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
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.
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.
Filming Heather Bell
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com, phone 01865 364095 or pay on the door. See also www.alarumtheatre.co.uk
If you would like to see the show I have been touring with Kate Saffin since the end of April, there are just 3 more opportunities – two at The Rising Sun, Berkhamsted (Monday & Tuesday) and one at The Pirate Castle, Camden (Saturday) – the last time we will perform the show in London. This will also be the last chance to see historic narrow boat Tench which has been with us all the way. After the tour, owner Alex will whisk her away and get back to her own solo adventures!
We have had very appreciative audiences, rave reviews and have been featured in national press so we’re delighted, if a trifle tired as we have done quite a few lock miles over the past 15 weeks too! Do come and support us at one of our final shows if you can.
Here’s one of my ‘found’ poems from the show which is also in the book we have produced to accompany the tour:
A horse on the path
Early in the morning
a horse on the path
the ring of shoes on cobblestones
the swish of a bow, a shout
the whip of a line, the soft flap
as it drops on the cabin top
another whip, another shout
lock gate thud, rattle of paddle
through cabin doors nudged ajar
we stir to grey outlines
on a slack-black star-stippled sky
© Heather Wastie
using words found in The Amateur Boatwomen Canal Boating 1941-1945 by Eily Gayford
Saturday’s performance will be our 50th since we launched the tour in April and the journey has been incredible. See www.alarumtheatre.co.uk and our Facebook page for more.
Once the tour is over I will be taking a well earned break!
During our tour of Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways, Kate Saffin and I have been invited to write a couple of guest blogs. Here’s a link to one I wrote for Frost Magazine which is introduced by Milly Adams. It’s all about the route the women took from Birmingham to the Coventry coalfields, a route I remember from my childhood.
I’m about to embark on a 49-show tour of Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways – an Arts Council funded double bill with writer/performer Kate Saffin. Although I’ve spent many holidays travelling on a 70ft narrow boat, this will be a very new experience! I will be blogging about it on the Alarum Theatre website www.alarumtheatre.co.uk so may go a little quiet on my own blog.
To find out a bit more about this work, see/hear these interviews:
A BBC London interview with myself and Kate click here
An interview (just me) in Theatre Weekly click here
And have a look at the Alarum website which has all the dates and lots of information.
Wish us luck, and I hope to see you at one of the shows!
Narrow boat Tench with L to R: Steerer Heather, performer Kate, owner & steerer Alex, performer Heather