Thankfully, the thunderstorm had passed over. We assembled on Knights Bridge, overlooking Leeds Dock, awaiting a guide to take us to a canal boat.
We were going on a journey. We strolled along the towpath until we reached our vessel, the 1930s ‘Ribble’. From this point onwards our bodies were stationary but our minds were transported upstream.
Actors Claire-Marie Seddon and Steve Scott-Bottoms were our guides on this trip. In the guise of childhood friends Babs and Danny they took us to the Dockfield area of Shipley a slither of land wedged between the River Aire and the canal.
Seated round a table we heard about their memories and the longer history of the area. Simple lines were drawn on the tablecloth to demarcate their island home. Then everyday objects were deployed to show the changing land use. Raisins were ingeniously employed to show some of the less savoury aspects of living in this industrial landscape.
There is an element of nostalgia but the story is not sugar coated. The realities of living with pollution are made clear. We remember the joy of a childhood where children were free to roam the canal and riverside but are reminded that there were few fish in the river.
There have been improvements in water quality and the lives of some people, although there are still challenges to be overcome. One of these is to consider how we rebuild community. There was a sense of belonging for the residents of Dockfield which many of us now lack. This production plays a small part in trying to bring people together and establish shared stories.
The play has been commissioned by the Aire Rivers Trust’s ‘Developing the Natural Aire’ (DNAire) project in collaboration with Canal Connections and Multi-Storey Water. Each of these is a grass roots organisation working to improve rivers and waterways. Steve Scott-Bottoms works for Multi-Storey Water and scripted the performance.
In preparation for the project, he spent time in Dockfield, gathering stories from the inhabitants and observing the interaction of people and water, pleased to see that there now are fish swimming throughout the Aire rather than just a few by the weir, the one spot where older residents learned to fish.
The Ribble has been supplied by Canal Connections CIC, an organisation committed to raising the profile of Leeds canals heritage and their therapeutic potential. We were joined by the boat’s skipper, who was able to add further detail of the river and canal’s history.
The door and hatches of the boat are left open so that air can circulate. Sanitiser is supplied and you choose your own chair and sit wherever you feel comfortable. The experience is intimate but feels Covid secure.
At the end of the performance, the audience is asked to share their thoughts. These might be about their relationship to the river, their memories or their concerns for the future of the waterways. We talked about recently seeing otters, remembering growing up without central heating and the continued problems of sewage discharge.
Each performance will of course be different, as new audiences will have their own tales to tell and memories to share.
As you leave you can take a leaflet about walks along the River Aire, encouraging you to get out and appreciate the waterway more fully.
We never left Leeds, but the Ribble will. It will make its way along the Aire from Leeds to Skipton, stopping for performances along the way. On Friday 17th it will be in Dockfield, its natural home. It will then continue northward, ending with performances in Skipton during the last weekend in September.
For details of the location, dates and times of performances, visit the Aire Rivers Trust website.
Tickets cost £3.