Hope springing eternal, again.

NarrowBoat Magazine, Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, canal heritage 

The snowdrops are over and the daffodils are out so it must be spring. There are other signs of regeneration on the canal heritage front too, a new magazine and a new exhibition, but it is a bit early to tell whether this necessarily promises a glorious summer of success. Cold reality might nip both in the bud.

The magazine is clumsily called NarrowBoat,-- yes, spelt and spaced just like that, although the intention is actually to cover a broader spectrum of waterway history and heritage. The first issue has material about Severn barges and Ship Canal ships, an historical survey of the Staffs and Worcester canal as well a detailed article about the Thos.Clayton narrow boat company by Alan Faulkner and an article about boat painting by me. For philosophical as well as personal reasons I wish it every success. The more attention and concentration that can be brought to bear on the surviving inheritance from the age of real waterway history the better chance we have of preserving that elusive inner spirit that inspired the early pioneers of canal restoration sixty years ago. It is to be a quarterly publication, selling at £4-95, and seems to my biased eye to be very good value although the design needs tidying up. It hasn’t quite got the courage to look strong, serious and sensible and its populist WaterwaysWorld ownership is rather obvious with scattergun lettering all over the cover. But God bless all who sail in her.

The new exhibition is the revamped display at the Boat Museum, (soon to be renamed the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port,) the result of an application to The Heritage Lottery Fund five years ago. The plan is that this massive investment in new displays, shop and café will generate a significant increase in visitors whose numbers have been dropping badly in recent years as well as raising the profile of the museum nationally. This will in turn generate more income that will eventually find its way to the preservation of some of the boat collection, those that can survive that long. It is a long term plan with a scary number of variable unknowns along the way, but it is the only plan we have at present so we have to bless this new launch with our best wishes as well. The new exhibition should be substantially complete by Easter, in time for the annual working boat gathering, so do come and try the quality of the new goods.

At the time of writing the final effect is still difficult to envisage. The majority of the work is done but few of the actual exhibits are in place. What is clear however is the power of the overall design, modern and clean limbed with lots of interactive technology to play with. The design makes its own museum statement quite unrelated to the old fashioned textual and historical qualities of its subject and it will be very interesting to see how today’s audience will react and interact with it. Indeed it is crucial that it does succeed.

The one major aspect that I have a personal difficulty with is the inclusion of pleasure boating as a significant part of the story, using valuable museum space to display private canal cruisers when so much ‘proper’ water transport history remains to be documented and preserved. The Amaryllis now forms very significant iconic display in the upper gallery, a fine and well built example of one of a very small class of pleasure cruisers designed and built at J.H.Taylor’s boat yard in Chester in the early days of the Inland Waterways Association. However she is very atypical of canal cruisers in general either of that period or of the huge boatbuilding bubble of expansion that followed. That story should more truthfully be told with Holt-Abbot plywood hire cruisers or Springer steel hulls, but that sort of mundane truth is not so attractive as varnished mahogany. So be it. I have to grudgingly accept that the leisure industry is also now seen as canal history, although I will never do it with good grace.

I suppose this tang of bitterness and despondency has been heightened by another recent job of mine, working in the plywood and plastic atmosphere of a modern hire boat base where historical quality doesn’t have much chance against commercial expediency, all far removed from the hallowed space of a museum or the nostalgic pages of a heritage magazine. This is the real world of waterways as experienced by most canal customers today, and the working environment for most modern canal operatives, the boat fitters and hire boat cleaners, the staff in the chandlers and the pen pushers in management. Long gone are those early days of hire boats when we were trying to introduce our customers to the peace, quiet and history of the canals in the hope that they would become enthusiasts and help to save the waterway heritage. Now the canals are there to service the survival of the leisure industry and all these new jobs and commercial investment. The nagging worry is that the old boats are now there to simply service the museum industry instead of the museums servicing the boats.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, 1st April 2006


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