Life of the Navvy and stories from the cut

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September 28th 2017
Published: October 2nd 2017
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Woolly says – Just how much rain can come out of one sky!!! We’ve had torrential rain, sheet rain, wet rain, rain showers and drizzle, will it never end! I completely understand why the Welsh refer to it as the Green Green Valleys of Home but they forget to mention that they were wet valleys! Having stuck my trunk out of our van and felt the huge drops of the latest deluge I kicked my golf clubs in disgust and decided to give Jo my cutest look in the hope that she would do something about the wet conditions.

I’m starting to worry about the cross eyed mammoth and had wondered if an eye test might be needed! His grubby face grimaced at me and with his eyes now rolling I wondered if he might actually need a doctor!

Woolly says – as my considerable charms seemed to have been ignored I ferreted through our mountain of tourist leaflets and presented her with one that I felt might be gentle on her aging body. Ellesmere Port was founded in 1866 at the outlet of the never completed Ellesmere Canal. The canal was designed and engineered by William Jessop and Thomas Telford as part of a project to connect the rivers Severn, Mersey and Dee. The first houses in Ellesmere Port itself, grew up around the docks and the first main street was Dock Street, which now houses the National Waterways Museum. I smiled winningly once more and it appeared that my subtle messages had percolated and an outing was on the cards.

As I watched him throwing leaflets around I had a feeling that my plan of ticking off some of the things on my incredibly long list was about to end for the day, as he thrust a pamphlet under my nose it appeared that he had chosen the destination for the day.

Woolly says – What should have been an twenty five minute drive turned into an hour as we ignored the sat nav and spent a lot of time sailing merrily round roundabouts! Just as we appeared to be heading in the wrong direction once more I spotted a sign for the museum and the car came to a screeching halt before being turned and I felt hopeful that we might actually arrive. The museum became part of a trust in the 1970’s and work continues today in the preservation of boats that have been donated, found and borrowed to keep the heritage of the canals alive. There was of course one problem with an outing like this, the risk involved in my health and wellbeing…… water! Having considered this on our extensive journey there I had come to only one conclusion…..

As we entered the site I noticed that my small companion was limping and not wanting to spend the day watching him stumble round I offered the inside of my jacket as his transport.

Woolly says - ….. It works every time and as I settled into the warmth I took in my surroundings. Canals ran in each direction with beautifully restored warehouses and smartly painted locks, as we crossed the first of two bridges I gripped on tight as Jo peered over and into the lock bottom to watch the water pouring down form the canal above below. A variety of boats were moored up and ready for my inspection and having looked over the ice breaking boat, Worcester, I noticed that there were some steps leading down into the deck of one called Shad. Built in 1936 Shad had spent her working life carrying fish, not smelling a wiff of anything fishy I jumped down the steps and into the smallest cabin in the world…. It was small even by my standards of size. A wall bunk took up the one side of the wood panelled interior while a cute stove and a cupboard covered the other, not enough room to swing a mammoth yet whole families would have lived in this space at one point.

We sat in the small space as a voice told us about the canal boats artwork.

Woolly says - Roses and Castles is the colourful canal folk art that was used to decorate working narrowboats in the 19th century, although called roses and castles the designs also include flowers, cottages, churches and rivers - anything in fact that could be part of a romantic landscape. The art would cover virtually everything in or on the narrowboat – including the vessel itself. The drinking can, the horse’s harness, doors, fitted furniture, lamps, anything and everything was decorated with bright and cheerful chocolate-box designs. Started in the early 19th century it is still produced today although mainly for tourist. Having admired the rest of the fleet on display we made our way into the main exhibition shed which was filled with information and displays on how the canal boats were built, the making of fenders and the historical artefacts that had been collected over the years.

Having told him it was time to use his paws I wandered round reflecting on the simplicity that life offered on the ‘cut’ which is a term I had heard for many years whilst living in the Black Country. A Navvies hut showed the basics that they had been afforded and gave information about their reputation as hardened drinkers, thieves and fighters who had roomed from village to village looking for work on the waterways.

Woolly says – I caught up with Jo to find her looking at a pile of earth! Her justification was that it was the first earth to be lifted in the building of the Manchester Ship Canal which was only a few feet away, I led her on. The biting wind hit us as we exited the building and we found ourselves surrounded by sinking boats! I gasped in dismay and suggested telling one of the museum staff that they seemed to have a problem, Jo chuckled and pointed out the green colour of the water inside them would mean that they had been that way for quite some time. All of the boats would eventually be emptied and restored to their former glory, one had pipes lining it’s now empty bottom where the industrial pumps had been able to empty it.

We walked on and found ourselves in front of a incredibly long boat which had been drained and was now drying out.

Woolly says – The Mossdale is the only remaining all timber Mersey Flat…… that means she has a flat bottom not that she is a flat, or an apartment for that matter. Built in the 1860’s she was a dumb barge, which I think is a bit mean, she had once carried flour, grain, sugar and pottery and there is nothing dumb about that!

Having explained that they didn’t mean the boat was stupid just that it had not had a motor and had been pulled by horses, the furry fiend shook his head in disbelieve and trotted into the Porters Cottages.

Woolly says – Built in the 1830’s they had housed the porters and the families that unloaded the barges on arrival at the port. I always find it interesting to see the development of how people lived and each cottage provided an insight into the 1900’s, with the first one having little or nothing except for two uncomfortable chairs and a range and the last providing comfort with a settee and a tv, my best friend Sion would also be delighted with my toilet find to add to our collection, having posed for a snap we headed towards the stables. Horses were hugely important to the canal systems and the displays explained how much they needed to eat, how they had lived and the types of horses that had been used. The stables themselves looked well kept and cosy, the horses however had disappeared, perhaps there on holiday!

Next stop was the Power Hall, filled with steam engines and the strong smell of oil, sadly nothing was working which meant my companion moved on quickly and we found ourselves in the blacksmiths forge.

Woolly says – Opened in 1891 it was the most important workshop on the site providing plates for the boats, lock fittings and repairs as well. Six chimneys stood waiting for their fires to be lit, it must have been baking in there when all of them were in full working order, today it is a dying craft and I happily noted that the current blacksmith offered day long courses to keep the skills continuing into the modern age. Having paused in the gift shop and had my pleas for a badge denied I ambled across the road to take a closer look at the Manchester Shipping Canal. Started in 1887 it covers 36 miles (58 km) of the inland waterway which links Manchester to the Irish Sea and was vital in the moving of goods and materials, as I peered across it looked cold and uninviting.

We stood for a while considering our plans for the coming months, so much still to arrange and organise and so much packing to do.

Woolly says – Best that I go and play golf and let her get on with it then!

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