The Easter weekend saw the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port hosting not one but two festivals. The regular Easter Boat Gathering and the 2nd annual Maritime Festival organised by Shanty UK
In two years the shanty festival has grown from the brain child of a few keen volunteers into a vibrant international affair that will soon be rivalling the former Lancaster Maritime Festival for the reputation of largest (and best) such gathering in the world.
The musicians and singers were a fine mixture of local, national and international performers with world-wide reputations. The overseas contingent were well represented and the Netherlands based shanty crew Nelson’s Blood gave a virtuoso performance of shanties, ballads songs and banter (mostly in English) that had the audience happily singing along.
Equally talented were a group of Yorkshire lads, Monkeys Fist who gave smooth performances in each of their varied venues and showed why they too are in the premier league of shanty crews. Relative new comers Nine Tenths Below, despite having members from different counties, demonstrated some fine individual leads and tight interweaving of voices that mark them out as future high fliers on the maritime scene. Oxfordshire lads Short Drag Roger impressed audiences not only with their infectious humour but also by incorporating some of the lesser known shanties into their act and still getting people to join in.
Duos were well represented too The female duo from Fleetwood, Scold’s Bridle, who sing many songs from the point of view of the wives and sweethearts rather than of the sailors themselves gave a good performance. Welsh duo Andrew McKay and Carol Etherton treated audiences to some fine songs that they had written and Festival Organisers Trim Rig and a Doxy (Derek and Julia Batters) even managed to get some time away from organisational duties to wow the audience in one of the evening concerts.
Then there were the solo artistes such as Anna Shannon and Andy Kenna; two totally dissimilar acts who both performed to the highest standards and, like everyone else, left their audience wanting more. Space prevents me mentioning every artiste performing but each and everyone managed to add something extra and make the weekend a great success.
Away from the music there were absorbing and informative specials from people such as Chris Roche with talks about his nautical voyages and duo Red Duster who entertained, amused and educated their audiences with tales and songs of the merchant navy and the trawling fleet.
The stand-out performers of the week-end were a group called Males de Mer. Mal-de-mer is French for sea sickness but it would be hard to get sick of this quartet from Luxemburg and Belgium who managed to wow everyone they performed to. Their final performance had people hanging over balconies and stairwells on three floors to see them in the well of the museum’s Rolt lecture block. A fusion between the world of pop and shanty they are the buoy band of the future.
However the musicianship didn’t end on stage. As well as sessions to teach playing skills on various instruments there was a performance area in the bar where anyone who wished to could sing to the customers and many amateur and visiting professional took advantage of the opportunity throughout the weekend.
The biggest star of the whole festival though was the venue. The National Waterways Museum – Ellesmere Port is a splendid location. It may not have the kudos of the tall ships that catch the eye and the imagination at a few special events from time but it does have the narrow boats and a host of other craft that once worked our coastal and inland waters regularly and which can still be seen in this wonderful setting day after day throughout the year against the back drop of even larger vessels passing back and forth just outside the museum boundaries. What’s more at Ellesmere Port the boats are not tied to buoys a hundred yards off shore or floating past, half-way to the horizon. They are moored to the wharves, tow paths and jetties scant inches from the passing feet of the visitor.
Throughout the weekend a steady stream of visitors took advantage of this to examine dozens of craft at close quarters and to go on-board a few and feel the deck beneath their feet. There was also the chance for visitors to discover the fascinating history of the craft and the water ways and all aspects of their design, construction and use both in the past and, hopefully, in the future. Whether it was learning about the engines or the horses who powered these craft or the artefacts and the people on board and the cargoes carried there was plenty to see, hear and do and all presented in an entertaining and eye-catching manner. There was a hands-on opportunity to learn rope-work, preservation skills and much more beside. All of this plus the bonus of the Easter Boat Gathering and the accompanying entertainment that brought for all the family. Face painting – origami – story telling and other craft activities for the younger visitors as well as simple singing, paper folding, first aid; and also a real ale bar for the grown-ups and barbeque for all the family.
All of this was provided by countless unnamed and unpaid workers both from the Shanty UK members and from the museum volunteers and a few paid members of the museum staff.
With more than 40 booked acts, and a total of over 140 scheduled performances in a total of 8 different venues from a concert stage to the below-decks hold of a barge and all within the precincts of the Museum, there was an abundance of music that would have done credit to a six day festival let alone a 3 day Easter weekend Truly this was a family event with family friendly activities and family friendly prices. Each day’s singing, shows and specials were free to enter apart from the normal and very reasonable one-off museum entry fee of £6.50. For the keen concert goers the organisers had also taken advantage of the host of excellent talent already attending over the weekend to put on two extra evening concerts at £10 per ticket giving 4 days of amazing entertainment for less than the cost of an evening at the cinema!
Plans are under way for an equally spectacular Easter week-end next year so pencil it in your diaries to come back and see how much better we can do it next year after this practice run through – and bring your friends they’ll enjoy it! Jim Saville