In 1984, my wife, Kate and I opened a gallery on the grain barge ‘Glevum’ in Bristol City Docks.
“An art gallery on a boat? You must be mad!” was the most common reaction when we had told people of our plans.
What follows is the story of how it came about.
BY BARGE TO BRISTOL
A Shaky Start
The soft autumn colours were lit by gentle November sunshine as the banks of the Gloucester-Sharpness canal slipped past on either side. We sat on the hatches of the Glevum, a 150ton grain barge, at present being towed by the Nancy, a motor barge of similar dimensions. At the helm of the Nancy was Peter Herbert, a silver haired Cornish skipper and ship owner, who had gone to sea on ketches in the nineteen thirties and had rarely had his feet on dry land for any length of time since. The scene was calm and serene, but this was in complete contrast to our eventful embarkation in Gloucester Docks some fifteen minutes earlier.
Part of the deal Kate and I had struck with Peter, when we had bought the Glevum from him a month or so previously, included a tow to Bristol. Peter had bought the Nancy in Gloucester a few weeks earlier and, as the engine had not been run for twelve or more years, there were a few mechanical problems to be sorted out, hence the delay. For weeks we had been awaiting news of when the barges would set out for Bristol. This period of inactivity was, for me, almost unbearable. At last, the previous evening, had come the call I’d been waiting for. There was just one problem, or rather there were three problems. The first was the telephone line, which was appalling. The second was that the phone box from which Peter was calling, appeared to be adjacent to the Gloucester ring road and it was rush hour, the third was Peter’s thick Cornish accent. After bellowing at each other for five minutes, I eventually managed to glean the information that the barges would be leaving Gloucester at a quarter past ten the following morning, Saturday, November 5th 1983. I immediately called our friends John and Mo, as they were to accompany us and made arrangements to pick them up the following morning.
We arrived in Gloucester docks at five past ten and drove round to the Victoria Dock. Had this been a cartoon there would have been little lines all around the berth where the barges had been moored, as it was there was just an awful emptiness. John suggested that they may well have moved into the main basin and so we sped off around the docks to see if we could find them, we eventually saw the barges in the middle of the main basin, waiting for Llanthony Bridge to open. I hailed Peter who yelled back,
“Where’s thee bin? I told ee we wuz sailin at a quarter to ten”. Then he had an idea, “Jump on as we go under the bridge”.
I ran back, parked the car and rejoined the others. Kate, having found the nearby dock gates locked, was climbing over them when the bridge keeper came out and started scolding her like a naughty child. He was the archetypical “Jobsworth” and made her get back down (on the wrong side) and refused to unlock the gates for us, forcing us to return to the main entrance (nearly a quarter of a mile) and then back down the road. We saved some time by driving back to the main gates and parking near them. Even so, by the time we had got back to the bridge, the barges were through.
Peter brought the Nancy close alongside the quay which, at this point, was only a foot or so above the canal. Glevum, close coupled to Nancy’s stern, obediently followed and as she slowly passed, her deck was some four feet up from the quay. We jumped up one by one, John went first, then Mo. By now the strip of water between the moving side of the barge and the quay was widening so I urged Kate to jump quickly. She wanted me to go so as to be able to catch and help her up onto the deck. There was no time to be lost so I leaped, caught a stanchion and hauled myself aboard. Standing up, I called to Kate to jump but I could see the gap was now at least four feet and with the deck of the barge five feet above the water, it was quite a jump. Kate’s nerve failed her.
“Throw me the car keys” she called, “I’ll wait in the car”
I pointed out we might not be back till late evening and this stirred her. As someone who had always been terrified of both heights and water it was a stunningly brave act. She sailed across the water and hit the side of the barge full force. Her hands grabbed the gunwale and she got her right foot onto the deck – then it slipped off again and we moved off down the canal with Kate hanging from the bows of the Glevum, her feet only inches from the water. John and I grabbed a wrist each and with a heave, pulled her up to join the rest of us on deck. She was shaken and bruised but there were no bones broken and a cup of steaming coffee from the flask and the November sunshine soon cheered her up.
To be continued.
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