An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Six

At last, in November 1983, we had the Glevum in Bristol and all our plans could now be put into practice. In truth, most of them had still to be made. It may seem a bit strange that we had made such a commitment without a detailed plan of the work involved but, until I had the Glevum in Bristol, it was difficult to imagine all the processes that would be involved.

Above all, everything we did had to be the most economical option available, we had started with a budget of less than £10,000 and the purchase of the Glevum had already cost more than a quarter of that. We had the small plan shown below, but as far as we could ascertain, this was the only paperwork on the Glevum that was still in existence.

The Glevum plans, as built

The Glevum plans, as built

My trade of carpenter and joiner were to stand me in good stead, but I had no experience of working with steel. Under the rust, Glevum was sound as a bell. A tribute, not only to the shipyard that built her, but also to the time in which she was built. Her steel plating was massive in comparison with that on some barges built a decade later. Whilst looking for a suitable vessel, I had inspected many, and, by the early eighties, most of the newer barges were in pretty poor condition. In the mid 1950s, they were still building them to last.

The day after we arrived, we decided that the first job was to pump out the hold. In the years she had lain idle in Gloucester Docks, the tarpaulins covering the hatches had become leaky, with the result that there was about two feet of water slopping about in the bilges either side of the keel.

During the journey to Bristol, I had been exploring the cabin in the after peak. It was accessed by lifting a watertight hatch in the corner of the wheelhouse and climbing down down a vertical companionway. Although gloomy and neglected, the layout was almost identical to that of an old ketch or schooner. Seating ran down both sides with folding bunks above. In the middle of the cabin was a free-standing table with lift up sides for use in rough weather. It was made from such huge baulks of wood, it looked as though it could have taken the weight of the barge. An old cast-iron stove, with a small oven and hot plates on top, stood against the bulkhead that divided the cabin from the hold. Against the bulkhead in each corner was a locker and it was in one of these that I found the original hand pump -and the leather valve on the pump had appeared to be in workable condition!

Kate and I decided to test the old pump to see if it could still draw up water. We located the pivot rod into the recess beside the pump pipe, primed it with a gallon or so of water from the dock, and started pumping. For such a primitive system it was remarkably effective, each stroke of the pump drew up at least a half a gallon of water. At this rate, I thought, we should have her dry in an hour or so.

We took turn and turn about on the pump. After about two hours, the water was still gushing over the deck and down into the dock. We were loath to stop, as priming the pump again meant pouring more water in! So we doggedly pumped on, and on, and on. Having started pumping at about half past ten in the morning, by four o’clock in the afternoon I was getting seriously worried. Were we leaking? I was sure that the barge was sound, but the hold was only sixty feet long and surely we should be dry by now!

Just as I was about to give up, two things happened. The first was that the ferry went past, and as we started to rock in its wake, the pump faltered and made a sucking, gurgling sound which vaguely resembled someone sucking the last drops from a bottle through a straw: it was music to my ears. The second was the arrival of the tender from the restored ketch Irene. A crew member hailed us and asked if we would like to borrow their motorised pump!

After a couple of days at our temporary mooring in St Augustine’s Reach, we moved the Glevum to her permanent mooring on Prince’s Wharf. Here, we had access to the quayside electricity points and I was anxious for some real work to begin.

First, however, I decided to take on one more job that required no power. I wanted the Glevum to be accepted in the docks and, in her neglected state, she looked a sad sight. So I hired a pontoon and made a start on scraping and wire brushing the rust and painting the hull with pitch.

We had entered into a very cold and frosty spell of weather and, working at water-level, it was a grim task. Scraping and wire brushing the rust was bad enough, I had soon taken the skin from every knuckle, but worse still, was trying to apply pitch to freezing cold steel. Although it was reasonably liquid in the drum, as soon as the laden brush touched the freezing metal, the pitch would stiffen to something like the consistency of putty.

During the repetitive work, I pondered how the finished conversion should look. In the evenings, after a  a shower and a hot meal, I would sit at my drawing board and put the day’s thoughts down on paper.

My drawings for the conversion

My drawings for the conversion

In all, scraping and painting the hull took over a week and used ten, five-gallon drums of pitch, but I now knew every plate of the Glevum’s hull – intimately. (Incidentally, the next time I tackled this job, it was in the middle of summer and, in the warm weather, I only needed one and a half drums to cover the same area).

A grim task - before and after

A grim task – before and after

As soon as the hull was finished, I scraped and wire brushed the forward bulwarks and painted them white, then painted the name in black letters. When this was finished, she looked like a different vessel, so it had been a worthwhile exercise.

To be continued

Next post 26th July

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