Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Walking The Shroppie”, which he saw at Ellesmere Port Boat Museum. (A tour is in the planning).
Francesca Millican-Slater has bright eyes, a generous mouth and a naturally warming welcome. She also has a wonderful way with words. The fluidity of her narration is ideal for her new storytelling show about the Shropshire Union Canal…even though her only previous experience of the waterways of England is a drunken afternoon at Camden Lock. You see – already she is gently taking the rise out of herself.
She walked the 90-mile length of ‘The Shroppie’ last autumn with double intent. A little over a century ago the deeply unromantic Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company moved lock, stock and Bessemer to the banks of the Mersey; and the only way the workforce could follow was to walk it. In their honour, Fran did the same, equipped with a camera, notepad and eagle eyes to record the adventure.
The resultant 70-minute show – premiered at the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum prior to wider availability – is a charming combination of a lyrical, almost epic, road story and a top notch WI power point presentation. Think Michael Portillo – but with infinitely more observation. I loved the comments about ducks adopting one-legged yoga poses.
Along the way she deals with death, dereliction and drownings; and with the delights of the canopied rural cut where the tree tips meet overhead to create a green cathedral. There are practical complications of course. The first tunnel she comes to doesn’t have a towpath, for example.
But she’s done her homework and the snaps taken along the way often have historic photos superimposed on them in a telltale ‘before and after’ manner. And she’s not alone. Apart from a succession of well-met fellow walkers…she’s taken her historical boyfriend along; a fellow by the name of Thomas Telford (complete with Scottish accent) who created the canal in the first place.
She and ‘Tammy’ get along fine…though there is a bone to be picked about Woodseaves Cutting. Telford believed in straight lines, so he dug a 21 metre deep gouge out of the landscape near Market Drayton. Everyone who knew about Woodseaves Cutting warned Fran about it in advance. It’s so wet, it’s boggy in a drought. But she valiantly trudged its goat track, ankle deep, towpath to a squelching soundtrack.
In their hay day, the working narrow boats carried all sorts of payloads from acid to Guinness – and from chocolate to cheese ( samples of which she thoughtfully supplies to her audience). The canals declined of course and would have disappeared completely but for the pioneering preservation work of Tom Rolt, to whom tribute is also rightly paid.
All in all it’s a highly entertaining and very satisfying hour or more for boater and gongoozler alike. And as guide to where you can enjoy a discrete ‘wee’ along the ‘cut’, it’s second to none.