Canal Filming has Begun!

Out filming cutaways for the canal programme.
I always say a script is just a guide, nothing is set in stone. I do believe that it is essential to have a written document, even for a documentary, so that you know what the story is and how it in an ideal world would play out. But things change and as a film maker you do need to be adaptable, especially if you are working on a slim budget.

The first day of shooting a new project is definitely a day to celebrate. It means you have truly started and if you stick to your guns, it should mean you will one day finish and have something to show for all the hard work put in. So this week the camera began to roll. (Digital cameras do not physically ‘roll’ any more, they store their images to a media stick. It is called the tapeless system and makes life so much easier. We don’t use celluloid either, but that doesn’t stop us calling our productions a ‘film’).

My script calls for a number of interviews with various people connected to the canal world and I started with the chairman of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canal Trust, Bernie Jones. He very kindly has been helping to organise numerous people, locations and sets ups for the documentary, but most importantly, he is a key speaker in the film with his connection and enthusiasm for the abandoned waterway that is the main focus of my video.

Wappenshall Junction, an important stage along the abandoned canal.

I met Bernie at his house in Withington in Shropshire and followed him by car to a place called Wappenshall Junction. This site now consists of a couple of derelict buildings, a traditional hump back bridge and partly filled in canal bed. It was, as the archive photograph demonstrates, a busy wharf along the original route from the country town of Shropshire to Newport and Norbury where the navigation once joined the rest of the UK’s canal network.

I filmed a few cutaways of the red brick Georgian Buildings that once house the paymasters office, the loading and storage area and stables for the ‘fly’ service. The windows had been smashed by the local scallywags, the doors old and decade and some of the floorboards on the inside dangerously rotted and quite risky to walk on.

After this, I positioned Bernie in front of the iconic canal bridge, set up the camera and miked him for sound. The camera was then set to record. I wanted to know, what were the plans for Wappenshall and what was its significance in the heady days of the canal.

Bernie, along with the other dedicated members of the trust had it all worked out. They had a step by step plan to raise the funding required, detailed plans to restore the waterway and open it up to the public and the boating community. Of course, this is no where near as easy or as simple as I make it sound and I do hope to high light the some of the issues within the film. Alas, I haven’t the space to go into it here, but it is an exciting project.

As Bernie said, a part from the rather hideous and not altogether coherent new town of Telford and a statue of its namesake plonked almost anonymously somewhere within it, there is no where in the locality that people can go to pay homage to the great man of architecture, design and civil engineering. Thomas Telford did so much for Shropshire in late 18th Century. His handy work is all over the county and surrounding area, including the great aqueduct at Llangollen in Wales and the major improvement and surveying of what we refer to as the A5, but in its day was simply known as the London to Holyhead road, the great coaching route famed for its connection to Ireland. Telford also designed one of the buildings at Wappingshall Junction, had a hand in the the oldest surviving iron aqueduct in the world, which just so happens to be along the route of the Shrewsbury Canal and insured the navigation was completed when it linked up to Newport and Norbury Junction. The S&N Canal Trust wants to make Wappenshall Junction a visitors centre, with interpretation boards and a place to find out more about the great man.

The story of the canal is without doubt a fascinating one and I hope I can do it justice as I continue with the filming of the documentary for the next episode of the Bald Explorer.

The Duke of Bridgewater

The Canal Duke

I have been reading a rather splendid book about the Canal Duke which I thought I would share with you. Being that Francis Egerton is the man credited with starting the Canal Mania on the late 18th Century, I thought I better gen up on him and his life, even though my forthcoming production isn’t really about his canal.

The third Duke of Egerton, by all accounts, was unlikely to live very long. His brothers and sisters died young, many did before they were in double figures. He was a sickly child and very shy. To cure this, Francis was sent on The Grand Tour to see the ways of the world. He was away for three years and saw many things. It was during this time that he began to collect items, fine painting, pottery and exotic works of art. He also was fascinated with the waterways and navigations in France and Italy. When he returned to England to his numerous estates he was a changed man. He became a dandy and spent many an hour at gambling clubs. It was fine for him to loose money, he had inherited plenty. But then one day he fell in love with a lady that the whole of England had equally become besotted with. He wooed her and they were to be married, then suddenly she changed her mind and Francis was a jilted man.

This was the catalyst that motivated him to change his ways and propelled him into business pursuits. He had coal mines on his estate in Worsely in Lancashire. His agent and mining consultant, John Gilbert, had found a way to empty the mine of water so that he could dig further down and get a much larger quantity of coal out. However, there was another problem. It was extremely expensive to transport the heavy coal to market in Manchester, only 7 miles away. The traditional route was via packhorse, which was slow and required many trips to get a reasonable amount of the black gold to the city. The other option was to send it via boat along the river navigation along the Mersey and Irwell. These presented problems of its own. The company that ran it held the monopoly and were expensive and the rivers were tidal and subject to delays.

The one day, the Duke had a brainwave. He would cut his own channel to Manchester. He would build a canal. This was not a completely new idea, for the Duke was familiar with the waterways in France and Europe. There had been attempts at similar projects in England, but nothing to write home about and all that had been attempted were either associated with rivers or ran parallel to one.

The one thing people need in a canal is water and this was going to be an issue when crossing the country away from the rivers and hills. John Gilbert had solved this problem, however. There was plenty of water in the mines and by digging small tunnels, or soughs as they are called, not only would the mines be drained, but water would supply the proposed canal.

All Francis needed now was a canal expert. Fortunately, Gilbert new a man, James Brindley, who was a millwright. The three of them plotted and planned and together, with the genius of Brindley’s knowledge of surveying water, the canal was built. It wasn’t without it’s problems and financial needs. In fact, these were immense and plagued the Duke most of his life. But it was his tenacity I greatly admire; the sticking to his guns when all were laughing at him and telling him that it would never work.

It did and the canal mania started, just at the right time. Without it there would not have been an Industrial Revolution in England. Without the transport network to carry the huge amounts of raw materials and finished products to and from the factories, this country would have missed a trick and have been left behind. But we led the way and we should all be proud. By pushing ahead with the first, of several canals and extensions, we certainly owe the Duke of Bridgewater a lot. I salute him.

Saving our Waterways

Part of Shrewsbury Canal as it once looked.

I am thrilled to be able to report that the recent exposure on the Community Channel television has resulted in more episodes of the Bald Explorer requested. This is excellent news and all the encouragement I need to take my camera out and shoot some more of the fabulous history of Great Britain. There are another three full length episodes planned which will look at different aspects of British life.

In one programme I have teamed up with the Canals and River Trust, formerly British Waterways to explore the winter stoppage work that goes on to repair and maintain the existing canal systems up and down the country. I am also exploring the highly ambitious work of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canal Trust who having been proposing the complete restoration of their navigation since 2000. The Shrewsbury Canal once had a basin and wharf behind the Buttermarket in the county town of Shropshire, near the Railway Station. Roughly 200 hundred years ago narrow boats and in particular tub boats would transport coal, corn, wool and luxury goods by water as it was far easier than by road. Now the canal system has all but disappeared with only the occasional watery reed ditch to show where it might have been.

A view at Wappenshall Wharf and how the canal might look once restoration is complete.

I am very excited about this particularly episode as I will be filming people that remember the working canals and made a living from them. Also I shall be delving into the archive of photographs to see the real story of the working canals. These days we think of them as pleasure destinations. Walkers, canoeists, cyclists, narrow boat enthusiasts and a host of holiday makers take to the British waterways for fun and relaxation. I am sure it was very different back in its golden era.

There are relics of the canals all over the UK and thousands of people dedicated to bring these wonderful waterways back to life. I hope the Bald Explorer episode can tell something of the story of the canals and reach a wide audience to inspire more to get involved and help preserve this important part of our industrial past for the future generation to enjoy.

Some useful links:

Shrewsbury and Newport Canal Trust

Canal and River Trust