The best thing about living on Beetle Juice – better than the rocking at night, better than the splish! splash! of water on its sides – is Snowy.
Snowy is about a little girl called Rachel who lives on a barge on the Chester canal. The barge is called Betelgeuse, but Rachel calls it Beetle Juice, and it is pulled along by the barge-horse, Snowy.
I wrote the story after I had spent a week of mornings on a barge (or, as it is more properly called, a narrowboat) with children from schools involved in heritage education in North Cheshire. The barge was called Betelgeuse, and a little girl called Rachel did own it with her mum and dad. And their barge-horse was called Snowy. The children and I floated up and down the canal writing stories and poems about our adventures and about canal and river family life, and everybody wanted to write about Snowy, because they all loved her so much. Rachel’s mum told us how Rachel wanted to take Snowy to school one day, and that’s how I came to write this story.
I sent the story to Collins, the publishers, and they asked a wonderful artist called Keith Bowen to illustrate it. His artwork has won him the Eisteddfod three times. I told him that the story was about a real family, a real barge and a real working boat horse, and I took him to meet them. His pictures are exactly right, and I think the cover with that image of Snowy coming towards you up the towpath is one of the best picture book covers I have ever seen.
In January 2013 the teacher of the school in Chester that Rachel had attended, and which features in the story, invited everyone connected with Snowy to a reunion. Shown below are an illustration from the book of Rachel with her mum and dad, Di and Ric, and a photo of them at the reunion with me!
Snowy by Berlie Doherty & Keith Bowen
Taken from the Narrow Boat Albert blog:
Snowy is one of the most delightful children’s books there is. It is about Rachel, who isn’t allowed to take her canal boat horse into school when the teacher invites the children to take in their pets. As a result she gets teased by her classmates. That is, until they meet Snowy on a surprise school trip to the canal. That brings her the admiration of all her classmates. Maggie used to read it to her class when she was a primary school teacher and the kids loved it.
If you look at the illustrations carefully you can see that the story is set in Chester. I recognised immediately, but I never for one moment considered the provenance of the story. However, last night I read again PJG Ransom’s The Archeology of Canals. There on page 110 was a colour plate of a grey mare called Snowy at Chester. The horse was being prepared to tow a trip boat called The Chester Packet with a butty in the background on the far bank. The butty carries the name Betelgeuse as in the book. Berlie Doherty and Keith Bowen’s book is therefore authentic in terms of canal operations. It appears during the summer Jim Marshall used Betelgeuse, pulled by Snowy, to carry passengers as The Chester Packet. The butty was converted for this role, with a small cabin extension, in the mid '70s.
A picture on the current owner’s website shows Betelgeuse as The Chester Packet but the horse is not Snowy. Therefore, in homage to that great children’s book, here is a photograph from Ransom's book showing Snowy being prepared for work with Betelgeuse in the background. Doesn't Snowy look fine? Presumably this photo comes from the late 1970s (the book was published in 1979). The picture was by PJG Ransom. I wonder where Rachel is?