Monday 29 April 2013

A Ghost Story

Malcolm Stirling is a reader of this blog and we recently chatted on email when I asked my readers what sort of topics they'd like to read more of. He was kind enough to allow me to publish this story he's written, which I think is pretty cool: and a lovely change to my usual articles.


Tethered to the canal bank near Rickmansworth Town Lock lies a large rusting relic of a Dutch Barge. It bears no name but is known by the local canal boat travellers as the “The Ghost Barge*.  Only the ignorant will moor their boats next to it and some even take a footpath detour to avoid walking past it.

The barge first came to the locals’ attention when it was purchased by a young man of about 27. He lived onboard and had started to renovate the boat.  One evening, after a hard day’s work he sat down with his supper. He had left the engine running to provide electricity for light and warmth. It was cold night and the doors and windows were shut tight to keep in the heat.   The exhaust system for the engine became defective and leaked carbon monoxide into the cabin. The young man fell asleep and never woke up.

The barge was later sold and the new owner set about the renovation process.  One of the first things he did was to have the exhaust system from the engine repaired and certified as safe. He then set about repairing the hull which  was suffering from corrosion. In the deepest  part  of the hull  lay concrete ballast blocks.   These are necessary for stability and ensure that the barge stays upright.  They were put in place during the construction of the barge. Once the ballast blocks are in place the decking and cabin are then added to the barge.  Over the years water had collected under the ballast blocks and this is where the corrosion was the most severe. The blocks needed to be lifted and the steel hull underneath cleaned and painted with rust inhibiting paint.  The man rigged up a hoist and pulley system to raise the blocks, one at a time, so that he could prepare the hull underneath.  It was a fateful day when the man was scraping the rust from underneath one of the raised blocks and the pulley system collapsed causing the block to fall and crush the man against the steel hull.

The boat was again put on the market and later purchased by a man wishing to make it his home.  It was on a winter’s evening when the canal was quiet and the water was still when a chugging sound was heard in the distance. The new owner was sitting on deck enjoying a beer when a large boat came down the canal at some speed creating a wash that rocked the boats on their moorings. He heard shouts of complaint from canal boat owners. He leapt to his feet and spun round to see what the commotion was about. The deck of his barge moved with the wash causing the man to lose his balance.  He fell from the deck into the narrow gap that had opened between the canal bank and the hull of the barge. The heavy barge had moved as far as the strained tethering ropes would allow.   The tension on the ropes could not be sustained and the barge began to move slowly and unyieldingly back to its original position adjacent to the canal bank and, in so doing, crushed the life out of the
fallen man.

The barge sat empty on its mooring once again. Local folklore had branded her “The Ghost Barge” and canal travellers wouldn’t go near it, let alone buy it, when it was put up for sale again.  Given the local feeling against the Black Barge it was felt that a local buyer was unlikely and so it was moved to a marina 100 miles away in Ipswich and put up for sale.  A buyer was found and the deal was struck.  The new owner knew nothing of the Ghost Barge’s past and set about his plans for renovating the craft and finding it a suitable mooring.

The renovation process has been slow and methodical. The owner still doesn’t know anything about the boat’s grisly past. But can you imagine the look on the faces of the canal people in Rickmansworth when they woke up on a cold November morning to see a thick mist heavy on the water and the instantly recognisable dark shape of the Ghost Barge solemnly tied up at its old mooring. Just as if it had never been away.

(c) Malcolm Stirling

This is a true story and was recounted to the author by two people on a canal boat in Rickmansworth on 3rd
September 2012.

Gongoozlers (name given to people who watch but don`t participate on canals).

The illustration is of a similar barge but not an exact copy.  The author did not want to have in his possession a drawing or photograph of the real thing.


Malcolm is the chairman of Rickmansworth WaterSki Club at the Aquadrome: a family orientated club, where visitors can participate on a 'pay as you play' basis.

Monday 15 April 2013

Boat family told to cruise further... or else!

Boat cats
This guest post is from a local boat-mum that I know and was written during the recent Canal and River Trust mooring consultation. I am pleased to say that since this was written the boating community have had constructive meetings with the Canal and River Trust discussing affordable moorings and various other solutions. We are continuing to meet with them and the original mooring proposals for Berkhamsted have been amended.

I sometimes get questions from my readers about the reality of family life on board, and also questions about the perceived 'problem' of continuous cruisers. 

I hope this gives readers an insight into the lives of the ordinary families that live on board. 

Living on a narrowboat in Berkhamsted

We live on our 70ft narrow boat with our two children and two cats. The Canal and River Trust CRT (formerly British Waterways) are saying if we don't move further than we are every 14 days they will take our licence (which we pay a £1000 a year for) and make us homeless by refusing us a licence and eventually taking our home as it would become an unlicensed craft.  
We move at present between Berkhamsted and Cow Roast because the children go to nursery and school here and I help to run a playgroup in Berkhamsted.  
We own and live in our 25 year old Coal craft boat that we have been restoring for the last 5 years. 
I have an Art & Craft degree, am a qualified teacher and have spent the last 15 years as a specialist children's worker,  with special needs children, damaged children, children from travelling back grounds and homeless families mainly through education and awareness, I know ironic isn't it? 
I have taken a career break to care for our youngest children until they are both in full time education, my eldest child is a Police officer, my partner was a Professional Boxer for 9 years and now works as a self employed waterproof specialist to support his family and pay Tax.                        
I just cannot comprehend the mentality of these narrow minded bureaucrats, they seem to have no compassion or thought for the families they harass or the stress they cause or the wider social implications on the rest of society their actions will have. 
At the moment we live in our own home, we have never had the Police called or caused trouble, we are clean and tidy we abide by the law our children go to school, we are well educated people and very much active members of our local society and are keen conservationist, which is why we have chosen boating as a lifestyle and why  we have only one car which my partner uses for work (when alternative transport is not an option) and the children and me cycle or walk everywhere we go.
The Canal and River Trust are proposing to evict us at great cost to the tax payer and other licence paying boaters, they are willing to up root us and cause immense distress to our young children (who would lose their home and have to move nursery and school) us and our wider family and cause us to lose most of our possessions. 
The CRT are threatening to make a family with two young children age 3 and 5 homeless for the sake of us not moving a bit further every 14 days. If this happens the local Council will then have to re home us, firstly in a hostel then in a flat or house,  a home that we don't want or need, that another family in genuine need of a home could have thus displacing or moving genuinely needy people further back on the list of the already desperately inadequate Social housing situation, all of this because we can't move an extra few miles every two weeks.
There are many unlicensed and abandoned boats throughout the inland waterways that are literally rotting away in the water causing environmental damage as they go, the CRT don't bother to remove these boats as that would cost them money and not make any so the reasons quoted by the CRT for moving on genuine live a board licence payers is pure hypocrisy,  just nothing more than thoughtless corporate bullying that needs to be challenged and stopped.  The CRT are not offering any solutions to the mooring problem, just creating more problems with proposals such as the ones in Berkhamsted which, if they come in to effect will see less 14 day moorings than before and take away the boats that the Canal was specifically built for in the 1700s and has ever since then been a place of work and homes for many families and individuals and allow the CRT to fine boaters for overstay so forcing people to move further.   Live aboards are not generally as "pretty" as summer or holiday boats, what they are peoples homes, peoples lives, not a glossy plastic theme park or a row of identical terraced houses.We can understand the need for some boats to move every 14 days in the summer in busy boating areas but why move boats on in the middle of Northchurch, Dudswell or Cowroast even when there are no other boats for weeks at a time, or in the winter when the summer boats don't run?  Why not make places like these in to Tow path moorings? 
We would love a mooring, it would make our lives so much easier but the reality is there simply aren't enough moorings available. There are no fulltime moorings in Berkhamsted at all and very few affordable moorings generally, only winter moorings.  The only alternatives we have are to register as travellers with the local education authority so that we can place our children with two or more different schools and not be prosecuted when we are forced to take them out of school while we travel further, (we also then as travellers will be classed as an ethnic minority) or we could remove our children from their present school education and home educate which would mean them loosing their friends and local connections and making us a lot less connected to the rest of Society than we presently are and effectively more isolated and outcast. There are many more articulate, hard working boat families like ours that are being made to feel like criminals when all we have done is chosen to live an alternative life style.   We didn't choose to be victims of prejudice, discrimination and exclusion, we don't want to be forced under threat of homelessness or fines to undertake much longer journeys, the effect of which will make it extremely difficult or impossible for us as a boat family  to maintain contact with our local communities for work, education, socialisation  and health-care. 
Like I said we would gladly take a mooring if there actually were any.  If anyone on here is a land owner or knows of any Canal side land owners between Berkhamstead and Cow roast willing to rent land to us so we can have a home mooring then please get in touch.

This article first appeared on Berkhamsted People and is reprinted here with kind permission from the author. 
You may also like this article: The long road 

Monday 8 April 2013

West country canals – a forgotten dream?

I grew up in Devon but by the time I lived there, there wasn’t much in the way of navigable canals left. I remember going on a school trip to see Cann Quarry Canal, a two mile waterway that connected with the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway. I think it was only working for ten years. There’s a little five mile long canal in Exeter from Exeter Canal Basin to the River Exe estuary. There’s also a little canal near Tiverton which I think runs a horse drawn boat trip. There are several more abandoned canals around Devon but they have long since fallen into disrepair. So it wasn’t until I grew up and boldly went to seek my fortune in London that I really began to discover the thriving canal network that is still navigable for 2000 miles across the UK.

I lived in a flat in Kentish Town near Camden and watched with fascination the painted boats that would pass through Camden lock. The romantic gypsy in me began to realise, some people actually live on these boats! A seed was sown, and I have since become someone who lives on a narrowboat, and has travelled the canals of London and Hertfordshire.

I can never take my boat on the long forgotten canals of Devon where I grew up; the short canals that remain are not connected to the main system. By default then, I have always thought that the way to connect my boating life with my West Country roots would be to travel west as far as I can by canal. This is why the Kennet and Avon canal has become the journey that I have yet to do.

Having spent my adult years building a career, and then a family, in and around London, do I still hear the call of the West Country? Do I see a white horse carved into a Wiltshire hillside in my dreams? Or a famous flight of 29 locks at Caen Hill near Devizes?

This is the boating journey that I never got to do. Now that I am settled on a residential mooring near a good school my cruise down the Kennet and Avon must be done as a holiday trip someday. (If you are single or a couple, it is cheaper to go by hotel boat than to hire a boat.) I’ve seen the charming historic buildings of Bradford on Avon and the Georgian architecture of Bath on weekend visits before, but that is fleetingly, by car.

Exploring by narrowboat is a slower pace of life, more connected with nature. In a city we are surrounded by man-made creations. But travelling through England’s countryside on the water I feel more connected with real life.

“What is this life if, full of care,
 We have no time to stand and stare.”
(From the poem ‘Leisure’ by William Henry Davies.)

So one day, I will let the Kennet and Avon take me slowly back west. Where will it take you? Read more about the highlights of the Kennet and Avon on the Devizes to Newbury cruise or the Bath to Devizes via Bristol journey. Or read more about why Devizes is high on my list of places to visit by boat.

Disclosure: I was paid to write this post on the Canal Voyagers blog. I re-published it here because it tells a little about me, my narrowboat life and my dreams.

Canal Voyagers are currently offering a £50 discount on the first 12 cruises of the year.