Salwarpe to Porters Mill

To inspire my writing for The Ring Project, I took a stroll along the Droitwich Canal with Nick Yarwood who was involved with its restoration as a teenager, and later as a Canal Manager. As we looked down from Salwarpe Bridge, I imagined the “wet mud, silt, dead trees … years of debris”, Nick described, my imagination helped along by one of Max Sinclair’s photos, taken in 1965. When the painstaking restoration work began, this is what the army of volunteers were confronted with.

1965 droit (3)
I had already been told by another interviewee that many of the locals weren’t keen on the canal being restored because they thought all sorts of riff raff would be marauding around, up to no good!

Under the bridge, holes made when it was constructed are clearly visible today, and the original wood is still there.


At the first event, the Droitwich Dig in 1973, a thousand people turned up. Nick was one of those people, aged fifteen. He tried to work out the location of Max’s photo and stood there for this shot:

As we moved from location to location, Nick described the work undertaken by the volunteers. In order for volunteers to repair this culvert under the canal, the stream was diverted through pipes. Anyone walking or cruising along would be unaware of all the work that went into this hidden brickwork. The site of Hill End swing bridge may go unnoticed, but the towpath edge was replaced by volunteers though the bridge itself is lying redundant on the towpath.

Restoration includes preserving features like this sandstone, reminding those who look more closely that horses once pulled boats along this waterway.

33. Porters Mill Bridge parapet
Here’s the sandstone parapet of Porters Mill Bridge, complete with rope marks and carvings.

John Burman, who was Chair of Droitwich Canals Trust for about 10 years, said this about the parapet of another bridge:

When we did Linacre Bridge, a nice bit of work, the coping stones were donated by Cadbury’s. When they were put up, we went to a local farmer and asked for buckets and buckets of slurry – which he was very happy to let us have – and we poured the slurry all over these coping stones for two reasons: One, so that moss would grow and two, more importantly, the vandals won’t try and write their names in it because they don’t want to get their hands dirty. So you don’t get people scratching their names into clean sandstone thereby damaging it.

The canal was officially abandoned in 1939 at the start of the war. The old bridges were too steep and lightweight to accommodate tanks, so this provided an excuse for an act of parliament giving the government official permission to let it fall into disrepair. Gradually over time, sections were built over and some parts were incorporated into people’s gardens. Nick described  vividly how the workforce collaborated to clear the canal of “years of debris” and I will be writing more about that soon. I’ll end with a story he told me.  In one section, a local man had erected a fence along the middle of the canal bed and planted a line of willow trees. When work began to remove the willows he protested. “They make cricket bats out of those you know!”

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Remembering wartime canal women

On Remembrance Sunday, I am very pleased to have been able to highlight the role the Women’s Training Scheme played in the war effort on the British canals. The work I have been doing with Alarum Theatre, telling the stories of these mainly middle class women, will feature on BBC Countryfile this evening at 6.20pm on BBC1. Also included will be Kathryn Dodington whose aunt Daphne March (Daffy) carried cargo throughout World War 2 on her family owned boat, Heather Bell. As Kathryn told me, Daffy’s motivation for doing this work was ‘service’. It is also important to remember the women of the working families who didn’t have the choice; this is what they were born to, and they just got on with it. Our show Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways gives an insight into the lives of all these women.

In remembrance of the working women today, I am sharing a few lines from my piece Hillmorton Locks. This section was written after speaking to Ron who told me the story of his birth:

Emma Humphreys, expecting twins,
a boat-load of coal, her labour begins,
the war is on, the shrapnel flies,
the cabin’s tiny, her youngest cries.

Two men to thank, Albert and Ron
make sure they’re safe till danger’s gone;
under a bridge, twin boys are born,
named after the men who saved their skin.

© Heather Wastie
from Hillmorton Locks

BBC Countryfile – The Idle Women

At the end of October I spent the day filming for BBC Countryfile with Kate Saffin for a feature on The Idle Women whose stories we re-tell as touring company, Alarum Theatre. The programme is being aired on BBC1 this coming Sunday at 6.20pm. Here’s how the day went.

We assembled in the Museum cafe at Stoke Bruerne at 8.45am on a cold but dry day, and it was decided that the first job was to film me performing two of my poems – Idle Women and Judies and Heather Bell. The second of these was chosen because it’s all about Daphne March whose niece Kathryn Dodington was also being filmed for the programme. She didn’t have far to walk because she lives in one of the canalside cottages. Mind you, she had already got the fire going on Sculptor, ready for our trip down (and up, and down, and up) the locks once the poems had been filmed.

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Idle Women and Judies
Here you can see Ian with the fluffy microphone, Steve behind the camera and Simon, the producer, looking down at the shot as it is being filmed.

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Filming Heather Bell


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We waited in vain for an intermittent and rather loud noise coming from the other side of the towpath and eventually had to abandon filming in this location. The poem was recorded later in the day on board Sculptor with Kathryn nicely positioned in the background as she steered. Sadly, neither of the poems made the final cut because there simply wasn’t enough time to pack everything in.

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Having shown presenter Ellie Harrison how to work a lock (she was completely new to this) we chatted to her on board Sculptor as Kathryn steered through the other locks with a crew of Canal & River Trust volunteers. Kathryn was a stalwart, winding the boat (ie turning it round) then steering it up the locks again. While one of the volunteers took Sculptor off and winded it again we stopped for lunch (and to warm up) in the Museum cafe. After lunch we set off down the locks again, leaving the boat once we had finished recording so that we could get to Enslow for our evening show and the crew could focus on interviewing Kathryn who had some wonderful stories to tell. In case you’re wondering, the blue barrel in the hold is ballast. This is where the heavy cargo would have been.

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All in all we had a really good time. Thanks to lovely researcher Debs for sending us the photos! And thanks to Canal & River Trust, Kathryn Dodington and the hardworking volunteers for making the day possible. 

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Weavers’ Cottages up for an award

WEAVERS’ COTTAGES SHORTLISTED FOR A HISTORIC ENGLAND ANGEL AWARD

You may remember that I wrote a song-cycle in celebration of these beautifully restored cottages. Please will you vote for them to receive an Angel Award? Click here to listen to the songs and see below to find out more.

  • The Weavers’ Cottages in Horsefair, Kidderminster have been shortlisted as one of three finalists in the Best Rescue of a Historic Building category of the Historic England Angel Awards 2017
  • People are urged to vote for the public choice award here: Best rescue of a historic building
  • Annual awards supported by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation celebrate heritage heroes who have made a lasting difference to historic buildings and places

Worcestershire Building Preservation Trust is celebrating their successfully completed project to conserve the Weavers’ Cottages in Horsefair, Kidderminster being named one of three finalists in the Best Rescue of a Historic Building category of this year’s prestigious Historic England Angel Awards.

Weavers' Cottages completed

Long before Kidderminster was known for producing carpets, it was famous for spinning and weaving cloth. The three neglected Weavers’ Cottages on Horsefair might not have looked much to passers-by, but the modest buildings have always held an important place in the town’s history as a centre of the cloth industry. Their rescue has replaced a thread that connects Kidderminster with this distant way of life.

Kidderminster Civic Society successfully campaigned for the cottages to be given Listed building protection and after years of endeavour their rescue has been realised following sensitive repair and modernisation works carried out by Worcestershire Building Preservation Trust.  They are now for sale, with the proceeds to be used to repay some of the costs of renovation.

Bob Tolley, a son of Kidderminster and Trustee of Worcestershire Building Preservation Trust expressed the Trust’s delight: “We are thrilled to have been short-listed for a prestigious Angel Award, and grateful to National Lottery players and other funders, in particular the Architectural Heritage Fund and the Pilgrim Trust, whose support enabled us to carry out this project to save these cottages that were close to collapse.  They have been made fit for modern use, are now on the market and can serve again as family homes for present and future generations to enjoy.”

David Trevis-Smith, Project Organiser for Worcestershire Building Preservation Trust said: “The cottages are located on a busy road and even passing motorists have said how it lifts their spirits to see the transformation. Hopefully, that will encourage other ‘eyesore’ buildings to be looked at differently and refurbished rather than demolished,” and he added: “This project could be a model for abandoned buildings in other places to be refurbished to modern standards to help tackle the housing shortage.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber said: ‘I’m delighted to champion the people who protect the precious buildings and places around us. Everyone who has been shortlisted for an Historic England Angel Award has made a significant difference to our landscape and built environment. Congratulations to all of them! This year I am especially pleased that we are crowning an overall UK winner for the first time, showcasing the crucial work that is being done across the country by local heritage heroes.’

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England said: “I am always impressed by the tireless commitment shown by our Angel Award nominees working together to care for our shared heritage. The variety of this year’s shortlists proves there are so many different ways to engage with our rich legacy of historic buildings and places and as ever, the judging panel will have their work cut out to choose the winners. It is essential that we champion the volunteers and heritage professionals whose work ensures we can continue to enjoy England’s wonderful historic sites for generations to come.”

Please vote for the cottages! Thank you.

Update on The Ring project

Years ago I went on an organised walk along the then disused Droitwich Canal. Following the course of abandoned waterways can be quite tricky as they are often hidden under roads and buildings. Walking the canal again recently, so that I could write about its restoration, as I walked down the locks from Hanbury I had no idea that the canal had been moved over, the original route being hidden under people’s gardens. Alongside the locks, there’s a hedge between the towpath and a very busy road. That hedge separates two worlds – the ‘rat race’ and the ‘slow lane’. I chatted to a volunteer lock keeper who told me that working on the canal is his “safety valve”. You can see him on this photo standing by the top gate.

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In order to fulfill my writing commission with The Ring Project, I am doing a series of interviews with people who became involved with the mammoth task of restoring this canal. I have memories of my own of what’s involved in canal restoration, and I’m learning a great deal about the Droitwich Canal from doing these interviews and reading various documents, in print and online, including fascinating canal guides produced by Droitwich Canals Trust at intervals during the restoration process.

Having read in this article by Max Sinclair https://worcestervista.com/index.php/boats/droitwitch-barge-canal/ about a barge kettle which was found during the dredging process, I wondered if anything of value was found in the undergrowth or canal bed. So far, the answer is no. Here’s an extract from an article, again by Max, in the 2001 Guide: ‘After we cleared the mud out of lock 4, we started on the paddle holes …. Secretary, Nick Grazebrook saw what he thought was a silver cup under the water and put his hand in to retrieve it. Suddenly he let out an enormous yell when a four-foot eel leapt out of the water and the whole pit was writhing with smaller eels. As it was getting dark we left it to next morning only to find they had all migrated across the towpath into the Salwarpe.’

Volunteers did however find buried treasure by way of a historic hinged gate that Brindley had fitted in the bed of the canal, which would rise in case of a breach. The pressure of the water remaining in the canal would keep the gate tightly sealed and stop the water escaping. This old swing bridge (see below), no longer required, was not discarded, but placed on the towpath. When in use, it revolved on bearings made from cannon balls, said to be the first recorded use of ball bearings.

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I was amused to find accounts of visiting journalists who were reporting on the project. In 1978 John Noakes was invited with his dog Shep to help volunteers clear mud from Mildenham Mill Lock for his BBC programme Go with Noakes. (See above link.) He arrived in new overalls, wellington boots and a hat. Having persuaded him to enter the lock, the producer was not happy with his pristine appearance and ‘after a whispered word with the navvies it was arranged for someone to slip and fall on him so he emerged the right colour’. This photo was taken by Max that day.

In the 2001 Guide, Max describes how the BBCs Tony Francis, then a young reporter, ‘stood on the bed of the newly cleared canal, in a three-quarter length suede coat, conducting an interview as he slowly sank to his middle in mud.’

Behind all these stories there are a huge number of dedicated and hard working people. For example, the first big dig held after the formation of Droitwich Canals Trust in October 1973, known as The Droitwich Dig, attracted a thousand people! Through exploring various aspects of the canal – bridges, hedges, locks etc – I would like to bring to life the activity that went on to turn the dream into reality. Here’s a page from one of Max’s photo albums:

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Finally, here’s an extract from a conversation I found in an online forum:

Many years ago I went to the Droitwich Dig. I had great fun felling larger trees than I had had to tackle before, but what struck me most was the large number of navvies wielding shovels and digging away for two days in the bed of the canal. I remember thinking that if they had all contributed a small sum to hire one machine much more would have been achieved.”
T

Yes, sometimes this is the case, but people go navvying for FUN – group activity, socialising, and lots of fresh air and beer.  Compare this with 22 or so people pursuing an inflated pig’s bladder up and down an almost equally muddy field, when a result could as easily be obtained by tossing a coin. Or driving boats down a muddy channel, when they could get there more cheaply and quickly by bus.”
P

Very well put!

Heather Wastie

More shows for #TheIdleWomen

After our successful 50-show summer tour, Kate Saffin and I have put together a short run of performances of Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways in and around Oxford at the end of this month. See below for dates. Here’s a review to whet your appetite:

“Both women are exceptional storytellers, their performances brimming over with personality”   London City Nights

OXFORD CANAL & THAMES October 21st-29th 2017  Tickets £10/£8

Sat 21  7.00pm  Shipton-on-Cherwell Village Hall, Kidlington OX5 1JP
Tue 24  8.00pm  St Margaret’s Institute, 30 Polstead Road OX2 6TN
Thu 26  7.30pm  Rock of Gibraltar, Station Road, Enslow OX5 3AY
Fri 27   7.30pm   Wolvercote Village Hall, 1 Wolvercote Green OX2 8AB
Sun 29  6.00pm  Unicorn Theatre, Medieval Abbey Buildings, Checker Walk, Abingdon OX14 3JB

Advance booking via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/alarum-theatre-9882552992, email admin@alarumtheatre.co.uk, phone 01865 364095 or pay on the door. See also www.alarumtheatre.co.uk

IWWW Oxford tour 2017 flyer v4IWWW Oxford tour 2017 flyer back v4

After my time

I regularly take my poetry and songs to dementia cafés organised by the Alzheimers Society. We chat about a whole range of subjects – gloves, cooking, vinegar, hair – you name it! And often I go away and write something inspired by what we talked about. Sometimes the poems are humorous and sometimes serious. Here is a serious poem I wrote last week based on words spoken. It started to form in my head as I walked round a park near where the sessions are held:


After my time

No more buzzing of bees
No more rainforest trees
Ah, that was after my time

We can’t see the sun
And the ice has all gone
Ah, that was after my time

No more footprints, no more sand
No more green and pleasant land
Well, that was after my time

We traded earth for speed
We didn’t see the need
Well, that was after my time

No fish or polar bears
but I ask you, who cares?
I don’t know, that was after my time

No more rivers, only flood
We would stop this if we could
But you see, that was after my time

No more us and no more them
Though we know that they’re to blame
No more time

© Heather Wastie
October 2017