ‘probably more a hindrance than a help’ ). She is putting together a book, region by region, to document the clearing of the canals that went ahead, photo’s, stories, so people know the work that went before.
And the reason there is a residing resentment between Boating People and Holiday Boaters, New Boaters (‘putting money into boats instead of houses because of prices, shiny boat shoes in blue and white’) is that from the holiday boaters, new ones, there is little interest in learning the history of what went before their new shiny boats. How they are able to boat up the canal. ‘They are not interested in what came before them’.
‘What came before’ is exactly what I deal in, whether it’s boats, or the history of a place, or the story of an object-I want to know what came before, so we can understand where we are now.
And later I join a quiz about Canals and locks and knots and junctions I know nothing of. The team that always wins, wine. I drink ale and talk, listen, join in songs that I know (or words are handed out for) in the boat cabaret. Impressions and well intentioned ribbing. Mavis says ‘They’ve known each other years and years, and maybe only all meet up once or twice a year’. The Canal Poet lauret Jo Bell (who I’ve been surreptitiously internet stalking since starting this project) performs 3 poems, one so beautiful a hush descends upon the room and people cannot help but murmur in pleasure and agreement, another one about ducks mating that is brutal, funny and filthy. She’s got a book coming out, I’ve put it on my wish list. My time to leave on the boat the following day has been put forward to 7.30am. That’s fine by me, but four pints down, I leave just before the last song and audience participation. Tomorrow, Monday, I’m up at 6am and on the boat. Owl all the way to Chester.