Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Background To Why There's A New Blog (Part 1!)

For some years now we have owned our much loved 50 foot leisure narrow boat CHALICE. 
CHALICE on a recent trip.
She is neither a particularly modern boat, nor a particularly posh one, and, if we are completely honest, we were so keen to buy a boat when I took early retirement, that we rather jumped in, even though we could see that CHALICE was far from a perfect match to what we could only guess our needs to be at that stage.
When we have not been beset by family emergencies of one kind or another, (and last year there were a few!), we have alternated between making improvements to CHALICE to better suit our requirements and going off boating whenever the opportunity presents itself.

BILSTER & ANGEL my brothers' boats (Photo: Mike Fincher).
However, my interest in canals and canal boats extends back more than 40 years, and I have always had a strong interest in what are now called variously "historic narrow boats" or simply "working boats".  My brothers actually owned a pair of working boats back in the 1970s, which they regularly loaded with coal, and brought down to supply retail businesses operating from the canal-side. (Back then we are talking about bulk house coal, loose, shot in from lorries, not loading pre-bagged smokeless fuels, which is the norm now).

KERBAU, my old boat, claimed to be 1898 build.
Whilst I was not directly involved in this, I lived and breathed "old boats" and took on, and commenced a rebuild of a very ancient Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) day boat, already in the family.  This boat, whilst interesting in its own right, was an early pleasure boat conversion, where the iron and steel work had actually been done by an old working boatyard, Harris Brothers, (all hot riveted - not a weld in sight), but in a way that really limited what it was possible to do with the boat, (look at that "elegant" back end!).  I completely re-cabined the boat, in wood in something approaching traditional methods, but eventually the project foundered, and the boat was sold.

Some of the proceeds from KERBAU gave me the chance of a hire boating holiday, but after that I had no boat of my own.

SICKLE (photo by me in 1973)
However, at the time my brothers were working full length (71' 6") boats, I developed a fascination for examples of these that had been cut down to around 40 feet for purposes other than carrying.  Several had originally been converted to ice-breakers, but had in some cases already reached private ownership.  In fact I did a part time job at a local hire fleet, where to of these former ice-breakers had been converted into the hire boats of the day.

SICKLE towing large hopper (my photo, again 1973)
But our local BW section still also had two of these former ice-breakers in use as maintenance tugs, being used to haul around either the small work flats or large mud hoppers in use when lock maintenance, piling, or dredging work was being carried out.  I regularly looked at both "Big Northwich", ("Town class") RENTON, and "Middle Northwich", ("Star Class"), SICKLE, and thought how very much I would like to own one.  However such boats were rarely sold off, and when they did British waterways usually made it impossible for private owners to acquire them.

RENTON nearing her retirement from the BW maintenance fleet.
Over the years, both these tugs remained active on our local patch, although periodic "improvement" work on them by BW resulted in them losing some of their original looks, particularly as original cabin and engine room arrangements got replaced by something less original.

RENTON eventually found it's way to the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal trust.

But apparently when BW chose in 2000 to do a survey to ascertain the condition of SICKLE, they decided she was not fit for further service, and should be cut-up on-site.  The story goes that the men brought in to do this recognised her as a significant historic craft and refused to do it.

Sickle at the Braunston Historic Boat Show - June 2008
The story of what happened next is fully told elsewhere, but basically a decision was taken that she should become a "feature" in a car park at Sawley marina - a kind of very large and unusual flower bed!  A family called Parrott fought a battle that this should not happen, and after much campaigning were finally allowed to buy SICKLE for restoration.  Again that story is told elsewhere, but basically after five years of restoration and reconstruction SICKLE was refloated in a much rejuvenated state.

SICKLE's future was now secure, but attendance at events like the one pictured above increasingly made our minds turn to the fact that we would like to own an old boat of our own.  Plans started to hatch!

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