These Idle Women are not so idle

March 2017 - This year marks the 75th anniversary of start of the Women’s Training Scheme, the wartime attempt to keep the boats at work despite a shortage of crews. Later nicknamed The Idle Women they undertook six weeks training and then worked in teams of three with a pair of boats and 50 tons of cargo.

Now, 21st century ‘Idle Women’ – former Worcestershire Poet Laureate Heather Wastie and writer/performer Kate Saffin - will be recreating their journey, from London to Birmingham and back to London via the Coventry coal fields.

As Alarum Theatre, they will be performing at nearly 50 venues along the route, including historic waterside buildings, a farm, a community wood and, of course, a great many pubs!

This double bill tells the stories of these young women who took on the challenge, although some found it too tough and didn’t last long.

Isobel’s War is a solo play written and performed by Kate Saffin based on the experiences of the wartime trainees. Isobel doesn’t think that rolling bandages and serving tea in the leafy suburbs of Oxford counts as proper war work, then she spots an advertisement and encounters a world she didn’t know existed.

Idle Women and Judies is written and performed by Heather Wastie – it started as an audio piece (commissioned by the Canal & River Trust) based on the wartime memories of three women. Wastie has now added a collection of short poems and songs celebrating the work and adventures of the women.

An important part of the tour will be NB Tench, a former working boat (although not a GUCC one, on which most of the women worked) crewed entirely by women.

Tench is owned by Alex Bennett who will share the steering with Heather Boyce. Kate and Heather hope that there are many women out there who would like to come and join in as crew – for a day or two, perhaps even a few hours depending on the stage of the journey.

It will be a chance for women who might be very experienced boaters but have never had the opportunity to travel on a working boat to see what it was like. And if there are women reading this who have never done any boating – they are welcome too. Visit the Alarum Theatre website to sign up to the mailing list to get more details.

And for anyone wondering whether to look out for the show, here’s a recommendation from someone who saw it last year on the Shroppie: “It was beautiful, emotional and bloody funny. It makes you extremely proud of the heritage and history of the canals and that we are the present generation of that heritage. Fantastic night, catch it if you can!”

Photos: (1st) Former Worcestershire Poet Laureate Heather Wastie and writer/performer Kate Saffin, (2nd) Kate Saffin, (3rd) Heather Wastie, (4th) The play being performed before an audience in Tooley's Boatyard Banbury last Autumn, (5th) Open air show.

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