The Life of a Riverman
Robin Newlands reminisces about a life spent with boats and the water
My earliest recollections of anything to do with boats are my father's reminiscences about his pre-war exploits on the Broads in a 30 ft topsail broads boat called 'Singalee', which I believe ended up in the Blackwater. As a family after the War we used to hire the large half-decked lugsails from Potter Heigharn or occasionally a Yare and Bure One Design. There were relatively few motor craft in those days. But I recall them being cursed just as they are today. I have, however, one vivid memory of being pleased a motorboat was about. We were sailing in very high winds in Thurne Mouth and capsized - the boat sank. I was able to grab a line from a large 'Windboat' that stopped to help - leaving my parents, tangled in ropage, saving my brother and sister, We were taken back to Potter Heigham to bath in the local hotel. That turned out a very expensive day out, £17 if I recall correctly.
A few years later we bought a l0ft. sectional sailing dinghy for £25 from a reverend gentleman in Suffolk and by then also had two caravans in a field at the lower end of Ludham Dyke. The dinghy was a prewar Veeroot boat in single skin diagonal mahogany made by Buss and Elstroms of old Windsor aud Watford. It always leaked, especially when the sun shone. These boats were made throughout the war by girls. They were very lightweight and had progressed to a double diagonal. After the war flat bottomed craft with a Stuart 1.5 called Buss Boats were the hire craft at Old Windsor.
My most memorable occasion with this craft was sitting up on the stern with a heavy following wind on Horsey Mere to prevent the boat somersaulting with its bow underwater. It was never the same after the trailer towbar broke and the boat rolled down the road behind the car. It was generally repaired and retfurbished over several years by my brother and myself and in the early 70s in beautiful condition used as a tender to Wise Folly. A rogue saw the boat at Boulters, claimed ownership of it from the lock-keeper and took it off to Brighton. Luckily the lock-keeper had taken the van number and the police retrieved the boat from Bournemouth. It took me months to get it back from the police in Maidenhead, by which time it was once again in a very sorry state.
I had a PRK double canoe which I had made at woodwork classes and in the National Provincial Bank, where my father was was manager, after hours. During construction it was kept on end in our hall up the middle of the staircase during banking hours. The canoe and two others were a major occupation summer and winter. I canoed my last 'hike' in the scouts on the upper parts of the River Waveney in early March. I broke ice at. Geldstone Weir when I capsized over it - the worst bit was going back in to save all the floating bits.
Many weeks were spent with the canoes round Ludham and Hickling Broad. One night three of us slept in the hut that was on Peter Scott's island and for a prank put a motor boat from the island in the water to paddle round. The joke was on us, a plank was missing in the bottom and most of the night was spent getting the boat out again.
Many evenings there were spent in the local a half -mile paddle up Ludham Dyke. (I was the eldest at 16) where we were totally accepted in the backroom, where the only light was provided by cigarettes propped on the table. We were supplied with a small soft drink in case the 'law' came right in, rather than push his head round the door as usual. The trips back to camp were often fun. If there were any moored boats as we always had an old foghorn in the canoe. I also clearly remember stopping within feet of a bittern in the early hours and watching the extraordinary sequence of 'booming'. The bird raised its beak to vertical so it appeared almost triangular in shape. Then its neck gradually swelled to an enormous size, the beak opened wide and the loud deep-toned continuous boom was emitted for what seemed an age while the bird gradualIy deflated to its proper size.
In Ludham were moored a yacht called Halcyon and a varnished double diagonal canoe owned by a Dr Grace. They came back to mind when I went to Esher in l980 to look at a steamboat called Halcyon owned by a Mr Grace, who turned out to be a relative. Fred Bourne later bought an electric double diagonal canoe from him, which must have been the same as the one I remembered.
My father had a bungalow of Canadian Cedar built about a mile down-stream of Potter Bridge and we had acquired other boats and a dock to put them in. There was a 12 ft open lugsail, a 12ft Nationa1 then a 14 ft International Redwing, and sometime later an Enterprise. I had been sailing quite frequently with the Norwich Frostbites at Thorpe and Acle Bridge in a GP 14, so to have the new range of boats more frequently available was real fun.
After I joined the Merchant Navy I took to towing the Redwing from Norfolk and sai1ed at such places as Pevensey, round Beachey Head and other ridiculous antics. The boat was moored for several years with George Kenton at Hampton and I would sail it much to the annoyance of Hampton Sailing Club as it was faster, less manoevrable and required 5ft. 6inches of water. I had double-ribbed this boat to stand up to the extremely stiff rig and sea conditions, and also fitted a form of tabernacle so that I could tour single handed on the Thames. I shall always regret the loss of this boat. I returned home from a sea voyage and found that my mother had sold the contents of one of our garages for £10 including this craft - I still have the sails.
I recall an embarrassing moment in Durban harbour when I managed to ground a minisail, drawing about. a foot in the middle of the harbour surrounded by ships 10-15 thousand tons deadweight. In Oslo Fjord I look a few people to a party on an island in one of the ship's lifeboats - on the return, about 3am, the Lister stalled so I rigged two masts and sails and we managed quite well for the ten miles back to ship.
At one time I had an "Enterprise" dingy on the Thames but did not keep it long as I found it very tedious with all the bridges, and sailing in circles was never my thing. After joining the Thames Conservancy in 1971 I bought an outboard cruiser from Tom Jones at Windsor - a Bell Woodworking 22ft ply boat which we called 'Terre Nuove' (my father had always been called "Terre" by his friends and had given his Broads bungalow that name.
Then we saw 'Wise Folly' at John Coleman's house, Monksbridge, in Sunbury. She had not been used for several years as he had had 'Folly Too' built and was just taking delivery of 'More Folly'. The boat had a certain fascination despite being rather rundown and we decided to buy it and sell 'Terre Nuove'. In those days there was no tradional boat revival and we were considered rather foolish to buy such a primitive craft.
However, for the next 12 years we worked on improving and restoring her original good looks - replacing car sidelights, bent poles, curtains, cushions etc - and being involved in the origins of the boat rally, Traditional Boat Society and Thames Vintage Boat Club. She bears the plaque of Thames Veteran No 1 having been built of mahogany by John Hart of Raven Ait in 1915.
She was built as a gentleman's launch for the owner of the Elephant and Castle and originally named 'Vacua'. When purchased we found several areas of the hull had been glass-fibred and a number of ribs broken. This was said to have been done when she was stolen and had hit a barge. As with any wooden boat a weak point spreads, and GRP between planks accelerates the process. The GRP was removed with great difficulty and the bow hardened with black varnish, brown paper and copper sheet in the traditional manner. The rest was caulked and tingled as best as possible. Eventually she refused to float, so a major overhaul was called for and for the most part undertaken by Paul Skerret and myself with assistance from Mike Ayling. Ribs, planks, frames, engine bearers and stern are complete, but there it stopped.
'Gena' entered the picture, a black-stained canoe hull that had been outside under sacks and a leaky corrugated roof for years. But she was the boat that many years before had carried the lights and klaxon now on 'Wise Folly'. Her original electric engine was in fair condition and under cover, the lamp brackets were recovered from the owner's canal boat. She was brought back from Banbury in May, and by working in all my spare time together with John Mauger till midnight for three months she attended the Henley Rally in July.
Having now finished major house rebuilding I hope to get back to 'Wise Folly' and many other boats I seem to have acquired.
Robin Newlands is the President of the Thames Vintage Boat Club. He spent many years of his life working on the River Thames for the Thames Conservancy, latterly the Environmental Agency (being the current name of the government agency that has sole responsibility for management of the River Thames, amongst other things). This culminated in the senior position of River Inspector for a full half of the Upper Thames. He recently retired. He is a regular contributor to the "Boater" magazine
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