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, 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.

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 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.

Tangents in people and a distraction in documents.

Monday 13th & Tuesday 14th

I’m still blindly making lists and groping in the dark trying to find a method to my searching. I’m  thinking about the bigger picture; what is the bigger story I’m trying to tell? There is the story of Ellesmere Port itself, it’s history and it’s building from early on as bathing house, to crux of the Shropshire Union, in leading industry and business place, to the fire, and loss of industry to the building of the museum, to where we are now. Those stories are known, by locals and the volunteers that I speak too. How do I tell these stories from the outside? (That is an open question, one I could be willing to try and answer, not an excuse not to do it). And of course, The Manchester Ship Canal. Still see those huge ships rolling past like they are moving the country itself. Sailing along behind the museum. Strange feeling seeing those large structures moving so close. Like standing at the bottom of a wind turbine, a gracefulness that feels closer to nature than a man made object should.

And there’s that over arching narrative for the whole of canal system. Which follows a similar trajectory in rising up, and being left, re-discovery and new sense of purpose. Perhaps.

And people come in and out of the archives and in each moment I’m given new strands and things to think. A women who worked as a tour guide, 30, 32 years before. Terrible at controlling the kids she was. Looks at me with steely eyes, oh aye an artist, ay? Soft manchester tones, despite having lived in Ellesmere for all this time. I try to give myself credit with my granny from Warrington. She talks about the pub that lay on the banks of the canal before the basin. Famous it was, The Canal Tavern. And I start wondering if this could be a key. The things that pub will have heard. The things that pub will have seen.

I’m hurried to meet Di, a women that is part of the crochet group. She’s been here since this all started and knows a man who worked in Ellesmere Port has his view of boat life from dry land. Another lead.

Meanwhile… looking through the list in the Archive I came across The Robert Aickmann Collection, letters, manuscripts, magazine articles.  Robert Aickmann was the man who co-founded the Inland Waterways Trust also writer of ‘strange fiction’ as he described it.

What I find is boxes and boxes of papers and letters and notes, scribblings on the back of envelopes. All in an order, of sorts. handwritten front sheet of a folder packed with letters wrapped in plastic wallets. This is box 1,  of perhaps 20 or so boxes. Things that were saved by him of his grandfather’s. A manuscript, handwritten on both sides, held together by a rusting pin, words so small and tight together, I wonder if it was written when paper was scarce. And expensive. Delve in deeper to discover that his grandfather was also an author, Richard  Marsh, (a quick wikipedia search and I feel like I’ve stumbled on the holy shroud) letters and letters of publishers buying the rites to his stories. Germany, Italy, America, Receipts for cheques for monies paid. Mixed up with more modern letters typed out pink carbon paper from Robert, his grandson, chastising the expense of modern railway travel (1961) to Railway Magazine. He was also, head (chairman) of The Railway Development Association

If we could visit Aunty in Blackpool for £1 return we should go monthly instead of yearly; and if a proper service is provided the railway habit grows by what it feeds on

A sentiment that is still relevant today. There is an expression of receiving a sympathy card with a return address, a road in the area I live in, in Birmingham.

A pile of love letters from Richard Marsh to his soon to be wife. Some not opened properly, envelope still stuck down. Letters from farms in 1910, somewhere you can walk for 100 miles and see no one,  stories of shooting through the cheek ‘a fleeing human who I had reason to believe had been assisting in killing & stealing stock of mine’

Back to typed letters from Robert, critiquing an american poet ‘One simply cannot write for ever about nothing but oneself, even if one sometimes disguises oneself as a hawk

(A sentiment for me to retain, a warning to the artist).

But too late already, because in this box I see the things that I collect and hide away, I cannot throw my own archive away;  notes on the back of envelopes, every notebook I have ever used, copies of scripts, receipt for a futon I haven’t seen since 2004, Train tickets. Lots of train tickets. Who I’m saving this for-  I’m not sure who… I can see how I’m summarised in things I’ll leave behind.   A whole person’s life and some of his grandfathers stored away in The Inland Waterways Archive.

I dull down the excitement and discovery in me.  It would be easy to get swept up in these people’s lives. It’s nothing much to do with the Waterways. Another project, perhaps another time, before I start making up coincidences and seeing connections that aren’t there. I put the papers away in the box, in the shelf, in the bay, in the archive. I walk around the back of the museum and see a group of men in the car park, door open, stood around a crate. The scene it doesn’t look right,  then they release a door and a flock of homing pigeons fly off and round and away, to the men’s small cheers. They get back in the car.

Its a warm day and just in the distance is a pebbled cove aside the shore of The Ship Canal , two young lads are running in as far as they can go in shorts, a dog jumping around them. Still a place to play by the water.

Off the boats and in the Archives…

Tuesday 7th

I’m back on dry and land in the archives, the reason for my really being here, I am awash with ideas and stories, thoughts for projects which encompass all of the things, people, stories that I have come across over the previous few days.

It’s quiet, today, in the museum, the rush and swagger of the Easter Bank Holiday Boat Rally calmed down in a few families and a crochet knitting group in the cafe (a regular Tuesday occurrence and a source of knowledge I discover later on). I am aware of the vastness of themes and knowledge at hand here, wondering what I really want to say by the stories and information that I gather. Aware that everything has been written about and documented in booklets and pamphlets,  that I am also finding an interpretation, a way to draw different people in.

I am being introduced to the archives today, the filing, the system (s), the listings of items. In the newly opened search room I chat to a man still there from the boat rally tracing the working history of the boat he owns, Badger. Looking through the receipts of cargo’s she’s carried, companies that have owned her, her changes and add ons.  And when he talks about her, there is a shine in his eye- Best boat he’s had, the way she steers, her balance. The passing on and selling on of boats is quite common, boats known by their name, and the owners that have steered them.  This obsession of history of an object, an item, a home, this detective work appeals to me. The unpicking of all those layers and hands that have held the tiller, or walked the boards (whether they are replaced boards or not). That boat tells it’s own story of working to where she is now.

And I have a vague lists..some direction of things that I am interested in; which when I list it,  appears to be a history of the canals-that’s the not quite formed idea at present, snippets moments of stories that tell a moment in time on the canals. This of course will always change dependent on what is found and what is thrown up.

Vague topics…

The building of the canals…In the beginning, particularly The Navvies, the hands that built the waterways, not necessarily the engineers.

Heydays and Glorydays of the working Canals

The sound of the tracks (trains taking over)

Working women

Rolt (and the beginning of regenerating the canals)-Rebuilding the Canal

Becoming for Leisure

Now (and what next)

Not that much to get through then…

I had an idea that there is very little archival material or records of Navvies, because they were transient, usually without record or knowledge of full names, they moved to where the work was, drank hard, worked, died often, with few people to mourn them.  It seems more archival items about them can be found with the dawning of the railway age, but it is usual in reference to ‘The Navvies’ as a group; complaints to local newspapes, or calls for a Union, or the religious looking to save their souls, it seems very rare to find individual to hold on to and start to trace.

This is my usual inclination that triggers an obsession, names or writings, records of a person. However, when delving into records and history, manual labourers, the poor, and poorly educated get lost between the cracks, the people that rise up through and stay in archives tend to be people that had a voice, reason or means to record their thoughts, moments and deeds. This is of course not always true, but majoritively as social history dictates. When I look at Canals I want to see the bottom, the ground, the end of it’s depth. The men that started on even ground and dug down, in mud. The hands that made the waterways.

I wonder at trying to find an image, a moment to place some fiction on, one of the volunteers,  hearing me talk picks out a book on Navvies for me from library available at the archives.

With the other subjects in my list, I know there is material,stacks of it, it is just trying to find the right way to it.

Derek, the volunteer that has been charged with showing me the ropes is demonstrating how the system works with try outs to find something from the archive room, where everything is stored.  We make an easy search by typing in ‘Telford’ select an item to find, cross sectioning reference numbers that refer to bays, and shelves and stacks before we rustle around and rummage (a little) to find the item we sought. And already from that test run, we’re picking out fire tinged work dockets in looping handwriting, eligible sometimes, pencil, clinging to the burnt smell, as it tells of the fire that it escaped. And what we were looking for, it’s description not quite befitting it,  is there, under piles of other paper.

Wednesday 8th

Armed with a good idea about how to look, I start to look, for what I’m not entirely sure. I begin with a database that list most items (10,000 or more) with a reference and a description in an excel spread sheet.  On I read, down the columns trying to find descriptions that catch my eye. I’ve re-headed my headings in what I’m looking out for (it’s good to have some perimeters) to Navvies, The Wolverhampton Corragated Iron Company, History of Clearing The Canals, Ellesmere Port History, Birmingham, Journals and Diaries. I’m making lists and writing down reference numbers, things that spark a jolt of interest;

Thesis of developments in oil industries, ticket receipts (some unused), lists of boats leaving ports, plans for new canals and openings, Wage books, newspapers, maps and plans of boats, timetables for packets, rail connections, lists of boat owners and, boat inspectors note books, journals in water colours of by gone days, oral histories, slides, boat books and paintings.

All with a story tell. Mundane as it could seem.  All stored in boxes, underneath other things, in racks and shelves of other items , all with their own stories to tell. Finger prints left on, not visible, but there, handwritten notes from archivists archiving them somewhere else. All of this panics me. Like I might not find the thing that I need to find.

And I go on my own trial search…

Alone in the archives, 20 or more so winding shelves to my left, 20 or so static shelves to my right. And the smell, of cold, slight damp and paper. And potential.

My heart beating. Feeling like an archaeologist, like the brummie taxi driver said. But it’s too much. The problem that I have in junk shops and charity shops and car boots is the feeling that there is something, one thing there for me to find. A ridulcouls dedication to some pre-ordained fate that still stems from reading too much detective fiction and a preference for the past. Something that is known. That has already been written. Panic that I might not find that one thing. Panic that I will. Overwhelming. Things that could have been thrown away, but haven’t. Arguments from some sides of things that should have been thrown away, but haven’t.

I don’t find what I’m looking for in that moment. Boxes placed in other destinations, moved or awaiting re-catogorising. Next week I’ll come back and look more.

Still not quite closer to what I’m really looking for.

Easter Monday Morning on Board Owl

Mist is sitting low on the Shropshire Union as I climb clumsily aboard Owl with Ray, I am not as nifty of my feet as I imagined, listening to instruction but still hitting my head on the tiller almost immediately, Ray offers me a cup of tea and we are travelling in mini convoy, with another boat, Victory so up we can go up through the northgate locks with her. Previously, my experience of being on canal boats was pleasure cruises, afternoon drinking along little venice through Camden Locks, and more recently some armchair cruising in Great Canal Journey’s with Pru and Tim and of course John Sargent.

This is standing with one foot on the side, on a ledge, next to water’s edge, one foot at the stern, but far enough not to get in the way of the tiller. A missed step from the water. And there is a slight fear underfoot, hand holds to rails, not as confident and sure in my step as I thought. I wish that had not left my £4.99 phone in my pocket (though it would probably survive a dunking more than an eponymous iPhone). I am at home, near by, preferably, in water. I spent most of childhood falling into ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, turning purple and wrinkled in refusal to exit chilly coastal waters.  If there is water, I want to gaze at it, then I want to get in it. Being on the man made made waterways is a different experience; water we control, almost, just underfoot, without the ripples and waves caused by tides, just creases and small peaks by motors and other boaters. Nervous at first, but unwilling to show by fear, confidence comes easily as we carry on our voyage. The small vibrations underfoot of the engine, ducking under branches, not holding on to rails but holding cup of tea ,close, for warmth, nonchalantly. Like a proper boater.

Despite the predicted weather expectancy of shorts and short sleeves, this is still well before 9am in the morning, and mist is still mooring. Wind flat across the water, poking into me and chaffing hands. Ray seems unbothered by this. And I know I am hardy, I’ve swam in the sea in February, I would rather be cold than warm, but this a cold that comes with movement, though we are going at less than 4 miles an hour (that would be my guess, and 4MPH is the speed limit in answer to my  brummie taxi driver’s suggestion in the first blog). It really gets to your fingers. That cold.

At first we pass under bridge modern and old, the old factories of Ellesmere Port line the banks. Ray points out The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company’s warehouse, or what’s left in skeletal structure of rusting red. You could put back it’s walls with your eyes, if you tried, the turning point for deliveries, drop off’s and going back around. I’ve known it, up to this point, as a new factory to walk to from Wolverhampton up to here (in terms of the stories I’ve picked up that have pricked up my ears, those workers walking in the 1900’s.) I’ve thought of it as a new life, walking from the black country, and here it is, a site to see.

On we putter on, conversation in the cold, me asking questions that demonstrate my ignorance to the subject in hand, Ray, patient and knowledgeable, me learning as I go. Owl is a 45 ft (a short boat) has 11 years until she can be a ‘historic boat’ (this may not be quite the correct term), I ask the difference between working boats and new boats. Rivets- working boats, Welding- new (not quite mass produced.… ) Behind us more boats in the distance as many of them canal away from the boat rally up back towards different destinations. And it’s easier to do it in pairs or together. Especially the north gate locks. Ray and I swap stories of work, and early docks made from people up in Camden (now where the Canal Museum there is). Living aboard,  moored, sharing car parks with the ladies of the night from Kings Cross. A reminder that canals were born of industry and commerce, city to city byways, urban ports of call, their history and their depth all wrapped up in darker sides than site seeing quaint, smiling, gentle rides.

But it does slow you down. It slows me down, being on the boat. The aim in travel, is usually to get somewhere as quickly as possible, with as little disruption (or interaction) as possible. On a canal boat you wave to the walkers, dog walkers and the runners, (a father and son out for a bank holiday jog).  See their faces. For young kids or parties of foreign exchange students, Ray sounded his whirling horn, to mixed reactions of confusion (the young lad in the pram) and cheers (exchange students). There was talk of being alone on a boat, steering while opening a flask of coffee. I am not qualified to hold the tiller, I don’t even attempt to ask whether I can have a go at steering (though you do not have to be licensed to hire a holiday boat which is where, it is obvious, some of the problems may stem). How if you’re boating alone, you come to make adjustments, a ways of doing things. ‘Learn from other people’s mistakes, don’t make them and then you can make mistake’s that are all your own’ is Ray’s philosophy around boating (although it was put more eloquently than that). More often than not there are two people on the boat, which helps if you are doing locks, steering, etc…But even on your own, it is not a lonely life, it seems you are never alone on the canals, people you know or don’t know helping out. It appeals to me, the idea of lone boating, my understanding of boating still lying in an idealised version projected by TV and whimsical musings. Ray came to canal boats by sailing young on the Norfolk Broads (chuckles of the mistakes he’s made in his youth), I ask him if he misses water, the boating when he’s away from it. Yes, absolutely, it’s usually not long 2,3 weeks before he gets withdrawal from the water. Spent most of winter on dry land with one things and another, and repairs to the boat. A welcome relief to be back on the water. In one of my not quite sure what I’m asking but I think I want an answer questions ‘do you think there is a draw to water, something..?’ And Ray says something about the feel of water and the lull. Calming.

It’s coming up to 10.30am, and I feel like I’ve had a day already (which is what happens when you get on a boat early in the morning) and I’ve been watching the canal tow path eying up how I could cycle along it, this in theory is my idea-live somewhere in Chester, while I am here and cycle to the museum every day. And back.

We are coming up to Northgate locks. Again, I was imagining me leaping on off boat, winding and unwinding the locks, with those things..the metal thing. Winding paddles. We are going up two boats at a time (Victory has gone ahead and we are going up with another-I can’t quite remember but I like to think it was Birmingham. A ship called Birmingham), up step locks. This really is my induction into how locks work, I never understood it when as a child I would ‘help’ open the locks in the canals near Watford. This is how the boats go uphill. Three locks going up in steps, levelling out the water, one lock at a time so the boats can climb up hill. This feat of engineering is a slow business, and opening a lock seems to be quite a lot of pressure. There is one boat coming down at the same time we are going up. A little ‘shufty’ is required. I am unsure whether this is official boat terminology or just a word for describing what is happening. I have to ask for help, to ensure I know what I’m doing, my focus is concentrated and everyone else is relaxed, looks like they’ve been doing it all their lives. There are mutterings of holiday boaters coming down not bothering to close off the lock, the people that I am with there seems to be an unspoken language of knowing what to do and when.

By the third lock I push it on my own. And I’ve slipped my winding paddle in my belt, like I’ve been doing it for years. Until the lock keeper suggests that I might lose it, if I keep it like that. An man with camera, mutters something to me about keeping up and jumping aboard before Ray has told me too. I tell him that I’ll listen to what my skipper says, unknowing if he is boaty person, or one to watch and comment. And people do stand and look, still and paused, taking pictures, watching, hearing the rushing of the water and the rise of the boats. Slowly, slowly, waiting to make a break and swing the lock back, and the boats to chug on through. A deep lock. I long to be onboard and looking up. A closeness to the rushing water.

It is a performance, mostly the people on the boats on and on the locks, eyes down to their audience, concentrating at the job in hand or talking amongst themselves in gestures I can’t quite read. Weary of the camera flashes and those who thinks it looks such fun. The effort, the movement gives me purpose, I like testing my own strength, and makes me feel I’ve earned my passage. Also that’s what Ray tells me. We go up a little further, up through Chester and it’s high walls, line gauged out into stone by years and years of rope rubbing from horse drawn boats. Sun coming through, people out by canal side cafe’s and pubs. And I am dropped off just four hours after I boarded, finding my feet on solid land again. I walk along side Ray and say my goodbye’s to a morning boating.

More to come, back on land with an introduction to the archives.

Bank Holiday Boat Rally (Part 2)

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’

‘Ok, then’

He eyes me over a pint:

‘8. In the morning’

‘No problem’.

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.

Birmingham to Bank Holiday Boat Rally (Part 1)

Kings Heath to New Street: Explaining what I do

My first day along the canals starts with a taxi (motor car) at 5.45am from my flat in South Birmingham to New Street.  Having watched ‘Barging Around with John Sargent’ the night before, which happened to focus on Birmingham, I know my adopted city to be a centre of waterways in the country, somewhere early on there’s the old ‘more canals than Venice’, a common and proud line heard often in the city. ‘Liquid Lanes’ is a phrase that catches my ears as John tells us how Birmingham Industry was built from the manmade waterways. And tries to buy a gun.

My taxi driver at 5.45 am, does not, however, agree that the canals are being put to the best use. Upon interrogation about what I do, my mumbled reply of ‘a writer and a performer that works a lot with archives’ does not satisfy this brummie cabbie’s intrigue:

Taxi Driver: ‘Right so. You go to a place?’

Me: ‘Yes’

TD: ‘Right, and you find out about the stories?’

M: ‘Yes’

TD: ‘The romances, the mysteries, maybe…the things that are a bit..untoward. And you go, and you talk to people, maybe families that were around, right, you explore

M: ‘Yes’

‘TD: You find out things, right? So, you’re Indiana Jones?’

I enjoy this comparison immensely, but I am confused by the choice. There is no running away from rolling balls, pits of snakes, piles of gold…

TD: ‘You’re an archeologist. You’re excavating things’

Yep, no he’s right, and there’s different ways to view rolling balls, pits of snakes and piles of gold. Metaphorically, like. He continues.

TD: ‘So, right, I get that, you’re a collector, a researcher, a historian…’

M: ‘I’m not a historian by training…I’m a..’

‘TD: Yeah but you deal in history. So, I get that you research and you read. And you write the scripts? But I still don’t get what the actual product is? What like a conference? Or do you act?

M: ‘Err a sort of combination, I tell stories. Sometimes as myself, sometimes slipping in and out of character, ask the audience to imagine themselves, somewhere, sometime. Use facts as starting points, read between the lines.  I tell stories.’

TD: ‘Right, a storyteller, an actor..writer, editor, researcher, historian..right, I get all that, but how do you finish the shows?’

M: ‘Finish them?’

TD: ‘Because if you are talking about the Egyptians or the Byzantine time, right, you know that civilisation is finished. There is an end. But every time you do a show, there’s more questions, to be answered, right? Because the canals in Birmingham keep going.  They haven’t finished. They are still here, you know. Who uses them? No one uses them? You, know, you don’t say I’m going down the canal?’

I do. And know other people that do. Cyclists. Runners. Walkers. Dogs. Dog walkers. Boaters. Boaters.

TD: ‘So they were used for industry, right, the canals, but now what?…

We could use them, you know, so the barges, they call them barges, are slow. But if someone got one that went a little bit faster. A commuter barge, an hour from Stratford, that serves breakfast and you can do your wifi work on, and avoid all the traffic. The motor traffic of birmingham. An hour on the barge in the morning with breakfast. And hour in the evening with dinner. Maybe a drink. Someone should do that, a boat that goes faster. That’s my idea, that’s how we should use the canals’

I suspect there’s a speed limit on the canal. I suspect I’ll be able to find that out this weekend. I’m interested that he has to find a point, a function in the canals.  I tell him to take the idea to Dragon’s Den and he wishes me well on my way.

* * *

Follow The Canal By Track

I pull out of New Street on a train towards Liverpool, change for Ellesmere. The train tracks run adjacent to the canal, the water, bridges, curves and signs (Mr Sargent having pointed out that Birmingham canals are well appointed in their signage).  Canals under bridges by a banks of delivery vans awaiting Amazon marketplace purchases to take to easter customers. Warehouses disused and reused, following the canal. Faster, heading towards the the black country, signed by industrial piles and metal silhouettes of horses. Mosques, terrace houses, moorings and churches, rail over canal. Empty skips in old carparks, wooden pallets piled up.

And I’m pressed up to the window, eyes constantly trying to follow the canal. The complex co-dependency of waterway and rail.  I lose her, the canal, as the banks by the railways rise high into collapsing sheds and steep back gardens.

Coming up to Wolverhampton.

Stories from the archive. 1905 or thereabouts, Wolverhampton workers in the promise of a new factory move from the Black Country to Ellesmere Port.  Walking the tow path on the Shropshire Union , Wolves to Wirral, belongings on the barges. New beginnings for The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company. 300 families or more from Dudley, Bilston and Wolverhampton. And now still,  in this year, a small but dedicated 3rd, 4th generation band of Wolverhampton Wolves football fans in the pocket of mersey Reds.

(At some point as part of this project I’d like to, no I’m going to walk that path over several days, re-trace those footsteps)

There she is again, the canal, wider now, curving. Still reeds. Trucks. Old warehouses with small windows. Lose her. New warehouse in corrugation with no windows. Shipping containers. New builds. Signs to buy. Scaffolding holding up old builds. And here she is,  narrow locks into the train travels over. She carries away to the left.

Slag heaps, wasteland. New flats poking through playing fields. Green fields, small horses, dogs home, no canals to be seen. Flash a glimpse as we rattle over, trickle of a stream, not man made.

I know little of the names of Waterways,types of locks, or names of those who built them (there is of course Telford, Brunel..others that are harder to find) and I’m on my way to the opening of a room, a place, of documents and dedication as part of the Bank Holiday Boat Rally at Ellesmere Port. And a sea shanty singing festival.

* * *