I am sure that we have all enjoyed the longer days and sunnier weather of late, with its promise of spring, the nodding daffodils and returning birdsong. It is a special time of year and, just like that reawakening of flora and fauna, the sound of shanty singing and the lapping of water against boats stirs the soul and gladdens the heart like few other things. After all, was it not that redoubtable Water Rat, who said to his friend, the Mole, in one of my favourite books, Wind in the Willows, that "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats"!

So, it is with real pleasure and optimism that I am looking forward to the first big Bank Holiday weekend of the year and the ninth Easter Gathering of Boats and Sea Shanty Festival at the historic venue of the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port next weekend (April 19-22). In fact, if you remove the music element of the weekend it is the 42nd Anniversary of the Easter Boat Gathering, as the Sea Shanty Festival was a comparatively recent addition.

This year there is quite a local presence, musically speaking, with Chester-based band The Old Firm (of The Raven Folk Club) and The Hungry Horse Folk Club (Ellesmere Port) residents and regulars hosting music and singing sessions together with Chester's Dave Russell. Also, from our border neighbours, Roy Clinging's, Steerage Class, (including Graham Bellinger) will be adding that nautical flavour to the proceedings.

Singer songwriter Dave Gibb will be holding, Write Your Own Song workshops on Saturday and Sunday and the big Saturday evening concert at 7.30pm stars BBC 2 double Folk Award Winners, Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, supported by Full House, with Phil Underwood providing his own brand of songs for the one-hour concert at 2pm on Sunday afternoon. Another one to watch out for is Graham Bellinger, well-known for his work with The Deportees. However, on this occasion, he will be bringing his solo show, the aptly named and atmospheric, Songs of the Canals, to the festival. Try and catch this one during the three days.

What more could you want than all this musical nostalgia for the great days of British maritime history set to the backdrop of the painted boats that once took the tall ships' cargoes all over the UK on the vast network of canals that we can still cruise along today. The restoration to full working order (as featured in this column two years ago) of the 1905 Mersey steam tug Daniel Adamson, a long-time resident at the Museum, emphasises even more the importance of cherishing and maintaining our maritime heritage for future generations. It is therefore apt that this fully restored steam tug will be moored at the museum over the weekend to give short trips to visitors.

With a large car park and easy access from the nearby M53 do your best to try and go along and enjoy this friendly festival on at least one day of the four. As last year, one of the features of the festival, making it a great value weekend for all the family, is that a one-off payment of a £9.75 entry fee (concessions £8.50)will entitle you to admission for all four days (10am-5pm) although, if you choose to stay over for the Saturday evening concert, there will be a further charge of £8 per ticket. The other good news is that the admission ticket is, in effect, a 12 month pass to the museum. So, you can go back as many times as you like, in the next year, to see the various exhibits in their historic setting, look across the Manchester Ship Canal, and the mighty River Mersey, to the iconic Liverpool waterfront in the

distance and muse on what it must have been like when the tall ships sailed this way.

Mouth-watering as the above may be, there is still a little matter of the week ahead to be negotiated first, and there is no lack of opportunities to 'warm up' for the Easter weekend by attending a few gigs in the meantime.

This Friday (April 12) Soundbox continue their Chester music promotions with Gilmore & Roberts at The Lock Keeper, Canalside, Frodsham Street, Chester at 7.30pm. Phone 01244 342468 for tickets (£14) and more information. Alternatively, on the same evening, at Rhyl Folk Club, Tynewydd Community Centre, Coast Road, Rhyl the Anglo-Irish band, Wet the Tea, fresh from their EP launch in Chester recently, are the club's guests at 8pm. Admission is payable on the door.

The legend that is Tom Paxton has a mini tour of the UK starting with two gigs next weekend. I know people who would, literally, travel anywhere to see hm, and I count myself among there number, so, I will not restrict myself to local areas on this occasion. Tom is in Glasgow at the New Auditorium Concert Hall on Saturday (April 13) at 7.30pm and at The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendall, Cumbria on Sunday (April 14) at 7. 30pm.He will be accompanied on this tour by The Donjuans (Don Henry and Jon Vezner) adding their own material as well as accompaniment to Tom's songs. I was lucky to catch Tom on his last solo tour of the UK a couple of years ago, in Shrewsbury, when he swore that he "was done touring!" However, you can't keep a good man down and, believe me, he is still one of the best. Phone the various box offices for tickets.

This coming week, The Dragon's Breath Llanfynydd Folk Club, now held at Treuddyn Village Hall, near Mold have the Chester singer and guitarist (and one of the leading movers behind the Soundbox series of folk/acoustic concerts in Chester) Rose Price as their guest. Rose was always a precocious talent, even at the age of 15, when I first met her, and that talent has grown over the 40 years or so in between to make her a very fine singer, guitarist and performer. Go along and enjoy.

On Thursday (April 18) at 8.15pm Wrexham Folk & Acoustic Club, The Nag's Head, Mount Street, Wrexham hold another, ever-popular, Singers' Night, hosted by resident band, Offa, with all welcome to go along and play, sing, or just listen.

Although I have already covered the 'big one' next weekend there are, as you might expect, other options, or even add-ons, in the form of the annual Folk Up The Moors Festival at The Sportsman's Arms on the Denbigh Moors (April 18-20), now in its 10th year, while the brilliant Tom Paxton continues his UK tour at Buxton on Saturday (April 20) and, finally, one of the best things to come out of Wrexham since the famous Lager Brewery closed, Trials of Cato, are performing at Ty Pawb on the Sunday (April 21) at 7.30pm. Ticket prices and availability vary so, if you plan to go to any of the above, phone the box offices or look at the relevant web/Facebook sites.

By D.C.M.