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.