A narrative of narrowboats with song

“We float on tea.”


John Knowles, Patrick Murphy, Kristin Duffy, Hannah Harris and Maisy Beth Crunden (Photo: MJ)

For anyone who has fond memories of time on a canal boat, not actually being a bargee but borrowing one for a holiday, this show is a must, a celebration of the canals and those who live on them.  Grit of Life is narrated by John Knowles, author and director, with Rory McLeod as song writer, on an 84 year old Canal Boat. The Widgeon Theatre Boat can tour its play with music to navigable water ways and you can sit the other side of the towpath. 

A five piece band of actor, singer, musicians entertain us with the story of the canals and travelling with a difference.  The Widgeon was once used to move grit to where it was needed for building.  John describes the canals as the pumping arteries of industry and capitalism, bargees hauling coal, the physical hard work of locking to raise and lower the narrow boat through flights. 

Maisy Beth Crunden on banjo, Kristin Duffy on violin, Patrick McHugh on guitar and mandolin, and Hannah Harris on accordion sing about the 92 locks on the Cheshire Ring.  The music is folk inspired, often with bluesy rock as they sing “I’ve a weakness for water, water is my strength”.  John describes what all of us who have woken early morning on a canal boat, moored in the middle of nowhere have experienced, the mist rising above the water and the only companions a few ducks sharing this very special moment. 

We meet the residents of the towpath, the lycra clad jogger, the cyclist and the angler, each part being taken by a member of the cast, acting out the narrative.  Kristin brings us down to earth with the reminder that “canal living is a reality, not a dream” as her character explains she has to move her boat every two weeks and the difficulties of getting a land based job.

Patrick McHugh as Captain Matthew Webb with John Knowles (Photo: MJ)

We hear about the small businesses that have grown up alongside the canal, crafts, rope making, fortune telling, canal boat ware and craft bakers.  The Widgeon itself has a bar and café with home baked goods.

 They talk and sing about the anti-social, Kristin character’s boat was sunk by a group of stag party goers creating a wave, driving recklessly. 

There is the history of the tunnels, the Standedge Tunnel 3 miles and 57 yards long on the Huddersfield Canal and only wide enough to take one narrowboat at a time.  Maisy Beth’s song to close the first act is about locks and locking. 

Act Two opens with a tribute to the navvies who constructed the canals and those who rescued disused canals and those who today stop the canals silting up and remove all kinds of rubbish from shopping trolleys to tree trunks that are dumped there. 

Grit of Life has so much knowledge to give, information about the open access movement. Over 90% of waterways are illegal to access, out of 42,700 miles, only 1,400 are open access.  There are tales of standoffs in the tunnels as one boat has to retrace its passage, one in the Norwood Tunnel lasting 56 hours! We are reminded that the tow path was for the horses that towed the narrow boats. 

This immersing narrative play with music creates many of the characters you’d find alongside the canal and is an all round satisfying entertainment.  Musical rhythms will get you tapping your feet and wanting to join in with the choruses, and, to book your next canal outing!

Production Notes

Grit of Life

Songs written and produced by Rory McLeod

Written and directed by John Knowles

Produced by MJ Morgan



John Knowles

Maisie Beth Crunden

Kristin Duffy

Hannah Harris

Patrick McHugh


Director: John Knowles


Running Time: Two hours  with an interval

Touring currently to 26th September 2021

The Widgeon Theatre Boat

Website: www.widgeontheatreboat.com

Tour dates


Brighton Pier

1st September 2021




Graham Street Park

5th September 2021



Totally Thames Festival

10th, 11th, 12th September  2021


Totally Thames Festival

17th, 18th, 19th September 2021



Totally Thames Festival

 24th, 25th, 26th September 2021


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the

Widgeon Theatre Boat  at Batchworth Lock Canal Rickmansworth

on 20th August 2021