Idle Women by Susan Woolfitt

Much has been written about the "Idle Women" who operated working narrowboats during World War II. I had read The Amateur Boatwomen by Eily (Kit) Gayford some time ago and also read Emma Smith's Maidens' Trip, so to a certain extent I knew what to expect when I recently bought a first edition of the original of this genre. Idle Women was originally published in 1947 by Ernest Benn.

Others, notably Sarah of NB Warrior who provides a great review, have commented that it is probably the best written of the Idle Women books. I couldn't agree more. It is a joy to read and her family background (her children are away at boarding school) makes the whole book more evocative. One particular paragraph, a single-sentence paragraph, struck me so much since it evokes both the waterways at work and Britain at war. It is so good I think it deserves quotation.

Kit Gayford, who was the trainer for the Idle Women and Susan Woolfitt were on their way from Bull's Bridge to Limehouse on Regents Canal. It was one of Susan's first trips.

"There is a perpetual bustle about the canal down here: barges with their super-intelligent horses and lounging lightermen, other Grand Union boats, easily recognisable in their red, white and blue; green and orange 'josser' boats; more horses; barges shining with black coal; on the towpath men and bicycles and children; in the streets women with shopping bags, small children shoving smaller ones in front of them in rickety prams or swinging in public playgrounds ; the clang and rattle of trams, the thundering roar of a train as we pass under a railway bridge, the pop-pop-pop of our own engine ... on the other side tall houses and strings of washing, blocks of flats, factories, wharves, timber-yards, rubbish dumps, a hospital, a school; more horses and barges, goods yards, marshalling yards; a sudden jet of boiling water from a factory steaming and spurting into the dirty cut water, a cemetery, a Lock hospital, a barge loaded with timber, a piercing whistle from yet another train, more barges, more horses, more boats . . . and in the midst of it all our own particular pair of boats, our home at night, our work by day, threading in and out of the noise, dirt and smell with a definite job to do, on National Service and playing its own tiny part in the upheaval of the world's titanic strain and stress."

I think that says it all, doesn't it.

M & M Baldwin's 'Working Waterways' series includes Idle Women, and the book is still available on Amazon.

Photo from the flyleaf of Idle Women - GU Boats going up to "Brum" and coming down from Coventry.

The photograph originally appeared in an evening newspaper and inspired Susan Woolfitt to become a canal boat-woman. It was Susan's daughter Harriet who suggested the title Idle Women for the book. As they say, the rest is history.

Another Canal Blogger at Yardley Gobion

Discovered yesterday that blogger NB Wilhamstead has spent the icy period at Yardley Gobion just opposite Kingfisher Marina. Toby posted some super pictures of the snow and ice, including some great images of locking in the snow. There is also an interesting set of pictures comparing his mum's images of Yardley Gobion in the freeze of 1981 with 2010. He managed to get some like-for-like shots.

NB Wilhamstead (not in the snow)

The snow has gone except for a few patches in the shade, but they is still some thin ice on the marina. A few boaters were checking their boats today. It was good to see the sun again.

Kingfisher Marina with the new 50 ft moorings

Three Men (in a Boat) and Tom Rolt in Ireland

We’ve just been enjoying the latest Three Men (in a Boat) series about Ireland. We have had some limited experience of the Irish Waterways but would like to have more.

Over the summer I obtained a first edition of Tom Rolt’s Green and Silver which was published back in 1949 just 5 years after his more famous Narrow Boat and shortly before the infamous 1950 IWA Rally at Market Harborough where the split with Aickman became public. Green & Silver is illustrated by photographs by Angela Rolt and so it is probably more similar to the original concept of Narrow Boat before the publishers decided to use the woodcut illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

It was therefore with some interest that I watched the Three Men because they appeared to be following some of Rolt’s original route. However, I soon found that there were some surprising similarities between these two contrasting journeys over 60 years apart.

Now the Three Men series is hardly a series designed for waterways enthusiasts; it is more about the personalities of the stars (Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O Briain and Rory McGrath) than the waterways. But the first of the two episodes started with some excellent footage of 45M, an original Grand Canal working boat, and its 15hp Bolinder engine. Of course Bolinders are hardly the ideal engine for beginners. In fact, the Bolinder became the star of the first episode. It became Griff’s bête noir since he had considerable trouble starting it on the three days they were on board. In fact, he never really managed it! The blowlamp start, the backfires and clouds of smoke were all very impressive.

The scenes in the locks leaving Dublin were very interesting and the efforts required to stop 45M without a reverse gear were also entertaining. 45 M was reported in the programme to have survived un-modified because was sunk for many years. She was in fact at the bottom of Lough Derg for 29 years after she sank in a storm. Tom Rolt in Green and Silver reports details of the disaster that in 1946 that cost the lives of three men. It happened shortly after Tom and Angela had themselves crossed Lough Derg. Stills from the Three Men journey are available on the Heritage Boat Association web site.

Bye-trader Grand Canal boat photographed by Angela Rolt

Giving up 45M the Three Men resorted to an amphibious car (Dutton Commander) and took to the Royal Canal for the journey to Mullingar; another place featured heavily in Rolt’s book. They finally ended the first episode at Athlone which was the hub for Rolt’s journey. The trip down the Shannon to Limerick in the second episode was in the delightful wooden sailing cruiser, Amaryllis which was not to dissimilar to the Le Coq cruiser that the Rolts borrowed. The Three Men started their journey down the Shannon in thick mist, just like the thick mist that engulfed Tom Rolt on Lough Derg. On the way down the Shannon the Three Men managed to take part in a dinghy race at the Lough Derg Yacht Club. Tom and Angela Rolt also visited the Yacht Club when they were holding their annual regatta.

Tom and Angela Rolt negotiating Lyons Lock on the Grand Canal

The trip down to Limerick by the Three Men included descending Ardnacrusha Lock, the deepest lock in Europe. The Tuesday Night Club (TNC) took NB Earnest through this magnificent and daunting structure in 2007. The TNC also noted some places they visited that were highlighted in Green & Silver, including the dustcover.

Three Men can be viewed on BBC I player.

Thick Ice and Feeding the Birds

Yesterday we visited Kingfisher Marina to check how the things were with Albert, with the cold weather persisting and the threat of more snow. The marina is now heavily frozen. Maggie picked up a lump of ice from the marina that appeared to have been broken by debris falling into the water. It was about 2.5 inches (64 mm) thick.

Construction on the marina extension has slowed significantly with the contractors unable to work on the new longer staging on the far side of the marina because they need to move boats (and of course they are firmly stuck).

We chatted to Ralph and Betty, who look after the moorings. It appears that a new moorer coming from Wilton is stuck because of ice. We also know that NB Lily Maud was coming down from Crick over the Christmas period to moor at Kingfisher. Since they didn't make it, we presume the ice was too much for them.

Today we got significant snow. We are regular feeders of the birds in our garden. We find that sunflower hearts are particularly attractive to goldfinches. We get them in flocks. Today their colours looked very attractive in the snow. I couldn't resist taking some photos.

Goldfinches on our bird feeder

Goldfinches bickering over their food!

I also managed to photograph some long-tailed tits who were feeding on a fat ball. Other birds we saw in the today's snow included greenfinches, blue tits, chaffinches, a robin, collared doves, pigeons and a wren.

Long-tailed tit feeding on a fat ball

When the goldfinches, which appear to be the top of the pecking order, eat sunflower hearts they are quite messy and often leave seed debris which litters the ground below the feeder. We often see large birds, such as wood pigeons, taking advantage of this but in the snow just before Christmas we were treated to the sight of a cock pheasant mopping up!

Cock pheasant eating the discarded seeds