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

With the paperwork in our possession,  we knew the date of Glevum’s launch – 25th. of September, 1955. So, on 25th. September ,1985, we had a thirtieth birthday party on board and it launched our “New Direction” series of exhibitions.

A few days later we opened an exhibition of local landscape artists, “Trees and Woodlands”. Sales were reasonable and,  at the end of October we hung a new exhibition of marine paintings, sales from which were also encouraging.

In November, Ken Lush had a photographic exhibition of railway photographs to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the GWR and a fortnight later, Wolf at the Door, a Cornish craft cooperative had hired the gallery for a fortnight. Finally, before Christmas, we opened an exhibition called “This is Bristol” featuring paintings of the city by local artists, it was a great success and we continued it through January.

By this time a dependable core of artists and craftspeople were regularly exhibiting with us .But there were others with whom it was not always a smooth ride. So many artists who came to us had had bad experiences with galleries in the past and many brought quite hostile preconceptions that we were only there to ‘rip them off’. We always tried to reassure them that as an artist I understood their problems and that we wanted the Glevum to be run with the artists best interests as our main priority.

It is gratifying that so many of those artists are still close friends to this day.

That winter was bitterly cold, and there was frequently ice from side to side of the docks in the mornings. But we had our own defence against the cold. In the gallery, we had a free standing, cast iron stove that a friend had found in pieces, rusting in an old shed on a farm. I bought it from him for a few pounds. When reassembled, it was circular, about a foot in diameter and about four feet tall. With the rust scraped and brushed off and freshly burnished with stove blacking, it looked resplendent. The blacksmith in the Underfall Yard, Ray Davis, made us a firebox for it and we mounted the stove on a concrete paving slab. It was situated over the starboard chine, under the wheelhouse. The flue ran up through the wheelhouse floor and then along just above the floor, under my work-desk before turning ninety degrees, up  the back of the wheelhouse to emerge to the outside just below the roof, so the flue also heated the wheelhouse for me as efficiently as the stove heated the gallery. Old it may have been, the stove was remarkably efficient, it had originally been made in Denmark by a company called Rasmussen.

I would light it first thing in the morning and, within half an hour, both the gallery and wheelhouse would be snug and warm, even on the coldest days. The stove had an iron fire-box door on hinges that allowed access to the fire-box and I found that by lunchtime, the stove would be so hot that I could make ‘two second toast’. When the fire-door was opened, thick, hand cut slices of bread, on a toasting fork, took just one second per side to brown. I discovered that the faster bread toasts, the better it tastes!

In March we had an exhibition of the remarkable work of the equally remarkable Cedric Reeves.

Ceddy, was one of the most eccentric, Quixotic, colourful and loveable characters in Bristol Docks in those days. Curator of the Lifeboat Museum, sailor, artist, woodcarver and ship’s figurehead maker; an enormous, blustering bear of a man with a round face, a bushy beard and brown hair that usually looked as though he’d cut it himself with one of his woodcarving chisels. Piercing grey blue eyes looked out from under his bristling  eyebrows. After a fall from the rigging of a sailing ship, he had been left paralysed from the waist down and got about with the aid of either a wheelchair or crutches. Not that a ‘mere trifle’ like that was going to stop Ceddy. He continued to sail, hauling himself up the rigging by sheer brute strength and determination.

Ceddy didn’t suffer fools gladly but sadly, was far to straightforward and honest to stand a chance against all the egos and political infighting that took place amongst the Trustees that eventually, in 1994, led to the Museum’s closure. A slap in the face for the people who had really given so much of themselves to make the project work and a great loss for the City Docks and the People of Bristol.

But, on March 7th 1986 we opened an exhibition of Cedric’s painting and woodcarving to great acclaim. His work was greatly admired as attested to by the comments in our visitors book. We sold a reasonable number of his works.

In May We opened  our first One Man Show by George Cutter, A landscape artist who mainly painted in pastel and watercolour and who specialised in pictures of the Somerset Levels and of his hometown, Bristol. George was to become a mainstay of the gallery and he and his wife June are, to this day, two of our dearest friends.

Georges exhibition was a success and summer was coming again and, perhaps this time, we would see a little more income from our many enthusiastic visitors.

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

A break, occasioned by a cluster of migraines and the onset of winter, has allowed me to tidy up my studio and, whilst so doing,  I unearthed the Glevum’s visitors’ book. It makes interesting reading but it proves that my memory, like most peoples’, is distinctly fallible.

During the winter of 1984/5, or to be more precise, from the beginning of November until the beginning of April, that I wrote about in the last blog, there are ten pages of names and addresses in our visitors’ book, so it was not quite as deserted as I had remembered it. A lot of my recollections are probably based on the fact that our visitors were mostly at at weekends but during the week I often saw nobody all day. Between the beginning of April and the end of September, forty three pages were filled! There are twenty-seven lines per page but, as on some pages people have left occasional gaps, I have estimated that, at twenty-five signatures per page, forty pages must contain about one thousand signatures. Since far from all the visitors even signed the book, we certainly did not want for numbers.

A gentleman from Bath wrote in the comments column “You should charge admission.”

Perhaps he was right.

Before I continue from where the last blog left off, I must mention a very strange thing that happened that summer.

We had been told by the Industrial Museum staff that no paperwork had survived from the Albion Dockyard. When the site was cleared by the council workers, all the plans, letters, models and everything had been burnt! As an act of shortsighted vandalism it beggars belief. The historical value of the information destroyed is incalculable. John and Michael Hill confirmed this when I spoke to them at our opening.

However, that’s what had happened, and the only bit of the Glevum’s history that was left, was the half-hull model that the Industrial Museum had loaned us.

One day a chap came on board and had a look around at the exhibition. Then he came to me at the desk and said that he thought he had some builders’ plans and documents for the Glevum. I explained what I’d been told and said I thought he must be mistaken, but he was adamant, and said that it was for a barge with the yard number 404.

Well, that was certainly the Glevum!

A few days later he came back and laid a large manila folder on the desk and invited me to take a look.

Inside were sets of plans and dozens of letters between Reynolds Flour Mills in Gloucester and Charles Hill and Sons in Bristol covering every aspect and detail of the building of Glevum, as well as all the correspondence with the registry of British Merchant Shipping, Customs and Excise and all the other various officialdom that have an interest in such matters!

I was astonished and asked how he’d come by them. He told me he had worked for a time at Avonmouth and that some time after Jefferies Ship Repairers  closed down, he was told to clear out a building in which they’d dumped all their paperwork. Apparently most of it was very badly damaged. Not only had the roof leaked and rats nested in the piles of old files and folders, but somebody had driven their car onto it and let their oil drain out so that all the paperwork would soak it up!

Only three files had survived, one for the lock gates at Porlock Weir, one for a boom and, the only file relating to a boat, one of grain barge No 404. He had taken them home and put them in his cupboard and they had lain there ever since!

I was astonished. Why should the Glevum’s papers have survived? Why was the paperwork in Avonmouth at all?

I asked if he’d mind if I made copies of the papers. But he said he had no interest in them and insisted I should have them.

They made fascinating reading. From the first letter from Reynolds to Charles Hill, saying that they wanted a steel barge to be built to replace the Fanny Jane, a dismasted ketch that they used as a grain barge, right through to the launch of the Glevum and how she handled in her sea trials. A few modifications were made but in general she was an excellent craft.

They also revealed that part way through her design process, Reynolds had decided that, at some time in the future they might like to convert her to a motor barge,  and so the design of the stern was changed to facilitate this.

There was a second batch of correspondence from 1959 concerning Glevum’s conversion to a motor barge. The job was to be done by Jefferies Ship Repairers in Avonmouth, by now a subsidiary of Charles Hill and the letters actually mentioned the paperwork being sent there. But Reynolds changed their minds and the Glevum stayed a dumb barge. The paperwork was never returned and hence,  had not only survived, but by a very circuitous route and many coincidences, had ended up reunited with the Glevum.

To be continued

 

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

Christmas had come and gone and, during the winter months of 1985, we had very few visitors to the Glevum. In spite of that, our hopes for the summer were high. The Queen was to visit Bristol that summer to perform the opening ceremony of the Maritime Heritage Centre and the City Council had asked us to mount an exhibition of marine paintings for the occasion. We readily agreed; it would certainly help raise our public profile and we were anxious to be seen as an asset to Bristol’s harbourside attractions.

In early spring all the plans received a setback when The National Maritime Museum cancelled its decision to expand to Bristol. Margaret Thatcher’s government had drastically cut funding for all museums and announced that the shortfall would be made up by the introduction of admission fees to the museums and galleries. Under such circumstances The National Maritime Museum had very little choice but to cut back on all planned expansion.

The Glevum was moored at Princes Wharf, outside the Bristol Industrial Museum, and we had developed a close working relationship with the staff. Amongst their collection, they had the builder’s half-hull model of the barge, and they had loaned it to us for display in the gallery. The assistant curator of the museum was Andy King. A young man who was full of energy, and that spring he needed to be. With the change of plans for the Maritime Heritage Centre, the council went into a panic. They still had the Queen coming to open it and somebody had to make sure there was something for her to open that was worthy of the occasion. The entire project was dropped into Andy’s lap and he was told that it had to be ready in three months! He had no budget.

The National Maritime Museum weren’t the only ones feeling the financial pinch that spring. Kate and I had virtually run out of money. We talked it over and realised that for the time being at least, the gallery could not keep two of us. Our intention had been for Kate to run the gallery while I painted the stock. Kate said she would look for other work and in March she got a job with an insurance company. At the same time we found that Ian, one of the many dockside characters, was looking for lodgings. As both the boys had now left home, we talked it over and decided to offer him a room at our house. This at least should tide us through until the summer trade started.

In the next three months, Andy King and his staff worked miracles in the Maritime Heritage Centre, filling it with displays from their collection which luckily, contained far more exhibits than they had room to display in the main museum. The centrepiece was a mock-up of one of Brunel’s early steam dredgers, assembled around its original engine. We prepared for the Queen’s visit and organised a stunning marine exhibition, with the work of many local marine artists.

Thinking back, I can still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as, on the day before the visit, having spent most of the day down in the gallery, unpacking paintings and hanging the exhibition, I came up on to the deck for a breath of air – only to find a steel security barrier had been erected along the quayside and completely cut us off! I was furious; but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The following day the crowds arrived and then a procession of boats carried the Royal Party from St. Augustine’s Reach, by Neptune’s Statue, down the dock to the landing stage at the Maritime Heritage Centre where the ceremony took place. I watched from the Glevum, it was galling to see the throngs of people on the quayside, none of them able to come aboard. It was two days before they removed the barriers and by that time all the excitement had died down.

But we had plenty of excitement during the rest of the summer and autumn. Bristol harbourside was becoming known for the splendid firework displays that were put on for events taking place in the harbour. Unfortunately, they were mostly set off from Princes Wharf, right alongside the Glevum. Before each display, we would have to dowse the Glevum with buckets of water from the dock. Then, as the fireworks were set off, we would stand by on deck with plentiful buckets of water to throw over the burning sulphurous debris that would shower down upon us. The spectacular displays soon lost their glitter in our eyes.

 

To be continued

 

 

 

 

 

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

So the gallery was finally open but, in truth, the problems were just beginning. We were nearing the end of October and, apart from the odd sunny day at weekends, the docks were empty of visitors most of the time.

Our business plan was to create a gallery to sell paintings to the tourists in Bristol Docks. The City Council were confidently predicting that they were going to turn the harbour into the biggest maritime tourist attraction in Europe within five years and it really looked as though they might succeed. The National Maritime Museum were planning to expand into Bristol, work had already started on a building for them: the Maritime Heritage Centre, and the SS Great Britain project was going from strength to strength.

Based on those predictions I thought that, as a marine artist based on a barge right in the middle of it all, I should be able to make a reasonable living from the tourist trade. After all, there were plenty of thriving galleries in the seaside towns and harbours in Devon and Cornwall.

But we had missed the summer trade for this year. Our opening had created quite a stir and a feature on television’s local news programme, BBC Points West, helped enormously. For a couple of weekends, people came to see what it was all about and I picked up some very useful commissions, nonetheless our finances were very stretched and it would be a long winter. I consoled myself with the thought that I could finally get back to painting and at least there would be plenty of time to get work ready for our first summer.

One of our visitors, that first weekend, was Fred Larkham. Fred was a Gloucestershire man who, like Peter Herbert, had started his working life on the water in the nineteen thirties and, also like Peter, now owned several boats himself. I had met him when I was looking for a barge. Whilst negotiating the deal for the Glevum with Peter, one of my bargaining strengths had been knowing that Fred owned a couple of barges in Gloucester that Peter was interested in buying. In return for putting them in contact with each other, Peter had agreed to tow the Glevum to Bristol for us. That had been a huge help, as the only other option would have been to hire a tug  which, as the journey could not be done in fewer than two tides, would have cost over two thousand pounds!

Fred bought some paintings and I agreed to deliver them a week or two later. When Kate and I visited him and his wife to deliver the paintings, he showed us around their house, Severn Mill at Newnham-on-Severn. When he had bought the place it had no roof and flooded at high spring tides. The transformation was fabulous. It was now a beautiful house with a huge picture window at one end of the lounge that gave panoramic views out over the Severn. It even had its own private quay! Fred and his wife were most hospitable and Fred, with an audience as eager as Kate and me, waxed loquacious. He had started as a teenager on an old sailing barge, carrying stone for the construction of the flood defences around the estuary. Before we knew it, it was two o’clock in the morning and with the gallery to open at nine, we regretfully took our leave.

The following week I also had a call from Peter Herbert, whom I hadn’t seen since the Wilclair arrived in the docks. He told me he had to come up to Gloucester and asked if I would be on the Glevum the following day and, when I told him I would, he said he’d call in. When he arrived, he came into the wheelhouse, looked down the quayside, and said,

“What a bloody awful mess they’ve made of my Wilclair!”. His face was a picture of woe, then suddenly the old twinkle returned to his bright blue eyes and he smiled, “But the Glevum looks very smart – it’s a credit to you”

I made us a cup of coffee and took him downstairs to the gallery. When he saw the inside, his eyes nearly popped out!

” Well bugger me!”, he said “Oi thought thee wuz daft as a brush and oi never in a million yerz thought thee’d do it”.

Praise from such a man meant more to me than all the plaudits we’d received from the dignitaries at our opening.

 

To be continued.

 

Next post 4th October.

 

 

 

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

The last two days flashed by in something of a blur: the list of last-minute preparations seemed endless.

A buffet was prepared for the opening and my old mate John Dix (he of Dixie’s Cider fame) provided us with a couple of stone jugs of his vintage cider for the occasion. I was pleased to have the cider as it was a very traditional drink amongst bargemen.

In the days of the bowhauliers, gangs of men, rather than horses, towed barges up our rivers, and the captain of the gang and the bargemaster would seal the towage agreement with a mug of cider. On occasions the bowhauliers would lay down their towropes and demand more money to get the barge to its destination. This was the origin of the saying “being taken for a mug”.

Preparing the buffet

Preparing the buffet

Kate’s mother, horrified at the thought of offering the Lord Mayor cider, insisted on providing a case of wine.

The complete exhibition was hung and looked wonderful. In addition to Myrtle’s appliques, we had marine oil paintings by Bill Camp, railway paintings by Ken Vincent, miniatures by Glenys Massey and landscapes by Ken Stark. We also had a selection of models of sailing ships and wood craft by John Symm, who had been with me when we brought the Glevum down from Gloucester.

As with all such events, the finishing touches were still being applied, almost to the minute the guests started to arrive. I just had time to scramble into my suit and tidy myself up (it seemed like the first time in years) and it was upon us.

The opening itself could not have gone better. John Hill unveiled the maker’s plate and the Lord Mayor gave a short speech – but undoubtedly the star of the show was Frank. In his eloquent way he said more about art and the maritime heritage of our wonderful city in five minutes than I could have done in an hour!

The Lord Mayor says a few words

The Lord Mayor says a few words

We were delighted with the turnout; the gallery was thronged and the atmosphere infectious.

Kate's Mum chatting with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress

Kate’s Mum chatting with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress

Frank examines Glenys' miniature paintings

Frank examines Glenys’ miniature paintings

A goodly throng

A goodly throng

After a while it was time to ask everybody to tuck in to the buffet and refreshments.

Tucking in

Tucking in

It turned out that the Lord and Lady Mayoress were quite partial to Dixie’s Special Vintage, so much so that they stayed well over their allotted time. They were supposed to be with us for twenty minutes but stayed an hour and a half, much to the consternation of their driver!

Undoubtedly though, my favourite time was that evening, when we sat in the gallery with a few friends and it finally dawned on me what we had accomplished.

Kate in reflection

Kate in reflection

True, it had taken eleven months rather than the six I had planned, but even I could not have guessed just how wonderful the old barge would look when all the work was done.

The quiet of evening

The quiet of evening

Now all we had to do was survive as a business while the rest of the docks developed around us – no problem!

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

Somehow, even with dozens of different  things to organise, I found time to do the artwork for the logo and design the invitations to the opening of the gallery.

Invitation front

Invitation front

Invitation inner Invitation back

Back in the Olden Days. Part the Second.

I knew which font I wanted for the logo of the Glevum but unfortunately, Letraset only made it in black. I wanted white lettering on a black circle. I’d heard of a chap who’d reopened an old reprographics workshop in Old Market and phoned him to ask if he’d be able to do a monochrome reversal and produce a print-ready bromide. He said he could, so I did my artwork and took it over to him. He did the job on a Littlejohn process camera which occupied most of the room. It consisted of an enormous base with a glass top and, suspended above it,  a vast metal canopy, full of lights and lenses. It reminded me of an industrial blacksmith’s forge. The whole process took most of the morning. Then, when I had finally got my black circle with white lettering, I had to cut and paste my artwork of the Glevum onto it. Cut and paste: using a real scalpel and real gum! Eventually the artwork was ready to go to the printer.

Today, using this computer, the whole process would take me about ten seconds.

Back to the story

With ten days to go, catastrophe struck. One morning, after a night of gales and rain, I arrived at the boat to find that the wind had torn the tarpaulin off the hatches and it was hanging over the side and dangling  in the dock. The rain had been pouring through the hatchboards all night. Most of the chipboard that we had used for our flooring was ruined.

I had been planning to replace the battens and wedges that held the tarpaulin in place, but it hadn’t reached the top of the priority list yet. Now I was paying the price. Many of the old wedges were a bit soft and just hadn’t been strong enough to hold against the strength of the wind.

The only consolation was that we had not yet had the carpet fitted: that was due in two days’ time. There was simply no time to get in a state about it, so we pitched in in to strip out the damaged boards and replace them. From now on, Kate and I worked 20 hours a day and were sleeping on board. Doug and Myrtle carried on with the decorating whilst Kate and I replaced the flooring.

Doug and Myrte  carrying on into the wee hours

Doug and Myrte carrying on into the wee hours

When the carpet arrived we were ready for it – but only just.

With almost all the decoration finished and with the carpet laid, the transformation was magical. I couldn’t resist hanging a couple of paintings, just to see what they’d look like!

Just to see

Just to see

Two days before the opening, we had an interview on the Al Read Show on Radio Bristol. It was scheduled for 9.45pm but, due to last minute panics, we did not leave the docks until 9.25. We burst into the studio with about a minute to spare. The media types seemed somewhat taken aback by our appearance, we were still in our overalls and covered in wood shavings. But Al Read was great, he made us feel very comfortable and seemed almost as enthusiastic as we were, asking all the right questions.

As soon as the interview was over we hurried back, to work on the Glevum until the early hours.

Coffee break 1am

Coffee break 1am

The day before were due to open, we hung Myrtles appliques. They looked fabulous.

Myrtles Appliques

Myrtles Appliques

 

The largest of them had been made in the small front room of their terraced house in Cliftonwood. It had been a landscape that, over the years, had grown and grown. In the end it was so big that it could not be fully opened in the house – she would add bits first to one side, and then the other. In consequence, she had never seen the whole picture at once; this restriction had also made attempts to measure it accurately, somewhat difficult.

We didn’t really know if it would fit.

It was hung from a pole, which was fixed tight beneath the hatches as high as we could get it. We were in luck:  it might have been made to measure! It just fitted in the gap between the hatch coamings and nearly reached the floor.

The Big One

The Big One

Standing in front of it, you felt as though you could walk in. When Myrtle saw it properly for the first time, it brought tears to her eyes. The only time I ever saw such a thing.

 

To be continued.

Next post 20th September

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

The gallery space was beginning to look really good. The shape of the hull, and the combination of the lighting from the skylights in the wooden hatches and the spotlights we’d installed under the deckheads, gave a very warm and welcoming look. We had cut skylights into every second hatchboard and then had a waterproof tarpaulin made, with clear panels to match the skylights. We covered the walls in hessian. This material had many advantages, it gave a nice neutral background for the pictures, it would cover pinholes from the picture hooks, it was consistent with the history of a grain barge but, above all, it was both inexpensive and it looked great.

As the myriad of finishing touches were being put into place, we had the organisation of the opening to arrange. We realised that this would be a one-off opportunity to really get the media to take notice, so we had to give it our best shot. We needed someone who was well known and, ideally, connected with both art and ships. One name immediately came to mind – Frank Shipsides. Although I knew and very much admired his work, I had never met him. Taking a chance, I found his number in the telephone directory and called him. At worst, he could only say no. On the telephone he was charming. When I explained what we were doing with the Glevum, his response was,

         “Pop up and see me, dear boy, we can talk it over”

When I visited him, he was very interested in our project and said he would come and look at the barge a day or so later. He was as good as his word and, as soon as he was on board, his enthusiasm for what we had done was infectious. He explained that he would not be able to put any pictures into our first exhibition but that he would be more than willing to perform the opening ceremony for us. It is typical of the man that when I started to discuss a fee he would hear none of it.

We also heard back from the city council that the Lord Mayor, Councillor Claude Draper, and the Lady Mayoress would attend. We had been in touch with the Hill family, whose shipyard had built the Glevum in 1955, John and Michael Hill both said they would be happy to attend. Sadly, the original builder’s nameplate had disappeared from the front of the wheelhouse before the vessel came into our possession, but we had a replica made and we arranged for John Hill to unveil this.

During this period, the activity around the barge seemed to draw people like a magnet and we had met several local artists who had agreed to bring down paintings for our opening exhibition. As Myrtle only had enough appliques to fill about half the wall space this had worked out well.

To be continued.

Next post 13th September

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

These days we take the internet so much for granted. If I want to know how to do anything, I go to Google and YouTube and, so far, they have never failed me. Almost nothing need be a mystery. I have consulted the internet to show me how to repair my car, how to do work on the central heating system on my house and even, how to play my banjo, a 60th birthday present from the family (I bet they regret that one!). It takes only a matter of minutes to find anything. Admittedly, I doubt that DIY brain surgery is quite as well covered – but almost everything else is. I recently heard that there is a whole generation out there, who don’t remember a world without Google, let alone before the internet!

It is sobering to remember just how difficult it was to gain access to any form of specialised knowledge, back in the 1980s, or should I say ‘ back in The Olden Days!’

I needed to find information on how to insulate a boat effectively. Days were spent in the Central Library, trying to find answers. It could take hours just searching card indexes, trying to find which books might contain useful information. When I eventually did find the necessary books, they were completely contradictory. Some said insulate every square inch, others said insulate nothing at all, and there was every possible configuration between the two! The few that even mentioned vapour barriers, suggested putting them outside the insulation, but that just didn’t make any sense to me.

In the end, I ignored it all and tried to work it out logically for myself. I came to the conclusion that I should insulate the cavity between the steel hull and our inner lining. Then fit a vapour barrier behind the inner lining, but inside the insulation. I reasoned that the vapour barrier would be then at the internal temperature of the boat and so it shouldn’t cause condensation. If it was outside, any moisture that penetrated the insulation would not only reduce its efficiency as insulation, but also allow condensation to form on the vapour barrier which, being on the outside of the insulation, would be as cold as the steel hull, thus rendering it pointless.  We never had any condensation problems, so I guess I got it right.

The second problem was the mains electrical system. Even in those days, I could usually eventually find out from a book how to do something, but in the case of electrical systems, every book that I could find said the same thing, “Get a professional”. Well, we couldn’t afford to and that was that.

Then I had two lucky breaks. The first was when a friend lent me a book which explained household electrical circuits and how they worked. The second was meeting an electrician, whilst having dinner with friends. This chap was an absolute gem. He had the knack of explaining all the bits I still did not understand, in a clear and concise manner. Even better, his experience enabled him to understand exactly what would be required. Although, with the help of the book I had been lent, I was beginning to grasp the basics, designing a safe electrical system from scratch was still something of a tall order. Thanks to him, it all became clear. The most important advice he gave me, after I had explained the rough layout of our boat, was that I should run all the wiring from its entry point in the fo’csle, where the main switch and fusebox should be located, all the way back to the switches at the foot of the stairs and then back along the gallery for the lighting system. In this way, he explained, although it would require more cable, if there were any problems, they could only be at either end and would not require getting at junction boxes behind the panelling.

I installed the wiring with the book in one hand and a screwdriver in the other! As with the insulation, in the nine years we had the Glevum, it never gave us a single problem.

Insulation and floor

Insulation and floor

Our next major milestone was getting the floor laid. Walking on a real floor, after months and months of stepping from rib to rib (and often barking our shins when the boat was rocking and we missed our step) was sheer luxury. Another came with the building of the stairs: until this point access to and from the hold was by ladder.

Utter luxury - stairs!

Utter luxury – stairs!

It was now the end of the summer and all hopes of catching any summer trade when we opened were long gone. At the same time our budget was shrinking so rapidly that we could not afford to delay our opening until the following spring. We would just have to open as soon as possible and hope for the best.

One evening, two of our closest friends, Doug and Myrtle, invited us for a meal. Myrtle was a seamstress of the highest order and a talented artist. She also made applique pictures as a hobby . They asked if, when we opened, we might be interested in exhibiting some of Myrtle’s work. We explained that although we would happily do so, we had no idea of when we might be able to open, upon which they offered to help us finish the work, an offer we gratefully accepted.

Their commitment was amazing, they were there every day and, bringing fresh enthusiasm with them, were able to re-invigorate us. From here on in, with four of us working, progress was rapid and, in a short while, we were confident enough to set an opening day.

After much discussion, we decided on 24th of October, 1984. There was still much to do, but sometimes it is necessary to announce these things publicly and then one has no choice but to make sure everything is ready. I had been so busy with the barge for nearly a year, that I had very few paintings to show and so we would open with an exhibition of Myrtle’s applique work.

To be continued.

Next Post 6th September.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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