A flower bedecked boat…

Saturday 4th August, 2012

“You’ve got to photograph it – you know you collect weddings!” called Relief First Mate. She knows how, apart from attending wedding ceremonies as an invited guest, Boatwif has, over the years, come across weddings in unexpected places. There was the wedding party marching around the walled city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria; there was the Canadian bride and her gang of bridesmaids pouring out of a vintage car outside an imposing church in St Emilion in the Bordeaux wine region; there were the Hispanic wedding parties being photographed in front of the massive Spreckels pipe organ in Balboa Park in San Diego; there were eleven wedding groups one day all heading for their official photographs in the formal gardens of the Palais de la Berbie at Albi in Southern France –  and there was the unexpected loading of bride, groom and guests onto a narrow boat at Stoke Bruerne one November afternoon before they progressed up the canal and disappeared into Blisworth Tunnel. Well, on Saturday, Boatwif came across preparations for a wedding in a most unexpected place…

Returning from Pembrokeshire via Worcestershire the weekend was being spent with Relief Captain, Relief First Mate, their senior granddaughter – and very young Monty, a border collie, a  boat puppy awaiting a boat. A visit to the open air Black Country Living Museum at Dudley was mooted, with Boatwif as guide, she now a veteran of three previous visits. (See Boats built by the mile March 2011). Lunch arrangements were discussed while Boatwif wracked her brain to describe all the museum treats available: a tour underground of a drift mine, beam engines, vintage vehicles, a Victorian school, Victorian children’s games, chain-making, a non-conformist chapel, rows of 1930s shops, back to back housing, a pub, a fairground, old canal boats, a tram, a trolley bus – there would be much to choose from.  Up the M5 we bowled, through Sandwell and into Dudley: journey completed in half an hour. Ahead stood a very steep hill, the ruins of Dudley Castle clearly visible on top.  At the Museum a board in the reception area advertised boat trips run by the Dudley Canal Trust (20% discount if taken before midday). For boat enthusiasts this was to be an obvious starting point.

The Dudley Canal runs at the bottom of the museum site so down the hill the group of four trekked. Finding the trip boat became the first objective. Since the Museum and the Dudley Canal Trust are separate enterprises access to the trip boats wasn’t immediately obvious. Success – tickets were bought in time for the 11.30am trip. And then, in those minutes waiting for the trip to start, something caught the eye. Towards the Dudley Tunnel entrance was another boat – and decorated it was with white and green foliage! Cameras in hand Boatwif and Relief First Mate fair galloped along the wharf. Final touches were being made to a bridal boat! Three folk (florists? boat crew?) were busy titivating the white netting, the garlands of green leaves and the bouquets of white flowers. Only fairy lights remained to be added. This was to be the conveyance of choice for the bride, her mother and her bridesmaids. The wedding venue was to be the Singing Cavern deep under Dudley Hill, the ceremony booked for 4pm. Oh to have seen the conveyance in use!

Our trip boat was being loaded: hard hats were issued, seats allocated. Passenger neighbours reflected on their wedding, some forty odd years before, the first wedding ever in a new church, in Leek, Staffordshire. Boatwif and the Captain remembered their venue of choice, a Norman church, just about fifty metres from Henry Tudor’s birthplace in Pembroke Castle! Why choose an underground cavern, by definition dark and windowless…?  Off went the battery powered boat, packed with passengers and the skipper provided informative commentary. In the Little Tess Cavern a slideshow presentation explained the physical and geological changes of Dudley over millions of years: oceans which had covered the land receded, minerals and fossils being left behind. Then two hundred years ago came industrialisation, the canals being developed as a means of transporting raw materials. On went the boat trip, through a restored tunnel, its sides and roof disguised by concrete covering.  From time to time the boat was stopped, for the passengers to “ooh” and “aah” at the tunnel shafts, the well, the limestone stalactite formations. At last to the Singing Cavern, a vast space, in times past used to host splendid orchestral concerts. Now a sound and light show is triggered by the arrival of the trip boats.  See The Singing Cavern Dudley Tunnel (on You Tube) to get an impression of the space, the sound, the sights. As for the designated marriage venue there was a glimpse of white flower festooned balustrades off the starboard side of the boat; those of us on the port side struggled for a view.

Out reversed the trip boat, along the newest (1984) canal tunnel, opened by Simon Groom, a Blue Peter badge as evidence! Backwards the boat went, pausing at an underground loading wharf, passengers treated to the tale of the famous canal legger, who four times a day would leg through a train of ten boats, a journey of four hours, walking the two miles back each time between the start and finish of his tunnel journey.

Once off the trip boat wedding plans and wedding venues were banished from all thoughts: there were street games to be played, soldiers and civilians in forties’ dress to look at, shops to be visited, nbs President, Kildare and an icebreaker to be viewed. There was a school lesson for Standard One pupils, grim outdoor toilets and brewhouses to be seen, a gentleman outfitters’ to visit, a fairground to play at, a thirties apartment to inspect, the upper deck of the trolleybus to ride on…

Later one wondered whether the Dudley bride glided serenely to her wedding, untroubled by watery drips from the limestone roof… Would all members of the bridal party have safely managed to board and disembark from the bridal boat?  And let’s share one Dudley hope for the happy tunnel couple – that their marriage bed proves more comfortable than the museum’s thirties bedstead looked!

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