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Hotel Narrow Boats

on the Canals and Rivers of the UK

Dream to Reality.

 
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By Rev. Martin Reed.

In the autumn of 1978, as a young curate I arrived in a Swansea parish to be told that the youth club was due to go on a canal holiday next summer. Despite my protests that I had never been on a canal boat, I was told I was in charge and expected to steer one of the three ex-working 70 ft boats they were hiring. Willow Wren Keans were very good in giving me some advance experience and I enjoyed the week's holiday. Inevitably I fell in love with the canals and returned many times over the following years. As a result, after spending 25 years as a country rector, I have just taken a break from the church to earn my living with Oak and Ash a pair of hotel boats!

August 2003 saw our family on Cropredy, an Ownership boat, cruising the fens for three weeks. I was recovering from nursing my mother through her last illness and suffering from several years of accumulated stress. I wondered if I could hold on till I retired in 15 to 20 years time to carry out my dream of living on a canal boat? I decided I needed a break now.

Back home in Waterways World we found a pair of hotel boats for sale. I went to have a look at them, but they were already under offer. While we were waiting to see if, after a survey, the perspective buyer would complete the sale, I wrote to over 50 boat builders asking them four questions: -
· Could they build a motor and butty pair?
· Would they only do part of the fit out, and allow me to work in their yard to do the rest?
· What was the earliest date they had available?
· Working from my very rough specification what would they charge?
I had just half a dozen replies, only three of which could do the work. One, Dave Thomas of Braunston, sounded interesting enough for me to drive over and meet him. He fancied the challenge of building a pair and due to a cancellation he could start work that November. If we sold my mother's former house, which was our retirement security, and used all our savings we could just do it. But it was a gamble. Many of my friends, family and parishioners though we were mad. It was an impossible dream, but they had never known the allure of that narrow strip of water stretching out in front of a boat. So we put down a deposit and I wrote to the Bishop resigning as Rector. What that Swansea parish with its youth club holiday had started!

I now led a double life, I was still a Rector till Easter, but if we were to start trading in July I had a business to create. Routes were worked out, brochures and web sites were written, bookings taken, the first before Christmas. Work started on building the motor on November 21st, she was then craned in on January 28th 2004 to be fitted out. I started painting her, helped by the family, whenever I could get time away from the parish. A 'Business Start Up' course was attended, I confused the tutors because my goal was not to grow into a bigger business but just to enjoy ourselves on the canals. Probate of my mother's will and the sale of her house seemed to take forever, repeatedly we only just managed to raise funding ahead of the dates on which I had to make stage payments.

With the motor being fitted out and the butty's steel shell being built at the same time I was virtually meeting the entire operating costs of Dave Thomas boatyard! Then watching Carlton TV's 'Waterworld' programme that February I had an idea and emailed the producer, was he interested in my story? An item for him and advertising for me? He was, so I now added the co-ordinating of a TV crew to my jobs!

Easter 2004 arrived. With it came my final church service and the handing over to me of a partially completed motor. I had to hang up my dog collar and don overalls to carry on painting the motor, now berthed at Saltisford arm Warwick, using the A46 road bridge as an improvised wet dock. I grabbed any chance to gain experience on handling a pair of boats.

To add to the pressures Carlton TV's theme line in all their interviews was 'Will they be ready?' We had to be, I had taken bookings for the summer and was determined I would not let them down our dream had to become a reality. I had started this 'mad idea' to get away from stress but, despite the intense pressures, already the magic of the cut was working and I was starting to unwind as I painted, shopped for equipment and practised using book learnt techniques of handling a motor and butty.

Finally on Friday 25th June I evicted the last boatyard workers, (one later had to follow us to Saul to finish the windows), winded the pair by the Stop House Braunston under the eyes of the crews of several working pairs collected there for the Historic Boat Gathering and set off to take the two boats down to Saul Canal Festival. 100 locks and 104 miles in seven days, with only one friend, Bob Wood, to help me, both of us lacking in experience of handling a pair of boats.

The trip was an epic in its own right. We followed one of the earliest hotel pairs, now in well earned retirement, down Stockton locks,; interviewed prospective crew in the middle of a thunderstorm at Kingswood Junction; were given instruction in how to work a pair of boats down single locks at Lapwoth by another friend Sean Neil; and I fell in very badly bruising my thigh at Wootton Wawen making it almost impossible for me to get on and off the boats for the rest of the week.

We found out why pairs prefer to go up the Avon not down as we were, (the answer is the narrowness and current on the Upper Avon and the shortness of the locks on the Lower.) We moored in Tewkesbury after dark having unshipped and had to refit the Ellum at Strensham Lock. On schedule we eventually arrived at Saul Festival pulling in just ahead of a loaded coal pair, contrasting the old traditional and the modern use for narrow boat pairs.

We had a great time at Saul Festival, introducing many people to the world of Hotel Boating. We had now just twelve days left to get ready. Graham Murray, a teacher in training, joined us as crew now college had broken up for the summer and spent a week varnishing the inside of the Butty. We moved the boats up to Stourport, where Jane of Jam Butty crafts joined us and painted roses and castles on the hatches. Our second crewmember Peter Wisdom joined us and a Carlton TV crew hovered around.

In the meantime my wife had been appointed head of Withington School in the Cotswolds. I had to take time off getting the boats ready to rent a house there, lovely but tiny after the Rectory! So as I moved the boats north up the Severn to Stourport, ready for our first cruise, the removal men moved all our possessions south to the Cotswolds, leaving most of them in boxes until after the season finished in October.

Finally on Saturday July 17th, crew and family aboard, our first guest installed in her cabin, despite some jobs to do, we were operational. On the Sunday morning as the bells of Stourport Church rang out I steered the boats up the Staff and Worcester canal instead of preparing to lead the church service.

Experts had said it could not be done. To devise and build from scratch a new hotel pair in just ten months. To some extent they were right because we finished the painting next winter and some jobs had to be done on the move, while improvements suggested by the guests were carried out next spring. I learnt a lot about running a pair of Hotel Boats both handling the boats and catering for the guests over the summer lessons I could put into practice next season. But I had kept my promise to the guests to be there for their holiday and we now had our own pair of Hotel Boats. The impossible dream had become a reality.

(This article was first published in Waterways World in August 2005.)


If you have any questions then do ring us on 07977 229103
or email us at martin@reedboats.co.uk

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