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.

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