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“Apart from that, how did you enjoy the play?”

Tim Coghlan recently met George Smith, the now 96-year old former working boatman and briefly the first husband of Sonia Rolt.

Sometime in 1946, and with the war well behind her, the former Idle Woman and working boat-woman Sonia Smith received some exciting news when she collected her mail at Hawkesbury Junction, a focal point for the Midlands canals, lying as it did a little to the north of Coventry. There was a letter from an old girlfriend from her pre-war acting days, who had just landed her first big role in a West End theatre production. Would Sonia like to come to the first night, which was now only a few days away?

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War on the grand union

Tim Coghlan takes a lighter look at this remarkable, now possibly annual reenactment, in which he survived an air raid, met Idle Women, ate Spam-a-lot and kept smiling through…

Last year’s first Village at War weekend at Stoke Bruerne set the organizers, the Friends of the Waterways Museum, a hard act to follow. There was all the initial novelty, which as a one off gets the punters in, but would they come again? And there was also that moment of a very special occasion with the unveiling of the plaque outside the museum to the ‘Idle Women’ – who had worked as boatmen during the war. Four members of this octogenarian dwindling band were present, including Sonia Rolt and Emma Smith, authoress of Maiden’s Trip. Tony Hales, Chairman of BW was also there, together with Roger Hanbury, Chief Executive of the Waterways Trust and each made fine speeches praising the gals’ work, before a gathering of the great and the good of the canals. ‘They were anything but idle’, said Hales. Then followed a speech from Sonia on the urgent need to save our waterways for the future – all familiar stuff. And after the plaque unveiling, finally that poignant photo-call with the four gals on the back of a narrow boat that one of them had worked at some stage during the war. Those of us present felt we had witnessed the final act of a little piece of wonderful canal history – the brave endeavour of about thirty largely middle-class young women to play a truly challenging part in the war effort.

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Weekend at war

Tim Coghlan takes a lighter look at a remarkable re-enactment in which he survived an air raid, met the idle women, ate spam-a-lot, and kept smiling through…

Having prepared myself for something completely different, it still came as a surprise when it happened. I had arrived a little early as I had to be back to the marina-day-job by late morning and I wanted to see as much as I could. The offi cial car park at the top of the hill by Stoke Breurne’s church was almost empty and there was no one to collect my money for the advertised £10 car park charge to gain admission. I walked down an almost empty lane to the village and just as I was rounding the car park at the back of the Boat Inn, she was there with her young boy – like seeing a ghost from the past – just the three of us in the autumnal stillness. “Will me boy be safe ‘ere, after all them bombings we been through in London?” she asked me in all seriousness. She was wearing a well-worn brown female WWII coat, and carried an old cardboard suitcase in one hand, whilst the other tightly held the hand of her young boy in his grey school uniform with long shorts – possibly the only decent clothes he had. Over his shoulder hung a khaki canvas case for his gas mask, and round his a neck was a label which read, Alasdair Grant aged 7 years. He seemed to share his mother’s anxiety. It was all so real, and poignant – a mother parting with her evacuee child, her husband far away at war. It brought back memories of real evacuees I have talked to in my time, and that awful moment of departure. I was simply lost for words. “Well done”, was all I could come up with.