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

We knew we would have to move the Glevum for the annual powerboat races that, in those days, took place in the harbour every June. As the preparations for them advanced, we moved the Glevum to our allotted space in St Augustine’s Reach. We were to be moored outside the Arnolfini Gallery and we mounted a new exhibition for the event.

We may as well not have bothered; the paintings we showed were not at all to the taste of the visitors to the modern art gallery, housed in the old Bush Warehouse. Far too traditional!

But alongside us was moored Geoff, in a Dutch motor barge called the Peter. Geoff was a genial soul and we, being on a new mooring and feeling as if we were on holiday, thoroughly enjoyed his company. The weather was fine and the harbourside was humming every evening. It was very pleasant to sit out on deck, enjoying a drink, playing guitars and watching the glittering lights in the water and the city nightlife thronging around us. Our two barges, moored alongside each other, seemed like our own private island from which we could observe the bustle.

Sadly, our private island became less and less private as the nights went on. One night, we were awakened at about 2.30am by the sound of heavy footsteps on the metal deck above our heads. I wearily dragged on some clothes and went up to see what was going on.

As I reached the top of the stairs I saw, standing on the quayside, a tall and shapely young lady, with very few inches of skirt below her belt, and as skimpily clad above as below. Her paramour for the evening, was trying to impress her by striding around our deck, presumably pretending to be a pirate.

I opened the wheelhouse door and asked what the hell he thought he was doing, stamping around on someone’s boat at that time of morning.

His reply was belligerent, “And who the f*** do you think you are?” he said.

I stepped out of the wheelhouse and replied, “I’m the one with the baseball bat in his hand”.

It’s extraordinary how apologetic some people become when they are isolated on the foredeck of a barge, with cold dock water all around them.

I stepped back to allow him free access to the gang plank and, as he hastened to the safety of the quayside, he mumbled his apologies .


When the races were over, we moved the Glevum back onto our mooring, outside the Industrial Museum, and life returned to normal.

But it wasn’t the normal for which we had planned. By August, we realised that our business plan was simply not bearing fruit. We didn’t want for visitors; most weekends, we were packed with people from the time we opened to the time we closed and their reaction to our gallery was very encouraging – but they weren’t buying anything. Well, nothing substantial anyway.

An objective analysis of our situation revealed the flaw in my plan. I had based our business prospects upon the galleries around the resorts in Devon and Cornwall. But talking to the people who visited the Glevum had revealed where I had gone wrong – people on holiday in Devon and Cornwall were away for a week or more, therefore their budget would sometimes stretch to spending £50 – £100 on a painting. But the people visiting Bristol Docks were usually on a day trip, or more often Bristolians, just out for a stroll. They might spend £5 on impulse, but generally, very little more.

However, we had put too much in to give up now, so I determined to try and salvage something from the situation.

Amongst local people especially, the reaction to what we had done was universally positive and, during the summer, I had met many very talented artists, eager to display their paintings.

So we would have to become a gallery for Bristol, rather than the gallery for visitors that I had planned.

I immediately started to arrange series of exhibitions from October onwards, showcasing the work of the many talented artists I had met.

The Glevum was on a new course.


To be continued






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,


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 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