Words and photos: Tim Coghlan
TWO benches have been installed beside the Grand Union Canal at Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire, to commemorate the lives of two of its well-known canal and community activists, David Blagrove (1937-2016) and Roy Sears (1945-2018).
The funds to purchase the benches and pay for their installation came from the David Blagrove Community Trust, which was set up after David’s death in 2016. This followed a very successful appeal which raised a considerable sum to make it possible.
David’s daughter Sarah Borondy, chair of the trust said: ‘The trust’s vision was to enrich local communities and to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth through experiencing the UK canal and waterways network. Its aims were also to enhance the local landscapes and heritage, while encouraging and supporting the local communities.
“So for the trust to provide the funding for the two benches just seemed a fitting end to celebrate all that the trust has achieved over the last seven years. The trustees and its stalwart members have agreed it’s now time to close it, in this final act of commemoration.”
Some 40 people attended the formal opening of the benches, including Richard Parry, chief executive of the Canal & River Trust, who only a few months before had attended the unveiling of the kingfisher mosaic at nearby Cosgrove. The bench ribbons were cut by Roy’s wife Chrissy and by Sarah.
David’s is appropriately at the edge of The Green, where the sitter can at once see the canal museum, and then across the canal, David’s former home Wharf Cottage and, when it is moored at Stoke Bruerne, the historic narrowboat Sculptor, which David did so much to support. Roy’s bench is on the towpath halfway to the tunnel entrance.
Before cutting their respective ribbons, Sarah and Chrissy gave the two men short tributes.
Following Sarah’s cutting of the ribbon, a close friend of David, Tim Coghlan, who had delivered the eulogy at David’s funeral, read the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin. This concluded appropriately with: “O commemorate me with no hero-courageous tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.”
David came to Stoke Bruerne by chance in 1963, when he was a ‘gentleman’ working-boatman, who had previously been an articled clerk to a firm of London solicitors. He found himself frozen in there for three months in the Great Freeze of 1963, and fell for that canalside village.
He returned in 1966, by now married, and as a newly qualified O-Level history teacher with an appointment at a nearby secondary school.
By chance the semi-derelict Wharf Cottage came up for sale at that time, which he and his wife Jean bought and did up. They lived in it for the remainder of their lives, with various working boats moored outside it.
Besides being a boatman, David was a canal author, musician, painter and event organiser. When the canal museum at Stoke Bruerne was in danger of being closed in 2006, he co-founded the Friends of the Museum, which in 2008 organised its first of many successful annual Stoke Bruerne At War events to raise funds for the museum.
Roy Sears had moved to the house next door to the Blagroves in 1981, achieving what he had always wanted, which was to have his narrowboat moored at the bottom of his garden. He was a specialist printer, retiring in 2008. He helped design and print various things for the village over the years, including the canal festival programmes and the village Christmas cards.
He was a founder member of the Friends, and an active participant in its fundraising events. He held the post of the Stoke Bruerne representative on the then CRT’s Museum Management Board. Following David’s death, Roy was very active in the formation and early running of that trust. In 2018 he was tragically killed in a motor accident.
Following the conclusion of formalities, the party retired to The Boat Inn, where David in times past was often to be found in the old bar, beloved of the working boatmen. Here he would hold informal jam sessions, with him singing songs – many of them his own – and accompanying himself on his accordion.
In David’s funeral eulogy, I quoted that line from Kitto’s The Greeks: “The Greeks regarded the greatest achievement in a man’s life to be remembered after his death, with affection, by his friends.” This comment could equally have applied to Roy.