Back to the beginning…

Since writing the last post-I’ve gone back at the beginning,the beginning of canals. Trying to learn the history of in order to understand The Shroppie, so I am well equipped when I walk her length (and it feels to me that canals like boats should be ‘a she’). I’m doing the leg work,  the building, the constructing of knowledge that may not even be specifically involved in the final words or performance, but I have to know it. To a certain extent.  I go back to the knowledge of the people in the museum, understanding gleaned and known over years, and years of experience.  I’m starting with books, and boxes of papers, notes, ledgers, minutes from meetings. And for me it’s the older books, written in the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s about the histories of canals that helps me get to grips with it. We are so used to typing a question, pressing a button and expecting an answer. Sometimes it’s good to work for it, cross reference understand how it all starts to piece together.

I’m reading The Canal Age by Charles Hadfield, (written 1968) it’s enjoyable, accessible, funny even, and early on there is a series of maps of the UK that show the building of each canal through the years from early beginnings in the 1700’s through to Canal Mania and later editions.  Scan through the maps quickly and it’s a flick book animation; like cracks spreading across pottery,  creases in the palm of a hand as it grows older, those inland waterways splinter the country connecting together, making a spread inland from the sea. We are an island nation, surrounded as we are, but we dug, we built with hands and carts and horses, ditches, channels filled with water through the heart of our country. Using water, controlling it, as much as we could, through the landlocked center’s so we are never far from it. Although I knew it as a fact that has been repeated from childhood through to me finding myself in residence at the Waterways Museum, I never really understood: canals gave birth, and transport to industry. That revloution. Those short lived years when everything was for water, equivalent of motor ways (or high speed railways, or whatever Richard Branson might be cooking up) now.

The Shropshire Union- the vein from the heart of industry in the midlands toward the sea through Liverpool.  And the Shropshire Union has it’s chequered history of really being three canals built at separate times, of the landed gentry throwing in their lots and money, giants of industry. Competition with the tracks, canal men telling farmers of the fire breathing dragons railways omitting poisonous smoke to keep them on board with the canals. Or making the canals in line with tracks and working together.  Ditches being cut through land by hand, hundreds of men, hundreds of horses. No machinery, taking out soil by wheelbarrow and rope. A high bank cut through a different way to keep a man and his pheasants happy.

I’m looking through boxes marked ‘Shropshire Union’ all mixed in through the ages, there are beautiful flow diagrams like records on circular paper showing the rise and fall of water in inky needle 1946-48. Log books for Junctions, names of inspectors, lists of boats and cargo’s. A poster on how to look after your horse properly from 1873. And there were lots of horses, I read of Shroppie Fly Boats running from Birmingham at 5pm on Tuesday and Saturdays and arriving in Ellesmere Port 29 hours later, no stopping for the boat just the swapping over of horses. Perishables, cheeses carried fast as they can along the waterway. The way I’ll be walking.

Plans for a railway by The Shropshire Union Company, and canals that never got built. Ghost canals. And in other boxes, notes for letters officiating events and notices written on the back of wage slips from 10 years before. The recycling and saving of paper with each side telling a different time. Small accidents and accusations, dramas played out in typed up letters and long hand: ‘Planks thrown in by youths’ ‘Lads fiddling with locks’. The names of those small time criminals. And I think of Just William and seemingly harmless fun, and back to now with youths hanging out on disused bridges pushing Pringles cartons through iron ridges.  There are log books of meeting minutes typed up and filed each note under a letter. And in the front of these precious books, a child has scribbled practised their looped handwriting in the front , a welcome addition to the stern and formal words contained within the pages. All of this history, all of this traffic in coal, grain, wood, cheese, chocolate and iron, sailing down the Shropshire Union, all of this gone before as we amble along the paths now looking for Herons and ducklings in Spring. Paths out of Birmingham where I will walk.

And there is some concern about my walking, as a woman on my own-I am inviting people to join me-long or short distances, and places to stay incidentally along the way. So if that is of interest franms@mac.com, it will be in September (dates still being decided). Those canals that have seen so much.

I go back to look into The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company, those workers that became the population of parts of Ellesmere Port. The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company, eventually became a subsidy of another company and then was Nationalised under the Steel and Iron Act of 1951 (I also get slightly distracted by learning facts about corrugated iron, but that  is a digression too far). I discover that a proportion of their records are kept somewhere else, Tata Steel UK at Shotton Records Centre. Which upon further internet investigation appears to be a huge archive resource complete with fork lift trucks and boxes and boxes of records. I admit my heart beats faster at this picture. Like some sort of fantasy archive hub that I’ve made up in my head. Oh the filing. My thoughts are that if they hold meeting minutes for the company at the time they moved to Ellesmere Port, then there maybe names I can trace, families I can find. Ones that I imagine may walk to a new life near the Mersey.

I talk to Cath Turpin, an expert of everything canal and boat based, I imagine the inside of her brain like the records office at Shotton, she is able to recall such detail in different subjects at quick request. She wrote an article on The Wolverhampton Iron Company for the Waterways Journal (link here) and has done some further research. The story of the workers walking, is just that: a story. Cath has spoken to different people who tell tales that have been passed down through the generations of their grandfather, grandmother, Aunts, Uncle’s making that journey by foot. There is no official corroboration, of course there wouldn’t be, and 1904/5 there were railways for people to travel upon. But it seems to me, that in stories passed down such as this there is truth, and if I walk those footsteps I am walking in someway in the footsteps of those people that changed the location of their lives. 300 men, and their families moving ‘down north’ (while the tow path is flat, it is downhill from Wolverhampton I am delighted to find).  Cath later sends me a copy of  the WW1 Memorial of ‘the names of the workers from The Mersey Iron Works (as it became know) who fell during the great war’. Some 10 years after the move to Ellesmere Port. She has a list of their histories, where they born, a number of them Wolverhampton, born and bred. This is the beginnings of tracing, perhaps some of these families. Names to hold on to. That war memorial was in The British Legion at Ellesmere Port until the building was knocked down some years ago, Cath took the picture before it went. The memorial is now in Manchester, but there is some talk of bringing it back here, to Ellesmere Port where those men, those boys lived and worked.

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Along The Shropshire Union: A Proposal.

What follows is part thinking out loud, part explanation of my practice, part proposal for the months to come: It’s bit more formal than reflections on canal journeys and archives, just to let you know…

The Shropshire Union Mainline runs from Autherley Junction, Wolverhampton up to Ellesmere Port. A late bloomer completed in 1835, one of Telford’s last stands, an amalgamation of different companies it was the canal that was nearly a railway. Prior to this Union of Companies (see what they did there-Shropshire Union), there are sections that were built in the late 1700’s, making this stretch of waterway an ideal focus as a microcosm of canal history, pulling out facts, log books, toll charges, technical drawings, photographs and self initiated canal surveys from the archives as split moments of time and small stories. It also ends in Ellesmere Port, giving opportunity to delve into The Port itself. Perhaps The Canal Tavern, the long gone pub with the boxing ring above.  Monday: Men’s Boxing, Tuesday: Women’s.

There needs to be movement in this project, as the purpose of a canal is to journey from one place to another, be it for industry or pleasure. And I keep coming back to The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company, that walk of the workers, wanting to re-trace those steps, keeping at even pace to the boats.

The way I work, how I create, generally involves activity, an action of some sort, whether it be travelling the length of country to re- trace the journey of a postcard sent in 1910 (more here) or excavating the history of the building I live in (more here) or transcribing a series of letters written between a group of women nearly 100 years ago (here), it involves me creating a story that starts in the everyday by the actions that I make. But it is also about linking the past and the present, what’s changed, what hasn’t, what needed to change for survival. The basic premise of what I intend to do is this (and there will be creases to iron out, knots to untie):

– Researching, transcribing, highlighting, creating moments around particular pieces from the archives that have relevance to The Shropshire Union. 

This could be anything from driest of log books and documentation of cargo, to diaries, newspaper articles, profiles of workers and engineers,oral histories. I have already started to gather, and look into this material including an abundance of Oral Histories and a hand written copy of a 1958 Diary Of A Canal Survey undertaken on ‘pedal cycle’ in 1958.

-With this information gathered and known in my head (and that research continuing onwards), walking from Birmingham (where I live) to Ellesmere Port, via Wolverhampton to walk the 66 miles of The Shropshire Union mainline. 

Meeting people, talking to people, sharing knowledge, stories, histories. With the likely hood of a call out to participants, people who may want to join for a short walk. Or a long walk. Or somewhere to stay (a veiled hint). Aiming for this to take place in September, planning the route with an idea of taking 5-7 days with over night stays.

-Creating a performance in response to the archive material and the re-traced journey to be performed at The Museum in 2016.

The form would be to create a walking tour around the museum, that reimagines and reconstructs the museum site at Ellesmere Port as the length of the Shropshire Union, using exhibits, boats, stretches of canal as part of this ‘mis guided tour’. With the potential for sound bites, film, and participation from volunteers/ participants. It would be ideal to run alongside this performance tour a series of events; story telling, archive introductions, meeting the volunteers, other people’s creative responses to archive material, creating a ‘mini festival’ around this performance event.  Like with all work at this stage, the form may change as it becomes more apparent as to what may suit the material gathered.

-Legacy, Continuity and Adaption

There is a want from both me as an artist and for the museum for a life out beyond a finite series of performances for this project. There are several possible ways of realising this; a high quality downloadable audio version, a version left with some of the volunteers-or their own version of a tour, a re-setting of the piece as a tourable show for small scale theatres, village halls.

There would also be a way for visitors/ audience to connect to the archive material used in a place stored online and/or physically within the archives itself.

Alongside this there would be the continual work of creating workshops, exchanges, storytelling sessions, based on themes of travel, documentation, re-generation and investigation into archives throughout the residency period.

* * * *

The act of the journey itself, is a well travelled path (ahem), this is a popular route amongst long distance walkers and Celia, a local historian, artist and general fountain of boat knowledge, did a circular walk including mainline Shropshire Union, alongside a canal boat as a charity walk a few years ago. It is key for me that part of the journey will be about transposing the archive material on to the modern day journey, glimpsing the past as I create new connections and conversations. The idea is to highlight the history of the canals, their own journey and their importance in this country. It is also going to be fun- both the journey and the final performance. Although I may have swayed into a bit of formal arts speak in this blog, the centre of my work remains the same; creating something that is accessible, entertaining and engaging, resonating with the present day.

Boats, ideas and a sudden sense of purpose.

In the weeks that follow the last blog post, I find myself still at a loss in the depth of material. Still feeling a little like an intruder, an interloper on inland waterways. I’m still looking for something to hold onto. I have a conversation with Margaret, the collections manager at the museum, wondering if there are specific objects, boats that may be useful for me to engage with.

The Boats

Out the back of the museum, over the canal that leads to the basin, through the island warehouse and past the displays, a film showing to your right, through double doors on the way to Porters Row (saved buildings of the workers of Ellesmere Port) you enter into hallowed ground. Boats, sinking, decaying under the roof of pigeon’s perching. Their cooing sound. Water dripping from up above, to down below, steady drip, sun bouncing in slats of light, shimmying over sagging wood of waterlogged boats. Those pigeons hiding in cranny’s over once used cabin doors. Eying you suspiciously. The boats that have yet to be saved. Merope, Merak, Scorpio…wide barges, narrow boats. Roses and castle’s. Tin bottoms. It has the atmosphere of a church, a graveyard, you want to hold your breath, like being underwater.

For me, I love this part of the museum, this peaceful place, (that’s the artist in me an obsession with ruin and the measure of time, a common theme see here about a Ruin Lust Tate exhibition from 2013 )  but as I start to pull names of boats and look into files back in the archives, I begin to hear these boat’s stories. From acquisition and repair, original use, and fight for revival. Conservation and preservation. Merope and Merak;  named after star constellations,  a Rickmansworth pair (Ricky Ticky Barges? I may have made this nickname up),  Merak a dumb barge, Merope with engine, built to pull the former along. Split up long ago, lost each other’s constellations, as Merope was re-named something more stable: Gertrude. Sturdy, to carry coal. And steel, and grain. Her real identity hidden under paint, her’s and Merak’s stories a rumour, a heresay that they existed. Until one day during refurbishment and careful peeling of paint, stripped back to reveal her true colours and her real name, Merope once again. Soon she became a helper in the recovery of boats sunk to the bottom of disused canals. Featured in magazine’s and newspaper articles, TV program’s, no less ‘Raising Boats on the BCN’ . Re-united with her partner, her dumb barge Merak at the museum. And now they sit, half swimming, not quite sinking opposite each other, a path in between them.

Now , this is a rose tinted version with a romantic eye. People are passionate about these boats, but in reality the looking after, conservation comes down to money. A slow process in revival. A gathering of resources.

So for the moment, if we see, instead of this pair under a pigeon canopy…

Them in their heyday, carrying weight as they were built too. Working strong, Merope pulling Merak and her heavy load, along the Shropshire Union.

I could tell you names of skippers, and weights of loads, of colours that they were painted. All of this information is there in the archives, some collated and collected and other’s taking you on tangents down different shelves.

So here is an idea- a more in depth version of what I’ve written above, an artistic response backed by paper work of the story of those boats. This could be a performance. It could be an audio tour. It’s a scrap of something.

And that’s before I’ve even looked into Mossdale, the last Mersey flatliner (built to take cargo across the Mersey, sea and tidal worthy). A small obsession ensures about Mossdale that includes envelopes with chips of paint, her suffering in metal sickness,  plans and those that raise her.   She sits outside, wrapped in blue tarpaulin, her story written somewhere in the wood. She’s been built and re-built, the last of her kind but an accumulation of differing boat builder hands, a re-incarnation at every new touch. I am reminded of the story that I learnt in a book* of a whale lost at sea, singing a song that no scientist can recognise, no other species of whale sounds their song quite like this. And there’s no reply. There’s no harmony line. The scientists, the people in the know, they suspect she’s the offspring of two different species having never mated before. She’s one of a kind. But she doesn’t know that, so she keeps singing her song to find some whale, somewhere, the same as her. In earnest.

*Leviathan or The Whale Phillip Hoare

I digress. So here’s a way of writing a formula, almost, to tell the stories of the boats in a way that lends itself to more performative interpretation.

Meanwhile, Chris one of the volunteers, takes me on his tour of the museum. It’s where I learn a lot, and am engaged by the stories that he’s personally interested in. Personal affiliations to those boats in the dock. There are suspect ghosts, and one supernatural story that causes an involuntary rise in my throat. It’s easy to get into those. While we’re talking, looking at boats built from concrete, we see one, two, three, four fire engines drive along the slipway. It’s a dead end at the bottom, a slipway that backs onto the Manchester Ship Canal, then a  thin strip of land, and then The Mersey. Kids cycle along chasing the engines. A ship gone down? Someone in the cut? Aware of rubber necking in this world where every mistake is documented, pretending that I’m not, when this is exactly what I am doing, I watch the fire brigade lower a boat down to the ship canal. People are standing, watching, talking. Behind me perched upon the railings, a young lad is giggling to himself. 18, 19 perhaps though has the look of someone who could be older, or looks too old for his age.

‘Do you know what’s going on?’

He laughs again ‘Yeah me an’ me pals, took a blow up dinghy across the canal..you know we couldn’t all fit in, so we dropped some off on that strip, came back to get the others. When this man, like, comes and tells us it’s private land and we couldn’t got back…yeah we weren’t allowed to go and get the others. And their stuck, like on that land cos it turns out it’s private. And they’re panicking. And then someone called the fire service. So I put the dingy down like, deflated it,  and hid it under a bush. I told them to swim, it’s not far. Girls, you know’

Where we were The Ship Canal is about 100 metres across and 90ft deep. And tidal. And full of massive ships. I am an outdoor swimmer, give me any kind of water and I’ll try and swim in it (have been specifically warned about Weils disease in the canals). But not this stretch, it’s not the distance, it’s the danger. This isn’t a canal we have complete control over the water. The tides.

‘They’d be in more trouble now, I reckon if they tried to swim it’

‘Yeah, maybe’ He agrees ‘I’m glad I didn’t bring my kayak’.

* * *

I spend a day away from the museum working from home in Birmingham, trying to work out what I want to say, what I want to do. It happens this way, part of a process, (what do artists do all day?) writing on big sheets paper, the difficult questions, the snippets of information I have, the answers I don’t. Trying to make clear  to myself what it  is. Both in the bigger sense of the whole residency, legacy and impact (apologies for these terms, you get this from writing applications) and what will be performed as an outcome.

And then I have a break through; focus on one canal, it’s story to tell the bigger stories at large (birth, heyday of canals, deprivation, re-birth and re-use), and I look at my inland water ways map and know it’s got to be The Shropshire Union. 66 miles of it.