During the second world war the inland waterways had something of a rennaissance – after years of decline suddenly narrowboats were valued again. The problem was – lots of the men were in the forces and there weren’t enough good crews. So the Women’s training scheme was born. Eily Gayford and Daphne March who already had experience on the boats trained young women to work a pair of boats with 55 tons of war supplies from London to Birmingham, returning with coal from the Coventry coalfields.

Isobel is fictional but draws on the written accounts, interviews and conversations (with one of the last of the working boatwomen, Rose Skinner, as well as one of the trainees). It is easy to think that the experience of training and working on the boats shaped the lives of every young woman who took it on because we have a number of written accounts by those, such as Eily Gayford, who continued to live on a boat and Susan Woolfitt who was a regular speaker about her experience (and probably responsible for the nickname Idle Women). In reality there were many who lasted only days, or even hours, before grabbing their kitbag and legging it to the nearest station. At least one crept away at the dead of night! And there were many, including Iris who I met as a very sprightly octengenarian, for whom it was a temporary job but not one that defined the rest of their lives – she went on to train as a nurse and we talked about nursing as much as boating during my visit.

Isobel is one of those who went back to ‘ordinary’ life, didn’t write books or speak of it much – as many women didn’t, regardless of their war work. It was simply doing your bit and then getting on with whatever life served you. Until your daughter has to clear out the attic…