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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.