BUYING A BARGE
November 1983, at last our project was under way, we were the proud owners of 150 tons of rusting steel, but now it was 150 tons of rusting steel which not only floated but moved. Our plan was to turn her into a studio and gallery in Bristol.
There were many diverse influences and ideas that had brought us to this point. Long evenings with friends around the campfire, dreaming of narrow boats and a life producing and selling paintings around the waterways was a favourite, but one which always died a death when we faced up to the practical implications of sharing a narrow boat with two teenage sons. Also, I had few illusions as to my ability to provide a consistent income from my painting alone. Eventually our ideas had coalesced into a plan to find a suitable lighter, estuary barge or coaster and secure a mooring in Bristol, where the redevelopment of the city docks was underway. Here we would convert it into a studio and gallery. The gallery would not only give me the means of selling my work but would also supplement my income by selling other artist’s work as well.
It was strange that as our ideas came into focus, so the means of carrying them out seemed to present itself. One by one, the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place. While were still in the exploratory stage I was in heaven, searching out boats and barges in secluded docks, creeks and backwaters and then having an excuse to crawl all over them. When I met Peter Herbert in Bude, he was painting the side of a splendid sea-going motor barge and chatting to another man who was watching. I knew of Peter by reputation and was seeking him out but he didn’t know that. As I approached, he turned to his companion and said,
“This man’s come to buy a boat from me”.
I was staggered, I knew no one in Bude and had spoken to nobody of my intentions. I realised that I was dealing with a man who was canny in more than just the ways of the sea.
We talked for a while and he showed me over the Wilclair, the barge he had been painting. It was a splendid vessel but I knew that the price would be way out of my range. He told me that the barge was built as the Severn Trader in the 1930s by Charles Hill & and Sons in Bristol. He also had a couple of old steam coasters moored on the canal but, when I looked in their holds, they were much to deep and boxlike for my purposes. It seemed that at one time or another, Peter had owned half the coasters that had ever plied the Bristol Channel. He bought them towards the end of their working lives and then made the best living he could from them in their last years. When he realised how passionate was my interest in these ships, we went to his house where he showed me his photograph albums and we chatted for hours, or rather he did. I just listened, entranced. Eventually, pleasure had to give way to business and, as I had suspected, the Wilclair was way beyond my budget. But he then told me of an old grain barge he owned which was lying in Victoria Dock in Gloucester and invited me to look it over and see what I thought.
Two days later I was in Gloucester looking at the rusty barge; the outside appearance was not exactly prepossessing but at least it was hatched and had a small wheelhouse. I knocked out some wedges, pulled back the old tarpaulins and removed a couple of hatch boards. Inside a ladder disappeared down into the gloom. I descended into the hold and shone my torch around – it was perfect. The shape of the hold might well have been designed as a gallery!
That night we came to a firm decision and I rang Peter. He came to see us later that week and the deal was struck.
We now owned all sixty-four shares in the grain barge Glevum, still a registered vessel in the British merchant fleet.
To be continued.
Next post 28th June