A week on the Chesterfield Canal

Last week we left Kate’s boat poised to start the journey along the Leeds and Liverpool (where we will be following the route worked by a very small number of women between 1944 and 45) and headed across the Pennines by road to the Chesterfield Canal.

We were on the Chesterfield as the guests of the Chesterfield Canal Trust who did a great job of looking after us, providing accommodation on their historic boat, Python, and promoting our shows along the way. Jan and Dave Warsop even took us to visit several sections of the canal we wouldn’t have had a chance to see otherwise. Sleeping on a camp bed under the cloths on Python, travelling with boats, walking the lock flights – it almost felt like a holiday! 

Now, on first inspection the Chesterfield doesn’t seem to have any links to the wartime women trainees – no women worked on this canal during the war… but, there is a link to Python. Python started life as a 72’ Fellows, Morton and Clayton boat in 1929 (built by W J Yarwood and cost £366). After the war she was sold to the British Transport Commission (later to become British Waterways Board) and used for canal maintenance, eventually being shortened to 53’ in the 1980s. Into the new millennium more modern, purpose built vessels started taking the place of some of the old boats and Python became surplus to  requirements. She fell into disuse for a number of years before coming to the Chesterfield Canal Trust in 2009.

But back to 1944 when Python was working on the Grand Union. Her steerer at the time was one of the few boatmen to be antagonistic to the women and Margaret Cornish recounts an encounter with Python…

She was working Bognor and Dodona and with Susan Woolfitt and Susan Blood (referred to as Bee to avoid confusion). Bee had toothache so was in the cabin with Margaret on the motor and Susan on the butty. They rounded a bend near Shuckbrough between Braunston and Wigram’s Turn to find Python grounded on the mud and almost, but not quite, blocking the canal. The steerer had made a strategic withdrawal to the cabin at the sound of approaching boats. We can only imagine his language when he realised that the approaching pair were crewed by ‘them women trainees’.

As the only choice was to either get past Python or sit in the middle of the channel for the forseeable future Margaret decided:

…to take the risk and and to edge the Bognor around as near as I dared to the Python. I signalled to Susan that I would go ahead, made a quick prayer sign with my hands and turned to concentrate. There was still no movement aboard the Python but I know that every move would be watched. The Bognor was a good boat and responded well to a judicious flick of the tiller even when throttled down. ‘Help me not to stick’ I prayed fervently as I edged the boat round the bend as near as I dared to Python without touching it. The blades were turning with barely a ripple… and then I was past. I gathered in the length of towing line which had become slack and the butty came following up behind. Susan was rowing hard on the tiller to keep a good distance between Dodona and Python.

Now to manoeuvre the butty without grazing the new paint of Python. There was still no sign of the steerer although, from the tail of an eye, I thought I saw one of the engine-room doors open just a fraction. I was too intent on getting our boats round to look more closely. I made a quick stop, shortened the towing line as much as possible and then went hard ahead to pull the bows of Dodona away from the Python. The wash would push his boat further over but, as the bows were firmly embedded in the bank, I thought he could hardly complain. Twice I had to straighten up and repeat the operation before the butty finally came clear.

Margaret was so elated by her success that she shouted to Susan that she would offer to ‘give Python a snatch’ [to pull her free of the mud]. Susan’s response was to shake her head and gesticulate in horror, Bee emerged from the cabin and simply shouted ‘No! Carry on’. But Margaret wasn’t to be deterred.

I took the Bognor astern – she steered well in reverse – while the Dodona slid past with Susan and Bee still shouting at me. The steerer of Python had now emerged form the engine room.

“Something wrong with the engine” [he said], always a face saving excuse to cover a mistake.

“Can I give you a snatch?” I shouted cheerfully.

He was gracious enough to accept my offer and threw me a line from the bows. With a few bursts from the Bognor’s engine, the Python soon came free.

“Got too much on”, he said by way of thanks. It was enough.

Excerpt from Troubled Waters by Margaret Cornish Baldwin, Shropshire 1994

So, it was fun to be sleeping in the hold of a boat at the heart of a good story. Heather had the modern equivalent of the back cabin side bed – a rather narrow bunk in the kitchen.

As well as Python the Trust has a replica wooden boat, Dawn Rose, of the type used for carrying in the working days of the canal – often known as a Cuckoo boat. Although we were told firmly by David Bownes, who has spent his life on the Chesterfield and without whom the boat couldn’t have been built – he was the one with all the knowledge and expertise – that it is simply a ‘boort’! On one of our days travelling Python was towing Dawn Rose, not exactly the same experience as the trainees would have had but another glimpse into life managing two boats.

We were very sorry to pack up and leave Python after a wonderful week of seeing a different canal, learning about the history and restoration; making new friends, meeting new boats and performing to wonderful, warm and lively audiences. We’re already planning a return visit.

And now it’s off to follow the route worked by the small group of women who took on the huge (to a narrow boater mind) barges of the Leeds and Liverpool. We only know about them because one, Nancy Ridgway, wrote a book ‘Memories of a Canal Boatwoman’ and the Waterways archive has audio of her reminiscing about her time on the boats. Some of her memories have been part of our show in Heather’s first piece ‘Idle Women and Judies’ (the Judies being the L&L women) since the start of the show and our touring so it will be wonderful to travel her route and see it through her eyes and her stories.

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