Boats built by the mile…

 Saturday 5th March
  “Here in Dudley wooden boats were built by the mile and cut by the length” – such was the claim of the of the Dudley Canal Trust boat skipper…

    Pressed to join friends on a trip to the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley I had not anticipated a third non-Cleddau boat trip in just three weeks.  First had been the Regent’s Canal water bus trip from Camden Lock to Little Venice; next had come the Thames trip from Westminster Pier down river to the Tower of London. Now Boatwif was afloat again…

    The five of us clambered on to the open boat: no protective windows or roof here. Instead protection was afforded by plastic hard hats, for this was a trip in an open boat through tunnels and caverns. Dudley apparently is a magnet for geologists and industrial historians.  Limestone, coal, ironstone and fireclay were crucial components in the  processes that fired the Industrial Revolution and canals had been dug through Dudley Hill to retrieve and transport these important resources.  The Trust’s electrically powered boats glide silently through the tunnels; in some places tunnels are brick-lined, the 9 million bricks hand-made by women and children in the early 18th century. Sometimes you pass below an air shaft, sometimes you glide across vast lagoons, created by large rockfalls. If you look closely up at the limestone roof you can see signs of stalactite formation. Audio-visual presentations at various points explain the amazing geological processes that formed this landscape and static displays with amplified voices illustrate the nature of miners’ work. You glimpse an underground wharf which provided space for the loading of limestone and ironstone onto up to 30 boats that would then tranship the materials back to Dudley and Tipton.  But these caverns and tunnels are not remarkable just for their industrial importance, they have also been used as venues for lectures and musical concerts. And as the boat creeps back out of the tunnels you realise why else these Dudley Canal Trust boat trips are so special: they provide visitors with sights of ancient fossils embedded in the walls.  Indeed an image of the trilobite features on Dudley’s civic crest.

    The boat trip had come about half way through our exploration of the 26 acre Living Museum site. We had already ridden on a tram, skipped with a long rope in the street, nosed into back to back houses, chatted in the 1912 pub, watched red hot iron being rolled into steel bars, eaten delicious fish and chips cooked in beef dripping and peered into shop windows to view wirelesses, brooms, confectionery and even a liberty bodice… There is so much to see at this museum, whether exhibits inside the many buildings, demonstrations of past crafts or vintage vehicles driving through the village streets.

    So after our trip on the boat there was certainly more to see – and do. The school bell was being rung outside St James’s Infant School, so in we trooped and sat with Standard 2.  The teacher cajoled us into sitting up straight, and then inspected our nails and boots before the lesson started.  We chanted tables, rehearsed the alphabet from Z to A, tried mental arithmetic with shillings and old pence, then on slates used charcoal to practise copperplate letter formation. Those who hadn’t paid their school dues were lined up for caning – and only when we were seated smartly, hands behind backs, chins held high, were we dismissed.

    Next to the 1920 cinema, into a fleapit (“fleas authentic,” joked the projectionist.) We sat and watched while Charlie Chaplin charmed and exasperated in equal measure, no dialogue of course, just music as a background sound. We inspected the Workers’ Institute and the Methodist Chapel, walked through the travelling fairground and made the Racecourse Colliery our final destination.  Hard hats on again, dimmed torches allocated to a few people and then we trooped down underground. This is a drift mine, so you bend your heads low and walk downhill (no lift cages here). Is it obvious to point out that full concentration is needed to avoid banging your head against the low roof or tripping on the uneven ground surface? Again audi-visual displays heighten your appreciation of what coal mining life was like in the Black Country pits of the 1930s. You see the boy employed to open and shut the passageway door; another scene shows a  pit pony; there are trams loaded with coal, miners hacking at the coalface, the seam held up by pit props.
   
    In all our trip to Dudley was a great success, much to see, though even so we did not see it all. This was a preliminary visit, a recce ahead of a planned school visit. We’d checked the booking arrangements, the access to toilets, the accommodation for eating packed lunches, the price of chips and fairground rides… all that remained now was a restorative cup of tea in the cafe and about a two hour drive back home!

 
    
For further information if you’re thinking of boating or visiting the West Midlands see Black Country Living Museum at http://www.bclm.co.uk/
and Dudley Canal Trust: at http://www.dudleycanaltrust.org.uk/pages
 

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