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

An Unpleasant Diversion.

 

When we first arrived in the docks with the Glevum, the previous autumn, we had got chatting with a recently retired couple who had just sold their newsagents’ shop. Their names were Sid and Margaret. They had lived in the flat above the business, but had decided to retire and live a less stressful life after Margaret had suffered a heart attack. They had, for some years, had a pleasure cruiser, the Lady Helen, in the docks and were now living on that, with all their belongings in storage.

Sid was very taken with the Glevum, and especially impressed with the space available on a barge of that size. After a month or two, they were talking of buying a barge and converting it into a bed and breakfast establishment with a restaurant, hardly a stress-free retirement!

We did our best to point out all the drawbacks and emphasised just how much work would be involved. It seemed that the more we tried to dissuade them from the idea, the more enthusiastic Sid became. A month or two later, they arrived in the docks aboard the Wilclair, the motor-barge I had looked at in Bude, which they had just bought from Peter Herbert. Sid’s plans were to build upwards and have two decks. In the hold would be the sleeping cabins whilst on the upper deck would be a restaurant and kitchen and, atop of all that, would be an open sundeck with chairs and tables where, in good weather, afternoon tea could be served. The whole design would be based on a Mississippi steamboat.

Their progress was far more rapid than ours as they had something which we lacked – ample capital. Sadly, to me at least, the result of their efforts was hideous. The Wilclair, as a coasting barge, had been a beautifully proportioned vessel. The Wilclair, after conversion to what a layman thought a Mississippi paddle boat should look like, was a visual nightmare.

But they were so enthusiastic.

One day in August, I was in our wheelhouse making some coffee. My gaze ran down the quayside and along the moored boats until I got to the Wilclair. I was horrified to see thick black smoke belching out of the hold. I shouted to Kate and we grabbed buckets and ran down the quayside to see if we could help. Sid was standing on the quay looking stricken. He explained that he’d been using the oxy-acetylene torch to cut some pieces out of the hatches above the hold and a spark must have set fire to their belongings. They had moved everything into the hold to save money on storage. He ran off to find the nearest phone and ring the fire brigade.

Our buckets had ropes tied to them, so I ran around to the far side of the barge where I could haul water up from the dock to throw onto the fire. Sid’s wife Margaret was round there too. In the billowing smoke, she was trying to untie the mooring ropes of their cruiser which was tied up alongside. She shouted to me that there were gas bottles down in the fire! I got her to tell me roughly where they were and concentrated my efforts in that general area.

After a while, I could see flames through the smoke, but very little else. Then I heard the welcome sound of the sirens of the approaching fire engines. Fearing that they’d lose the Lady Helen as well, I stopped throwing water in and told Margaret who, in the smoke, was still struggling  to untie the mooring ropes, to get aboard, I quickly cast her off and gave the Lady Helen a hefty shove. Then I resumed hurling buckets of water into the smoke as fast as I could haul hem up. Sid had explained to the Fire Officer about the gas bottles in the fire and I then heard his command,

“IF THERE IS ANYONE ON THE BOAT, GET OFF – NOW!”

They also started evacuating the whole area. I called through the smoke to Margaret to start the Lady Helen’s engines and moor her alongside the Glevum and, just above the crackling of the flames, heard her call back that she didn’t know how to! There was only one option. I left my buckets on deck and took a flying leap through the smoke. Luckily, the Lady Helen hadn’t drifted too far out and I managed to scramble aboard rather than land in the water. I got one engine running – the other wouldn’t start, but one was enough to bring her under control and I motored the quarter of a mile or so up the dock and tied up alongside the Glevum. Having been excluded from the area of the Wilclair, Kate and Sid were already there.

By now, the fire crews were getting things under control and the smoke was beginning to subside. We tried to comfort Sid and Margaret as best we could, at least there hadn’t been an explosion, things could have been worse – but we had to admit, not much worse. Amongst their possessions that had been destroyed were all of Margaret’s family heirlooms and photographs. Her forebears had had distinguished careers in India and, as well as the photographs, there had been letters, citations and medals from Maharajas. they were all gone.

I must have looked a pretty sight, I was black with smoke and soot and, as I had been wearing thick socks with sandals, I found that the toes had completely burned off the socks!

This incident made Kate and me aware that not all boat owners were the ‘brotherhood of water gypsies’ as they liked to portray themselves. Rather than helping, the other boat owners had simple moved their boats out of harm’s way, and then watched the action from a safe distance. The only other people who had actually tried to help were passers-by!

The following day, we walked down to the Wilclair and looked at the smoke-blackened remains. The fire crews had done a brilliant job in averting a much worse disaster, but the charred remains of burnt carpets, bedding and wood, slopping about in a foot or so of water from the fire hoses, was as depressing a sight as there could be. The smell was even worse.

In spite of everything, Sid and Margaret were determined not to be beaten and announced that they would carry on. As Kate and I just aren’t the sort of people that can turn our backs on friends in need, we put the Glevum project on hold and pitched in with them. In about a fortnight we had filled several skips with charred, sodden rubbish and scrubbed the soot-blackened inside. They were ready to start again. We were even further behind!

Writing this, after a gap of thirty years, has set me thinking about this event and, in retrospect, I find myself having to revise my opinions, both of the people who simply moved their boats to safety and of my own actions.

Had the Glevum been closer, and in physical danger, I realise that I would have probably acted in the same way. Similarly, my actions that day were, in reality, utterly stupid. I actually achieved very little and, had the fire brigade not arrived when they did, our story could so easily have ended there and then!

To be continued.

Next Post 30th August

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Finally back on our mooring, we still had to insulate, install an electrical system, cut and fit portholes along the hatch coamings and in the hull, put doors into the bulkheads, build a staircase, panel the sides and install a floor; and then decorate it all!

No, we would not be open this summer.

 

As we had already overrun our deadline (and our budget to date) it became even more crucial that we save money wherever possible. We needed more timber and, by a stroke of luck, I heard that Mardon’s Printworks, the huge building between Redcliffe and Temple Meads, was being demolished. I visited the site and there, my years in the construction industry stood me in good stead. I could speak the language! A quiet word with the demolition foreman, a subtle backhander, and I was given permission to help myself to whatever I wanted. In a day, I had dismantled enough stud partitioning to fulfill our requirements and even got a curved steel guard-rail which was just the right size and shape to serve as an anchor davit. It was hard work but, compared with the cost of new timber, the cash that it had cost me was almost negligible.

 

Brass portholes were going to cost a small fortune (£60+ each). We couldn’t afford them. Instead, I found a company that rolled steel section into any shape required. I ordered one inch “T” section mild steel, rolled into 9″ and 12″ diameter rings, the smaller for the hatch coamings, the larger for the hull. These gave me an outer flange that could be welded to the hatch coamings and hull and an inner flange to provide a rebate into which my glass would fit. These cost £1.80 each, but still needed to be fitted. 

The welded joints in the hatches, that took so long to get done, were already leaking every time there was heavy rain!

In desperation, I had a word with Bill, my local car repair man. He was too busy to take on the work, but he assured me that it was a reasonably straightforward job to cut and weld steel. He suggested I buy a cheap arc welder from Exchange and Mart. He said the mask and accessories that came with the welder, would be useless and should be replaced with good stuff, but that the unit itself should be perfectly adequate for our needs. He also offered to lend me the oxy-acetylene cutting gear that I would need.

One of the portholes in the foc'sle, awaiting glass

One of the portholes in the foc’sle, awaiting glass

He was as good as his word and brought it down to the barge in his truck. After ten minutes, practising under his supervision, he left me to it. It was actually not too difficult and before long I had all the portholes fitted. In my enthusiasm, I began welding stanchions, mast fittings, the anchor davit and so on, as well as welding over the hatch joins to stop them leaking. Compared with the techniques required to join two pieces of wood, joining metal seemed fairly straightforward.

 

Before we could get the floor laid, there was about two feet of rust either side of the keel, left by the water that we had so laboriously pumped out, that would have to be removed and painted. Working on it with scrapers and wire brushes seemed to take forever, but eventually the twenty feet at each end were done and floor laid there. Walking around in these finished sections was luxury after months of stepping from rib to rib. Unlike the outside, where I had had a clear run, inside we had to work between the ribs and it made for really slow going. By the time we started on the middle section, I decided we simply had to save some time, so I said said to Kate I’d finish getting the rust off with the angle grinder. It was bound to be much quicker.

While I got the extension cable and the angle grinder set up, Kate climbed up the ladder to make us a cup of coffee in the wheelhouse. I suppose I had been working for about two minutes when I heard Kate calling. The coffee was ready but, from the sound of urgency in her voice, I assumed there was something more serious going on. Looking up, I could see nothing. The angle grinder had been turning the rust into a fine powdered dust that filled the hold. It reminded me of the smogs from my childhood in London in the early 1950s, but much thicker. I had only cleaned about two square feet, but had generated so much dust that it took hours before we could see from one end of the hold to the other. The following photograph was taken about four hours later! So it was back to doing it the slow way.

 

A dusty job

A dusty job

To be continued.

Next post 23rd. August

 

 

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

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”

Tidying up the steelwork

Tidying up the steelwork

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 first real progress

The first real progress

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.

My easel

My easel

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.

Kate, working on the wheelhouse

Kate, working on the wheelhouse

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.

By May we were painting it

By May we were painting it

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).

The hatch and coaming that Kate lifted!

The hatch and coaming that Kate lifted!

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.

Getting back to our mooring

Getting back to our 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

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

The design for the new wheelhouse necessitated having the aft hatch coaming and part of the decks cut away, the sides shortened and then the aft coaming welded back onto the shortened sides. From what we had seen of work being done around the docks, there were so many ‘cowboys’ that John Wayne would have felt quite at home there. With the closing of the shipyard, there were very few people who had the experience of working on large steel vessels and this was before the David Abels yard had opened to take their place. Eventually, we chose one small company that seemed to know what they were doing and towed the boat to their yard.

It was now February and I hoped to be back on our mooring in two to three weeks. In order to save money, we had agreed to do all of the donkey-work and preparation needed, so that the “experts” only had to do the cutting and welding. In spite of the fact that we always had plenty of other work to do, the delays were almost intolerable. No matter how much we stressed the urgency of our situation, ‘manyana’ always seemed to be the order of the day.

Kate and I carried on working on other bits of the barge, anything to feel we were making some progress. The workshop of the company that was supposed to be doing the steelwork, was on a barge, moored near Junction Lock and Glevum was tied up alongside that. Very little work ever seemed to get done there; indeed, they seemed to run it more as a hobby than anything else. They had a resident ship’s cat, she was a pretty tortoiseshell called Brindle, who took a great shine to Kate and to the peanut butter and cucumber sandwiches that we ate most lunchtimes. Brindle would follow Kate about and settle down wherever she was working, sometimes even climbing onto her back when the job required her to bend over for any length of time!

Brindle's favourite seat

Brindle’s favourite seat

Another source of constant amusement, during those long winter months, was the chap who was teaching himself to wind surf. I have never seen anyone with such dogged persistence. Month after month, he would be practising most days. Never once did he stay on the board for more than five yards before he was back in the cold water of the docks. Then, one day in early April, Kate called out “He’s up and going!”

I turned to look, and sure enough, he was hurtling along, heading across the dock from the Cottage pub towards the sand wharf, on the other side of the dock. Unfortunately for him, that day was the first trip that spring for the Bristol Packet narrowboat, Redshank, which was coming down the dock, with a party of schoolchildren on board and moving at quite a speed. The helmsman sounded a warning blast of the horn and tried to take evasive action. Alas! All in vain!  Redshank was still going at almost full speed, when her bow hit the windsurfer’s board, right in the middle. The impact did nothing to slow the narrowboat and the poor chap, now back in the water, had to fend himself off the side, as Redshank continued down the dock with his mode of conveyance still wrapped around the bows, the sail trailing one side and the board the other.

We never saw him again.

They say “Everything comes to he who waits” and – at last – the work that we’d been waiting for finally got started, albeit at a snail’s pace. Seeing the first metal being cut away served to lift my spirits. It may have been slow, but it was progress.

Sparks start to fly

Sparks start to fly


To be continued. Next post 9th August

 

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

With power connected, it was time to start work in earnest. I had now drawn up detailed plans for the reconstruction of the wheelhouse and this was to be much larger than the original, to allow for a covered stairway down to the gallery, but I did not want it to look out of place. In the hold, we rigged a couple of six-foot fluorescent lights from the hatches.

By one of those quirks of nautical terminology, the wooden floor of the hold was called the ceiling. This was made from planks of Douglas pine, two inches thick, twelve inches wide and twelve to sixteen feet long, each bolted to the ribs of the barge. These allowed the grain to be lifted out from a smooth surface by the mechanical extractor at the flour-mills in Gloucester Docks. Sanded and polished, it would have made a lovely floor, but several planks were badly damaged and the cost of replacing them, quickly put paid to that idea. It would be far too expensive. Still, all that lovely timber was a resource not to be overlooked.

As the planks were still very wet, we unbolted most of them, stacked them as if for seasoning and hired a dehumidifier, which we set running in the hold. I was amazed at how efficient this turned out to be. Twice a day, I had to empty a two-gallon bucket that the machine had filled!

While we were waiting for  the stacked timber to dry, I drew up a detailed cutting list and we bought a small, portable Elu circular saw. This seemed tiny for the job in hand, but I knew from previous experience that these were some of the best saws on the market and not too expensive. The only problem was, that the lengths of timber we had to cut would be far too heavy for the lightweight saw bench. To cope with this, I made two wooden trestles, each with a steel roller on top. With one of these positioned at each end of the saw to take the weight of the plank, we hoped the problem would be solved.

A roller support is on the left

A roller support is on the left

After about four days, the dehumidifier had done the job and very little water was now being extracted; it was time to start cutting. We had left  some of the planks down to provide a stable working surface, we set the saw and the rollers up on these and found, to our relief, that the system worked.

However, our first day cutting was awful. It was, by now, December, gales had blown up and we were freezing cold. The inside of the hold was dark and gloomy and, in the wind, the boat was rocking quite a bit. This made it difficult to keep an even feed on the planks as they went through the saw, but far worse, the lights were swinging back and forth, causing the shadows to swing crazily about and making it very difficult to balance. By the end of the day we both felt very ill.

Next morning, my first job was to fasten the lights tight against the hatches. This stopped them swinging around and made things much easier. We found that the rocking was not too much of a problem, now that all the shadows were keeping still. At the end of the day we had quite a nice stack of 4″ X 2″ timbers to show for our efforts. After this we cut 3″ X 2″ and then 2″ X 2″. Finally, Kate cut down even the smallest battens.

Kate, cutting down batons

Kate, cutting down batons

In a couple of days all the wood we needed for the wheelhouse was cut. The planks that I had left down as a working platform, we would eventually use to make the stringers and treads for the stairs.

Now we were faced with the hardest decision yet, not least because it meant spending some real money. Who could we get to do the steel cutting and welding?

To be continued.

Next post 2nd August.

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

An Art Gallery on a Boat? You must be Mad! Part five

 

Avonmouth to Bristol

 

06.30 Avonmouth Docks

06.30 Avonmouth Docks

For the trip up into Bristol City Docks, John and I had been joined by my eldest son, Rob, and friends, Martin, a Bristolian artist and Wil, from Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, who had arrived the previous evening to visit us. For this trip, we tied the barges abreast.

Peter at the wheel as we leave Avonmouth

Peter at the wheel as we leave Avonmouth

As we locked out of the Royal Edward Dock, I looked back at the shipping in the port and thought about the old days that Peter had talked of, when you could walk from one side of the dock to the other across the decks of the barges and lighters. So few were now left. Still, here was one that would be saved from the breakers torch.

John and Rob enjoying the view

John and Rob enjoying the view

As we passed the village of Pill, once the base for most of the Bristol Channel pilots, the day grew brighter. In Hung Road, the Bristol based, Naval Auxiliary minesweeper passed us, on her way to sea. Bob the engineer, who was on deck, pulled his greasy cap sideways and gave them a crooked salute, they loftily ignored us.

They loftily ignored us

They loftily ignored us

The faithful old sand dredger, Harry Brown, was next down, but the waves and greetings we got from the crew were much more encouraging. They, at least, seemed to really appreciate the sight of two working barges heading toward the City Docks after so many years, no matter how rusty and neglected they looked.

The Harry Brown

The Harry Brown

We rounded Horseshoe Bend and chugged past the old Roman harbour of Abona, at Sea Mills, then the magnificent sight of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, majestically spanning the Avon Gorge, greeted us, as it had greeted so many generations of seamen before us.Clifton Suspension Bridge

A magnificent sight

A magnificent sight

Arriving in Bristol by boat is an experience like no other. The Avon Gorge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge look imposing from a car on the Portway, but from a boat in the middle of the river, the grandeur is magnified by the central viewpoint.

Into the Cumberland Basin

Into the Cumberland Basin

 

In through the locks and we had arrived. We moored in the Cumberland Basin and were joined by Kate and Martin’s wife, Sue with their children. A bottle of champagne was popped to celebrate a successful conclusion to the first stage of our project.

Bubbly for Breakfast

Bubbly for Breakfast

All we had to do now was turn this one hundred and fifty tons of rusting steel into an art gallery – no problem!

An Art Gallery On a Boat Part Four

Out onto the Severn

On the Sunday morning at 7.00.  I was back in Sharpness for the next stage of our trip. With me were John and my youngest son, Adam.

A chill morning in Sharpness

A chill morning in Sharpness

The barges were locked out and, the moment we were clear of the outer lock gates, Peter put the helm hard a’port. It looked for all the world, as though he intended to ram the southern pier but at the last minute, he whirled the Nancy’s wheel and put the helm hard a’starboard. Her bows swept round, almost touching the stonework, Peter gunned the engine and we surged forward. The reason for his seemingly erratic manoeuvres soon became apparent. As we cleared the southern pier, the surging tide caught us and we were carried rapidly sideways and upstream. In no time at all, we had been swept across the basin and, as the barges steadied and started to make headway, the stern of the Glevum missed the north pier by about three feet. I imagined the situation if we’d had a less experienced skipper than Peter, then quickly decided to think of something else.
Our trip down to Avonmouth was entirely uneventful, a soft mist robbed the scene of colour and contrast but did not impair visibility too much for safety.

Out on the Severn

Out on the Severn

There was no wind and the water was a featureless stretch of grey, almost unbroken save for our wake.

Approaching the Severn Bridge

Approaching the Severn Bridge

 

And Under

And Under

Even in the Shoots, there was no sign of the turbulence that boils and bubbles through that dangerous, narrow channel in the rocks on an ebb tide. A few weeks previously, it had been a very different scene. On that occasion, as we had passed down through the Shoots on a rapidly falling tide, the whole hull of the lighter I was on, was twisting in the turbulence. The channel had resembled white water rapids, or would have done if the Severn were ever white. But today, there was scarcely a ripple.

Nancy and Glevum approaching the locks at Avonmouth

Nancy and Glevum approaching the locks at Avonmouth

The huge lock, into Royal the Edward Dock, at Avonmouth, was quite exciting, the barges were dwarfed by the enormous capacity of the lock. It was built to accommodate the largest of cargo and passenger ships but our barges were the only vessels to lock in on that tide. As the great sluices filled the lock, the barges bobbed around like corks and it was something of a relief when the lock was filled and the turbulence subsided.

Nancy and Glevum chugged through the docks, tiny against the massive cargo vessels that lined the quays, they looked like, and were, something from the pages of history.

Something from the pages of history

Something from the pages of history

After mooring up securely, we had a welcome cuppa. Peter and Bob, his engineer, reminisced of the days when you could cross from one side of the dock to the other on the decks of the barges and lighters. Today, Nancy and Glevum were the only barges to be seen.

 

To be continued.

 

Next post 12th July

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

Gloucester to Sharpness

A month after buying the barge, here we were, watching the canal banks slip past and all was well. At least, all was well until the outskirts of Gloucester where, in the middle of a fishing competition, the long neglected engine of the Nancy spluttered and died.
There was utter silence, both on the decks of the barges and the banks of the canal, as slowly the boats lost steerage and started to jack-knife across the canal. The silence was suddenly broken by the cries and swearing of the anglers, as first the bows of one barge and then the stern of the other, started to tangle their lines and tear their keep nets out of the bank. But their oaths sounded as innocent as a child’s prayer when compared to the torrents of invective that poured from the mouth of Peter, as he expressed his opinions concerning those that had nothing better to do with their time than sit on their arses, watching a canal all day.

As Peter rants, Kate and Mo try to keep straight faces.

As Peter rants, Kate and Mo try to keep straight faces.

As Peter disappeared down into Nancy’s engine room to sort things out, Kate, ever practical and diplomatic, suggested to the anglers that if they would like to take a line from the bows, they could pull the barges straight and sort out their lines. At this they did a remarkable impression of being deaf: I’m sure some of them actually whistled at the sky! In any case it shut them up, and in a minute or two the engine coughed back into life and we resumed our progress.
There is not really that much to tell of the rest of that day, other than it was a day full of dreamy memories of the Gloucestershire countryside, bathed in gentle autumn light for which there are, really, no adequate words.

We had one more moment of excitement when, just before Saul Junction, the engine died again and once more, the barges swung across the canal. As the fuel blockage was being cleared, we saw a danger approaching that was far more threatening than angry anglers! One of the tankers which served the oil depot at Quedgley, was approaching at quite a speed.

A cause for concern

A cause for concern

As I went forward to warn Peter, the engine once more spluttered and coughed into life. He emerged from the engine room, cast an eye at the approaching tanker, unhurriedly took the wheel and straightened us out. To me, it seemed like a close thing, for the barges were barely against the bank before the tanker was sweeping past. I was also a little concerned at the thought of locking onto the Severn and making the trip to Avonmouth the following day. But, after a stop for some more maintenance at Saul, the engine did not miss another beat all the way to Sharpness.
The afternoon sun was westering as we passed through the swing-bridge at Purton and glided along the final straight stretch of canal before Sharpness. Wide vistas opened up of the Severn which, here, runs alongside the canal. The banks of the river are strewn with the hulks of old barges and coasters, scuttled here at the end of their working lives to help to protect the riverbank from erosion.

Halfway down this stretch stand the mournful remains of the old Severn railway bridge, destroyed in the early sixties when a couple of tankers, which had collided in the fog off Sharpness and caught fire, drifted up and destroyed the bridge.

In Sharpness docks

In Sharpness docks

After the rural idyll that was the canal, Sharpness came as something of a shock. On a Saturday afternoon in November, the docks were deserted, but apparently, so was the town. It was like a ghost town, not a living soul stirring. We needed a taxi to get us back to Gloucester to retrieve our car and eventually found a telephone box opposite the (closed) Post Office and general store.

As luck would have it, a taxi firm had left their card inside. When we got through, we were informed that they only had two cars, one was broken down at the garage and the other was doing a wedding and would not be back until late evening. Next, we found a card in the shop window and tried that number for about an hour – and still there was no reply. This was, of course, long before the advent of talking pages and mobile phones and there were no telephone directories in the call box. We were beginning to wonder if we would end up stranded, when the owner of the post office arrived home. She apologised for not having taken the taxi advert out of the window when the firm had closed down, two years previously. But at least she was able to give us the number of a cab firm in Gloucester, who sent a car to pick us up.

 

To be continued.

 

Next post 5th July

 

 

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

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.

The Glevum in Gloucester Docks

The Glevum in Gloucester Docks

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.

150 tons of rusting steel

150 tons of rusting steel

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