Posted 4th Jul 2017
In the latest of our Humans of the Waterway features, courtesy of the Canal & River Trust, we meet Cath and Di of Ellesmere Port
"For the last four decades Cath and Di have dedicated their free time at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. As volunteers they are part of a team caring for and researching the history of some of the UK’s historic narrowboats, barges and tugs.
Across the UK thousands of volunteers give their time to good causes but for Cath, Di and their colleagues, involvement in the museum is much more significant. They began the museum in the 1970s and their dedication to conserving a unique piece of industrial heritage culminated in its opening in 1976.
Back in the 1970s both women were teachers. Di taught geography and history and was horrified by the dilapidated state of the once thriving Ellesmere Port site.
Desperate to do something she offered to help the restoration work, and enlisted her students in the massive, and muddy, project. "We pulled so much from the docks – a scooter, car doors, tyres, cans of oil," Di recalls, "the site had become a dumping ground. Fortunately we didn’t find anything gruesome – surprising given the proximity to the town mortuary. Though we did once find a tombstone!"
Cath and her family had moved to the area and were also fascinated by the site. With husband Mike she harnessed a passion for industrial archaeology and threw herself into everything from building work to fundraising. And it worked – enough money was raised from paper collection to buy the historic narrow boat George. Which has recently been transformed into a floating education and visitor centre.
2016’s anniversary celebrations gave a chance to take a breath and reflect on the many highs – from the opening in 1976, the VIP visits and the moving of massive vessels such as Friendship (with collective breath held as she was moved from place to place!). There’s also a sense of personal achievement. As Cath explains: "After not being remotely interested in boats I’ve enjoyed learning how to handle ex-working boats and to steer a horse-drawn narrow boat. It’s opened up a new world to me and I continue to learn all the time."
Over the years the volunteering tasks have evolved. Though there is still a lot of hands-on work, Cath and Di also take visitors on guided tours. Cath and Di volunteer at the National Waterways MuseumCath also helps in the archive and edits the Waterways Journal. Di is president of the Boat Museum Society and in 2012 received an MBE for services to heritage and education.
Ask the pair why they continue to volunteer and the answer can be summed up as: friendships, taking pride in being part of something special and seeing Ellesmere Port revitalised and relevant to current and future generations.
Though Cath and Di show no signs of giving up their volunteering work they are keen to encourage others to join them. There are so many opportunities: looking after the collections, including the boats, engines and the site, working in the archive, giving guided tours, helping in the café, and so on.
Volunteering can also help with a career, Di shares a true story: "During an interview for medical school one of my former students talked about her involvement with the museum and narrow boats. The interviewer shared her interest and she got the place!"
Text and image courtey of the Canal & River Trust