Local creative writing

Our Arts Council funding has enabled us to do several things we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford to do, like, for example, run activities for local communities as we passed through. One of those activities was a Creative Writing Workshop at Stoke Bruerne Museum on Wednesday 19th July for which were able to book prize-winning poet and performer, Emma Purshouse – Emma’s experience as a boat owner meant she was especially qualified to join Heather Wastie as tutor, and because of the funding, we were able to offer the workshop free of charge.

So, on a pleasant Wednesday morning, four people joined us – two boat dwellers, two landlubbers; two writers with creative writing experience, one who had written a great deal but never had the courage to share it with strangers before and one who had no experience at all. We found inspiration by walking around the area outside the Museum, particularly the lockside, and by visiting the Museum itself.

We started with group poems, everyone contributing single lines and discussing how best to arrange them, then went on to set various tasks which each writer responded to in their own way. Emma and Heather were delighted with the results and asked each participant to choose something they would like to share with others after the workshop. Click here to see some of the poems. You can also hear three of the writers reading their own work on our new Soundcloud page https://soundcloud.com/alarum_theatre.

After the Recreating the Journey tour is over, we will be organising more creative writing workshops. If you are interested in hosting one or can suggest who else might be interested, please get in touch.

Final week of the tour!

Over the last 14 weeks we’ve experienced a lot of what the original trainees would have gone through; stemming up, breasting up, learning to splice ropes, steering round sharp bends … and lots of modern day trainees have joined us throughout the journey too. There are still a few opportunities to join us as we continue back to London.

We now find ourselves with just three performances left: this coming Monday and Tuesday at the Rising Sun, Berkhampsted, and our final performance of the tour at The Pirate Castle, Camden next Saturday, so do book your tickets! All shows start at 7:30pm. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the show and have friends in London, please let them know, as this will be the last time it will be performed there, and the last chance to see Tench and the show together!

We had a delightful evening at Frogmore Paper Mill last Thursday, with a fish and chip supper during the interval, and we presented our bag of Griff coal to the Mill. It will be on display for visitors, along with an explanation of how the coal would have been brought from Nuneaton to Apsley in order to power the paper mill when the machines used coal power. We had a fascinating tour of the museum, learnt how paper is made, and finally found out why we refer to capitals as Upper Case!

We’ve had so much fun, and many fascinating experiences during this trip, and have learned a great deal too, as our audiences have shared with us many of their own stories. We have also been joined by groups of artists, film-makers and journalists who are sharing our story still further. We could never have predicted that this project would become as big as it has, and are already talking about the future, and plans to tour again in 2018.

Do come and see us in Camden for some seriously well earned drinks after the show!

 “TENCH” and her owner, Alex Bennett

As we recently went to the historic boat rally in Braunston with Tench we thought it would be a good time to tell you a bit more about the 80 yr old boat and her owner, Alex Bennett. She began life in 1936 in Cheshire. Built by W.J. Yarwood and Sons Ltd., at Northwich for the North West fleet of Fellows Morton and Clayton (FMC) at Saltley. She started work in September 1936 powered by a 9hp single cylinder Bolinder engine, a much loved classic in the boating world. It’s a very distinctive sound,  like no other engine to be heard on the cut. Here is how she would have sounded (and looked) in her early days:


Later, in 1955 to cope with the shortage of boat crews, and to enable her to pull a butty, the Bolinder was replaced with an Armstrong Siddeley twin cylinder diesel engine . Her captain at the time, Jack Lowe, disliked the engine, and later gave the boat up to Harold Clutton so that he could go back to a Bolinder!

She has carried all sorts over the years, mostly moving goods from Weston Point, Ellesmere Port, Manchester and Anderton to the Wolverhampton and Birmingham area via the Shropshire Union canal. Regular twenty ton cargoes were wheat, flour, sugar, cocoa residue, copper, spelter, aluminium, steel tubes, felspar, bentonite, coal and a variety of imported bagged goods and foodstuffs. She wasn’t a boat worked by the trainees (they mostly worked for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company) but was busy throughout the War, with Mr & Mrs Jim Morton mainly carrying sugar and flour to Wolverhampton and Birmingham.

After the war carrying by water became increasingly difficult – the boats had struggled to compete with rail for years and now the roads were taking more cargo as well. Tench carried on working, for various companies under various captains, in the North West until 1967. Tench ended up lying at Hayhurst Yard, Northwich, left to rot.

Mr A.W.Gregory (trading as G.M. Engineering Co.) bought her in May 1976, in a semi sunken state with uninhabitable cabin, and badly corroded engine room housing an engine that had been left open to the elements. All the running gear – planks, mast, stands, cratch and shutts were missing. She must have looked a sorry sight.

Between 1976 and 78 she was completely restored, and formed part of the Midland Canal Transport company, delivering coal along the Staffs & Worcs canal as well as some unusual loads – furniture removal  from and to an inaccessible property at Kinver; rock salt from Middlewich to Northampton; bricks from Aldridge to Birmingham, newsprint form Ellesmere Port to Brentford for the Daily Mail returning with baled waste paper.

Alex Bennett, her current owner bought her in 2014 after a many years of holiday boating and several of living aboard a modern boat. Here is how it all came about…

My first boating holiday was in 1979 with my first boyfriend – think we went from Napton and I did really well. Till I fell when we got back to the boatyard. Didn’t put me off though, and we had a boating holiday every year for three or four years. Then in 84 I met my (now ex) husband so I suggested a narrow boat holiday because I loved it so much. We invited my younger brother and did the Warwickshire ring. It wasn’t my favourite holiday because I ended up doing most of the cooking and cleaning (for eight men and one woman). But it got my brother into boating as well as my fiancé, then my mum and dad and sisters. So we had a succession of family boating holidays, we went once or twice a year plus some day boat outings for special occasions. Last family trip was about ten years ago – we hired two boats and redid the Warwickshire ring. Had youths throw bricks at us in Newbold.

I divorced in 98 and in 2000 told my children was going to buy a narrowboat and live on it. The family all said ‘you’ll never do it’. Then in 2012 my brother died and that, as well moving for a temporary NHS post in Stafford  made me re-evaluate my life. I was cycling along the canal to work each day and  thought ‘sod it, do it’. So bought Jemima in 2012, I’d never single handed before but set out from Great Hayward and just got on with it.

I was fortunate to meet people with connections to working boats and boatyards, I’ve always been practical, always maintained my own car and I decided would like a ‘proper boat’. I’d been to the Alvecote gathering of historic boats several times, I’d steered the supply boat Auriga. Then I noticed Tench for sale via Facebook. I’d seen her at Alvecote, I knew she was a nice boat – she’s a Joshua fish class and they’re  streamlined, swim really well, easier than the really heavy Woolwich’s of the Grand Union. I contacted Matt and Sarah Parrott who had her since 2011. Went to see her, and that was it. I paid, picked her up at Alvecote 11am on Nov 18th 2014. That’s when the baptism of fire began! I didn’t have a headlight – fortunately I managed to follow someone through the tunnels.  Bought some coal ton for balance and ballast but my steering wasn’t very good so it shifted about which changed the balance. Got stemmed up quite a lot and grounded. Got loads of polythene and rope on the blade [propeller] but managed to get off with boat hook. There were times when I got very discouraged but I stuck at it. And there were good moments – I passed Hartshill, going slow – ‘you’re so brave boating in this’ said one passer-by. Got through the next bridge and the wind came howling across the field, and just pushed Tench into the towpath. Moored her perfectly! Into a space that was exactly the right size.

A lot of people thought me mad to take on a working boat ‘why do you want a working boat’. Oddly, it was sometimes the women who were really critical and unkind but many were very supportive and have become good friends over the years.

I spend as much time on her as work allows and I’ve travelled all over the system.

Here is an album of pictures of Tench on the Idle Women tour


It’s all about the conversations

The journey continues. This last week we’ve done several shows in Milton Keynes: at Lionhearts we met the owner of Ash, the partner of Willow, in one of Heather’s songs and in the tiny village of Woolstone we estimated that nearly everyone who could come to a matinee was there! Then it was on to Stoke Bruerne where we performed at the Northants IWA annually rally – we split the show into two to provide a shorter show for each day. Heather performed Idle Women and Judies in torrential rain on Saturday and Kate did Isobel’s War in glorious sunshine on Sunday. We also joined in other events over the weekend with Tench winning ‘best turned out’ boat and the Idle Women quiz team coming nearly last in the quiz (only saved by the picture round because we’d been to most of the places!).

Although we are thoroughly enjoying performing ‘Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways’, this project isn’t simply about the two of us doing a show for an audience, it’s about sharing the stories of the trainees so the conversations on the towpath and at the locks are all part of the journey. Asking most passers-by ‘have you ever heard of the Idle Women’ usually elicits an ‘er, no’ and we are all getting very good at sharing the outline of the story in a few words. ‘Ah, like the land girls’ they say and everyone we’ve met has been interested to take a flyer with most saying they’ll have a look at the website to learn more.

At one of the locks in Berkhamstead a 15yr old girl paused, politely but reluctantly, when I asked The Question, said ‘No’ but, as soon as I’d told her the story and said it would be a great history project should she ever need one about women at work during the war said ‘Cool!’. She left saying that’s really cool!’ and that her mum would be interested too…

An eight year old girl in Stoke Bruerne is ‘doing’ the second world war at school – so another of our flyers with an outline of the story has gone off to a Northamptonshire primary school this week.

At the other end of the age range (and we have talking to everyone in between) we met a 91 yr old man who has lived in Simpson, now an area of Milton Keynes but a village in his childhood, who remembers watching the trainees come through. So, not only are we taking the stories to the places they happened but we’re getting more connected to them through the stories we are hearing.

Unfortunately we are also having some problems with adding photos to the blog at the moment; seems we might need an update from our present position in 1942. Hopefully we can sort it out and be adding more soon. In the meantime our Facebook page and twitter feed has plenty to browse.


Uxbridge to Leighton Buzzard

So much has happened this week, it’s hard to pack it all into one blog post.

On Friday we were at Hillingdon Boat Club. In the audience was IWA member, Andrew Simpson, who heard that we planned to stop the next day in search of a milepost dedicated to Eily Gayford. Next morning he appeared on his bike and very kindly cycled to the milepost, clearing away the nettles surrounding it, so that we could take a few snapshots. He even helped with the locks. Sorry there’s no photo at this point. For some reason, the website won’t let us add any at the moment.

On Saturday we were at Batchworth Canal Centre. This was an eventful show, a collapsing chair almost pitching someone head first into the water, a boy being sick (rather tidily, and between poems) and a pair of pigeons having ‘the right ten minutes’ behind me, to which I was completely oblivious. (See Kate’s play to fully appreciate the ‘ten minutes’ reference.)

On Sunday in the garden of the Kings Head, Hunton Bridge, the hardy audience braved the cold and were thankful of an intimate indoor location for the second half. The next three days involved a journey to Leighton Buzzard and an unplanned pause when Grove Lock was closed for repairs until 2 o’clock on the day of the show. For that stage of the journey we welcomed three women volunteers. It was good to have Tour Manager Zoe along for a couple of days too, though she did manage to fall in the canal, spending the rest of that day in her pyjamas while her clothes dried in the engine room. We were relieved to eventually arrive at The Globe Inn where we managed to moor alongside the pub.

During the daytime we were interviewed by Fabian Hiscock for the University of Hertfordshire Heritage Hub oral history archive, talking about the wartime women’s work as well as our own.

After the show, which took place in the garden of the Globe Inn, a woman from the audience told me how my vivid description of Ruth standing in the cabin in a state of shock after “a tidal wave had snapped the mooring ropes” took her right back to a similar reaction of stunned shock she had herself observed. The words were part of one of my ‘found’ poems, this one (We met a rocket) blending together text found in books by Susan Woolfitt and Eily Gayford. A young lad responded to Molly Traill’s Report, keen to help in my quest to learn what some of the things listed in the song actually are. He delighted in enlightening me about a ‘blow lamp pricker’ and was pleased to find out what a gasket is from a man who was standing nearby. This kind of interaction gives us such pleasure as the tour is about far more than just the performances.

It went dark during the second half of the evening so we were able to try out our newly purchased ‘lighting rig’ – two battery operated inspection lamps pegged to the ground with mooring pins and tilted upwards – surprisingly effective! One of the aims of the tour is to include descriptions from the women’s books of places on our route. To demonstrate how a ‘found poem’ can be created, I quoted words about passing through Leighton Buzzard, in an article by Jean Peters, which I had started forming into a new piece. As it was dark, a man in the audience volunteered to illuminate the page using the light from my mobile phone. All in all, the lighting rig worked a treat!


Week 2

Week 2 began with shows at Cavalcade: tasters in the morning and shows in the evening. On Saturday, Kate performed Isobel’s War under extremely challenging circumstances! A last minute change of venue meant that our sizeable audience carried chairs from one marquee to another while Kate set up to perform. When it became clear that audibility would be a problem, a small PA was generously donated (thank you, Christine!) As it was a hand-held microphone, Kate couldn’t really hold it whilst in character, so she decided not to use it. However Alex (owner of NB Tench) quickly stepped in as boom operator, doing her best to position the mic in front of Kate’s mouth at all times for the whole show. The audience loved it!

On Sunday, still at Cavalcade, after Heather had performed Idle Women and Judies to an equally large audience, both ‘Idle Women’ took part in the illuminated procession – Kate on the roof of NB Second Time Around holding a shaft, echoing our poster image, while Heather sang The Idle Women Myth inside the boat, again with the help of Christine’s PA. Not only did Kate join in the singing from the rooftop, but there was joining-in from the towpath too from a woman who had learned the song at one of our shows!

Monday’s performance involved a car journey to perform in the splendid Dorchester Abbey for their biennial Festival. After a day ‘off’, though as always there was boat moving to be done, Wednesday’s show took place in a hayloft at Horsenden Hill Farm, Perivale. We were due to be outside but, as the weather was cold and rather damp, we were grateful of the unexpected chance to perform indoors. Refreshments were delivered by The Village Butty in a Canadian canoe (at least that’s what we think it was – there was some discussion ….) and the following day, Tench took on some cargo for delivery further along the cut. Payment for delivery of one bale of straw was a box of eggs. Apparently we should have been be reported for not taking a full load. (Molly Traill was, and she was only a couple of tons light.) Thanks to Mike Constable for that information! As we were leaving Perivale, the lyrics to Heather’s song about Molly Traill were adapted …. “We took a trial run from Ellesmere Port to Birmingham” became “We took a trial run from Sowerby Bridge to Barnoldswick …”

Books have been selling very well, as have our new badges! These are replicas of the national service badges given to the women when they had passed their training and were produced for us by Adforce UK Ltd. We are very pleased with the quality. It was a tricky order because we couldn’t risk sending him the precious original. So not only is there chance to see an original badge, worn by Heather at the show, but now you can buy your own to take home.

Tench and Morning Mist are currently moored outside Hillingdon Canal Club ready for tonight’s show at 7.30pm. Tomorrow we move on to Rickmansworth (5pm) and then to Hunton Bridge 7.30pm on Sunday.

Our first week

What a week!

Saturday was launch day, after which we travelled from Bull’s Bridge to Limehouse for the opening night (Monday) which was also press night. Three reviews followed, all pleasingly positive. Here’s an extract from one of them, Theatre Things:

“… an enjoyable retelling and great entertainment … a powerful reminder of the crucial role women played in keeping the country running during the war.”

“The enthusiasm of both ladies, who come from boating backgrounds themselves, is infectious; even someone as averse to audience participation as I am couldn’t resist joining in with the final chorus (though I wish it hadn’t been quite so catchy – it’s a difficult one to forget once you’ve learnt it).”

Click here for the full review: Theatre Things review

On Tuesday we performed at the Ragged School Museum and on Wednesday at the London Canal Museum, having locked through wind, hail and rain. Narrow boat Tench was expertly steered by Heather B, who managed to moor up outside the Museum without once touching the lines of boats either side of our allocated space. She also made an excellent departure (though Kate managed to plant a shaft in the mud and had to go back to retrieve it …)

Two reviewers came along to Wednesday’s show and one of them (London City Nights) wrote this:

“Both women are exceptional storytellers, their performances brimming over with personality and linguistic virtuosity.”  Full review here: London City Nights review

Audiences have been good-sized and enthusiastic – our comments book is full of positive feedback and email addresses for our mailing list. For more reviews, photos and news, go to our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/alarumtheatre/

Now we’re gearing up for Cavalcade tomorrow!

Setting Off

From the family album…


I’m a landlubber. Kate is a live-aboard boater. We first encountered each other on Twitter in February 2016 and – fast forward at break-neck speed! – we are about to embark on our third tour of a show we cooked up together, Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways.

My love of canals started as a child when my family owned a Fellows Morton & Clayton narrow boat called Laurel. We had many adventures and holidays, during which we slept in the cabin Dad had built over the hold. Mom learned how to do graining and traditional canal art so the stern cabin could be restored in traditional style. I loved the sound of the Lister engine. Sleeping in the stern cabin was fun as a child but it wasn’t a popular place to sleep because a trip to the toilet involved a major excursion into the modern part of the boat. There is so much I could tell you about those days, but this blog is not about that.

Tomorrow we begin a journey the wartime trainees did over a three-week trip. Our journey will take three and a half months. But in fact the journey has already begun. It started with Kate’s idea – “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before!” – to Recreate the Journey, then went through the painstaking completion of an Arts Council funding application which took many many hours – no, days, possibly weeks! After the euphoria of receiving the acceptance letter, we then set about organising the tour. The grant enabled us to employ a Tour Manager and a PR company (more women at work), run community events and workshops, and write and rehearse new material, with director, Milla Jackson. Since beginning work on the funding application it has been non-stop.

I cannot begin to tell you how much work is involved in organising a tour of around 50 performances. However, we are gluttons for punishment so we decided to produce a book of all the material written so far as well. Copies will be on sale throughout the tour and are not available from any other outlet (at the moment). There will be mugs on sale later in the tour, plus another rather special piece of merchandise made specially for us. You will have to wait and see what that is!

Kate and I will be travelling on Kate’s boat, Morning Mist, from the beginning of May and we are extremely lucky that historic narrow boat Tench will be with us for the entire tour, thanks to owner, Alex, and steerer, Heather B. Tomorrow we will set off from Bull’s Bridge (now Tesco visitor moorings), the original location of the dry dock where the boats were maintained, and where the boats would begin their journey during WW2. Coffee will be served at 11.30 and at 12.00 there will be a short performance before a bite to eat, then Tench sets off at 1.00pm.

So amid all the venue booking and liaison, putting together copy and designing the flyers and posters and delivering them, ordering merchandise, doing interviews etc etc etc, we need to be ready to give top notch performances. Oh, and there’s the small matter of getting to the venues by canal. One thing’s for sure, this will be an adventure unlike any other and we’re ready for it!

Heather Wastie

21st April 2017

Rewriting Richard: the final week


Well, here we are in the final week before Now is the Winter is on at the RSC The Other Place – time has whizzed by. Susi Dalton has done a fantastic job of bringing a new slant to the play. We’ve had a preview at the Unicorn theatre in Abingdon and the clarity of Helen McGregor’s storytelling wowed the entire audience.  However, it’s not easy getting the word out and about and selling tickets for one night only show – even if it is at the RSC! So that’s where all my effort is going this week whilst Susi and Helen work on the final polishing.

Susi writes…

We have had 2 rehearsals this week and adapted the play into another interesting space for the performance at the European school on Friday. The Hall is very big compared to the Unicorn and we have had to take volume and sight lines into account when we use the heavy curtains which we pull across the proscenium arch. This stage is quite high and it has been interesting to work with the audience location in mind –  sitting on the very edge of the stage swinging her legs is a nice picture.

And finally, here’s the all important ticket link!


We nearly had a show!

Camp house floodedOur first show should have been on Thursday at the Camp House Inn on the River Severn near Grimley (just north of Worcester). Unfortunately, quite a lot of it was in the River Severn – the garden stage and the access road were flooded. I was coming by boat but stopping wasn’t an option, the rails in the picture to the right of the yellow boat are the back of the mooring stage which is about 3ft out of sight.

We had already decided that the river levels meant that we would have to make the journey to Stourport in one go as the Worcester lock keeper had said that the river would probably close the next day. It was all a bit exciting but we arrived safely – I usually travel alone but was very grateful to have a friend with me for that expedition.

Plans are in hand to book a new date as soon as things dry out a bit and the next four shows are indoors, which means there will be heatwave and everyone will wish they were sitting out in a garden, next to the river (or canal)…