It was actually the middle of April before they finally got to work.
Kate and I had a dilemma, the marine engineering business that we’d chosen to do the work had turned out to consist of an elderly, retired, able seaman from the merchant navy – and a retired metalwork teacher who loved playing with boats – and they were the nicest people you could wish to meet!
Our only options were to either cancel the contract, and try to find somebody competent to do the job (but there weren’t any), or put up with it and hope for the best. We went with the latter option. Slowly, very slowly, the hatches were shortened.
After the oxy-acetylene cutting torch had done its job, the edges left were quite jagged and, although these would be hidden in the new structure, I just couldn’t bear to leave them that way, so I went around the whole thing with an angle grinder and tidied them.
After all, this was Bristol and so it had to be “Bristol Fashion”
At last, we were able to get on with building the new wheelhouse. The bottom half of the original was steel, the front of which was removed. This left the sides and back to serve a brace to strengthen the structure of the new one. We bolted the rear timbers of the new wheelhouse to the upright steel.
The old wheelhouse had had a removable roof, and the top half of the wheelhouse, along with the windows, folded down to enable the barge to go under bridges. This folding structure was made of mahogany which, initially, appeared to be in poor condition. But on closer inspection, it was only the varnish that was degraded: the timber beneath was sound. I dismantled it and stored it in the loft of our house for future use. The doors were both used as access from the gallery to the foc’sle and the cabin.
Incidentally, after 11 years, I finally got round to using that old mahogany and from it, made myself the studio easel and the drawing table/ work unit that I still use in my studio today. Even the brass-work was re-used.
When it came to actually building the new wheelhouse, one problem that we faced was how to find a vertical datum from which to work. It had to be at 90 degrees relative to the keel. But, as the barge sat in the water slightly stern down, a spirit level was of no use and nor was a plumb line; and, as the decks curved, I could not square off of them either. Even had I been able to, the movement of the barge, as she rocked, rendered both spirit levels and plumb lines useless. The problem was eventually solved by measuring the distance between the sides immediately under the deck-heads, and marking the bulkhead at the halfway point. Then doing the same just above the chine. I then fixed a timber to the bulkhead, bisecting these points and, using one corner of this as a datum, all measurements for the wheelhouse could be taken.
I cannot continue this narrative any further without a tribute to Kate.
All winter long she had worked beside me, out of doors in Bristol docks. I had worked outdoors on farms and building sites through many winters and this year was as cold as any.
Never once did she grumble, or flinch away from a wearisome task. Indeed, throughout, it was she that kept me going rather than the other way around. It was also she that poured oil on troubled waters, when I was getting so infuriated with the lack of progress that I was in danger of losing my temper and breaking heads. In so doing, she enabled the whole project to stay on track.
And all the while, she was gaining confidence. She had initially told me that she’d do anything except water and heights. The following photograph was taken on a barge, less than a year after that statement.
By May, the wheelhouse was pretty much finished and we were painting it. But there were still a few jobs on the steelwork that our “engineers” hadn’t finished.
The following month, Bristol Powerboat Races were due to take place, and part of our agreement with the City Council was that the Glevum would have to be moved from her mooring outside the Industrial Museum for the duration of the races. So we decided to stay alongside the workshop barge until the end of June. In this way, once we were on our mooring, we wouldn’t have to move again until the following year.
While we were finishing the wheelhouse, an incident took place that I’ll never forget. Having cut away the forward hatch, our two engineers, very much “men’s men”, who had never really taken Kate seriously (they would only ever discuss anything nautical or technical with me) had, for about two hours, been debating the best way to shift the hatch that they’d just cut off, across to their barge and thence ashore. Admittedly, it did weigh about one and a half hundredweight (81 kilos for any youngsters reading).
Eventually, Kate, exasperated by their lack of progress, elbowed them out of the way. She braced herself, lifted the hatch, carried it from the Glevum onto their barge and then around the deck and up the gang plank, where she put it down on the quayside. They were still staring in astonishment, when she came back and said to them,
“Do you think you can manage it from there on?”.
After that they treated her with a new respect.
After the Powerboat Races, we eventually got the Glevum back to her permanent mooring.
In our original plan, we had hoped to have the Glevum open as a gallery before now. In reality, although the outside looked almost finished, the inside was almost untouched.
We had to face up to the fact that we would not be open this summer.
To be continued.
Next post 16th August